Born into a wealthy and powerful Anglo-Irish Protestant landowning family, Parnell enters the House of Commons in 1875. He is a land reform agitator and becomes leader of the Home Rule League in 1880, insisting on operating independently of the Liberals, and winning great influence by his balancing of constitutional, radical, and economic issues, and by his skillful use of parliamentary procedure. He is imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol in 1882 but, being a very capable negotiator, is released when he renounces violent extra-Parliamentary action in an informal agreement, the Kilmainham Treaty, with British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. That same year he reforms the Home Rule League as the Irish Parliamentary Party, which he controls minutely as Britain’s first disciplined democratic party.
The hung Parliament of 1885 sees him hold the balance of power between Gladstone’s Liberals and Lord Salisbury‘s Conservatives. His power is one factor in Gladstone’s adoption of Home Rule as the central tenet of the Liberal Party. His reputation peaks in 1889-1890 when letters published in The Times linking him to the Phoenix Park murders of 1882 are shown to have been forged by Richard Pigott. However, the Irish Parliamentary Party splits in 1890 after the revelation of Parnell’s long adulterous love affair, causing many English Liberals, many of them nonconformists, to refuse to work with him, and strong opposition from Catholic bishops. He heads a small minority faction until his death in 1891.
In describing Parnell, Gladstone says, “I do not say the ablest man; I say the most remarkable and the most interesting. He was an intellectual phenomenon.” Liberal leader H. H. Asquith calls him as one of the three or four greatest men of the 19th century, while Lord Haldane describes him as the strongest man the House of Commons has seen in 150 years. Historian A.J.P. Taylor says, “More than any other man he gave Ireland the sense of being an independent nation.”
Charles Stewart Parnell dies of pneumonia at age 45 in his home at 10 Walsingham Terrace, Hove, England on October 6, 1891, in the arms of his wife Katharine. Though an Anglican, his funeral on October 11 is at the Irish National nondenominational Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin and is attended by more than 200,000 people. His notability is such that his gravestone of unhewn Wicklow granite, erected in 1940, reads only “Parnell.”