Parnell is born at Avondale House near Rathdrum, County Wicklow, the tenth of eleven children of John Henry Parnell, a landlord, and Delia Tudor Stewart Parnell, an Irish American and daughter of Admiral Charles Stewart of the United States Navy. She has very little formal education as a child but the family has an extensive library which she is encouraged to read by her mother. After her father dies in 1859 she moves with the family to Dublin. Delia Parnell is an active socialite while in Dublin and exposes her children to a wide variety of political views.
In 1865 the family moves to Paris but Parnell feels stifled by upper class society rules imposed upon her. She is in Paris when the Franco-Prussian War breaks out in 1870 and is active in the American Ladies’ Committee fundrasing and setting up hospitals. She returns alone to Dublin in 1870 to study art.
Parnell moves to London in 1875 to continue studying art. When her brother Charles is elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) for Meath, she becomes increasingly political. She frequently visits Parliament during debates, sitting in the Ladies’ Gallery. She writes articles about the debates in a column titled Notes From the Ladies’ Cage in the Celtic Monthly. In 1879 she joins her sister, Fanny Parnell, a poet, in New York City where they raise money in support of the Irish National Land League. The sisters work closely with their brother Charles and Michael Davitt but are critical of how the funds raised in America are being used in Ireland. In October 1880 the sisters found the New York Ladies’ Land League with their mother as president. They raised thousands of dollars sent to Ireland.
Parnell returns in Dublin in late 1880. When it seems that the Land League men are likely to be arrested, it is suggested that a women’s league in Ireland could take over the work in their absence. Public opinion at the time is against women in politics, but the Ladies’ Land League is founded on January 31, 1881 with Parnell as its effective leader.
When Charles Parnell and other leaders are imprisoned in 1881, as predicted, the Ladies’ Land League takes over their work. Though it is envisioned as a place holder until the men are released, Parnell organises branches throughout Ireland, encouraging women to play an active role in Land League activities. Offices are given to the ladies but little help. They raise funds for the League and for the support of prisoners and their families. They distribute Land League wooden huts to shelter evicted tenant families and by the beginning of 1882 they have 500 branches, thousands of women members and considerable publicity. They distribute £60,000 in relief aid.
This puts the Ladies’ Land League in serious debt. Parnell approaches her brother Charles, requesting money to settle the debts. Charles, who distrusts her understanding of politics, agrees to provide the money under the condition that the Ladies’ Land League is disbanded. She agrees, disbanding in 1882, but she never forgives Charles.
After her brother’s death in 1891 Parnell lives the rest of her life in the south of England under the assumed name Cerisa Palmer. She writes an angry account of her Land League experiences in Tale of a Great Sham, which is not published until 1986. She makes one last political appearance when she campaigns for a Sinn Féin candidate in a 1907 by-election.
By the summer of 1911, the 59-year-old Parnell is staying in lodgings at Ilfracombe in Devon. An enthusiastic swimmer since childhood, she bathes every day, and on September 20, disregarding a warning of dangerous seas, she goes swimming as usual. She is seen to be in difficulties and the alarm is raised, but by the time rescuers reached her, she is dead. Unlike her brother, whose funeral in Dublin had been the occasion for a massive outpouring of grief and remorse, Anna Parnell was buried quietly in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church in Ilfracombe, in the presence of just seven strangers, and far away from the scenes of her greatest efforts and notoriety.