Political firebrand leaves lasting impression on Ballydehob

Posted on: 5th September, 2016

Category: Features

Contributor: West Cork People

One hundred and five years ago, Anna Parnell, the lesser-known sister of Charles Steward Parnell, died tragically in England. Although she spent her final years in obscurity, this political firebrand had left a big impression on the West Cork village of Ballydehob. UCC history graduate and modern Irish history buff Pauline Murphy recalls the life of this independent spirit.

Anna Catherine Parnell was born on the family estate of Avondale in County Wicklow on May 13, 1852. At the age of 13, she moved with her mother and sister to Paris, but felt suffocated by the upper class society to which her family belonged. The freethinker rejected her Anglo class status and in 1870 left Paris for Dublin, where she enrolled in art classes. Five years later she moved on to London to continue her studies; the year was 1875, the same year her brother Charles became an MP. Anna would often join Charles at parliament from where she watched and, when allowed, cheered him from the gallery.

Anna became increasingly political and in 1879 ventured across the Atlantic to America where she joined her sister Fanny in raising funds for their brother and financial relief for oppressed tenants in Ireland.

In 1880 Anna left Fanny in the States and returned to Ireland to organise a new female wing of the National Land League. Meanwhile, following her sister’s instructions, Fanny set up a branch for Irish Americans. Both sisters brimmed with political convictions but Anna was a radical compared to the much more moderate Fanny.

Anna travelled the country extensively in order to push the aims of the Land League and one of the places she visited was Ballydehob in West Cork. On Wednesday March 30, 1881, Anna arrived in the village, where the Ballydehob branch of the Irish National Land League hosted her. Despite the meeting being officially banned, in the days leading up to it the likes of Richard Hodnett, head of the local Land League branch, urged people to attend and Anna ended up addressing a 4,000 strong crowd from a rock in the field where St Bridget’s School now stands.

A commemorative plaque marks the spot where this historic meeting took place; it displays the opening lines of Anna’s speech: “A month ago I did not know there was such a place as Ballydehob but now I know there is such a place, I think it is the grandest place in the world. Do you know when I first heard of the name of Ballydehob? I thought to myself there is a sound about the name that looks as if there was some back bone in the place – there is a kind of fighting sound in the word Ballydehob and I am sure from what I have seen, that Ballydehob will not be the first place to go back of the Land League.”

Anna went on to reassure those listening that supporting the Land League would not leave people financially hard up as “people in America would subscribe as much money as would keep the tenants for five years.”

John O’Connor, an active Fenian in 1867, followed Anna in speaking to the crowd, where he praised the local Land League leader Richard Hodnett.

The meeting had an obvious effect on the local area – the following weeks saw an increase in Land League activity or, as The Irish Times termed it in a report, ‘Outrage’s in West Cork’.

Across the Ballydehob district and beyond, masked men set trees and furse bushes alight on the lands of unfavoured landlords. Break-ins and beatings on the estates of hated landed gentry increased whilst ambushes of Civil Bill officers, on their way to give eviction notices to poor tenants, became a common occurrence.

This unrest resulted in a number of arrests of Land League members in West Cork, including Richard Hodnett, who was arrested on April 25, just one month after he had hosted Anna Parnell in Ballydehob.

A year after her speech in West Cork, Anna took on a bigger role in the Land League movement when her brother was arrested. Anna and the Ladies Land League managed to raise over £60,000 in funds. They also built huts for evicted tenants and ran a successful propaganda campaign, which gathered attention across the globe.

However, some men in the Land League movement felt outdone by the fiery females and their grievances pinched at the jailed Parnell. Upon his release Charles asked Anna to dissolve the Ladies Land League. The organisation had fallen into debt and although Charles gave Anna money to settle those debts, his attitude left her bitter and she never spoke to her brother again.

1881 proved to be a cruel year for Anna as she suffered another blow when her sister Fanny died of a heart attack. Anna had a breakdown and attempted suicide. Following her recovery she left Ireland forever and settled in Cornwall, where she lived under the assumed name ‘Cerisa Palmer’.

Anna remained resentful of her treatment by her brother and others in the Land League movement and in 1904 she wrote a stinging memoir ‘The Tale of the Great Sham’.

Living as a recluse and in poverty, Anna made just one more appearance in 1907 when she publically pledged her support for the fledgling Sinn Fein party.

On September 20, 1911, 59-year-old Anna went swimming at llfracombe, a coastal village in Devon but she never returned to shore and fishermen later recovered her body.

Anna’s death went unnoticed in Ireland, even her family was unaware of her passing, and the reclusive lady was buried without any fanfare in the grounds of the Holy Trinity Church in Devon. Years later her sister Theodosia erected a headstone over her final resting place and in 2002 The Parnell Society placed a plaque there, on which reads: ‘The best part of Independence, the independence of the mind’.

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