Chapter 10: The 1885 Election – The Transfer of Power from the Tory to the Liberal Party

The 1885 Election – Phil. Callan Again – Parnell’s Cambridge Reminiscences – Failure of Tory Understanding – Change Over to the Liberals – A Day with Davitt at Avondale in 1886 – The 1886 Breakdown – Parnell’s Health and Despondency – I Review the Progress Made and Cheer Him Up


The collision between Parnell and Callan in Louth was a regrettable business altogether.[1] Callan was so loyal to Butt that he often said ugly things about Parnell and his Party. When Parnell helped Russell to put Callan out of Dundalk, Callan got returned for Louth in spite of him, and although he acted always with the Party he owed no allegiance to Parnell. Callan somehow made himself disagreeable to many of the Parliamentarians by his brusque manner, and his assumption of being better posted than many of them.

When it came to the placing of the men at the General Election Parnell seemed to make it a test of allegiance to the Party that the candidates should represent not their own connections in certain constituencies but the cause and the people generally. Jordan of Enniskillen, although he could have been returned for Fermanagh almost independent of Parnell, was sent to County Clare. At a meeting of the Election Committee of the Party I heard it was decided not to give Callan a nomination,[2] but at the instance of E. D. Gray, who was a great friend of Callan’s, Parnell offered Callan a seat if he would consent to contest a constituency further north than Louth. But Callan, as he admitted to me, refused and hung on to Louth, and so according to the new rules provoked a contest from one cause to another. There were none of the Parliamentary Party prepared to appear in Louth against Callan, and Parnell had to carry through the fight himself, and a rather bitter contest it proved to be. Callan told me that he could have had Parnell killed in Dundalk if he held up his hand, and Parnell admitted that it was probably true. During the contest, I had an appointment with Parnell in Morrison’s[3] late at night, and travelling in from Malahide there were two superior second-class passengers in the compartment when the following conversation took place. One says: “I often heard that Mr. Parnell was a cold, unemotional man, but I can tell you he is nothing of the kind. I heard him speak whilst the train was stopped in Drogheda, about the battle in Louth, and he spoke with such concentrated passion and scorn that the words ‘Philip Callan’ seem to be still sticking in my face.”

Parnell also had an appointment that night with Mr. Sexton and Mr. McGough, a League solicitor, about Louth, and after my interview they were called in, and Sexton being in quizzical mood, drew Parnell out to retail some of his experiences. He says: “I never was so near losing my temper as I was today, first with a fellow who was shouting at me from a brake near the one I was speaking from. Only the people around stopped me, I would have rushed at him, and when I was coming to the train this evening, a fellow shouted just at my ear: ‘To hell with Parnell!’ I don’t know how I refrained from striking him down.” “If you did,” said Sexton, “you might have left him like the way you left the Englishmen in your school days. Do, Parnell, tell us that story.” After some pressing, Parnell said: “When I was at Cambridge reading for my degree, I was set upon by two swell students, with one of whom I had a dispute in the dusk of the evening near the railway. I was hit and dragged about at first, and when I got clear, I made a drive at one of them. He ducked and my arm went across his shoulders, and he, in the encounter, hit me a peg in the eye. The blow stung me a bit, and I drew back and then sprung at him and caught him on the jaw, and he went down like a log. I then hit the other a blow or two and he also fell. I then went on to my train. The fellows were mean enough to summon me for assault before the magistrates, and although they were two to one, and were the attacking party, the magistrates fined me £20.” I expressed surprise at such a ruling on the case. “Oh, but,” says Sexton (who evidently had heard the story before), “the two fellows were broken up in bits. Weren’t they, Parnell?” “Well,” he says, “one fellow had his jaw bone broken and the other, one of his arms, but I think they had plasters and bandages on where there were no great wounds. Then,” he says, “I appealed to the college authorities against the decision of the magistrates and they confirmed the sentence. I was so exasperated at the animus against me because I was an Irishman that I packed up my traps at once and left the college, and never returned there again.”[4]

Sexton and McGough promised to go to Louth the next morning, but I felt so dubious about being in time for the train that I told Parnell that if he intended to beat Callan he must go and do it himself, and so he did. Sexton did not go.

Avondale House in County Wicklow

Unfortunately, as I think, the Tory Party did not get through the Election of 1885 in a position (even with the constant attention of the Irish Party) to carry through the understanding of Lord Carnarvon[5] with Parnell. I always thought that Mr. Parnell might have held on a little longer than he did to what I might call the Tory alliance. By throwing them over so soon he seemed to justify the hostile attitude afterwards assumed by Lord Randolph Churchill, who was the chief inspirer of the Tory negotiations with Parnell.[6] I confess that I felt then, and still feel, a greater leaning towards the British Tory Party than I ever could have towards the so-called Liberals, and I felt in no way elated when I learned from Parnell soon after the Election of 1885 that Gladstone had opened negotiations with him through his Chief Whip – Lord Richard Grosvenor[7] – as to what he wanted for Ireland on the land and national questions. When he was going into the Tory alliance he asked me to keep Mr. Davitt if I could from denouncing him, and now when he contemplated an alliance with the Liberals and Radicals he sent me a telegram, which I showed to Mr. Davitt, inviting us to Avondale, on a certain Sunday in the spring of 1886. When Mr. Davitt, after reading the wire, asked me was I not going to preserve the telegram which he saw me shoving into my pocket, I said I did not mind about hoarding my correspondence – where was the use. “Oh,” he says, “these things may be of interest some day.” So I did keep the telegram and some other things afterwards.

We went to Avondale and spent a rather interesting day with Parnell. There was some snow on the ground, but all the same Parnell took us for a good long walk, and got us into his sawmills. He was so anxious to show us what he was doing that he took off his coat and started some of the machinery to start up a new turbine he had erected. And this on a Sunday.[8] After dinner I spent a very interesting time listening to Parnell and Davitt travelling over the fields of Irish-American politics, and the chief actors therein, and Irish–England politics and their ramifications and possibilities. I made it a rule early in my political life never to assume a knowledge I had no means of acquiring, and as I had no actual knowledge of America or England, I always became a listener while men who knew them were talking. But when Irish Ireland was taken up, I generally took a hand in the game. A general outline of the Irish claim on the new alliance was arrived at, and of course Davitt was very much pleased to find himself on active service in harness with Parnell again. On our way to Rathdrum, Mr. Davitt exclaimed: “Well, that man’s mind is as clear as crystal.” When we were leaving, Mr. Parnell said: “Now I think it would be better not to make this interview public at present,” and he gave us a most amusing account of the way he used to keep clear of the press men in his own party.

The riding down policy adopted by the Liberals prevented Parnell and Chamberlain[9] from coming together, and I expect that Chamberlain felt deadly hurt at Parnell’s Tory policy of 1885. By refusing to stand by the Tories in their helpless position in 1885, he had the misfortune to turn two of the very ablest men in England, Churchill and Chamberlain, against him. It was the power displayed by Parnell over the Irish in England, by getting them to vote with their traditional enemies – the Tories – against their natural allies – the Liberals – that induced Gladstone to offer him an alliance on Home Rule. When Chamberlain failed to use Parnell and his democrats to get him to the front in England, he broke up the Liberal Party rather than let Parnell win without him.

I met Mr. Parnell by appointment in Morrison’s Hotel some time after the Home Rule failure of 1886, and I never saw him so cut up. His appearance reminded me of what he told me he went through with the nervous attack after the contest in the County Dublin. I was waiting for him in his room and when he took off his overcoat, he threw himself on a lounge and exclaimed: “Well, Kettle, I have gone the whole round of English parties during the last few months and I have failed all along the line, and now the fight is gone back to Davitt’s line and yours, and go and make your best of it.” I somehow instinctively felt that he was in a bad way, he spoke so seriously, and I said: “I do not think you are justified in flying in God’s face like that. You are feeling for what you have failed to do, but you seem to forget what you have done. You gave an exhibition of power sufficient to convert nearly all the great men of England to endorse your claims for Ireland, and you seem to look upon that as nothing. I think you have great reason to thank Heaven that you did not succeed in carrying the land and Home Rule settlements on the lines laid down in Gladstone’s scheme. You were giving too much for the land and three millions a year too much for the country. Had Gladstone’s bills been passed into law Ireland would have fallen under the burden and you might go out of public life, disgraced and broken-hearted, so I think you should not despond but rejoice.” You seem,” he says “to be able to take a hopeful, philosophic view of things always.” I said: “I am rather naturally inclined to leave a large margin for contingencies in every business. I am never sanguine. No matter how well I do a thing I always feel it could be done better, but in the present situation I see no honest cause for regret.” After a long general conversation on men and things, I left him in good enough form. But from whatever cause, his health broke down soon after that and I did not see him for a good long spell, as he spent most of his time in England. I heard he got a wetting when out hunting, of which pastime he was really fond, and that a kind of rheumatic attack followed.[10] When the Irish Party settled down to the Liberal Alliance after 1886, Mr. Davitt went to America and brought home Mrs. Davitt.[11] At a farewell dinner given him by a few friends at Bray, I heard that William O’Brien declared a few days before that he would prove Gladstone’s words to be a prophecy. The declaration made by Gladstone was that the Tories would have to govern either by Home Rule or Coercion.

  1. This was in 1880, when Callan was defeated by Charles Russell in the Dundalk election. He was also running in the Louth election at the same time, and was returned in that race.
  2. This was in advance of the approaching 1885 elections when Callan was rejected as a candidate for the new constituency of North Louth by Parnell’s party members. Parnell’s strong objection to Callan was probably because he had spread word of the leader having an affair with Katharine O’Shea. Callan, however, was undeterred and stood as an independent with Parnell campaigning personally against him. Callan was defeated by Parnell’s candidate, Joseph Nolan (DIB 2009, ‘Callan, Philip’).
  3. Morrison’s Hotel on Dawson Street in central Dublin was a base for Parnell and his lieutenants and was where he conducted much of his political business in Ireland.
  4. For a discussion of Parnell’s student years at Magdalene College, Cambridge, see Martin 1992, 37-41; Bew 2011, 11.
  5. Henry Howard Molyneux Herbert (1831-90), 4th Earl of Carnarvon, was a British politician and a leading member of the Conservative Party. He held the position of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland between 1885 and 1886, during which time he was involved in negotiations with Parnell in regard to Home Rule. Carnarvon was known to be sympathetic to the notion of Home Rule (DIB 2009, Herbert, Henry Howard Molyneux’; Bew 1980, 72; Bew 2007, 343).
  6. Parnell had urged the Irish voters in Britain to vote against the Liberals and he had achieved the expected nationalist electoral success in Ireland as well. This put him in an exceptionally strong position and the result of the election meant that the nationalists were close to holding the balance of power between the Liberals and the Conservatives. Both British parties allowed the Irish Parliamentary Party to envisage the possibility of a substantial constitutional development towards Home Rule in the next Parliament. The Tories possessed the great advantage that any measure they might put through the Commons was likely to be accepted by the Lords. Ultimately, however, the Ulster Tories would have revolted in the event of a Tory/Parnell alliance. This reality caused the Conservatives to quickly turn against the Irish and reveal their plans to return to using coercion in Ireland. The Liberals moved towards the Irish with Gladstone indicating his favourable attitude towards Home Rule and, by working with the Liberals, Parnell threw the Conservatives out of office (Bew 2007, 344; Comerford 1996b, 60).
  7. Lord Richard Grosvenor (1837-1912), 1st Baron Stalbridge, was a Liberal Party MP. He served under Gladstone as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (chief whip) from 1880 to 1885, but he disagreed with Gladstone over Home Rule and resigned his seat in protest in 1886 (Wikipedia 2022, ‘Richard Grosvenor, 1st Baron Stalbridge’).
  8. In addition to his love of countryside activities as a means of relaxation, Parnell was interested in science and mechanics and frequently worked on schemes for the development of the mines on his property (Bew 2011, 19). He operated sawmills and developed quarries, employing about 25 men by 1885. His entrepreneurial activities in the building trade as one of the main suppliers of sawn timber in Co. Wicklow was also central to his political motivations (Martin 1992; Martin n.d.).
  9. Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914) was a businessman, a social reformer, and a radical politician who entered Parliament in 1876. He was a leader of the left wing of the Liberal Party. Chamberlain favoured Irish reform and rejected the use of excessive force in suppressing Irish agitation, but he later opposed Gladstone’s attempts to introduce Home Rule for Ireland (Poole 2022).
  10. As a young boy, Parnell had contracted a severe bout of typhoid fever, which had led to a phase of emotional or nervous instability, and he later contracted scarlet fever. Although unconfirmed, there was speculation that his health had suffered during his time in Kilmainham Jail. In November 1886, accompanied by Katharine O’Shea, he attended London’s leading urologist, Sir Henry Thompson, which lends credence to the suggestion that he suffered from Bright’s disease (an ill-defined progressive kidney disease) or perhaps chronic pyelitis (a low-grade renal infection), although Mrs. O’Shea attributed his poor health to a nervous breakdown brought on by overwork (Lyons 1991, 171-73).
  11. Davitt’s frenetic political activity since his release from Dartmoor prison nine years previously had left little time for personal relationships. However, at the age of 40 he was married in California to a young Irish-American woman, Mary Yore, whom he had first met during a visit to America six years earlier. After the marriage the couple were presented, as a tribute from the people, with a house, ‘Land League Cottage,’ in Ballybrack, Co. Dublin, and Davitt returned home in February 1887 with his new bride (Marley 2007, 91).


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The Material for Victory: The Memoirs of Andrew J. Kettle Copyright © 2023 by Open Press at the University of Galway is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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