Chapter 12: The Times Commission of 1889 and the Role of Davitt

The Times Commission of 1889 – Davitt’s Great Work and Heavy Expenses – I Interview Parnell about Davitt’s Costs – Parnell’s Visit to Hawarden – Gladstone’s Position – Danger of “Caves” – History of Obstruction Policy – O’Connor Power


In the “Times Commission” I took no part and Mr. Davitt bore the brunt of the battle and conducted the defence in connection with Mr. Parnell in the ablest possible manner. As history tells, the trial closed in 1889 in a very sensational and triumphant manner for the Irish leaders and the Irish cause.[1] Like the early Land League days when Parnell and Davitt worked together, everything was done in a very superior way. I was greatly gratified that the force of circumstance threw these two men together as it always appeared to me as if one was the complement of the other – Davitt with his outspoken mission to the mental and physical workers of the world, and Parnell with his revelation of silence, and power, and tolerance, and statesmanship to the world in general, but especially to the men who claimed to be the rulers, always seem to me to cover the whole ground of Ireland’s agitation for freedom. Remembering the interview I had with Mr. Parnell about Mr. Davitt’s worth and work in 1885,[2] I was personally pleased that events verified my contention. But although I was not mixed up with the work of the Commission, it was still my destiny to learn all about that and many other things at first hand from Mr. Parnell. In conducting the defence, Mr. Davitt spent a large amount of his own money, and as he was placed in a different position from all others in the case, he decided not to send his accounts in to the solicitors for the defence, Messrs. Lewis, and they having spent the entire of the special fund collected for the purpose, there was no money to pay Mr. Davitt’s outlay.[3] Mr. Davitt’s family and friends very justly complained of the position he was placed in, and the grumbling against Mr. Parnell for not seeing Mr. Davitt paid became so acute that I quietly determined to see Mr. Parnell about it. I saw that he had an invitation to visit Liverpool to receive a good sum of money collected for Irish work, but held over until the Times case was decided, and that he was to pay Mr. Gladstone a visit at Hawarden on the route.[4] He spent a night at Hawarden with Mr. Gladstone, and went the next night to the Liverpool meeting, and I saw him the day following at Mr. Evans’ at Birkenhead. He was giving an interview to “Dr.” Byrne[5] of the Freeman’s Journal when I called. His explanation about the delay in refunding Mr. Davitt his money was that the Irish Exchequer had run low owing to the Plan of Campaign expenses in Ireland, but that he would send on some of the Liverpool money when he would get to London.[6] He was in good spirits, but quiet and reticent-like, the same as I often saw him with other people when he would seem to be measuring how much of his mind he would disclose to the present party or on the present occasion. But I was always fairly successful in getting him to talk.

When we finished talking about the unfortunate Pigott’s[7] performances, I said: “You seem to be getting on well down here.” “Yes,” he says, “things are moving in a fair way.” “I suppose you want all the time the Tories will give you?” I said. “Oh, yes,” he says, “nothing could upset our plans but that the Liberals should come to office with a small majority, and they are not at all ready with candidates, or funds at present. If they took office with a small majority, they would be at the mercy of every fellow who could form a cave[8] by taking away a few followers, and one fellow would want one thing whittled down and another fellow something else, and they might keep whittling down our bill until we would not know whether to take it or leave it.” “Is there then,” I said, “so much danger of caves in the Party?” “Why,” he says, “there are not three men in the Party prepared to toe Gladstone’s line on the question. Morley[9] and Spencer[10] are the only two we are certain of. The rest are thoroughly unsound on the subject. Unless we get a good majority we will have no chance of carrying a good measure through the Lords.” “Then,” I said, “I infer from all this that you consider the old fellow himself all right on the question.” “Well,” he says, and he instinctively pulled himself up a bit, as he always did when dealing with an Englishman, “he is in this way. Nothing could justify Gladstone in doing what he proposed to do, and what England has refused to do for a century except that it should prove to be a great imperial success, and he is now just as anxious to give us as much Home Rule as will make it a great imperial success as we are to take it.” “Then you will have the measuring of it largely in your own hands, but the Liberal Party may play you out again.” “Now,” he says, and he laughing, “don’t be speculating or prophesying. I always get restless. Enough for the day is the evil thereof. We will do it better next time.”

The information I received at this interview, coming at first-hand, fresh from the fountain head, gave me the key to the position when the great crisis came in about eleven months afterwards.[11]

William Gladstone, c. 1892

From the public meeting between Parnell and Gladstone until the Divorce Court proceedings was something less than a year. Mr. Davitt was in America when Mr. O’Brien started and he and Mr. Dillon over-ran Ireland with the Plan of Campaign rent strike, and when Mr. Davitt returned, he took no part in the agitation. The Times Commission brought him to Parnell’s side, and when that terminated he moved to London and started the Labour World newspaper.[12] Had he remained in Ireland many of his old friends believed he would have taken a different stand from the one he took towards Parnell. He meant well, but he lost his temper when the Leader hesitated to be guided by his advice until he could leave things right for his successors.[13] Home Rule seemed to be safe after the understanding between Parnell and Gladstone. The Parliamentary Party were in daily and nightly intercourse with the leaders and members of the Liberal Party. Evidence of this was the statement made by Mr. John O’Connor, M.P.,[14] about the pressure Sir W. Harcourt[15] put on him to desert Parnell and the Irish flag, which, like a man, he refused to do. As before stated, the rent strike in Ireland was started on such extraordinary lines that it had to be fought to a finish by the League, and had to be tolerated by Parnell and the whole Party. Like the late Land Conference business, no one liked to repudiate men who, the world knew, meant well and some of whom made great sacrifices. But in declaring war against Lord Lansdowne,[16] Barrymore,[17] Massarene,[18] and other noted landlords, backed up by a powerful and wealthy Land Corporation, the leaders of the campaign left little hope for compromise. By clearing the people off the land, they left them helpless and a burden on the funds, and the clearance policy tempted the landlords to employ some able graziers to help them to make rent out of evicted lands, which they did successfully in many cases. The cattle trade favoured the evictors so far one season that they made several rents out of some of the grasslands. The funds of the League ran so low in carrying on this struggle, which had to be continued until the advent of the Gladstone Government to power, that to make the best of a bad job, a very strong deputation of representative men were sent to America to collect the sinews of war.

This was something like the situation when the melancholy crisis came, a crisis that put every man of the race on his trial, churchman, layman, the dissolute and the virtuous, the learned and the ignorant, the friends and the opponents of Mr. Parnell.[19] It seemed so simple to manage the difficulty sensibly at some points that I fear posterity will wonder why something different was not done. I can only set down here my own experience of the whole upheaval.

Like most people, I was under a kind of impression that Mr. Parnell would manage, in his usual inevitable way, to get through every difficulty that might arise in his path. I spent part of a day with him in Avondale, a few months before the storm, and Mr. Kerr, his manager, seemed to be troubled about the rumours that were going around about the Divorce Court, but I laughed off his fears, saying: “The Chief is sure to get through all right.” It was on this visit which I made without notice, on chance like, that I met Mr. Parnell and Mrs. Dickinson[20] riding from Avondale, and I must say they both looked to advantage on horseback. We met midway in the avenue, and when we came within talking distance he, smiling, said, “I knew you as far as I could see you. I told my sister here, Mrs. Dickinson, that if Kettle is alive, this is he. I am very glad to see you, but I am in the doctor’s hands and I must take an hour or two every day on horseback. Will you go to the house and wait until we return, or will you look up Kerr and view our farming?” “Oh, the latter by all means. I am very anxious to see how Mr. Doherty rigged up your cattle yard.”

John O’Connor Power

It was during this visit I learned all about how the policy of obstruction in Parliament was started. The question came up for discussion in this way. Mr. Davitt being located in London, renewed his intercourse with Mr. O’Connor Power and at our last meeting he wished that Power could get an English seat in Parliament, with the assistance of the Irish vote, and rejoin the Irish Party. On mentioning this to Mr. Parnell he said, “I have nothing against Power except that he failed to go the whole way with us when starting the policy of obstruction. O’Donnell and Power and Biggar and myself arranged about Biggar reading the Blue Books, and all the other tactics.[21] It seems to be generally thought that Biggar did that of his own motion, but he did not – it was arranged by the Party. You saw what O’Donnell did on the Army Bill,[22] and he acted as well on the other bills, but when it came to Power’s turn he failed to go on, but he acted well enough all through since, from a constitutional point of view, and now with the Liberals coming back to power, I would have no objections to him getting a seat in England. He is a very able man.”

  1. Parnell’s apparent moderation and lack of activity during the Plan of Campaign made the Tories all the more determined to link him to criminal activity associated with agrarian activism. The Times of London published a series of articles entitled ‘Parnellism and Crime’ between March and December 1887 and included a letter purporting to have been written by Parnell conveying that his condemnation of the Phoenix Park murders had not been sincere. The government established the Special Commission on Parnellism and Crime to inquire into the allegations. It sat 128 times between October and November 1889 and resulted in a detailed investigation into the association of the Home Rule movement and land agitation with agrarian and political criminal activity since 1879. It failed to establish any tangible link between Parnell and serious criminal activity, but it did uncover, through cross examination and forensic examination of handwriting, that the journalist Richard Pigott had forged the incriminating letters allegedly written by Parnell. The result of the Special Commission only served to enhance Parnell’s reputation both in Britain and Ireland. This also benefitted the Liberals and strengthened the Parnell–Liberal Alliance, symbolised by Parnell publicly shaking hands on 8 March 1889 with Lord Spencer, who was the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at the time of the Phoenix Park murders (Comerford 1996b, 75; Bew 2007, 357).
  2. See Chapter 9 where Kettle tells of his efforts to persuade Parnell of Davitt’s worth despite Davitt’s criticism of Parnell and his followers during this time. He advised Parnell to ‘[q]uietly turn over in your mind the services of all the men you have met since you took up your mission, and if on examination you find that Davitt has not rendered Ireland and you more real service than any of the other men around you can drop him.’
  3. Davitt had chosen to defend himself before the Special Commission instead of being represented by counsel like most of the accused. This resulted in him appearing both as principal in conducting his own case and as a witness, during which his whole public career from 1867 onwards was subjected to public scrutiny. He attended frequently in court throughout the sittings of the commission, determined to defend not just himself but also ‘the name and character and cause of the peasantry of Ireland’ (Moody 1945, 234).
  4. Hawarden Castle in Wales was the estate of William Gladstone. After Parnell’s vindication by the Special Commission, Parnell and Gladstone held talks to work out the details of the Second Home Rule Bill (which was eventually introduced in 1893). The trip that Kettle refers to here took place on 18-19 December 1889 after which Gladstone noted that Parnell was ‘certainly one of the best people to deal with that I have ever known.’ The contents of these talks became crucial some months later during the party split when Parnell broke the confidentially surrounding them and denounced what he alleged were the limitations of Liberal plans for Home Rule (Bew 2007, 357; Comerford 1996b, 77).
  5. Edward ‘Doc’ Byrne (1847-99) was a journalist and newspaper editor who was an advisor and friend of Parnell. He was editor of the Freeman’s Journal in the 1880s when it played a major role in maintaining Parnell’s political ascendancy. He supported Parnell throughout his lifetime (DIB 2009, ‘Byrne, Edward Joseph’).
  6. The Plan of Campaign expenses were a serious drain on available funds. The failed venture of ‘New Tipperary,’ for example, where shopkeepers were persuaded to leave their premises and set up in new facilities nearby, had cost £40,000 (Comerford 1996b, 72).
  7. Richard Pigott (1828-89) was a journalist and newspaper owner who was revealed to be the forger of letters that ostensibly proved Parnell had been a supporter of the Phoenix Park murders. Originally an important figure in nationalist politics, Pigott began to vilify his former associates from 1884 and produced articles which presented the Irish nationalist project as a criminal conspiracy. The Special Commission revealed the fact that he had forged the letters. After admitting the forgeries, Pigott fled to Spain, where he committed suicide (DIB 2009, ‘Pigott, Richard’).
  8. A ‘cave’ is a nineteenth-century political term meaning the secession of a small dissident group of politicians from their party.
  9. John Morley (1838-1923) was an English politician, writer, and Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1886 and again from 1892 to 1895. A previous opponent of coercion in Ireland, he was a firm believer of the necessity for Home Rule, and as a Liberal MP he was adamant that Ireland should be a priority for the Liberal Party (DIB 2009, ‘Morley, John’).
  10. John Poyntz Spencer (1835-1910), 5th Earl Spencer, had been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1868 and again in 1882. Known as ‘the Red Earl’ because of his enormous red beard, he enforced a harsh law-and-order approach in Ireland, but was a strong supporter of Gladstone’s Home Rule policy. After the 1885 general election this support played a significant role in Gladstone’s ability to carry the majority of the Liberal Party and form his third government, in which Spencer was Lord President of the Council. During the period of Liberal opposition (1886 to 1892), Spencer was one of the most outspoken campaigners for Home Rule (DIB 2009, ‘Spencer, John Poyntz’).
  11. The ‘great crisis’ refers to the difficulties that arose in November and December 1890 as a result of the revelation of Parnell’s involvement in the O’Shea divorce proceedings and the subsequent split of the Irish Parliamentary Party. While Parnell managed to keep control over the party for a while, it soon became clear that many of Gladstone’s supporters would no longer accept the Liberal Party alliance with the Irish Parliamentary Party if Parnell was its leader. The prospect of being forced out of politics led Parnell to embarrass Gladstone by revealing details about his meeting with Gladstone, despite having publicly expressed his satisfaction with the negotiations at the time. It seems that Parnell was attempting to lead the Irish Parliamentary Party back towards independence from the Liberals while consolidating his leadership of the party. The ‘key to the position’ that Kettle refers to here is Parnell’s belief that the Liberal Party was wavering in its support for Home Rule and that Parnell’s strategy was to force the Liberal Party to take a clear position in favour of Home Rule before he stepped down from the leadership (Comerford 1996b, 77).
  12. Davitt had launched the newspaper Labour World in London on 26 September 1890 as a sequel to the halfpenny weekly Democrat, which he had published in London from 1884. Labour World was a pioneering penny weekly which assembled labour news worldwide, and its second issue sold 60,000 copies (DIB 2009, ‘Davitt, Michael’).
  13. Following the Parnell split, Labour World became a strongly anti-Parnellite newspaper. Davitt, who was a devout Catholic, had broken with Parnell over his relationship with Katherine O’Shea. Davitt published an editorial advising Parnell to retire (temporarily) but Parnell did not take his advice (DIB 2009, ‘Davitt, Michael’).
  14. John O’Connor (1850-1928) was a Fenian and a prominent member of the Irish Party. He served as MP for Tipperary South (1885-92) and was an enthusiastic supporter of the Plan of Campaign (1886-89). He was devoted to Parnell and sided with him in the split, defending Parnell strongly and attempting to persuade the party to issue a statement criticising Gladstone’s interference in party matters (DIB 2009, ‘O’Connor, John’).
  15. Sir William Harcourt (1827-1904) was a British lawyer, journalist, Liberal politician, and cabinet member who served under Gladstone as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1886 and again between 1892 and 1894. On Gladstone’s retirement in 1894 he was a leading but unsuccessful candidate to succeed him as prime minister (Stansky 2004).
  16. Henry Charles Keith Petty-Fitzmaurice (1845-1927), 5th Marquess of Lansdowne.
  17. Arthur Hugh Smith Barry (1843-1925), 1st Baron Barrymore.
  18. Clotworthy John Eyre Skeffington (1842-1905), 11th Viscount Massereene, was an Anglo-Irish peer who served as Lord Lieutenant of Louth from 1879 to 1898 (Wikipedia 2022, ‘Clotworthy Skeffington, 11th Viscount Massereene’).
  19. At the time of the O’Shea divorce case, Parnell was so powerful that no Irish group spoke out against him. However, the issue of his continued leadership soon led to the ‘melancholy crisis’ of a split in the party (Comerford 1996b, 79).
  20. Emily Monroe (Parnell) Dickinson (1841-1918) was an older sister of Parnell. In 1905 she published A Patriot’s Mistake: Being Personal Recollections of the Parnell Family.
  21. Progress on bills was prevented by continuing debate on them for as long as possible, thus preventing the plans of government for introducing legislation. The campaign of obstruction reached its height in the opposition to the Irish Coercion Bill in early 1881, which allowed imprisonment without trial for those linked to agitation between landlords and tenants. The campaign of obstruction kept the House of Commons sitting for 41 hours before it was finally ended by the Speaker of the House (Thornley 1960).
  22. The Army Discipline and Regulation Bill of 1879.


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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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