Chapter 14: I Join the Fight – 1891 Carlow By-election

Kilkenny Election – Castlecomer – I Reason out My Obligations – I Put My Views before Parnell – I Join in the Fight – Staunch Men in Carlow – Parnell and the Catholic Clergy – The Cabinteely Meeting


I saw Parnell at Kingsbridge[1] when he was going to Cork, but only for a moment, to warn him about his health.[2] He pressed me to go with him, but I put him off, laughing, telling him he got me beaten the last time he had me in Cork (the Election of 1880).[3] I went with J. F. Grehan to Kilkenny during the Election and we spent our time in the hottest spot about Castlecomer and Crettyard.[4] One night in the hotel during the contest, Mr. Parnell came over and challenged Mr. Grehan (who was a great Davittite) and myself, to know what Davitt meant by attacking him the way someone told him he did at a meeting that day. I said I heard nothing about the attack, but that Davitt had lost touch with the Dublin men since he went to London. “The devil he has,” he says. “London is where we all go wrong.” When I saw that he meant to go on with the fight after the Kilkenny defeat, notwithstanding his poor health, I made up my mind to put my views before him.

I confess that I spent a peculiar two hours (the last hour of one year and the first of the next) in working out my political prospectus.[5] I first inquired why I should interfere at all. Then I reasoned out the obligations every human being contracts by the very fact of his existence, towards the Creator, his neighbour, and his native land. I glanced back at my early surroundings and asked myself why did these things happen to me who had started as a small farmer’s son, without education or money. I was still a farmer, pure and simple, living absolutely by my profession, yet why was I brought into contact with all the living issues of Irish public life? I did not go out of my way to seek the friendship of all the great men of my time, yet I was brought into close contact with them.

I had opportunities of testing my opinions with many men, and the sequels proved that I was very often right. It never occurred to me to subordinate my judgement to any other mind on matters that I had opportunities of looking through and through. Without trying, my estimates of men and things were instinctively fairly true. I inherited a deeply religious mind, and I have been all my life, and am now, always trying to dispose myself to leave the results of all my endeavours, as Parnell said, to a Higher Power. I had my own private views of the probable outcome of the Parnell movement, which Mr. Parnell understood. I always smiled at the idea of England ever delegating the governing powers of Ireland into the hands of a class different from that ruling in England for the time being. The English classes might arrange with the Irish classes, as Randolph Churchill meant to work out in 1885, but I had no hope that such men as Parnell led before the split, would be made rulers in Ireland until the labourers would be ruling in England. In the years ’88 and ’89, when the Liberal Alliance was running, Mr. Parnell used to get uneasy like, when I would allow my tongue to run on, speculating on the improbabilities of the situation, repeating, “What will happen the next time?” He would rejoin, “What better can we do for the present?”[6]

Harking back on my own old lines, that all men and all things were to be used to work out the redemption of Ireland, I made up my mind that perhaps even the secession misfortune might be turned to account. Having made a sketch of my conclusions, I determined to put them before Mr. Parnell. I sought and found him in Dr. Kenny’s dining with John Redmond,[7] E. Leamy,[8] Val Dillon,[9] Mr. E. D. Gray, and a few others. The Freeman’s Journal was Parnell’s organ then.[10] When I got an opportunity I told him I wanted to have a talk with him. “Well,” he says, “I am going over to Morrison’s now, and the doctor and I have arranged to go to Avondale on the night train. Come with me over in the cab and we can talk on the way.”

Morrison’s Hotel

When we got started I said, “I see you have been at Boulogne.”[11] “Yes,” he says. “I suppose you know,” I said, “that O’Brien is deeper and more diplomatic than any of the men who have declared against you.” “Oh,” he says, “I have O’Brien’s measure taken long ago, and I found him what you say.” He talked about some of the propositions discussed then, and when we got to Morrison’s I said, “I have deliberately kept away from you since you entered on this struggle. I was afraid to encourage you, lest your health would break down, but I have come now to put my views of the situation before you, and you can make what use you wish of them. The chief points are, you can never expect to overcome the Catholic clergy in a contention like the present, and if I thought you could, I believe I would help them. We will have a clerical party for a good long while now in Irish politics, perhaps always, or until England becomes Catholic. But I think you will be able to found an independent Irish party in alliance with the property classes in Ireland, which will in all likelihood exercise a deeper influence on the people of England and the British Conservative Party than all the representations which can be made regarding the danger of Home Rule.” I asked him to give no opinion on my views, but I told him why I sought the interview, but that I was still afraid that his health would break down. He made no answer to either point then, and we got on to discuss the men and things of the new situation so intently that he seemed to forget all about Avondale, and when the doctor came, dressed in winter travelling costume, he put off the visit altogether, and he said he would pay a visit to Meade,[12] the Lord Mayor, instead. We sat on for a long talk after the doctor left, and, in reviewing the situation, I could not, and I did not, conscientiously spare him in the least. I told him he sinned very deeply from my standpoint, that he disqualified himself from leading a Catholic people, but that he seemed to be determined to suffer, in having his faults flung in his face at every turn of the road, and the mud of the street thrown in his eyes as a punishment, that I hoped he would offer those things as a penance for having transgressed so grievously, and for tempting God so long.[13] “Ah,” he says, “that scandal will be forgotten as time goes by.” When he got up to brush down his hair before proceeding to the Mansion House, he says, “Well, Kettle, this conversation has been of great service to me. I have a lot of poor weak men around me. In fact I have more trouble with them than with the other fellows.”[14] “With the exception,” I said, “of one or two (whom I named) I suppose they are tired of the fight.” “Oh,” says he, “so far as one of those is concerned he is gifted with enough cowardly common sense to ruin any cause. He is the worst of the lot.”[15] Then he let his mind glance over the change, the upheaval would bring on the fortunes of some of the Party, and we indulged in some cynical smiling, I fear, about the dashing of the ambitions and the pretensions of a few.

Katharine Tynan, c. 1880-87

I attended all his principal meetings, after this, and I laboured to keep the political issue fairly before the people in short speeches and in public letters. At a meeting of the League in Dublin, at which Mr. Parnell, and, I think, the well-known writer Katherine Tynan,[16] and her father were present, I inquired what could any Irishman do but stand where we were standing in this contention. “The poor panic-stricken men who called upon Mr. Parnell to stand by the Irish centre and the Irish flag have fled to the tail of an English party at the call of an Englishman. Do they expect the men and women of Ireland to fly there, too? Now my standpoint is that if it pleased God to take Mr. Parnell to Heaven tomorrow the men and women of Ireland would have to stand where they are standing. Not alone that, but if Ireland had her freedom today, and if all her aspirations were realised, the men and women of Ireland would still have to rally round the Irish centre where we are standing to guard and perpetuate her rights.” After the meeting, Mr. Parnell said quietly to me, “Kettle, why don’t you speak oftener? You are the only one who treats this controversy on its merits.” At some meeting soon after he used the same idea in his sad and memorable words, “If I were dead and gone tomorrow.”[17]

At a meeting he attended in Kells, Co. Meath, Parnell told me he was fast asleep sitting on the platform when he was called on to speak. Isaac Butt in one of his last cases was found asleep in court when it came his turn to speak, and poor James Grehan was found asleep in the chair at a meeting, discussing Balfour’s Land Bill of 1896,[18] shortly before his death. Three master minds, each in his own way, faded alike and died in harness.[19] Mr. Parnell was not in Ireland when the Carlow vacancy occurred.[20] I think it was about that time he got married.[21] I was busy with my farming, and just paid a chance visit to the League rooms when Dr. Joe Kenny came in, in a state of distress about the impossibility of finding a candidate. He said that he was afraid there would be no contest. “Oh,” I said, “that is out of the question. Parnell might give up the fight, but we could not without dishonour. The seat will have to be fought.” “Well,” he says, “will you fight it?” “Well,” I said, “if no one else can be found, I will, on certain conditions.” “What are the conditions?” he says. “That it is not to cost me a penny stamp, and that I am to be free to go or stay from Parliament as I wish. I can take a man’s part and pay a man’s share, but I have such large responsibilities that I cannot honestly spend money on an election of any sort.” “Well,” he says, “I agree to the terms. Will you come to Carlow in the morning?” We went to Carlow and found as staunch a body of men as Ireland could produce. It would be invidious to name names, but they were all up to the highest possible standard at the start and at the finish.[22] Poor Parnell’s sudden death[23] left me legally liable for a large sum of expenses, but John Redmond and the faithful few redeemed Dr. Kenny’s promise, and this was facilitated by the leading Carlow men drawing their pens across most of the accounts. Thus ended my connection with Parnell’s last battle.

An incident occurred during this contest that shows Mr. Parnell’s views of religion, morality, and the Catholic clergy. A Protestant clergyman, a Rev. McCree, called at Parnell’s hotel and asked for an interview. Mr. McCree laid siege to Parnell and pressed him to retire from the contest. Mr. Parnell said, “Mr. McCree, I must deny your right to interfere in this matter at all. When I was at college I had opportunities of seeing men of your Church and of your cloth, preparing for their profession, and I must say they were no better than they should be, morally or otherwise. But it is altogether different with the Catholic clergy. A Catholic clergyman has to undergo a most severe and searching course of discipline. He has to take a vow of celibacy, and deny himself gratifications that are freely indulged in by Protestant clergymen. I do not blame the Catholic clergy for the part they are taking in this disagreeable dispute, but I altogether deny your right to interfere. Good day, Mr. McCree.”

He rebuked me at this election for some remarks I made about some of the bishops who seemed to be lowering the tone of the controversy, and he always seemed particularly pleased if any clergyman referred to him in fair language.[24]

I lunched with Mr. Parnell at Morrison’s the day of the Cabinteely meeting, and amongst many things he said, “How is it, Kettle, that you have always been fighting in the minority, and when the tide turns you drop out?” “Well,” I said, “you know I have no taste for public work, but when I believe that certain things should be done for the benefit of the cause I try and get others to do them. I seem to have no personal ambition.” “How much better would it have been,” he said, “had we taken your advice in ’81. It would have been all over and won long ago.”[25] “Not much use in looking back,” I said, “unless to gather wisdom. I suppose if the land question had been settled then you would have most of the property people in your movement before this, but you must only try and get them now.” “Kettle, you men are terribly handicapped in this conflict by my misfortune, but I suppose I must only try and atone for it some way.” “Well,” I said, “so far as the fight is concerned it must and will go on so long as these seceders from the flag persist in their cowardly policy of hanging on to the tail of an English party. Those men must either come back to the flag, or bring Home Rule to Ireland, before the strong men of the country will tolerate them.”[26]

  1. Kingsbridge Station is the original name of Heuston Station, one of Dublin’s largest railway stations.
  2. This was 11 December 1890. Cork (like Dublin) remained loyal to Parnell and welcomed him with great enthusiasm. However, at this time Parnell was beginning to show signs of stress with an increasingly dishevelled and frail appearance (Bew 2011, 174).
  3. See Chapter 4 for Kettle’s recounting of the 1880 election.
  4. This was the first by-election after the split and initially it was expected that Parnell’s candidate would win the election. Kilkenny North was considered representative and was described by Healy, who was the bane of the Parnellites, as one of the most difficult Irish constituencies for the anti-Parnellites. Davitt was also a formidable opponent in Kilkenny North and he succeeded in rallying the miners of Castlecomer against Parnell. It was a brutal and at times violent campaign. Parnell was hit with a bag of lime in Castlecomer, some of which got into his eyes, causing extreme discomfort. The result of the election on 22 December was a catastrophe for Parnell with his candidate being defeated, 2,527 to 1,326. Healy declared: ‘There we have beaten him, and will hunt him wherever he shows his head.’ Parnell retained strong support in the towns and among the voteless poor and Fenians, but the priests and many of the smaller and middling farmers were against him (Callanan 1992, 83; DIB 2009, ‘Parnell, Charles Stewart’; Bew 2011, 175).
  5. Kettle’s political prospectus encouraged the establishment of a new ‘centre’ party independent of extreme Catholic and Protestant interests (DIB 2009, ‘Kettle, Andrew Joseph’).
  6. See Chapter 12 for more on this. Even if the party could get a good majority of the Liberal government on its side, there was still the difficulty of carrying measures through the House of Lords.
  7. John Redmond (1856-1918) was a nationalist politician, barrister, and MP. As a Parnellite MP from 1881 to 1891 he was recognised as a skilful orator and had raised large sums of money for the party during fundraising trips to Australia, New Zealand, and America. He supported the Plan of Campaign led by John Dillon and William O’Brien and had spent some weeks in jail in 1888 after being accused of using intimidating language. Although not part of Parnell’s inner circle, he was prominent among the second rank of Home Rule MPs. He became a leading figure among the minority who remained loyal to Parnell after the split in 1890-91 and after Parnell’s death he was elected as leader of the minority faction. He is best known as the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party from 1900 until his death in 1918. He was also the leader of the paramilitary organisation the Irish National Volunteers (DIB 2009, ‘Redmond, John Edward’).
  8. Edmund Leamy (1848-1904) was an Irish journalist, barrister, author, and nationalist politician. A leading supporter of Parnell, he held a number of different Irish seats in Parliament from 1880 until his death. Parnell made him the editor of the United Ireland newspaper in 1891. He was also a talented folklorist and poet (Wikipedia 2022, ‘Edmund Leamy’).
  9. Valentine Blake Dillon (1847-1904).
  10. Six months after the marriage of Parnell and Katharine O’Shea, the Catholic Freeman’s Journal abandoned Parnell. From the start of the Parnell split the newspaper had favoured Parnell. However, once the anti-Parnellites launched their own daily newspaper, the National Press, in March 1891, the Freeman’s Journal lost circulation and revenue and the owners of the newspaper decided to to no longer support Parnell (DIB 2009, ‘Gray, Edmund William Dwyer’).
  11. Boulogne, France, had been the location of an attempt at a negotiated settlement. On 30 December Parnell met William O’Brien, who was joined by John Dillon in mid-January. The Liberal leadership had provided some assurances on Home Rule, but Parnell refused to resign the leadership of the Irish Parliamentary Party. He knew that such a withdrawal would not be temporary, and so the negotiations foundered (DIB 2009, ‘Parnell, Charles Stewart’).
  12. Joseph Meade (1839-1900) was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1891. He was also the wealthy head of a large building firm and owned many Dublin properties, including a large number of tenement buildings. He was a strong nationalist who contributed financially to the Home Rule Party and after the Parnellite split he remained fiercely loyal to Parnell (DIB 2009, ‘Meade, Joseph Michael’).
  13. Bew notes how this final phase of Parnell’s career was to be the most bitter struggle of his life with intense and frequent verbal cruelty and physical violence on both sides (Bew 2011, 177).
  14. Following the split, Parnell gained the support of men who had been formally opposed to him. Many of the Fenians, such as John O’Leary, James Stephens, and John Devoy, who had begrudged the importance given to the Land War and the rise of the Irish Parliamentary Party, now declared their support for Parnell (Comerford 1996b, 79; Callanan 1991, 159).
  15. Kettle and Parnell seem to be referring to James Joseph O’Kelly (1845-1916), an Irish nationalist journalist, politician, and MP he describes as having ‘cowardly common sense’ in Chapter 8.
  16. Katharine Tynan (1859-1931) was a novelist, poet, and journalist who was also an ardent nationalist and Parnellite. Her father, Andrew Cullen Tynan (1829-1905), was a prosperous farmer and cattle trader who was elected to Dublin Corporation as a Parnellite in 1891. He was a major influence in her life and as a young woman she spent much of her time with him attending plays and political meetings, while she also worked briefly for the Ladies’ Land League. She became a successful poet and was a well-known figure among Dublin’s literati (DIB 2009, ‘Hickson (née Tynan), Katharine’).
  17. This declaration was made by Parnell at a speech in Listowel on 13 September: ‘[I]f I were dead and gone tomorrow, the men who are fighting against English influence in Irish public life would fight on still. They would still be independent nationalists’ (quoted in Callanan 1992, 252).
  18. Gerald William Balfour (1853-1945), Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1895 to 1900. He was the brother of the previous Chief Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, who held office from 1887 to 1891 (DIB 2009, ‘Balfour, Gerald William’).
  19. This expression draws a comparison between a person at work and a horse in harness drawing a plough or cart. It means to die while still actively working or still of the age or physical condition to do so.
  20. The County Carlow by-election was held on 7 July 1891 as a result of the death of the sitting member, James Patrick Mahon. Following the first defeat in Kilkenny North, Parnell had also lost the by-election of Sligo North in early April 1891. A third loss in Carlow, which was one of the strongest Parnellite seats, would represent a crushing blow to Parnell’s supporters.
  21. On 25 June 1891, two days before his 45th birthday, Parnell had married Katharine O’Shea at a registry office in Steyning, near Brighton. In Ireland, this was viewed as an aggravation of his moral offence.
  22. Despite Kettle’s pessimistic recollections, it appears the Parnellites expected to win the Carlow by-election, with Bagenalstown being considered a Parnellite stronghold. Much was made by the anti-Parnellites of Kettle’s name during the campaign. He was described as ‘a utensil’ for Parnell and meetings in the county were disrupted by the din of tin kettles being bashed in an attempt to drown out the speeches of the Parnellites. However, despite their hopes, the Parnellites were soundly beaten. The anti-Parnellite candidate John Hammond received 3,747 votes and Kettle just 1,532. The margin was, as the Freeman’s Journal described it, ‘far and away larger than anyone could have anticipated’ (Callanan 1992, 139-60; DIB 2009, ‘Kettle, Andrew Joseph’).
  23. Parnell died just three months later, on 6 October 1891.
  24. The leaders of the Church initially said nothing during the election campaign. However, the Parnellites suffered a major setback in Carlow when all the archbishops and bishops (except Bishop of Limerick Edward Thomas O’Dwyer) issued a letter stating that Parnell had ‘utterly disqualified himself to be the political leader’ of the Irish people and calling on them to reject him. Despite this disapproval, Kettle was able to demonstrate Parnell’s admiration of the Catholic clergy. Indeed, Parnell was good friends with many Catholic churchmen. Even at the most intense time of the split and the ensuing criticism from the Church, Parnell continued to treat the Catholic clergy respectfully (Travers 2013, 66).
  25. This is in reference to the rent strike contemplated by the Land League, and pushed for by Kettle, after coercion was introduced in 1881 (see Chapter 6). Kettle strongly believed that more cohesive and prompt action at that time could have forced the hand of the British government to settle the Irish land question comprehensively.
  26. According to Comerford, Parnell’s ‘appeal to the country was nothing if not sophisticated’ and his supporters saw themselves ‘as upholders of an ideal and defiers of self-serving politicians and oppressing churchmen’ (Comerford 1996b, 79).


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