Book Review: Petticoat Rebellion: the Anna Parnell story by Patricia Groves

By Myles Dungan

PetticoatRebellionShe was portrayed as the wilful extremist to her brother’s canny pragmatist, the strident harpy to her sister’s gentle poet. For many years it was the fate of Anna Parnell to be compared unfavourably to her tragically short-lived brother and sister, Charles and Fanny. In fact she was, according to Roy Foster, ‘in many ways . . . the most formidable character in the family’. Anna Parnell was principled, resourceful, dogged and, ultimately, disappointed and disillusioned by those who had been happy to capitalise on her indefatigable energy and organisational abilities.

In 1881 she was prevailed upon to organise the Ladies Land League (LLL) in Ireland. She took on the task with some reluctance. After the proscription by the Gladstone government of the Land League in 1881 the LLL, financed by Land League funds mostly channelled from the USA via Paris, took on the task of supporting hundreds of prisoners jailed without trial under English coercion legislation and  It was also left in the invidious position of having to honour political cheques signed by the Land League leadership when the ‘No Rent Manifesto’ was issued after the incarceration of Parnell, Dillon and (separately) Davitt. This task included the erection of wooden huts on the farms of evictees whose dwellings had been destroyed by bailiffs and police.

She was considerably more radical and compassionate than her brother. Her sister Emily described her as ‘generous to a fault . . . she never could bear to witness suffering without trying to relieve it.’ Both her generosity and her radicalism were factors in her falling-out with her brother. She viewed the 1882 Parnell-Gladstone rapprochement (the co-called ‘Kilmainham Treaty’) as a betrayal of the agrarian cause. Parnell, focussed more on parliamentary politics than popular agitation after his release from Kilmainham, refused to continue financing the activities of the LLL. It was dissolved in August 1882 and he and his sister never spoke again. She died in a swimming accident in 1911, surviving her brother by twenty years.

Anna Parnell has not been ignored by Irish historians as is suggested in the publisher’s blurb. Her somewhat embittered and often rambling account of the 1881-2 period, Tale of a Great Sham, was rescued by Dana Hearne and published in 1986. A thoroughly researched biography, by Jane Côté (on Anna and her sister, Fanny) appeared in 1991 and she has been the subject of articles by T.W. Moody, Roy Foster and Pauric Travers, among others.

What Patricia Groves has done is to distil some (but, apparently not all) of this scholarship in an attempt to produce an accessible work of popular biography. She has added nothing new to our previous knowledge of Anna Parnell nor has she (for example) sought to uncover any fresh material on the enigma that is her later life. There is plenty of room for a non-academic account of the life of Anna Parnell, based on the work of academic researchers, unfortunately this is not that account.

Too much of the book is taken up with inessential detail and the style of writing often strays into the realms of popular fiction. The frequent factual errors (having the Fenians observe the Mexican-American War more than a decade before their inception and ascribing the onset of unversal male suffrage to the efforts of the Chartists are just two examples) suggest a lack of background reading of the period. This is confirmed by the brevity of the bibliography. Inadequate proof-reading leads, for example, to the Liberal cabinet minister Lord Hartington becoming ‘Lord Harrington’ and the daughter of Parnell and Katharine O’Shea appearing as ‘Claire’ rather than Clare.

There are those who may still insist, in spite of the scholarship devoted to her, that Anna Parnell is indeed an ‘unsung heroine’. Whether or not that is true she deserves to be better celebrated in song than is the case in Petticoat Rebellion.

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