On this day…6 October

On 6 October 1891 Parnell died.

Parnell had been in decline from the time William O’Shea had sued for divorce from his wife Katherine with whom Parnell was having an affair. By the time he left Ireland at the end of September 1891, he was a broken man, but his death, at the age of just 45, came as a shock.

The split in the Irish Parliamentary Party resulted in the majority of MPs abandoning Parnell, with a smaller group remaining loyal to him, and was given a warm welcome on his return to Dublin at the beginning of December 1890. During 1891 he went on a lengthy tour of Ireland, trying to drum up support for his faction and putting up candidates for three by-elections during the year.

The by-elections took their toll on Parnell’s health and his political standing. While campaigning in the North Kilkenny by-election in December 1890, someone threw quicklime in Parnell’s eye, but more importantly his candidate was defeated. Up to this, Parnell had been protected by an aura of invincibility built up from his many electoral successes. Defeat was almost unknown to Parnell.

He didn’t fare any better in two more by-elections in 1891. The first, in North Sligo in April, saw him defeated again, though the margin was narrower than it had been in Kilkenny. And finally in Carlow in July 1891 his candidate lost and the margin widened again. Defeat in Committee Room 15 followed by defeats in three by-elections left Parnell shattered, but he still continued his campaign.

Parnell took time out from his campaigning to marry Katherine O’Shea on 25 June 1891 at Steyning Registry Office after having been refused permission for a church wedding. After Katherine O’Shea had left her husband in 1889 she and Parnell had moved in 10 Walsingham Terrace, Brighton, and it was to this house that Parnell returned at the beginning of October after making his final speech at a meeting in Creggs, Co. Galway, where he got drenched in the rain.

Already suffering from kidney disease, Parnell died of a heart attack in the arms of his wife on 6 October. His body was returned to Ireland for burial at Glasnevin Cemetery. Supporters of Parnell at the funeral placed ivy leaves in their lapels to mark their continued support of Parnell, and 6 October became known as ‘ivy day’ as a result.

Joyce’s father was a Parnellite, and always traced the decline in his own fortunes to the fall and death of Parnell, blaming anti-Parnellite factions for the loss of his job as a rates collector. Joyce, only nine years old when Parnell died, wrote a poem, ‘Et Tu, Healy,’ denouncing Tim Healy, an erstwhile supporter of Parnell’s who had then turned against him. John Joyce was pleased enough with his son’s poem to have it printed, and copies were given out to his friends. Only a few lines of the poem are still extant, but it may well have inspired the lyric that ends Joyce’s story ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room.’


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – new and revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Lyons, FSL: Charles Stewart Parnell – new edition, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2005.