Tale of the Great Sham

Tale of the Great Sham and The Land League of Ireland

By Liam Brennan

The height of the Land War (1879-1882) saw the founding of the Ladies Land League in Ireland. The League was the forerunner for other organizations  such as Inghinidhe na hEireann and Cumann na mBan. Anna Parnell, one of the Anglo-Irish protestant elite, was their leader. Anna’s League was not just for fund-raising or a stand-in until the men of the Land League returned from prison. It was Anna who showed women how to fight for what they believed in. Both the Men’s and the Ladies Land League supported withholding rent from landlords and boycotting but more importantly the ladies helped support evicted tenants and oversaw the building of new shelters . For a considerable time the Anna Parnell never received the credit she deserved, second to her more famous brother, Charles Stewart Parnell.

Anna and her early life

Anna Parnell

Anna Katherine Parnell was born in Avondale, Rathdrum in Co Wicklow on the 13th of May 1852. She was the tenth of eleven children born to John Henry Parnell and Delia Tudor Stewart. Anna spent her early life in the family estate at Avondale, where she and her sister Fanny were allowed to roam freely and develop their own independent views and beliefs. Anna was the more radical and militant of the sisters, which was found to be highly unacceptable in Victorian society. She was described as being of medium height, with dark-brown hair, the pretty Parnell face and ultimately fragile in form. She is also said to have been snappish at times and a mistress of the house.

In 1865 at the age of thirteen, Anna and her sister Fanny moved to Paris with her mother Delia. Delia was an American woman whose father Admiral Charles Stewart commanded the USS Constitution during the American Revolutionary War. Delia was a radical women and very anti-British. Avondale HouseAvondale House

Not much is known about Anna’s views on living in France but an account of her time living in Wicklow tells of how her free thinking and personal views and beliefs saw her come to reject her closest friend in Avondale, a local millers daughter- because she did not agree with their conventional ways of thinking towards women of the time. She was openly against the acceptance her friends had of mental inferiority which women were believed to have when compared to men. Anna, who was an avid painter, left Paris and went to Dublin to be a student of art, later moving to London to further her passion. It was during this time that Anna became more  interested in politics and she became a regular visitor to the House of Commons in Westminster. Her brother Charles had been elected an MP for Westmeath (in Ireland) and later became the leader of the Irish party in Westminster, so he himself was a regular speaker in the House. In 1879 Anna joined her sister Fanny in America. The two worked together on organizing her brother Charles’s American tour and acquiring funds for famine relief in Ireland. In the 1880s when the Land-war was raging in Ireland, Anna returned to Dublin about the same time the Irish National Land League was formed..

Land War

During 1879, there was yet another poor harvest, nearly as bad as the famine of the 1840s. The farmers of Ireland relied on their crops to pay their landlords. This saw many tenant farmers facing the possibility of starvation and or eviction. Desperate for any kind of help, people attended meetings addressed by Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell, who were the founders of the Irish National Land League.Charles Steward Parnell


It was this Land League which urged tenant farmers to put their landlords under pressure by resisting to pay the allocated rent until faced with eviction “at the point of bayonet”. Parnell’s ultimate goal was to accomplish Home Rule for Ireland and he saw the League as a stepping-stone. 1880 saw a better harvest than the year before, but it also saw landlords demand more rent, plus arrears this time! As the situation grew worse, the Land League grew in strength. The Land League called on tenant farmers to “hold the harvest” and to only pay landlords what they could. This policy saw leading members of the Land League facing trial by the authorities, charged with criminal conspiracy to financially ruin landlords, and incite riotous behavior.

Foundation of the Ladies Land League and their actions

Parnell and Davitt felt that it was only a matter of time before they and other members of the Land League would be imprisoned. It is believed that Davitt created the Ladies Land League, but it has also been argued that it was the brainchild of another member of the Parnell family, Fanny. The Ladies Land League would take charge should the men be arrested, and perform a holding operation until their release. A similar organization existed in America and proved to be very effective.  Michael Davitt


On the 31st of January 1881, Anna Parnell chaired the first meeting. The organization was established in the nick of time, as the next day Davitt and other members of the Land League were arrested. While the men were in prison, Anna proved to be an incredibly talented organizer, supplying money for relief, processing applications, and distributing literature. She also oversaw the construction of huts for the evicted, a monumental task and something that proved to be very expensive. Because there was always a threat of confiscation of funds from the British government the Ladies Land League kept their bank accounts constantly overdrawn. When funds were needed they were released from the Land League’s bank account in Paris. This was a political decision, not a financial difficulty. 


The spring of 1881 saw Anna publish the Ladies Land League manifesto and soon after she began to tour Ireland. Throughout her campaign to help the people of Ireland, she spoke in front of thousands of people about the great cause of the Land League and also about their Irish American support.  Anna was a very strong public speaker and in the beginning a crowd favorite. She spoke more and more to larger and larger crowds as men spoke less and less for fear of arrest. It was not just women who came to see her speak- it was also men. It was at this point that Anna informed all those at her meetings that men had had plenty of meetings and women had had none; now it was time for her to speak for the ladies of Ireland. This was met with big cheers. She continued her campaign and continued to gain support and by March 1881 there was over four hundred branches of the Ladies Land League in Ireland. Many people came to rely on the actions of the ladies. Despite what may have been originally thought it was not the British government who were first to condemn the Ladies Land League, it was in fact the Irish Catholic Church. It was because of this heavy criticism that Anna reminded her audiences, it was Davitt himself who had instructed her to “carry out his ideas”. Despite coming under heavy criticism, the Ladies Land League continued to grow and by the beginning of 1882 there were over five hundred branches of the Ladies Land League throughout Ireland. By October 1881 many of the Land League members had been arrested and placed in Kilmainham Jail in Dublin.

Ladies Land League Building Huts for Evicted Tenants

Ladies Land League Building Huts for Evicted Tenants

The Ladies Land League, the dominant force in fighting the Land War At the Also at this time there was an increase in violence and evictions. If tenants could pay rent, the Ladies made sure they only did so at the eleventh hour.



Suppression of the Ladies Land League and death

By the winter of 1881, with the absence of the men, the ladies had taken full control of Land League affairs. This soon saw members of the Ladies League also being arrested for helping tenants resist eviction.Ladies Land league meeting

The ladies were not arrested under the same grounds as the men. Instead, they were arrested under legislation designed to combat prostitution. This was no doubt an attempt to spread lies and false propaganda to denounce the good work of the Ladies and to silence their voice. Despite the number of arrests of their members, the Ladies attempted to implement the “No Rent Manifest” which showed great organization and also gave an idea of what could be accomplished. This forced the hand of the British government and saw Charles Stewart Parnell and British Prime Minister, Gladstone open negotiations. The result is what is known as the Kilmainham treaty, which saw the British agree to release the members of the Land League from prison and an extension to the Land Act in exchange for the withdrawal of the “No Rent Manifesto”, the termination of all Land League activities and the immediate stoppage of violence which the Land League had always been blamed for. The leadership of the Ladies Land League, including Anna, were not consulted or informed of the conditions of the treaty. When the ladies had been informed and refused to fully comply with the conditions, their funds which they relied heavily upon in order to carry out their duties were terminated. This resulted in the Ladies Land League accumulating massive debts, and Anna and other members were heavily criticized, and blamed for financial mismanagement.

Land League NO Rent Maefesto Poster

The eventual suppression of the Ladies Land League, which Charles was responsible for, saw the relationship between brother and sister shatter. Anna is said to have fallen into a great state of depression and is believed to have attempted suicide on at least one occasion. So much had happened and with the ladies land league dissolved, thousands of tenants she had promised homes to had to be ignored. Her brother Charles deeply regretted the falling out between the two and attempted to remedy the situation; however, Anna and her strong will, refused such attempts and the relationship was never repaired.

Anna moved to England where she wrote her own account of the Ladies Land League entitled “The Tale of the Great Sham” which was not published until 1986, seventy-five years after her death. In 1889 she moved to the west coast of England and began painting again while emerging herself once again in radical politics but she was not popular this time. In fact, she was assaulted by the crowd! After changing her name and moving to Devon, she died in a drowning accident in 1911. It is believed that only three people attended her funeral. Her passing went unremarked at the time.

Anna Parnell is referred to as one half of Ireland’s Patriot Sisters, her sister Fanny being the other. She in her own right became one of Ireland’s most accomplished females in a time when women were not yet allowed to vote, or do much of anything else and where public opinion was against women in politics. The Ladies Land League had a very brief but effective existence. In a short space of time Anna Parnell and her Ladies showed that they were more than up to the task of constructing and carrying out a relief campaign and many other tasks effectively. They proved that they had the efficiency and abilities to work alongside their male counterparts and in some respects they outdid the Land League efforts. Henry George, an American correspondent for the Irish World commented that the women “had done a great deal better than the men would have done”. It has also been suggested that Anna Parnell would have done the Land League’s cause a great deal more justice, and it would have been organized and lead to better effect, and with better results, than her more famous brother, Charles. Anna Parnell ran a brief eighteen-month campaign and accomplished more than most could in an eighteen-year campaign. Her time, her effort and her achievements went unnoticed for almost one hundred years.

Today it is widely believed that the simple fact behind the suppression of the Ladies Land League is simply that the men felt that they were doing too good a job, that they were far more efficient and they were making men look bad. It was also the fact that they began to question the political strategies of her brother, Charles and challenge the authority of the male-run Land League that forced Charles to take back control and silence the Ladies Land League before his reputation along with that of men could be irreparably damaged. One of Ireland’s greatest heroines would have to wait almost one hundred years before being recognized for her accomplishments.

Further Reading

Jane Cote, Fanny and Anna Parnell: Ireland’s patriot sisters (1991)

Roy Foster, Charles Stewart Parnell: the man and his family (1979)

Patricia Groves, Petticoat Rebellion: The Anna Parnell Story (2009)

Anna Parnell, Ed Dana Hearne, The tale of the great sham (1986)

Adrian N. Mulligan, “By a Thousand Ingenious Feminine Devices”: the Ladies Land League and the Development of Irish Nationalism (2009)

Liam Brennan is an Irish historian and Chief Tour Guide at  Avondale House, home of Charles Stewart Parnell,  in County Wicklow, Ireland. He is an expert in all things related to the Parnell Family. Thank you, Liam, for this wonderful post.


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