Clonmacnoise parish, County Offaly supports Charles S. Parnell in his defamation action against The Times in the late 1880s. By Padráig Turley

While perusing some late 19th century newspapers a reference to The National Indemnity Fund 1888 caught my eye. The object of this fund was to provide an indemnity for Parnell against an Order for costs in the event of him loosing a defamation action against the Times.

This fund received contributions from virtually every parish in Ireland, and also from outside Ireland. I found records of fundraising events in England, Scotland, U.S.A., New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere.

However, I was more interested in the small contributions made by the ordinary people of Ireland, the vast majority of whom would not have been in any way well off. They would have been tenant farmers who lived a very precarious life due to their lack of security of tenure and volatile rents. Reflecting their means some the contributions are very small reminding us of the story of the widow`s mite in the gospel of St. Mark.

I was very pleased to find contributions from my own neck of the wood in west Offaly. I found a fascinating letter from Michael Reddy of Shannonbridge in the Freeman’s Journal of 26th October 1888.

This Michael Reddy would of course later become a Member of Parliament for the South King’s County in 1900, a seat he held until 1918. Mr Reddy was a man of radical views which gave him a very jaundiced opinion of the establishment. He was quite a word smith, and while not relevant to this blog, his speeches could be colourful and are worth looking up.

Michael Reddy died in 1919

Mr. Reddy wrote this letter in an era which clearly predated G.D.P.R., and the information he disclosed would be regarded as very private today. Still, I am pretty sure the folk involved were pleased to see their contributions acknowledged in a national newspaper. He wrote:


`King`s County,

October 24th.

Sir- I send enclosed cheque for £7.10s, subscription of the Clonmacnoise No. 1 Branch of I.N. League, as part of our contribution to defray the costs in the action of the Unlimited Liability Company Government and the Times versus Parnell and his colleagues. Punishment by excessive law costs is not unfamiliar to poor tenants who have become obnoxious to rackrenting landlords.

I remain yours,

Michael Reddy.

£1.0.0. – Rev. James O`Reilly, P.P.

10s each- Wm. Kilroe, Daniel L`Estrange.

5s each- Jas. Kenny, Michael Reddy.

4s 6d– Michael Egan.

3s– Parick Burns

2s 6d each- John Rigney, Patrick Egan, Joseph Johnston, William Wilson, Martin Greene, Kyran Claffey, A Friend.

2s each- John Dolan, Kyran Burns, Pat Burns, Rody Shrahan, Hugh Magennis, Denis Lyons, Michael Egan, Peter Egan, James Duffy, James Kenny, Patrick Daly, James Curley, Peter Egan, jun; Patrick Coclough, John Flannery, Thomas Dolan, jun.

1s 6d each- Kyran Kilroe, Patrick Rigney.

1s each- Patrick Turley, Thomas Daly, Michael Claffy, Thomas Dolan, Kyran Daly, Kyran Daly, Peter Darcy, John Daly, Frank Grady, Stephen McManus, Daniel Kenny, Kyran Kenny, Kyran Daly, John Cormican, Kyran Duffy, Patrick Merrigan, John Carter, Michael Ryan, James Killion, Thomas Loughnane, James Mannion, James Daly, Kyran Higgins, James Daly, James Anderson, John Butler, John Dolan, John Crowe, Stephen Shrahan, Michael Kenny, Daniel Kenny, Kyran Curley, John Egan, Martin Flannery, Michael Claffy, Pat Flannery, Pat Keena, James Curley, John Nolan, Pat Mannion, Pat Curley.

Total: £7 10s.`

To get some idea of the exposure Parnell was facing in legal costs an entry in The Star newspaper of Christchurch New Zealand of 30th December 1889 might assist. In a piece headed Parnell v `The Times, `it reports Mr. G. Lewis has settled up all accounts for Mr. Parnell. Sir Charles Russell, Q.C., M.P., received a thousand guineas with his brief, and fifty guineas a day for one hundred and ten days. Mr. R.T. Reid, Q.C., M.P., and Mr. Lockwood, Q.C., M.P., each received five hundred guineas with their briefs, and twenty-five guineas daily during the same period, and the junior counsel in proportion. The whole outlay, including counsel, witnesses, Irish agents, shorthand writers, and Mr. Lewis account, is covered by the indemnity Fund which did not exceed £40,000. The Times expenditure will be largely in excess of this amount.`

C.S. Parnell died in 1891

Briefly by way of background, we need to note the Special Commission on Parnellism and Crime, which was set up by the Westminster Parliament in the late 1880s to look into allegations of crimes by Charles Stewart Parnell. This arose as a result of the Phoenix Park Murders by the Irish National Invincibles of Lord Frederick Cavendish and T.H. Burke.

In March of 1887, the Times published a series of articles `Parnellism and Crime`, in which Parnell was accused of being involved in murder and outrage during the Land War. The Times produced a number of facsimile letters, alleging Parnell`s signature and in one of these Parnell excused and condoned the murder of T.H. Burke in the Phoenix Park (6 May 1882) In particular, the Times had paid £1,780 for a letter supposedly written by Parnell to Patrick Egan, a Fenian activist, that included `Though I regret the accident of Lord Cavendish`s death I cannot refuse to admit that Burke got no more than his deserts` and was signed `Yours very truly, Charles S. Parnell`. On the same day it was published (18th April 1887) Parnell described the letter in the House of Commons as `villainous and barefaced forgery`. The commission which sat for 128 days exonerated Parnell when one of the witnesses, a Richard Pigott, admitted that he had forged the letters. Pigott fled to Madrid where he shot himself.

Richard Pigott, destroyed by Russell in the Parnell hearings. He fled to Madrid where he committed suicide.

Parnell settled his defamation case against The Times for £5,000, a lot less than the £100,000 he sought. The case is said to have cost The Times over £200.00O, a huge sum back in the 1880s.

Charles Russell (1832-1900), counsel for Parnell at the Commission destroyed Pigott and acted for O’Donnell who shot Carey, the informer

If one juxtaposes the fees of these lawyers with the income of the Shannonbridge donors we are talking two different planets. Small and all as some of the donations may appear it would have been a significant struggle for the donors. They would have had small enough incomes and no doubt had large families to feed and clothe. It gives us some idea of the esteem Parnell was held in by the ordinary people of Ireland. When I look at the names on the list, they are all very familiar, and are names one finds in the area today. One gets a notion of the struggle they were prepared to make 130 odd years ago. A lot of the donors feature in Brendan Ryan and Laura Price`s wonderful book Shannonbridge A History of Raghra c.1600 to c.1900 (available to purchase from Offaly History). One can see that the local Catholic Parish Priest made a contribution of £1.0.0, while his Church of Ireland counterpart Revd. Stuart E. Cooney does not appear to have contributed. There may well have been a Catholic-Protestant divide on the matter in the locality.

Parnell and Mrs O’Shea married in 1891. She published her two vol. account of the their relationship in 1914.

I can only wonder as to how shocked these folk were when Katherine Wood entered the life of Parnell. As we all know she was married to Captain William O`Shea when her relationship with Parnell commenced. Captain O`Shea on 24th December 1889 filed a petition for divorce from his wife Katherine, citing Parnell as a co-respondent. A nice Christmas gift! This led to the fall of Parnell, which had earthquaking consequences on the Irish political arena. The Catholic hierarchy, after initial hesitancy, declared Parnell morally unfit for leadership, which of course meant his goose was cooked. Of course, The Times newspaper were waiting in the long grass to have their revenge. Like rats deserting a sinking ship, the media, even including his newspaper ally the Freeman`s Journal fell into the anti-Parnell camp.

No doubt the Shannonbridge donors felt betrayed and are likely to have split like the rest of the country into pro and anti-Parnell camps. There is something very poignant to see their contributions to their Chief end in failure. As they looked back then at Irish history, they are likely to have seen it as yet another act of treachery by one of their elite.

Captain O’Shea encouraged the affair for his own political ends.

Yet, it must be said that in the matter of the Parnell split, Michael Reddy supported Parnell, and the fact that he won later elections may suggest that the majority of the donors above may have acted likewise.