It was 20 years after the potato famine, which had claimed a huge chunk of the Irish population, both by death and emigration. Many English landlords seized the opportunity to claim what little was left of Irish-inhabited land by evicting their starving tenants who couldn't pay their rent. Most of those tenants who were left didn't have written leases, so they were subject to surprise rent hikes and arbitrary eviction. In addition to mass starvation, due to the Act of Union, Ireland wasn't really Ireland. It was more like "West England." The Irish had not gained their independence and were essentially subject to anything the English Parliament decided should be done with them. And as one would expect, there weren't really a lot of Irishmen in the English Parliament.
However, around the 1870's the Irish had started to make progress. The Irish Home Rule party had 54 seats in Parliament, and the Torys and the Whigs had nearly an equal amount of seats, making it so in order for either party to get anything accomplished, they needed the support of the Irish Home Rule Party.
This is about the time that Charles Stewart Parnell started to make a name for himself. He's known by some as "The Uncrowned King of Ireland..." however, Parnell wasn't exactly a likely man for the job. For starters, he was very cold and aloof- not the sort of guy who looked like a promising politician for any party. Furthermore, he was an English-educated (though he got kicked out of Cambridge), Protestant, aristocratic, landlord with a laundry list of anxiety disorders and odd superstitions, including an irrational fear of the color green.
Despite this, somehow Parnell, through creating land leagues and other political maneuvering, had managed to win himself a seat in Parliament for the Home Rule party. The Home Rulers, as their name would imply, were arguing for home rule for Ireland- their own Parliament to govern their own land, as they were sick of being kicked around by the English, who had decided the Irish were too backward and barbaric to govern themselves.
Parnell's first big move in Parliament was a procedure known as "Parliamentary Obstruction." Obviously, the English: 1. didn't want to lose their territory, and 2. didn't think Ireland was terribly important anyway, compared to oh, say, India. As a result, Irish home rule wasn't high on the list of Parliamentary priorities. Parnell and several other Home Rulers decided to force Parliament to listen to their grievances. So say, for instance, they were debating a bill on education in England. Parnell or one of his cronies would stand up and deliver impassioned, fist-pounding speeches on the condition of the Irish peasantry, and these speeches literally went on for hours. When they got done speaking, they'd only yield the floor to other Home Rulers, effectively paralyzing Parliament.
The leader of the Home Rule party at that time, Isaac Butt (yes, Butt), was not thrilled by their antics, saying they would only serve to piss off the English by such obnoxious methods. However, the English and the Irish had been pissed off at each other for centuries, and look how far arguing for Home Rule through normal means had got them. Due to alcoholism and a gambling problem, Butt faded out of the scene and Parnell became the new leader of the Irish Home Rule Party. Tales of his Parliamentary shenanigans traveled to Ireland and the Irish in America, and Parnell gained the support of the Irish peasantry.
Now, even though Parnell was a little off the wall, he did want to do things in Parliament, through legal, constitutional means. However, other plots were afoot, specifically, one created by Michael Davitt and John Devoy.
Michael Davitt was from the very poorest part of Ireland- Mayo, in the west. He grew up in extreme poverty, and lost an arm in a factory where he worked as a child. Like every other Irishman, he was sick of the English running the show, and in his youth was part of violent gangs and had spent some time in jail. John Devoy was an Irishman who had moved to New York and ran an Irish nationalist newspaper, and was the most prominent link between the poor Irish in Ireland and the poor Irish in America.
Now, Davitt and Devoy had been watching the show in Parliament and they thought the whole thing was a big fat waste of time. The Irish were not going to get their land back by electing a bunch of pompous, mouthy Irish politicians to get mocked in the English Parliament. So they came up with a plan called "The New Departure."
So, it was supposed to work like this. Devoy and Davitt create an Irish Nationalist organization with a non-threatening name. Think the Salvation Army. They collect money from the Irish in America and send it to Ireland, which was going on anyway, it just wasn't channeled through a large group. So, they have the money going from America to Ireland and it doesn't look suspicious. You know, just some people trying to help out the folks at home. But the money isn't going for food. It it's going for guns. Meanwhile, Irish who had move to American and fought in the American Civil War start quietly heading back to Ireland so they can teach the Irish peasantry war games.
Now, this is where Parnell comes in. Devoy and Davitt wanted Parnell to make a big production of standing up in Parliament and making outrageous demands on behalf of the Irish that Parliament just had to refuse- specifically, the total abolition of the landlord system.
Of course Parliament would refuse, and at this point, Parnell and the rest of the home rulers would stand up, march right out of Parliament, hop on a boat to Dublin, declare Irish independence, go to war when the English sent their army in, win the war, and then have a great big drunken Irish shindig with all the bells and whistles to celebrate their hard-fought battle and emancipation from 700 years of tyrannical English rule.
This is not what happened.
Devoy and Davitt did set up that organization, and some money did come to Ireland. But instead of starting an army, the militants started a land league. Parnell, when approached with this plan, flatly refused to participate because he was more interested in Irish independence than land reform.
Here's what really happened.
Davitt and Devoy had a falling out, and Davitt returned to Mayo, where he had grown up, and created the "Land League of County Mayo." Participants refused to pay their rent, resisted eviction, and when that didn't work, they just started killing people. Sooner or later, this group joined up with the larger land league that Davitt and Devoy had inadvertently created, and bloody wars between tenants and landlords broke out all over Ireland. Meanwhile, Parnell and the Home Rulers were stuck in the English Parliament trying to argue that the Irish should have their own government.
Next Time! Parnell Part II: Charles Stewart Parnell Creates a Successful Political Machine, Has an Affair With His Friend's Wife, Half Of His Own Party Decides They Hate Him, And Then Croaks.