On this day 20 July 1882 the Irish poet and political activist Fanny Parnell was found dead in her bed, at her mother’s family estate in Bordentown, New Jersey. She had died from heart failure, at just 33 years of age. News of her passing sent shock waves of grief throughout the Irish world, for Fanny was famous for her passionate poetry and prose attacking landlordism and protesting the suffering of the Irish rural poor. She had also co-founded the Ladies Land League in New York and was busy coordinating massive fundraising efforts by that swiftly growing global organisation. Her younger sister Anna was leading the women of Ireland in unprecedented political action and speech.
Fanny’s most famous poem “Hold the Harvest” called on struggling Irish farmers to not pass on any harvest earnings to their landlords, (ie a rent strike) and to militantly resist eviction, “make your harvest fields your camps, or make of them your graves!” The stirring poem which claimed that “God is on the peasant’s side, the God that loves the poor” had become almost a national anthem and was widely disseminated through the global Irish diaspora media networks. Fellow land activist Michael Davitt called it ‘the Marseillaise of the Irish peasant’.
And now this beautiful brave outspoken young woman – an archetype of Irish feisty feminine courage – was dead. And just as swiftly moved into another realm of archetype and myth – death and the maiden. A fascinating struggle ensued over who owned her body; her family or the aspiring nation state. Her brother Charles believed that people should be buried where they died. But many in Ireland wanted to bring her body home, to bury their patriot poet with full honours, to stage a magnificent unifying political show of strength and grief, part of the continuing drama of the Irish nationalist struggle. Personally I think Fanny would have loved that.
In the end the compromise after some weeks of negotiation was a massive funeral procession in the eastern states of America , in fact a series of them, in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Her casket was transported on a hearse pulled by six white horses, attended by 18 pallbearers. Thousands lined the streets of the great cities. Irish flags intertwined with American flags were part of every scene, with diaspora newspapers writing about the event in ‘tear-jerking detail’. At some points, it is said, the coffin was opened for viewings. Perhaps it was lucky her body wasn’t raided for relics.
Fanny’s body was eventually placed in her mother’s family (the Tudors) vault at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston. For many decades afterwards, it was a tradition in Boston for Irish Americans to make a pilgrimage to Fanny’s grave on Memorial Day, with speeches, floral tributes, and a general demonstration of grief. Today let’s remember a brave literary woman.
You can find out more about the wonderful Parnell sisters and the tumultuous and thrilling years of the Irish Land League in my historical novel, The Country of Our Dreams.
Michael Davitt, father of the Irish Land League, protector of the poor, saviour of the starving. Child of the Great Famine, his family evicted from their small Co Mayo landholding due to rent arrears, Michael was maimed further by the dark satanic mills of Lancashire. Yet Davitt turned his life and his country around – leading an unarmed revolution of the poor, the dispossessed, labourers and farmers, women and men in a land rights struggle against the landlords, who had put profit and prestige above the lives of people. Sounds familiar anyone? The Irish Land War of 1879-1882 is a hugely under-told story, a vital and inspiring part of our collective history – our search for social justice and harmony, and of resistance to greedy & dehumanising elite systems. On this day, the anniversary of his passing – we remember Michael Davitt.
The Country of Our Dreams – a novel of Ireland and Australia – explores the heroism of the 19th century Land War through the eyes of the 21st century (& mildly dysfunctional) Sydney descendants. It’s a great read. Order through your local bookstore or online. Book clubs, please contact me for special deals. Contact@maryoconnell.com.au
On this day – 13 May – in 1852 Catherine Maria Anna Mercer Parnell was born into a prosperous landowning family in County Wicklow, Ireland. The tenth of eleven children of John Henry Parnell and Delia Tudor Stewart, Anna, as she came to be called, could have expected to lead a life of supervisory domestic duties, with some time for crafts and arts, the odd hunting ball and genteel good works amongst the surrounding impoverished Irish communities. Instead she would join her older brother and sister, and occasionally eclipse them, in a leadership role of one of the most astonishing cross-class revolutionary social movements of the nineteenth century.
In my historical novel about the Irish Land War of 1879-1882, and its impact on 20th and 21st century Irish diasporas – I know , sounds terribly worthy but in fact The Country of Our Dreamsis a GREAT read! – I came to learn more about Anna and her amazing and wonderful fierce courage. She was 28 years old when she led, cajoled, organised, defended and yes, sometimes patronised a rising people. She was the living example of what a generation later, a famous Irish republican leader would call “the bravest and most unmanageable revolutionaries” – ie women! She was tough, astute, relentless, and beyond brave but she was not, perhaps, the skilled politician her brother was. His politics outwitted her passion. Plus he controlled the money.
Still Anna Parnell gave us her brilliant best and some of my favourite chapters in ‘The Country of Our Dreams‘ are those with her in them. Happy birthday to Ireland’s Joan of Arc!
I am a Taranaki born, Sydney based writer, editor, historian and community arts organiser, with particular interest in matters of spirit.
My latest book is The Country of Our Dreams – a novel set in 19th century Ireland and 21st century Australia, exploring the Irish Land War of 1879 -1882, the complex inheritance of the Irish diaspora, the luminous figure of Michael Davitt, and the historically more obscured figures of Anna Parnell and the incredibly courageous Ladies Land League. The novel also explores the lives of the 21stC descendants, the Ryans of Coogee as they deal, like so many Irish Australians, with their complex inheritance. See here for more info and for some amazing reviews,