Why did Parnell avoid Ottawa in 1880?

Surely Charles Stewart Parnell should have visited Ottawa during his North American tour of 1880? The capital of Canada, where the parliament of the autonomous Dominion of Canada was actually in session, would have offered an obvious platform for the leader of Ireland's Home Rule movement to vaunt the advantages of a devolved legislature in Dublin. Was it simply news that a general election had been called in the United Kingdom that hurried him home?

Parnell's apparent lack of interest in the Canadian model is noteworthy. His father had toured the British North American provinces in 1834 (before wooing Parnell's mother in the United States), and left a perceptive travel journal; the entrance hall at Avondale was decorated with "sundry trophies from Canada".[1] Parnell would certainly have known that his Wicklow neighbour, Lord Monck, had been centrally involved in the movement for Confederation, and had presided over the first Dominion parliament in 1867. A latter-day politician might well have staged a "fact-finding mission" to Ottawa, to gain information, publicity and some form of international status. Parnell, it seems, kept well clear.

He made a brief incursion into Canada at the end of the 1880 tour of the United States, speaking at Toronto and Montreal, the latter being the occasion when Tim Healy hailed him as Ireland's "uncrowned king". News of the dissolution of the British parliament reached him there on 8 March 1880, causing him to return to Ireland, via New York. It does not seem that he wanted to visit Ottawa:  he had already planned to be in New York for St Patrick's Day (17 March) and urged associates to organise at least four meetings for him there.

Why did he seemingly avoid Ottawa? Parnell's chief aim in his 1880 transatlantic tour was to maintain his alliance with advanced nationalists in organisations such as Clan na Gael. This involved assuring them both that agrarian agitation would be a step towards Home Rule, and that Home Rule would lead to full Irish independence: the 1889 controversy over his Cincinnati speech, and its alleged reference to breaking the "last link" with England was a sequel to this carefully trodden endeavour. To have visited Ottawa and appeared to embrace a British Empire solution to Irish devolution would have risked anticipating by four decades the split that followed the creation of the Irish Free State, with Canada-style dominion status, in 1921-2.

The central issue in Canadian politics at the time would have provided a further complication. The previous year, the Conservative government of prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, had pushed through the 'National Policy' of tariff protection. Parnell wanted an autonomous Ireland to use tariffs to protect and develop its own industries, a policy that aroused much resentment among free-traders in Great Britain. It was better to avoid the issue.

There were practical problems too. A backwoods town promoted to compromise capital, Ottawa was a small city (with a population of about 25,000), notoriously lacking in social amenities. Distinguished visitors from Britain were generally invited to stay at the Governor-General's official residence, Rideau Hall, but Lord Lorne (who was Queen Victoria's son-in-law) would hardly have welcomed so controversial a figure. Nor would the Macdonald government have rushed to provide facilities for the study of Canada's system of government. As in the United States, Parnell would have found himself very much in the hands of the local Irish Catholic community, and this would have given him a very specific reason for avoiding the city. In 1868, the prominent Irish-Canadian, Thomas D'Arcy McGee, had been murdered on its streets. McGee was sometimes cited during Home Rule debates as an example of an Irish revolutionary who had become reconciled to the Empire through Canadian self-government: he had fled to the United States after taking part in the failed uprising of 1848, and later moved to Canada where he provided the oratory to inspire the Confederation movement. There was no doubt that he was killed by Fenians in revenge for denouncing their violence. One man, Patrick James Whelan, was hanged for the crime in 1869. The conviction remains controversial: even if he was indeed involved, Whelan probably had accomplices, and it was likely that members of Ottawa's Irish community were involved, or at least had knowledge or suspicions relating to the murder. Healy became aware of the case when he arrived (with Parnell) in Toronto, where he was lobbied by a wealthy Irish contractor, F.B. McNamee, who insisted that Whelan was innocent. David A. Wilson's authoritative biography of McGee names McNamee as himself a possible suspect for the murder.[2] In the United States, Parnell succeeded by a process of innocent myopia in not noticing that many of his tour organisers were men of violence. In Ottawa, he would very likely have found himself embroiled in damaging local feuds and allegations. Hence, the city was best avoided.

Overall, the Canada parallel might be hoped to create goodwill for Home Rule among the British (although there is little evidence that it ever did) but it had little attraction in Ireland, and would have been counter-productive in the all-important United States. Perhaps, too, there was a more basic reason why he did not visit Ottawa. In 1880, Charles Stewart Parnell was not very interested in Home Rule, at least not as an immediate or proximate aim. He was essentially a radical agrarian reformer who had captured control of a mild devolutionist movement.



[1] R.F. Foster, Charles Stewart Parnell ... (Hassocks. Sussex, 1976), 35-7; J.H. Parnell, Charles Stewart Parnell ... (New York, 1914), 16.

[2] T.M. Healy, Letters and Leaders of My Day (2 vols, London [1928]), i, 82-5; D.A. Wilson, Thomas D'Arcy McGee: ii... (Montreal and Kingston, 2011), 341-83, esp. 316-19, 383-5.  

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