When Charles Stewart Parnell came to Hackney

When Charles Stewart Parnell came to Hackney

London Fields was the venue for ‘the uncrowned king of Ireland’ to speak about Home Rule for Ireland. BREDA CORISH has the full story, and will be speaking about it in detail at the Hackney History Festival next month

Charles Stewart Parnell (image in public domain)

DURING London’s Covid lockdowns, London Fields park in the borough of Hackney became notorious for huge crowds of people gathering there to party the pandemic away. But what few people remember today is the fact that on July 5, 1886, London Fields was occupied by an even bigger crowd when six thousand people gathered there to support the cause of Home Rule for Ireland. The special guest speaker at that event was ‘the Uncrowned King of Ireland’ Charles Stewart Parnell, MP for Cork City and leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Westminster.

By the late 19th century, the campaign of agrarian agitation in Ireland known as the Land War was at its height and Westminster politics were dominated by the question of whether Ireland was to be governed through the policies of coercion or conciliation. This debate spilled out from the corridors of the Palace of Westminster into the streets of London where the Irish made up the city’s oldest and largest immigrant community and the Fenians of the Irish Republican Brotherhood were planting bombs. By the end of 1885, the Liberal Party leader William Gladstone had come round to the belief that Home Rule was the answer to ‘the Irish Question’ but his first Home Rule Bill was rejected by Parliament. And so, the question of Home Rule for Ireland became the central issue in the general election of July 1886.

On the day before polling day in the electoral constituencies of North, Central and South Hackney, the Hackney Radical Federation organised a Home Rule Demonstration in London Fields as a platform for the local Liberal candidates, all of whom supported Home Rule. The Federation was a group of local clubs, led by the Hackney Working Men’s Club which campaigned alongside Irish nationalists and British socialists against the Coercion Acts in Ireland and for free speech in England.

The local newspaper, the Hackney and Kingsland Gazette, gives us a wonderfully evocative report of the event. Sir Charles Russell, a Catholic lawyer from Co. Down and the returning MP for Hackney South, told the crowd that “he was anxious that the people of Hackney should see Mr. Parnell face to face in order that they might find out for themselves that he did not smell of brimstone and that he had not got a tail or a cloven hoof”.

Parnell then spoke to the people of Hackney saying that “he knew that the democracy of England would not allow the democracy of Ireland to be trampled upon in a quarrel which was not their own”. He concluded by posing the question: “Were they to keep Ireland in chains or would they try the effect of love?”

Despite these stirring words, Gladstone’s Liberal Party split over Home Rule. The Conservative government of 1887 would go on to introduce another Coercion Act which earned the Conservative Chief Secretary for Ireland the title ‘Bloody Balfour’. Hackney Radicals and Liberals would continue to campaign in support of Ireland while Hackney South’s MP Charles Russell would play a historic role as Parnell’s lawyer, successfully defending him against false allegations made by The Times. I’ll be talking about these topics and more at the Hackney History Festival on Saturday, May 11.

Breda Corish, When the Irish Question came to 1880s Hackney: Tactical voting, “lively” meetings & “monster” demonstrations

Saturday, May 11, 4pm, Museum of the Home, 136 Kingsland Rd, London E2 8EA. Tickets £3 at www.tickettailor.com/events/hackneyhistoryfestival/1187716.

About the Hackney History Festival

The Hackney History Festival is a community festival developed by the Hackney Society, Hackney Archives, Hackney Museum and many others. In May, there will be talks, walks, and guided tours showcasing some of the iconic buildings and spaces across the diverse borough of Hackney. The full programme of talks takes place throughout the day at Hackney Archives on 10 May, the Museum of the Home on 11 May and Sutton House on 12 May.


Breda Corish 

Breda Corish is a history student at University College London, currently researching the many (and sometimes surprising) connections with Ireland in London’s history for her postgraduate MA in Public History. After growing up in Kerry and Limerick and studying science at University College Dublin, Breda emigrated in the late 1980s to London where she adopted Hackney as her new home. She would love to hear your thoughts and tips about lesser-known events in London’s Irish history!

Breda Corish