Home Features Reassessing Anna and Fanny Parnell—an extract from Sisters

Reassessing Anna and Fanny Parnell—an extract from Sisters

An extract from Sisters, eds. Siobhán Fitzpatrick & Mary O’Dowd (The Royal Irish Academy)

Sisters traces the public and private lives of nine sets of sisters. Artists, publishers, writers, educationalists, philanthropists, revolutionaries, suffragists — women who overcame barriers, even within their own families, to their participation in public life.

‘We have found a better way, boys’:  Anna and Fanny Parnell

by Diane Urquhart

Penned in the opening phases of the Irish Land War (1879–81), Fanny Parnell’s 1879 poem ‘Hold the harvest’ became her best-known work. Acclaimed by Michael Davitt as ‘The Marseillaise of the Irish peasant’,1 Fanny’s call for peaceful protest was symbolised by the lines:

Hold your peace and hold your hands – not a

finger on them lay, boys

Let the pike and rifle stand – we have found a better way, boys

better way, boys.

In singling men out for instruction, Fanny highlighted the challenge to gendered mores that was omnipresent in the land campaign. Women’s unprecedented involvement in this trans-national political movement that often defied both the law and gender expectations was controversial. 

However, not all female Land Leaguers received equal treatment at the hands of their critics; of the Parnell sisters, Anna was consistently depicted in the most extreme terms, even though Fanny, as a teenager, was the first of her family to support not only Irish independence but also the Fenians.2

Fanny’s sympathy with the Fenian cause mellowed as she matured into adulthood; she came to share Anna’s view that physical-force nationalism should only be supported if it might succeed in freeing Ireland from British rule. She did not, however, approve of violence as a tactic in the Land War – hence, ‘the better way’ immortalised in ‘Hold the harvest’. 

‘The state of Ireland: dispersing a Ladies’ Land League meeting’, Illustrated London News, 24 December 1881. Reproduced from History Ireland 8(1) (Spring 1999) by permission of the editor, Tommy Graham.

The Parnell Sisters

The Parnell sisters were part of a large Anglo-Irish American family of eleven children. In the early nineteenth century Scottish political theorist, historian and psychologist James Mill offered a more precise definition of the family, one that inferred stability; it was ‘The Group’, a nuclear family that excluded servants.3

Although outward appearances of the Parnells suggested gentility, the family was tried by early paternal and sibling death, as well as by economic instability. The Victorian period witnessed ‘a greater degree of familial containment of women and children … within the home … [but] Family was the medium through which individuals entered society’.4 

This intersection of the domestic and public realms gave mothers a key function as ‘the primary educator of children … crucial to the … shaping … [of ] self’.5

The Parnells’ American mother, Delia, inspired in some of her progeny an Irish nationalism that verged on Anglophobia. Delia took her elder daughters from the family estate of Avondale in Wicklow to London and Paris to pursue a finishing school education and spouses, whilst her sons and younger daughters, including Fanny and Anna, who were non-dowered and thus lacked marriage prospects, remained in Ireland.6 Bookish, intelligent and schooled by governesses, the younger girls subsequently enjoyed more freedom than many women of their class. 

Sisters traces the public and private lives of nine sets of sisters. Artists, publishers, writers, educationalists, philanthropists, revolutionaries, suffragists — women who overcame barriers, even within their own families, to their participation in public life.

Their stories have often been overlooked by the mainstream historical record.

Fanny Parnell

Fanny Parnell (b. 1848) was described as ‘a tall, intense, and handsome girl’.7 A philanthropist, songstress and poet, she fulfilled some of the ideals expected of Victorian women. By comparison, Fanny’s younger sister, Anna (b. 1852), was depicted as fragile in physical form but possessing a ‘remarkable ability and energy of character, … resoluteness of purpose … together with a thorough revolutionary spirit’.8

In 1864 Fanny, aged fifteen, began to contribute nationalistic poems to the Fenian paper, The Irish People. Writing under the pen name of Aleria, Fanny continued a pattern of female nationalist literary involvement evident from the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s.9 

Her poems were often rallying calls for Irish independence, sympathising with the labourers’ plight. Fanny was greatly affected by the death of her father in 1859, and the lack of financial pro-vision left for her mother. Devoted to her mother, Fanny moved to America to live with her on the family estate in Bordentown, New Jersey in 1874. Anna studied art in Dublin and London but later joined her mother and sister. 

‘Land League business is essentially women’s business’

In 1878 the ‘new departure’ of Michael Davitt and exiled Fenian and Clan na Gael activist John Devoy conjoined physical force with constitutional nationalism to pursue land reform.

It provoked Fanny and Anna to publish articles in the Irish-American press to counter criticism of the emergent land movement, and their brother Charles’s involvement in it.10 An 1879 letter by Fanny to the editor of The New York Tribune entitled ‘A sisterly defence’ indicated that her political views could only be expressed under a familial banner.11 

Clearly aware of the gendered strictures that ‘marked the most … distinctive indication of “one’s place”’,12 Fanny ‘regretted she was not a brother of Parnell to make it easier for her to help him in his battle for the rights of Ireland’.13

Fanny and Anna also helped to organise Charles’s fund-raising tour of America in 1880. His address to the House of Representatives was a modified version of an article written by Fanny for the North American Review. However, intimating what lay ahead for women entering the political arena, the women’s efforts were scorned by some male nationalists. Correspondence between Devoy and William Carroll of Clan na Gael, for instance, despaired of Fanny’s ‘interfering ways’, suggesting that the Parnell sisters’ work ‘all smacked too much of a royal fam-ily’.14

Ladies Land League

Undeterred, after Anna and Charles returned to Ireland, Fanny appealed to Irish-American women to support a female branch of the Land League to aid evicted Irish tenant farmers. The first Ladies’ Land League was established in New York in October 1880, with Fanny as vice-president and her mother as president. To negotiate gendered strictures, the organisation was deliberately cast in the mould of a fundraising body. Its declared object was to collect ‘funds for the Irish cause’, but it also had a consciousness-raising mission, pledging ‘to enlighten the members on the questions which now agitate Ireland’.15

As noted, Fanny espoused peaceful protest as a tactic in the Land War, but she also supported the idea of Irish independence, which she envisaged as constituting a total break from the British connection. She was, however, socially conservative, and did not align the land question to the issue of social reform in the United States.16 

She also denied being a ‘women’s rights woman’, portraying the organisation as an extension of women’s proper role; ‘Land League business is essentially women’s business because it is … a work of philanthropy and humanity’.17 This was persuasive; Fanny was described as lacking ‘that unpleasant masculinity which is often seen in women who step outside of the home circle for any purpose’, and her work was compared to that of Lady Jane ‘Speranza’ Wilde in the Young Ireland movement.18  


1 Michael Davitt, The fall of feudalism in Ireland; or, the story of the Land League revo-lution (London and New York, 1904), 292. The French national anthem, ‘La Marseil-laise’ was written in 1792 and adopted as the anthem of the French Republic in 1795. 2 R.F. Foster, Charles Stewart Parnell: the man and his family (Hassocks (Sussex), 1976), 246. 

3 James Mill, Analysis of the phenomena of the human mind (2 vols, London, 1829), vol. 2, 176. 

4 Drew Lamonica, We are three sisters: self and family in the writing of the Brontës (Co-lumbia (MO) and London, 2003), 12–13. 

5 Lamonica, We are three sisters, 17.

6 The girls had an annual income of £100 each. For an account of the daughters of the family see, Marie Hughes, ‘The Parnell sisters’, Dublin Historical Record 21(1) (1966), 14–27.

7 St John Ervine, Parnell (London, 1925), 1.

8 Davitt, Fall of feudalism, 300.

9 Aleria is on the eastern coast of Corsica but Fanny’s choice of the name remains unexplained.

10 The Irish republican organisation Clan na Gael succeeded the Fenian movement in America in 1869.

11 New-York Tribune, 24 November 1879, 5.

12 Lamonica, We are three sisters, 15.

13 Robert Kee, The laurel and the ivy: the story of Charles Stewart Parnell and Irish na-tionalism (London, 1993), 206.

14 Cited in Jane Côté, Fanny and Anna Parnell: Ireland’s patriot sisters (London, 1991), 121.

15 ‘Ladies’ branch of the Land League’, Worcester Daily Spy [Worcester (Mass.)], 18 November 1880, 4.

16 Ely Janis, A greater Ireland: the Land League and transatlantic nationalism in gilded age America (Madison (Wis.), 2015), 154. 

17 Cited in Tara M. McCarthy, Respectability and reform: Irish American women’s ac-tivism, 1880–1920 (New York, 2018), 74–5. Milwaukee’s Journal of Commerce made an identical comment regarding Delia Parnell; see, ‘The Parnell family’, Journal of Commerce [Milwaukee], 22 December 1880, 2.

18 ‘The Parnell family’, 2. Davitt also compared Fanny to ‘Speranza’ in his Fall of feudalism, 370.