‘I have promised these people I will go to Creggs and I will keep my word’

Charles Stewart Parnell’s death – 125 years ago today – occurred just a week after the ‘uncrowned King of Ireland’ visited Roscommon and addressed 3,000 people at a rally in Creggs, as PAULINE MURPHY recounts…

Today, Thursday, October 6th marks the 125th anniversary of the death of Charles Stewart Parnell, the ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’. A noted orator who delivered speeches from Westminster to the United States, Parnell gave his last ever speech to a crowd of tenant farmers in the rural village of Creggs on the Galway/Roscommon border, a week before his death.

  On the 27th September, 1891, Parnell addressed a rally in the village of Creggs to unite nationalists in the east Galway and Roscommon region. The Kitty O’Shea scandal fractured an already unsteady Home Rule movement and Parnell had already dedicated much of that summer and autumn travelling around Ireland trying to mend his party.

  At the request of the local Land League branch he set off for the west on the night mail train from Dublin to address a rally.Parnell’s health had declined over the tumultuous year of ‘91 and, with his hand in a sling due to chronic rheumatism, he defied his doctor’s orders to stay in Dublin and rest. On the train westwards he remarked to his travelling companion, JP Quinn: “I am very ill. Dr. Kenny told me that I ought not to come but I have promised these people to come and I will keep my word.”

  It was a promise that would prove fatal for the Wicklow man. Arriving in Roscommon in the early hours, Parnell was met at the train station by a large group of locals who accompanied him to his lodgings at the Mitchell Hotel (now Regan’s at The Square) with a torchlight procession. The next day, Parnell called into a local chemist near the hotel to purchase a remedy for a cold which had been bugging him since he left from Dublin the night before. Shortly after noon, Luke Hayden MP, who brought him across the border to Creggs, met Parnell at the hotel. The newspaper reporters noted how sickly he looked and the dark clouds gathering overhead only served to heighten the gloom hanging over Parnell.

  Arriving in Creggs, he was met by a crowd of just over 3,000 people. As he took to the platform which was erected outside a pub in the village, sprinklings of rain began to fall. Halfway through his speech the Heavens opened and poured down upon the rally at Creggs. Parnell, who wore light clothes and no hat, swatted away an umbrella someone on the platform had put over him.

  The 3,000 strong crowds dwindled as the rain proved too hard to stand under, but Parnell persevered and didn’t leave the platform until he had finished his whole speech. When he eventually finished, Parnell changed into dry clothes, but found such a mundane task difficult as his joints were so stiff and sore. He then joined 12 members of the organising committee for supper. Afterwards, on the train going back to Dublin, he stated how he regretted sitting at a table for 13 as it was an extremely unlucky number!

  This superstition was part of Parnell’s quirkier side but it was a streak he developed in his younger days when several bouts of bad luck plagued his family. Parnell was just a college student when he inherited the estate of Avondale when his father took ill and died after playing cricket in Dublin. The estate was racked with financial difficulties so Parnell had to abandon his degree at Cambridge to run Avondale full-time. Parnell had 11 other siblings, many of them meeting untimely deaths. William, his oldest brother, died in infancy, while another brother, Hayes, died at the age of 15 from a hunting accident. Parnell’s sister Sophia died suddenly at the age of 33 while another sister, Theodosia, died at the age of 38. Parnell’s sister Emily married Captain Arthur Monroe Dickinson but he died a drunkard, and Emily lived out her days in poverty in the Dublin Union. Another sister of Parnell’s, Delia, married American millionaire James Livingston Thompson and their only son died from typhoid fever. The grief drove Delia into a dark depression and an early grave. The most famous of the Parnell sisters were Fanny and Anna, but both also came to sad ends.

  In 1882 Fanny succumbed to a heart attack in America at the age of 33 while Anna suffered a breakdown and attempted suicide shortly after. Anna died in 1911 while swimming in the south of England where she had been living as a recluse in poverty. In 1882 Parnell experienced the death of his infant daughter, Claude Sophie, a child he had with Kitty O’Shea. Born in February of that year, the child died in April.

  Parnell’s own demise came just over a week after delivering his final speech in Ireland at the foot of Mount Mary in East Galway and he died in the arms of his beloved Kitty, at the age of 45, in England.

  Today in Creggs stands a fine stone memorial commemorating that famous last speech. Eamonn De Valera unveiled it in 1946 on the centenary of Parnells birth. On the day it was unveiled the Heavens behaved and kept a deluge at bay while ‘Dev’ was welcomed into the village by bands and throngs of people, including many locals who had been there on that wet day 55 years previously.