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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,058

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This is the grave of Fanny Parnell.

Born in 1848 in Avondale, County Wicklow, Ireland, Parnell grew up in that colony’s most prominent nationalist family. Unlike most of the nationalists, the Parnells were well-known and wealthy Protestants, which gave them respectability in both Britain and the United States. Moreover, her mother was Irish-American. Delia Tudor Stewart Parnell, influenced by the general anti-colonalism that came out of growing up in the Early Republic of the U.S. despised British rule of Ireland and she taught this to her children. As this was an elite family, all the children got top notch education and their interests were encouraged, including the girls. Fanny was seen as particularly intelligent. She learned all of the major European languages and knew the most advanced science of the day too. The Parnells split up soon after Fanny’s birth. Her father died fairly young. But they moved to Paris to live with her mother’s super rich brother, although he then lost a bunch of his money. They weren’t too sad to not be living under British rule either. In any case, the family still had plenty of money, at least for awhile. They were there during the Franco-Prussian War, where Fanny and her mother worked for the American Ladies Committee doing volunteer nursing work, along the lines of what Clara Barton had organized in the United States during the Civil War.

In 1874, Fanny’s uncle died. So she moved to New Jersey, back to her mother’s family in the U.S. They had some kind of estate, so this wasn’t your typical move for poverty’s sake. Parnell was already a published poet and soon would become globally renowned for her Irish nationalist poetry. She was the poet for The Boston Pilot, which was the big Irish newspaper in Boston during these years. Her most famous poem was “Hold the Harvest,” which we can reprint here:

Now are you men or cattle then, you tillers of the soil?

Would you be free, or evermore in rich men’s service toil?

The shadow of the dial hangs dark that points the fatal hour

Now hold your own! Or, branded slaves, forever cringe and cower! –

The serpent’s curse upon you lies – you writhe within the dust

You fill your mouths with beggars’ swill, you grovel for a crust

Your masters set their blood-stained heels upon your shameful heads

Yet they are kind – they leave you still their ditches for your beds! –

Oh by the God who made us all, the master and the serf

Rise up and swear to hold this day your own green Irish turf!

Rise up! And plant your feet as men where now you crawl as slaves

And make your harvest fields your camps, or make of them your graves! –

But God is on the peasant’s side, the God that loves the poor,

His angels stand with flaming swords on every mount and moor,

They guard the poor man’s flocks and herds, they guard his ripening grain,

The robber sinks beneath their curse beside his ill-got gain.

Well, I guess it gets to the point quickly. She used she poetry powers to promote the Irish cause. She was fairly productive as well. “Hold the Harvest” was published in a pamphlet she titled The Hovels of Ireland, in 1880. She then published Land League Songs, a follow-up with similar work. She didn’t need the money she sold it all for fundraisers, donating all proceeds to Irish organizations. By 1880, the whole family had become the vanguard of Irish nationalism both in the U.S. and Europe. Her brother Charles became a leader in the Land League, which dedicated itself to overturning the power of absentee landowners that kept the Irish peasantry in permanent poverty. Fanny and her little sister Anna founded the Ladies Land League in the United States, mostly to raise money for Land League workers who were imprisoned by the British. As often happened in this situation, the women in the Ladies Land League were more radical than the men in the regular Land League, often combining gender critiques with the broader anti-British beliefs. We see this pretty frequently in labor history too; women often became more radicalized, with less invested in systems of patriarchy, they were able to produce broader critiques of society and demand more change. This often alienated the men who were invested in patriarchy and that was the case with the Ladies Land League too. Fanny was working this in the U.S. while Anna worked in Ireland. Fanny was quite effective at raising money for the cause.

Fanny Parnell was set for a lifetime of activism for the cause. But then in 1882, at the age of only 33, she had a heart attack and died at the family home. Now I don’t know what would cause a heart attack in such a young woman. Of course such things are quite rare but still happen today; I lost a former colleague this way. But given it was the 1880s, she could have any number of untreated and undiagnosed aliments that might have caused this. Or she just had a bum ticker. In any case, she died.

Fanny Parnell is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other Irish-American women, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Mary Mallon, i.e., “Typhoid Mary” is in The Bronx and Mary “Mother” Jones is in Mount Olive, Illinois. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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