Anna Parnell and her sister Fanny are responsible for the Ladies Land Leagues of America and Ireland. In the wake of the Great Potato Famine of 1845-1851, life became spectacularly difficult for regular Irish citizens. This famine caused the deaths of over a million Irish citizens, and the immigration of a million more. The effects lasted for decades afterward. When the famine struck, however, the Irish were already at a disadvantage because of centuries of British theft of their lands and their means. Very few Irish citizens actually owned land at the time. They paid very high rents to absentee and negligent landlords, and many lived in squalor as a result.
Irish men created the Irish National Land League in 1879, which was a political movement to assist tenant farmers in getting the title to the land they had worked, and often lived on for generations. The first Land League was organized by Charles Stewart Parnell, Fanny and Anna’s brother. When it became clear that the men would be arrested in 1881 for their political activity, Fanny Parnell suggested the League employ women in the fight. Anna stayed in Ireland to assist in providing shelter, food, and other economic relief to tenant farmers and their families. Fanny went to America to raise the funds for Anna’s work.
In America, Fanny raised over $60,000 from Irish Americans to help with rent relief and to provide food, shelter, and other necessities to the growing group of evicted Irish farmers and their families. Anna, meanwhile, managed to turn a chaotic and disorganized revolution into an operational political group that served its constituents’ needs. Within one year, the Ladies Land League had 500 national chapters, a small army of female volunteers, and considerable publicity. That same year Fanny Parnell died at the age of 39.
Anna attempted to carry on, but was betrayed by her own brother, who was among the growing chorus of Irish males who began to consider it unseemly for women to participate politically, let alone hold power. The term “petticoat rebellion” began to be thrown around in the rhetorical wars that ensued. Charles Stewart Parnell eventually signed the Kilmainham Treaty, and won his freedom jail, after which he used his political power to stymie the revolutionary citizens he had just spent the last three years empowering.
Anna & Charles parted on bad terms, and Anna was forced to move to England, where she lived the rest of her days under an assumed name. She wrote about her experience in a book called The Tale of a Great Sham, which remained unpublished until 1986, 75 years after her death.