| 4.5°C Dublin

A league of ladies that challenged the landlords

Women weren't allowed to vote when Anna Parnell, the younger sister of nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, was born in 1852.

This didn't stop Anna, a woman who appeared destined to marry into the English upper classes, from fighting for the rights of evicted tenants during the Irish land war of the 1880s.

Such political action wasn't without its practical problems for upper-class Anglo-Irish women.

During the reign of Queen Victoria, women wore corsets to thrust breasts upwards and nip in waists, and crinoline hoops to make their buttocks and hips wider. They had problems walking freely, and often fainted.

Patricia Groves' new book, Petticoat Rebellion; The Anna Parnell Story (Mercier Press, E14.99), offers a fascinating insight into the social restrictions and mores that threatened to hamper a radical female activist in the 19th century.

Anna became the driving force behind the Ladies' Land League, set up to help poor Irish tenants fight rent hikes by English landlords, and to provide shelter and food for families turfed out on the side of the road.


The premature death of her landowning father, John, left her without a dowry to marry. This was in spite of his leaving large landed estates to his three sons, including Avondale House and an estate in Wicklow to her famous brother, Home Rule MP Charles Stewart Parnell.

Anna's five sisters also lost out to inheritance laws. Her older sister, Delia, desperate to marry after being 'out' for four London social seasons -- suitors lost interest if their family's wealth didn't increase through marriage -- eventually made a marriage of convenience to an older, wealthy man.

Anna witnessed Delia's subsequent suicide attempt, and this, along with her being over 23 -- considered a cut-off age by men looking for a wife in her day -- is said to have sealed her faith as a spinster.

She threw herself into supporting her brother Charles's fight for Home Rule. Educated and articulate, she fought his cause with regular correspondence with the press, and by fundraising both in Ireland and the United States. Patricia Groves' new book tries to solve the mystery of what happened in the end to this 19th century political heroine.