July 20, 2011

Death of Fanny Parnell

Before Fanny Parnell died in Trenton, New Jersey on July 20, 1882, she had expressed a wish for her body to be returned to her native Ireland. That country, at the time, was incorporated under Great Britain, and Irish nationalists often violently expressed their desire for independence. One of those activists was Fanny's brother Charles Parnell. Fanny had joined the movement as well, using her poetry as an exile to further the cause.

Parnell's funeral became one of the biggest ceremonies for a poet in the United States — though it seems its grand nature was more because of her family's activism than for her poetry specifically. Actually, that ceremony was her second funeral; her first was much more low-key, and held at the home of her mother in New Jersey. After her brother had successfully blocked the repatriation of her body, he celebrated by throwing his sister a second funeral before her internment at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts.

The procession stopped in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston (at some points, the coffin was opened for viewings). Her casket was transported on a hearse pulled by six white horses, attended by 18 pallbearers. Irish flags intertwined with American flags were part of the propaganda, Irish-born poet/editor/activist John Boyle O'Reilly wrote about the event in tear-jerking detail. Her own role in the Irish nationalist movement involved little more than organizing women's groups, until it manifested in her poetry in her last two years. At that point, O'Reilly noted, "Her lyre would only respond to one breeze — nationality" (elsewhere, O'Reilly had belittled her poetry). Her poem "Post-Mortem" (sometimes listed as "After Death"):

Shall mine eyes behold thy glory, O my country?
     Shall mine eyes behold thy glory?
Or shall the darkness close around them, ere the sun-blaze
     Break at last upon thy story?

When the nations ope for thee their queenly circle,
     As a sweet new sister hail thee,
Shall these lips be sealed in callous death and silence
     That have known but to bewail thee?

Shall the ear be deaf that only loved thy praises
     When all men their tribute bring thee?
Shall the mouth be clay that sang thee in thy squalor
     When all poets' mouths shall sing thee?

Ah! the harpings and the salvos and the shoutings
     Of thy exiled sons returning
I should hear, though dead and mouldered, and the grave damps
     Should not chill my bosom's burning.

Ah ! the tramp of feet victorious! I should hear them
     'Mid the shamrocks and the mosses,
And my heart should toss within the shroud and quiver,
     As a captive dreamer tosses.

I should turn and rend the cere clothes round me,
     Giant-sinews I should borrow,
Crying, "O my brothers, I have also loved her,
     In her lowliness and sorrow.

"Let me join with you the jubilant procession,
     Let me chant with you her story;
Then contented I shall go back to the shamrocks,
     Now mine eyes have seen her glory."


  1. wow -- she embodies the problem of women in irish poetry (most irish poetry in english until the 1970s, anyway). women are symbols: cathleen ni houlihan or old mother ireland who must be protected and defended by their sons, lovers, or (in this case) brothers. women rarely speak for themselves (or when they do, their voices are augmented by or redirected to support a larger political agenda).

    the poetry of the 1916 'martyrs' would be an interesting counter to this piece. this falls into a similar vein of "public" poetry.

    i am quite sad that i never heard of her -- and charles parnell is major actor in the republican movement.

  2. Great Post! Interestingly there was no grave marker for her until the early 21st century. Now a boulder from the family estate in Ireland rests just outside Consecration Dell.

  3. Both of these comments were interesting, and certainly added to the understanding of Fanny Parnell's death. Thanks to the above posters!

  4. Many incorret statements in this unreliable account.

  5. To the anonymous poster: "Many incorrect statements" in only three paragraphs? I wish you had been more specific! I'm certainly not a Fanny Parnell expert, but I used contemporary newspaper sources for this account of her death and funeral. Was the error in her poem, which makes up the majority of the post? I wish you could clarify your accusation. Otherwise, I'm afraid your own comment is nothing more than internet trolling.


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