Parnell was a Protestant Irishman who became the leading proponent of Irish Home Rule in the 1880's, and was later referred to as "the uncrowned king of Ireland." Though Parnell strongly resisted English control of Irish land, he told his followers to avoid violence. His peaceful means were threatened by the Phoenix Park murders in Dublin, when two senior British officials were killed, but Parnell came out and denounced the murders. When some men attempted to forge a letter implicating Parnell in the murders and their plot was revealed, Parnell a heroic Irish figure. His downfall came shortly later when it was revealed that he was having an affair with Katherine O'Shea. The Catholic Church abandoned his cause, and he became elbowed out of political life, dying in 1891. The Church's refusal to back Parnell was the cause of much bitterness in Ireland.
Parnell occurs earlier in Joyce's work, particularly in the story "Ivy Day in the Committee Room" in Dubliners, which is set on the anniversary of his death. He also is the subject of a dinner debate in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Simon Dedalus laments his downfall. Numerous allusions are made to Charles Stewart in Ulysses, and his brother, John Howard, is seen wandering around town.