Great Irish Romances: Charles Stewart Parnell and Kitty O'Shea

Katharine O'Shea
Click on image for a larger view.

By Joseph Gannon

“None shared our guilt; nor did we play a part
Upon a painted stage when we devoured his heart.”

 -- From “Parnell’s Funeral” by WB Yeats

Throughout Irish history it seems that tragedy and romance have always gone hand in hand from mythological times through more recent times. In myth there was the legend of Tristan and Iseult, which has various versions, none of which end well. An all too real heartbreaking romance was between revolutionary Robert Emmet who was hung, drawn and quartered by the British in 1803 and his love Sarah, daughter of the famous lawyer John Philpot Curran, who drove her away to die after learning of her relationship. Their poignant love story was immortalized by the poet Thomas Moore in his song “She is Far From the Land.” In 1916 there was the touching story of Joseph Mary Plunkett, who married his beloved Grace Gifford just seven hours before he was executed following the Easter Rising.

None of these is more heartrending, for both the lovers themselves and the country of Ireland, than the story of the romance of between Charles Stewart Parnell, “The Uncrowned King of Ireland,” and the love of his life, whom he had to hide away from the world, Katharine O’Shea. Parnell needs little introduction for those with even a rudimentary knowledge of Irish history. The son of a well to do Anglo-Irish family, Parnell was first elected to parliament in 1875. He soon became the leader of the Home Rule movement and later one of the leaders of the land reform movement in Ireland. Just as Michael Collins would one day take on the British at their own game of organizing spies and informers during the War of Independence, Parnell took on British at their own game in the halls of parliament. The influence he gained through support of Gladstone’s Liberal party gradually brought home rule closer and closer to reality through the 1880s.

Captain William O'Shea


Few know much of the story of Katharine Wood, who is quite unfortunately more widely known to history as “Kitty” O’Shea. Katharine was born in Bradwell, Essex on January 30, 1845 (some sources say ’46), the 13th child of Sir John Page Wood. She was brought up in a world of privilege. Katharine’s brother became an officer in the British army, and thus their home was often visited by other soldiers. One who caught the young girl’s eye was Captain William O’Shea of the 18th Hussars. O’Shea was dashing and handsome, born in 1840 to a well to do Irish Catholic family in Dublin. By most accounts Katharine was not a great beauty, but she possessed a vivacious personality and had a zest for life. She was infatuated with the handsome O’Shea for a while, but then seemed to cool on him and he resigned his commission and moved to Spain.

When Katharine’s beloved father got sick and died in February 1866 it set in motion a chain of events that would change Irish history. When her mother became concerned about the deep depression that over took Katharine, she sent word to O’Shea asking him to return to England. And so, with her in that vulnerable place, he returned and renewed their relationship. In January 1867, less than a year after her father’s death, the ill fated association was made “permanent” in a protestant wedding ceremony, O’Shea being an indifferent Catholic.

Though they had 3 children together, the last born in 1874, they had financial problems from the start and often got by only by the generosity of Katharine’s aunt. Her mother’s sister, Mrs. Benjamin Wood, known as “Aunt Ben,” would play a major role in William and Katharine’s married life because their financial situation was so poor. She would be their rich benefactor. As the couple grew further and further apart during the 1870s, both literally and figuratively, with Willie (as Katharine called him) spending more and more time away, it was the hope of someday getting a portion of Aunt Ben’s money that may have kept O’Shea interested in the marriage at all. Katharine became more isolated and lonely as the decade went on. They were living apart and O’Shea was rumored to have been unfaithful numerous times, perhaps even with Katharine’s sister. In an interview later in her life she said that by 1880 her sex life with O’Shea had been over for so long that she would have considered any attempt by him to resurrect it with repugnance.

The fateful meeting between Katharine and Parnell (right, from Vanity Fair, 1880, click on image for a larger view) came about because O’Shea’s business ventures had failed and he then looked to politics. Running as a parliamentary candidate for Country Clare, he needed his “wife” by his side for appearances sake. Thus, like many political wives before and since, she pretended they had a happy union on the campaign trail. So it was that in the summer of 1880 Parnell and Katharine O’Shea first came face to face at Palace Yard in Westminster, with her wanting to persuade him to attend a dinner party at her home. She had been encouraged to do so by her husband, who wanted to cultivate a relationship with Parnell. She later said her first thought on seeing him was “This man is wonderful … and different.” Because Parnell didn’t live to old age, he never recorded his thoughts on this first meeting, but Katharine later found the rose she gave him on this meeting among his things. It was in an envelope with her name and the date of this meeting, so one would think he found the meeting memorable.

From there the relationship quickly proceeded, or at least as fast as it could with his busy schedule. In an October letter to her, he referred to her as “my love.” By December of 1880 he addressed a letter to her with “My dearest wife,” and then in January 1881 sent one addressed with the even more affectionate “My dearest wifie,” leaving little doubt that their relationship had been fully consummated for some time. Later in private he took to calling her Queenie, perhaps as a personal joke between them that she was the uncrowned (and indeed totally hidden) queen of the uncrowned king of Ireland.

These were two lonely people who were quite isolated in their private lives, approaching middle age suddenly finding a soul-mate; something they must have thought would never happen for them. Whether this happened with or without Captain O’Shea’s knowledge we will never know. We know that O’Shea challenged Parnell to a duel that never happened in 1881, and Katharine claimed that from that point on O’Shea was aware of the relationship. She gave birth to a daughter, Claude Sophie, in February 1882, long after Catharine says her sexual relationship with O’Shea ended. If she was truthful about that, something only she and Captain O’Shea would know, then with this pregnancy he could no longer claim ignorance of her relationship with Parnell. Claude Sophie died at just 2 months old, but Katharine would have two more children with Parnell, Claire and Katharine.

Circa 1885: Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell is represented as a terrorist Mr. Hyde, preparing to bully prime minister Gladstone into accepting Irish Home Rule. Click on image for a larger view.


Katharine is the only one of the two lovers who was ever able to give the world an account of their life together. By her description the two were blissfully happy, in spite of his tireless work for the cause of Irish home rule that took him away so often. She relates how, when he returned from trips to Ireland, she would rifle though the various deep pockets of his coat to find all the different small presents, tokens, and tributes he had there from his beloved “subjects.” He always promised to leave them in his pockets so she could play this game on his return. He would look on amusedly as she pulled them out. Early in their relationship he told her, “For good or ill, I’m your husband, your lover, your child, your all. I will give my life to Ireland, but to you I give my love, whether it be in your heaven or your hell. It is destiny. When I first looked into your eyes, I knew.” How wonderful that must have sounded to a woman who had been so long in a loveless marriage.

In December 1889 Captain O’Shea filed for divorce, charging Katharine with adultery and publically naming Parnell as her lover. Few believe O’Shea didn’t know about it long before that, but no one is sure exactly when. And no one is sure what caused him to file at that point, but it may have been the fact that Aunt “Ben” had passed away and her will was being contested, so he might get none of it, or possibly Parnell’s enemies in Ireland or in Great Britain encouraged him, and perhaps offered remunerations. And it may have simply been personal, as he and Parnell had opposed each other on several political issues in the preceding years. To date no one has been able to prove any of the theories.

To many who study Irish history Katharine is seen as a villain for sabotaging the cause of Irish home rule, but she was not Irish, and had no connection to that cause. When this lonely English woman met Parnell and fell in love with him there was no reason for her to entertain any thought of how their relationship could hurt that cause. If either of them deserves blame for risking the catastrophe that ensued it was Parnell himself, who surely should have known how risky it was. But in Ireland it was Katharine who bore the brunt of the criticism. For the first time in her life she was referred to by politicians and the press by a name she had never used. She became “Kitty,” which was a slang term for a prostitute at this time. It is the name that history bestowed upon her, unfortunately, and is why I have referred to her as Katharine though out this article.

Parnell's gravestone in Glasnevin Cemetery


Parnell, after the affair became public, actually seemed to think he could overcome this news and continue at the head of the home rule movement. In the end he didn’t even appear in court to contest the charge, and the divorce was granted in November 1890. Parnell believe that no matter what the reaction in Great Britain, the Irish people would support him. As is often the case, pride … or hubris … went before a fall. When the Catholic Church in Ireland condemned him, his support there was damaged beyond repair and Irish Parliamentary Party broke into pieces. “That lonely and haughty person cast out by the people at the behest of their priests," said WB Yeats. Parliament would not vote on another Home Rule bill for 20 years.

His political life and the movement he had championed were in shambles, but finally he was able to openly love and marry his darling Katharine, whom he had already called “wifie” for ten years. On June 25, 1891 they were married in a civil ceremony, as no church would agree to do it. They could now be an openly happy man and wife; the silver lining of his political disaster. But fate would not allow it to last long.

Katharine Parnell, March 1914. Click on
image for a larger view


When he returned from a campaigning trip to Ireland in September he looked very ill, but when she suggested rest he said “I would rather die than give in now to the howling of the English mob.” And so he would, taking to his sick bed shortly after this and never leaving it. He was possibly suffering from rheumatic fever, perhaps exacerbated by his exhaustion. On October 6th, with his Irish Setter, Grouse, lying by his bed, and Katharine lying by his side with her arms around him, he weakly asked her to “Kiss me, sweet wifie and I will try to sleep a while” and closed his eyes never to open them again. He died there in her arms before midnight. After the doctor confirmed he was dead at the age of just 45, his “wifie” remained by his side until morning. She whispered to him several times through the night, but got no reply.

Parnell was buried in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery on October 11th. The crowd was estimated at 200,000, but did not include Mrs. Parnell. Whether it was because she as too distraught to make the strenuous journey, or because she feared some would blame her for his death, as they well may have, she never revealed. Before the body was taken away to Dublin, she placed the envelope containing that rose from their first meeting on his beast in his coffin to remain with him forever.

Katharine lived another 30 years, dying in February 1921 without ever laying her eyes upon the country whose history she had a hand in changing so profoundly. In 1914 she published “Charles Stewart Parnell, His Love Story and Political Life” which sold well and allowed her to live more comfortably in her last years. A servant in Brighton recalled the short, plump old lady sometimes going for walks along the seashore at 2 o’clock in the morning. No doubt she spent some of that time gazing out to sea and recalling her long ago life as the “queen” of the “uncrowned King of Ireland.”

Read about other Great Irish Romances at our Grá XOXO headquarters page.

 

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Tags: Charles Stewart Parnell, Katharine O’Shea, Kitty O'Shea, Love, Romance, Valentine's Day, William O'Shea

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