by TOYAH O’CONNELL
Even after the defeat of the First Home Rule Bill in 1886, Charles Stewart Parnell remained very much in control of the Home Rule Party. However, in 1877 an attempt was made to discredit him by means of the Pigott Forgeries. Fortunately for Parnell, this proved to be unsuccessful as a full confession was given by Richard Pigott in 1889. He admitted to forging the letters which implicated that Parnell approved of the Phoenix Park Murders in 1882, where Lord Frederick Cavendish who was Chief Secretary at that time and Thomas Henry Burke were stabbed to death while talking a walk through the Phoenix Park. “Parnell was clearly innocent and his popularity rose.” The public now regarded him as the “Uncrowned King of Ireland”. However, this was only the first step in Parnell’s decline. The major contribution to his fall was his liaison with Katharine O Shea.
Katharine was born in 1845 in Essex, England. Her father, Sir John Page Wood was a clergyman and her mother Lady Emma was an artist and was regarded as a remarkable woman, very strong and dominant throughout her life. ”Katharine was the last of her thirteen children, eight of whom were alive in 1845 “. The family moved from a damp vicarage at Cressing in Essex to a mansion at Rivenhall Place. Although they lived well, they were in fact short of money. This was illustrated in the fact that her elder sister, Maria Wood married Sir Johns Uncle Benjamin who was a very wealthy man. From then on the family called Maria Aunt Ben.
“In many ways Katharine’s childhood was idyllic” She was educated at home which was not at all unusual in these Victorian times for her to be educated at home by her father. While she often felt neglected by her mother, she was her fathers pet.
Katharine first met Captain William Henry O Shea when she was visiting her brother Franks regiment with her sister Anna. She did not appear to be impressed with him on this occasion but they did meet again and in 1867 she married him. The marriage failed as her husband was constantly absent from their home, leaving Katharine to cope on her own. It is believed that he was on drinking and gambling binges which eventually led to their bankruptcy. In 1875 they began effectively living apart. Captain O Shea moved to a London apartment while Katharine remained living at the home in Eltham, Brighton. However Katharine was yet to find her true love.
She first met Parnell when she went to the House of Commons with her sister Anna. She describes their first encounter: “He came out, a tall, gaunt figure, thin and deadly pale. He looked straight at me, smiling and his curiously burning eyes looked into mine with a wonderful intentness.” It was undoubtedly love at first sight. That hot July month in 1880 was to be the starting point of a long complicated relationship. In 1881 the couple began living together for short periods of time. Katharine had found the type of companionship she had always longed for. At the same time she gave Parnell “a genuinely passionate love, the atmosphere and comfort of a home, the feeling which he had lacked all his life-that there was one place at least where he could leave politics behind, lower his guard, and be at peace.”
On 13th October 1881 Parnell was arrested and put in Kilmainham jail. He wrote a letter to Katharine on the very morning of his arrest. It read “Politically it is a fortunate thing for me that I have been arrested, as the movement is breaking fast.” On a more personal view Parnell was devastated about the arrest as Katharine was heavily pregnant with their first child. On 16th February she gave birth to a baby boy whom she named Claude Sophie. Sadly, the child died shortly after birth. Katharine was devastated and Parnell got out on parole to pay a secret visit to her. This tragic incident made him more eager to get out of prison and he was eventually released after the Kilmainham Treaty. Between 1883 and 1884 Katharine gave birth to two healthy girls and the couple began living together permanently in 1886.
On Christmas Eve 1889, however “Captain O Shea filed a petition for divorce from his wife, citing the nationalist leader as co-respondent.” However, it was wondered why he had waited so long to file for the divorce. On 30th December 1889 a statement was made in the Freemans Journal “Captain O Shea was always aware that he [Parnell] was constantly there [Mrs. O Sheas house at Eltham] in his absence from 1880 to 1886, and since 1886 he has known that Mr. Parnell constantly resided there from 1880 to 1886.” It is believed that the delay was due to the great sum of money Katharine expected to inherit from Aunt Ben. They had often relied on her in the past for financial support.
Mrs. Woods died on 19th May 1889 but she left her fortune to Katharine in such a way that Captain O Shea was not legally entitled to a share. “So when other aggrieved relatives decided to challenge the will, O Shea joined forces with them.” In 1881 Katharine gave Henry Harrison an account of the whole affair and she informed him that O Shea would have called off the suit and allowed her to divorce him if she was willing to give him a settlement of $20,000. Katharine refused and consequently O Shea filed for divorce. The case began on the 15th November 1890. Throughout the trial both Parnell and Katharine remained silent as they longed for it to be over so that they could marry each other. They believed that Parnell would be found not guilty in the end; however this was not the case. He was found guilty but they still went ahead with the marriage plans and on the 25th June 1891 the couple was married at the Registry office in Stenyning.
After the Liberals got word that Parnell was found to be the guilty party they sent Justin Mc Carthy to warn him to retire from politics as they feared they would loose the next election and Home Rule would be postponed for a prolonged period of time. “Parnell would not resign and insisted that he be allowed keep his private life separate from his political life.” The Home Rule party split in two: for and against Parnell. He fought to remain leader of the party but he was unsuccessful. Around this time his health also failed him, “But death was nearer than anybody thought and on 6th October 1891, aged only forty -five, he died at Brighton in the arms of his wife, Katharine.”
After Parnell’s death Katharine suffered from a nervous breakdown and disappeared from public life. She died in 1921 after spending her last years moving from rented house to rented house all over the south coast of England.
It is hard to believe the significant role the relationship between Katharine and Parnell had on Irish history. It affected both their lives in different ways. Around the time Parnell met Katharine his political career was at its height. The affair was considered unacceptable at that time and when Parnell was found guilty of adultery the majority of the English government and the public turned their back on him after previously supporting him. One might come to the conclusion that “It was therefore Captain O Shea and the divorce case alone which brought down Parnell. Nothing else at that time could have undermined his leadership.” If the liaison never happened Parnell might have remained leader of the Home Rule Party for a longer period of time and he might have achieved Home Rule for Ireland.
On the other hand, if Katharine had never met Parnell she might never have entered Irish history, maybe she would have resolved her differences with Captain O Shea and her life would have been a lot different. As it remains some people blame her for Parnell’s downfall while others see her as a heroine and a remarkable woman of her time.
REVIEW one of the sources used for this essay was the book Parnell: The Politics of Power. This was written by Donal Mc Carthy in 1991. This book is a biography of Parnell’s life from the 1840s up to his death in 1891 and included is a chapter on Katharine O Shea and Parnell.
This was a particular useful book. It gave a lot of good background information about Katharine’s early life and also about her later life after Parnell’s death. There was also a useful bibliography at the end of the book which could be used for further reading. One reason why I disliked the book was that the writing style was complex and difficult to read, however my overall impression is a positive one.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Lyons, F.S.L., (1971) Ireland since the Famine, Published by Weidefeld and Nicolson, Fontana. Hartigan, M. and Fee, G., (1986) Ireland 1868-1970, Published by School and College Publishing, Dublin. Tierney, Mark, (1988) Ireland since 1870, Published by C.J. Fallon, Dublin. Bew, Paul, (1980) C.S. Parnell, Published by Gill and Macmillan Ltd., Dublin. Mc Cartney, Donal, (1991) Parnell: The Politics of Power, Published by Wolfhound Press, Dublin.
(ii) I considered this topic merited for special study because: (1) it is believed that the liaison was the main contributor to Parnell’s downfall i.e. the end to his political career. (2) The study of the divorce case shows social attitudes towards such issues at the end of the last century.