Love Will Tear Us Apart

Charles Parnell was the ultimate star of Irish politics in his day. His meteoric rise might have been enough to give Ireland the Home Rule it had longed for. He might have been the man to change the course of Irish history long before the armed militias and secret societies of later years ever had a chance to grow or rise up. He might have done all this and more—or not—but we will never know because his passion for Ireland came second to one other – and that one other was a married woman named Katharine O’Shea.

The two met originally because Katharine’s husband Willie had decided to enter the political arena. Like any smart and supportive wife, Katharine thought to further advance her husband’s career by befriending the most powerful politician at the time and that was Charles Parnell. This plan immediately backfired when the attraction between the two of them grew after their first encounter. Within a matter of months the two were carrying on a passionate and overwhelming affair, to the peril of all else.

It is highly improbable that Willie O’Shea did not know of the affair, given that Katharine had three children with Parnell. He turned a blind eye to his wandering wife for the sake of his political career and all of the Parnell children were given the last name of O’Shea, despite their bloodlines. He used Parnell for his own career advancement and lived comfortably on his wife’s money, staying silent about the affair for years. He held his tongue until it would utterly destroy everything Parnell had been working for. Then and only then did Willie open his mouth, publicly and scandalously.

It was Christmas Eve in 1889 that Willie filed for divorce, and it was motivated by greed since Katharine had just received a large inheritance. She tried to silence him with a large settlement but he would not be satisfied and he continued to petition for divorce. He dubiously claimed that he had known nothing of the near decade-long affair and he named Parnell as a co-respondent in the proceedings, knowing that it would destroy both his wife and the politician. Support for the Home Rule that was Parnell’s dream fell along with him and burned out in scandal. He was accused of bribing Willie in order to sleep with his wife. The Irish Parliamentary Party split down the middle and the only thing they agreed upon was that it was all Katharine’s fault. She was accused of being a manipulative Englishwoman who had designed the affair to take down Parnell. She was called a whore and was told that she was responsible for the defeat of Home Rule. The Irish press took to calling her Kitty – a slang term for a stupid, young, or childish woman and a more subtle, occasional title for prostitutes, or certain parts of the female body. It was an open insult to her and one that stung the lovers deeply.

Parnell fought back, and tried to keep his career from totally imploding. He defended them both and sought to calm the scandal by proving once and for all that their love was real. They were married on this day in 1891 but in spite of his hopes for understanding and respectability, the wedding only made things worse. The press categorically refused to call Katharine by her married name of Mrs. Parnell and they continued to hurl abuse at her, selling paper after paper denouncing the couple. Parnell’s attempts to save them both only put another nail in the coffin and although he tried to resume his work after the wedding, he quickly discovered that the Ireland he had fought for had irrevocably turned against him and the love of his life.

Katharine, or Katie, (but never Kitty,) as she was known to friends and family, was the perfect scapegoat and her notoriety as the woman who harpooned the best chance of Home Rule for Ireland still permeates today, even though many historians feel like Parnell would never have achieved it anyway. She was a woman of scandal, even though her true love had made an honest woman out of her, so to speak. Their marriage only lasted four months before Charles Parnell passed away – and it was fraught with stress and insults all the way through. At least they had the years of joy beforehand, otherwise Katharine Parnell may have lost her mind completely. As it was, she had the first of many breakdowns soon after her husband died but she went on to publish a few books and she lived for another thirty years. Just not in Ireland.


It’s rare that I get to post anything that is located close to me in this blog. Being so far away from what I usually write about means that while I’ve visited most of the places I feature, they are quite far away by the time I get to write about them. This one is close to home in many ways, and I am saddened to write about it at all. You see, I live very close to Berkeley, California, and I worked there for years so the recent tragedy there is very close to my heart.

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The Saville Report

It was an investigation that took twelve years and over £200m to complete. The Bloody Sunday inquiry, as it was originally called, produced over ten volumes of analysis and led to a comprehensive and glaring report by Lord Saville that was released five years ago today. It caused shockwaves throughout the North of Ireland and it forced the Prime Minister to make a formal and public apology for the actions of the British Army in Derry on one fateful Sunday in 1972.

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The Perfect Heist – Gough Barracks 1954

A little over 60 years ago, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) managed one of the cleanest military heists in history. It took about six months to plan, along with an IRA volunteer who actually enlisted in the British Army, and a whole lot of luck, but the raid was incredibly successful and they pulled it off without firing a shot or spilling a single drop of blood. Continue reading

No, Nay, Never – A Coronation Tale

On this day in 1953, theatre owners and cinema houses all across Dublin unanimously decided against showing the Queen of England’s coronation film. It was not illegal to show it – in fact, there were at least a few places other than the theatres that quietly held secret viewing parties, but the mainstream movie houses were more concerned with staying in business and staying upright than they were with viewing or celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s pomp.

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Some little treats about James Connolly

On June 5th, 147 years ago, James Connolly was born. Although he later became an Irish symbol of Republicanism, he was not born in Ireland – and in many ways, he did not fit in the Republican movement. He was born in Scotland and was a devout socialist who was profoundly engaged in the causes of Labor and Equality first and foremost. He was certainly an enemy of the state and an energetic agitator, but many of the tenets he adhered to and espoused, were not quite in line with his partners in the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

Since today is his birthday, here are some little things that you may or may not know about Mr. James Connolly.

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Sinead De Valera is born

Sinéad Ní Fhlannagáin, also known as Jane or Jennie Flannigan, and finally as Sinéad De Valera, was born in Ballbriggan on this day in 1878…I think. There are some conflicting accounts of her actual birth date – but it’s absolutely safe to say that somewhere between June 1st and June 3rd, she was born. While she grew, she developed a keen love of the Irish language – so much so that as a young adult, she joined the Gaelic League and began to teach classes. She also joined Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) but aside from membership in those organizations and a fondness for Irish, Sinéad was not overly political herself. This is probably a good thing in the long run, since she married one of the most politically charged men that Ireland has ever known just a few years later.
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The Big Irish Fair

When the universe decided to plant The Big Irish Fair right in the middle of my birthday weekend, it was giving me a gift. The festival may not have the most original name on the planet, but it certainly seems like there’s truth in their advertising. There are 15 different stages for music – everything from Traditional Irish seisiúns and Bagpipe Battles to more modern Irish rock bands, including one of my favorites – the Young Dubliners.

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