Charles Parnell and Katharine O’Shea had a love that was so strong it survived even when it destroyed both of their lives. It was able to withstand scandal, headlines, and pressure from the population, the politicians, and the church. Their affair was “the worst kept secret in London” and it torpedoed Ireland’s best chance for Home Rule. Nevertheless, they chose each other and were married on this day in 1891.
The wedding was not celebrated. The couple had hoped that getting married would put all the scandal around their relationship to rest, but it only fueled the fires of condemnation and political uproar. Katharine O’Shea was a freshly divorced woman in a time when divorce was unheard of and a publicly denounced adulteress. Many thought she was an English spy, sent to destroy Parnell’s rising career and any possibility he had to garner Home Rule for Ireland. The press crucified her, calling her “Kitty” a name she never went by, which was also a slang word for a prostitute and a certain part of a woman’s anatomy. The nickname was an open insult that she was never able to shake, much like her reputation for being the downfall of Parnell, who many thought of as the “Uncrowned King of Ireland.”
The couple met in 1880 while Katharine was married. This did not stop them from carrying on a passionate affair and three of Katharine’s children were fathered by Parnell. Her husband almost certainly knew about (and didn’t mind) the affair. It was good for his own political career to have a wife who enjoyed a certain closeness with the most powerful man in Ireland. Their trysts only became an issue when Katharine was about to receive a large inheritance. This was exactly when her husband decided to destroy her life, along with Charles Parnell’s political career. He publicly exposed the couple, condemning them to notoriety and a never-ending scandal while he began very rare and very public divorce proceedings.
Most of Ireland’s politicians, priests, and people demanded an end to the affair. It was a disgraceful and too public for anyone’s tastes. Everyone tried to tear them apart – but they chose each other over all else. They hoped that by getting married, all the interest would die down. They hoped that finalizing their decade-long love would legitimize their relationship in the eyes of the people and allow them to get on with their lives. Unfortunately for the steadfast lovers, they were absolutely and unequivocally wrong.
Given the scandal, it’s doubtful that any priest would have presided over their union, despite Parnell’s previous heights of power and influence. Perhaps that is why the Parnells neglected to get permission from the church to be married in one. They were married on June 25th, 1891, in a Registry office instead of a church and the papers had a field day, making even the wedding an issue. The presumably happy couple tried to ignore the press and went about finally living with each other. They attempted to rebuild Parnell’s career after their marriage but had little luck. The public was unforgiving and no politician wanted to be aligned with the man who chose a woman over his country.
One can’t help but wonder what might have happened after the scandal faded. Perhaps Parnell would have been able to reclaim some fragment of his political career, or maybe the public would have finally seen Katharine as a wife and partner, rather than a temptress woman or a whore. Unfortunately, they never got that chance. Charles Parnell died of pneumonia only a few months after the couple finally wed. Approximately two hundred thousand people attended his funeral, despite the months of disgrace, the great fall of his career, and their opposition to his marriage. Katharine was then seen as a fallen woman, a scandalous mistress, and a heartbroken widow who got no sympathy from anyone for her pain. She left Ireland for good shortly thereafter. She never forgot how the Irish treated her and she never got over the loss of her beloved husband.