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.
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.