March is a month that spotlights the tangled history of Ireland’s struggle against English rule. This year, after a two-year break, St. Patrick’s Day Parades were held again in many American cities including San Francisco and New York. The release of Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-nominated movie Belfast has again called attention to the tumultuous history of this small country.
But none of this activity has aroused the intense interest reached 130 years ago when the private lives of Charles Stewart Parnell and Katharine O’Shea disrupted the British government and changed the history of Ireland.
Katharine O’Shea was born Katharine Wood in Essex, England in 1846. Her family were prosperous and politically active supporters of the Liberal party and friends of William Gladstone, its leader. At the age of 21, Katharine married Captain William O’Shea, a Catholic Nationalist MP for County Clare. The marriage was not a happy one and after having two children, the couple separated, although they continued to maintain a façade of a marriage. Because they had residences in England as well as land in Ireland, it was not difficult for them to carry on their lives while seeing very little of one another. Katharine’s wealthy aunt paid the expenses of their household so that Captain O’Shea could pursue his political career and the family could live in comfort.
Meanwhile, Charles Stewart Parnell, born in the same year as Katharine to an Anglo-Irish Protestant family in County Wicklow, was pursuing his own political career. Having grown up in Ireland, he had seen the cruelty that many landlords inflicted on their tenants and he decided Ireland should be governed locally rather than from a faraway Parliament in London. His fiery speeches won him great support from Irish nationalists and their representatives in the British Parliament.
As an ambitious politician, Captain O’Shea soon became a follower of Parnell. He encouraged Katharine to invite Parnell to dinner and to cultivate her relationship with Gladstone. Soon both O’Shea and Parnell were relying on her to carry messages back and forth to Gladstone to smooth the path for political cooperation. Parnell got into the habit of sending mail through the O’Shea and he set up an office in their estate. His increasing intimacy with the family led to an affair between him and Katharine, an affair that Captain O’Shea was aware of and used to further his political ambitions.
Because divorce was opposed by both Catholics and Protestants at that time, that option was not available. Parnell and Katharine had three children who were accepted as part of the O’Shea family. Gossips may have speculated about what was going on, but the façade of peaceful family life continued.
Parnell and Gladstone worked together to pass the Home Rule Bill that would allow Ireland to manage its own internal affairs and weaken the power of absentee British landlords. Parnell’s popularity grew and his supporters gave him the title of “uncrowned king of Ireland.” Support for him poured in not only from the Irish, but also from overseas from Irish emigrants to the United States and Australia. During the late 1880s, support for Home Rule grew, the Liberals were in power, and the movement seemed destined for success. Then disaster struck.
Historians differ on the cause of the events that followed. Katharine’s wealthy aunt died in 1889 but did not leave her money to Captain O’Shea as he had probably hoped. The money was left in trust for a number of cousins. In 1890, O’Shea filed for divorce from Katharine, citing her adultery as the cause. Parnell refused to defend himself in court and the wide publicity of this scandal destroyed the friendly relations between him and Gladstone. He also lost the leadership of his Irish party. Gladstone, well-known as a crusader for virtue, refused to support him and the Home Rule bill died. It would be another generation before Ireland escaped from British rule.
In 1891, after the O’Shea divorce became final, Parnell and Katharine married. By this time, however, Parnell’s health was broken and he died four months later at the age of 45. After his death, Katharine led a very quiet life in England. In 1914, she published a biography called Charles Stewart Parnell, which has been the source of much of the information known about the couple. Katharine Parnell died in 1921 at the age of 75.
In the century since her death, the story of Katherine O’Shea and Charles Stewart Parnell has been told many times in books and other media. In his 1914 book Dubliners, James Joyce pays tribute to Parnell in one of his best-known stories, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” In 1937, Clark Gable and Myrna Loy starred in a Hollywood film called simply, Parnell. Although Gable’s performance was not acclaimed by critics, the film lingers on and is available on DVD in many public libraries. Also available are biographies and novels based on the lives of Katharine and Parnell. Despite the failure of their early dreams, the story of their lives continues to have appeal and to attract the interest of younger generations.