We don’t use the word cuckold much these days. Neither do we use the expression ‘criminal conversation’ very often. As it happens the two are related. A cuckold is the victim of criminal conversation. He – and it’s always a ‘he’ – is a wronged husband. The fact that the term for the female equivalent, ‘cuckquean’ is utterly obscure, though probably more common numerically, says a lot.
The most famous Irish cuckold – in truth ‘notorious’ is probably a better word – was undoubtedly William Henry O’Shea. His estranged wife, Katharine, entered into a relationship with Charles Stewart Parnell in 1880 that ended with his death in 1891. In the interim O’Shea, who of course played the part of the injured husband in the sensational divorce trial of 1890, turned a blind eye to what was, in effect, a second marriage for Katharine.
O’Shea, son of a Dublin lawyer who bought up a lot of bankrupted estates after the Famine – making him a sort of mid 19th century client of NAMA – was educated in England and then at the Catholic University (later UCD). There he was the despair of the celebrated cleric John Henry Newman who later escaped to become a Cardinal.
The young O’Shea joined the Hussars and was encouraged by his father to spend a lot of money on entertainment. I’ll repeat that in case you think you misheard. He was encouraged by his father to spend a lot of money on entertainment. What’s a young man to do when a parent is foolish enough to say ‘go waste my fortune on wine, women and song and make as many influential friends as possible.’ Of course it ended in tears when the young O’Shea nearly sent his old man to the same bankruptcy courts which had helped him acquire the basis of his fortune in the first place.
O’Shea never really succeeded at anything very much, other than being an accomplished cuckold and a pompous, self serving politician. In his twenties he tried banking and breeding horses. He failed at both. Then he went into politics, standing as a candidate in Clare in the 1880 general election. After he won a seat in the House of Commons he insisted his wife, from whom he was long separated by then, should invite influential MPs to a series of soirees over which she would officiate.
In 1881 the gallant Hussar found out about his wife’s newly established relationship with Parnell and challenged the Irish Party leader – his political boss – to a duel. When Parnell accepted with a tad too much enthusiasm O’Shea suddenly changed his mind about pistols at dawn and let it slide. From then on he milked as much advantage as he could out of the relationship while waiting for Katharine’s rich aunt to die and leave her a fortune from which he assumed he would benefit.
Between 1881 and 1889 he managed to overlook the fact that his wife and Parnell had three children together and that the Irish leader even moved his horses and beloved scientific equipment into the establishment he kept with Katharine.
It was only when the aged aunt died and left her money to her niece in such a way the he couldn’t touch a penny of it that O’Shea ‘discovered’ – to his utter shock and horror – that Katharine had been carrying on behind his back. Who knew? Well actually half of London knew but we’ll let that go. He sued for divorce on Christmas Eve 1889.
As we know Parnell’s career was destroyed by the divorce case, though he was able to marry Katharine a few weeks before he died unexpectedly in October 1891.
O’Shea lingered on for another fourteen years. His funeral in 1905 was attended by two people, one of whom was his son. He died one hundred and eleven years ago, on this day.