On This Day – 22 April 1905 William O’Shea dies

 

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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.

 

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On This Day – Drivetime – 30 January 1846 – Birth of Katharine O’Shea (Parnell)

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To this day she is known as Kitty, though her friends, family and London society in the late 19th century knew her as Katharine, or Kate. Although the name is innocuous today during the Victorian era it was meant to sting – in those times ‘kitty’ was a euphemism for a prostitute.

She is at the heart of one of the great ‘what ifs’ of Irish history, as in ‘what if Katharine O’Shea and Charles Stewart Parnell had never met?’

But they did. She was the wife, probably estranged, of one of the great Irish chancers of Victorian London, Captain William Henry O’Shea, once a dashing Hussar but more familiar today as a talentless political opportunist. Had O’Shea not been a failed banker he might well have found other ways in which to discommode his native country. As it was it was his failure as a politician that was to have more serious ramifications than his inadequacies as a financier.

In 1880 O’Shea was a rookie Irish MP, Parnell was the new leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. O’Shea had an attractive wife and he obliged her to make herself useful in the advancement of his political ambitions. She was instructed to invite Parnell to a number of political soirees she organized on her husband’s behalf, or, more likely to keep the dodgy O’Shea at a disrtance. He pronounced his name O’Shee by the way, presumably to distinguish him from his common or garden countrymen of the same name. Parnell, however, was not one for the banality of opening invitations, or indeed letters in general, so to press her invitations she went in person. That, according to her own account, was when they fell in love. Parnell didn’t leave any account. He was as good at writing letters as he was at opening them.

The relationship blossomed rapidly and soon, they were, in effect, man and wife. She became his ‘Queenie’, he became her ‘King’. O’Shea rarely darkened the door of his wife’s boudoir but found out about their trysts rather quickly. He challenged Parnell to a duel but when, to his surprise, the Irish party leader accepted the challenge, the former Hussar backed down. He contented himself thereafter with squeezing every drop of political nectar he could from his wife’s lover and partner.

He looked away as the couple had three children together. His incentive, in addition to political advancement, was a hefty share in a large sum of money his estranged wife stood to inherit from an aged aunt. When the elderly lady finally passed on, and he was neatly cut out of the inheritance, he stopped looking away. He sued for divorce, no doubt full of the festive spirit, on Christmas Eve 1889.

The resulting court proceedings destroyed Parnell’s career. In the middle of a year of huge controversy in 1891 he only made things worse for himself politically when he married Katharine after the divorce was finalized. Humiliated by a series of futile and debilitating by-election campaigns an exhausted Parnell died in their house in Brighton in October, a month the highly superstitious Parnell always considered ill-starred.

Katharine Parnell, as she now was, then did a great service to a country she had never visited and much of whose population considered her to be a scarlet woman or an English spy who had destroyed their leader. In an act of generosity she waived her right to have Parnell buried in a south of England graveyard where she could join him when her own life ended. Instead she allowed him to be returned to Ireland and interred in Glasnevin cemetery in perhaps the biggest funeral the country had ever seen.

Katharine O’Shea, or Katharine Parnell as she chose to be called, was born five months before her second husband, Charles Stewart Parnell, 169 years ago, on this day.

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On This Day-Drivetime – 27.6.1846 – Charles Stewart Parnell, is born


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No one could have predicted that the hesitant, almost inarticulate candidate for the Irish parliamentary party in the by-election in Dublin in 1874 would go on to be proclaimed as the Uncrowned King of Ireland and then brought to earth by the same people who had deified him in the first place.

For most of the first thirty years of his life Charles Stewart Parnell was a member of the family who were the benevolent landlords of Avondale in Co.Wicklow – an estate of 4000 acres that produced a modest income by the standards of the late 19th century. Parnell did what most of the members of his class did. He rode to hounds in the winter and played cricket in the summer – he was a decent batsman and wicketkeeper.

Then, suddenly, at the age of 28, he offered himself to the Irish parliamentary party, then led by Isaac Butt, as a candidate for the vacant seat in County Dublin. As he could afford to pay for his own campaign and didn’t have to worry about loss of earnings should he win the seat – ordinary MPs were not paid until the early 20th century – he got the nod from the party bosses. They quickly regretted their decision. The young Charles Stewart Parnell was a dreadful candidate. He could hardly put two words together and was so nervous as a public speaker that he could do little more than stammer on the hustings. The electorate was unimpressed and he was easily defeated.

He was given a second chance and did better the following year winning a by-election in Meath. For two years Parnell kept his own counsel in the House of Commons. He watched and waited. Then, in a move apparently out of character with his social status, he threw in his lot with a group of converted Fenians and blocked much House of Commons business by filibustering – making long speeches on very little indeed – much to the annoyance of the British MPs and most of the Irish ones as well.

Parnell would go on to lead his party, deliver some significant land reform, and significantly advance the cause of Home Rule before his involvement in the divorce of Katharine O’Shea brought him crashing to earth. She was, by the way, only called ‘Kitty’ by her adversaries, the name was a term of abuse reserved for Victorian prostitutes.

Parnell, though briefly beloved of the nationalist Irish, was not held in such high esteem by many of his party colleagues. He was seen as aloof, arrogant, and often lazy. Unlike, for example, other Victorian politicians, who were enthusiastic correspondents, Parnell would not have been good on email. He treated the reams of correspondence that arrived for him on a daily basis with utter contempt. He rarely opened a letter, leaving that to others to do on his behalf. He was very superstitious, with a particular aversion for the month of October. Naturally, that was the month, in 1891, in which he died at the age of 45. Bizarrely, for someone who led the Irish constitutional nationalist movement for a momentous decade, he also loathed and feared the colour green.

Charles Stewart Parnell, politician, Uncrowned King and chromophobe, was born 168 years ago, on this day.

 

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