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.