Next Sunday is the hundred and twenty eighth anniversary of the death of the so-called ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’ Charles Stewart Parnell. The honorary title is ironic as the man who conferred it on him in 1880, Timothy Healy MP, played a huge part in consigning Parnell to an early grave at the age of forty-five on 6 October 1891.
The waspish Healy had long since fallen out with his aloof and arrogant party leader before he got his opportunity to bring his animosity out in the open. This was handed to him, neatly tied up with silk ribbons, by Parnell himself, after the Irish party leader’s citation as co-respondent in the divorce of William and Katharine O’Shea.
This allowed Healy to give full reign to his vitriol in the pivotal five day meeting in Committee Room Fifteen at Westminster where Parnell’s continued leadership of the Irish Parliamentary party was being debated by its MPs in December 1890. At one point in that marathon internecine squabble Parnell squarely addressed the issue at stake by demanding pointedly ‘Who is the master of the party?’. To which Healy responded ‘Aye, but who is the mistress of the party?’ Legend has it that Parnell had to be physically restrained from assaulting his tormentor.
In the months that followed the inevitable split in the ranks of the party, at every opportunity, Healy would refer to Katharine O’Shea—even after she and Parnell married—as ‘Kitty’ O’Shea. It’s the name by which many people know her today. But back in late Victorian Britain and Ireland the word ‘Kitty’ had an entirely different connotation. It was one of the many nicknames for a prostitute, and fed into the prurience of the political opponents of Parnell in the months before his death.
Such was the devastation the entire affair caused to Parnell’s political career, and the damage it did to any hopes of Home Rule for another generation, that many contemporaries of the nationalist leader, both supporters and opponents, wondered, and openly claimed, that Katharine O’Shea and her pompous, self-aggrandising, cuckolded husband, William, had been agents of the British, expressly charged with the task of destroying the threat posed by the biggest Irish nuisance to the British establishment since Daniel O’Connell. The entire affair, so the allegation went, had been whistled up by the Tory establishment to discredit and disrupt the forces of Irish constitutional nationalism.
It has to said, if this were true, then the O’Sheas were very good at their jobs. Double Oh Seven himself would have been proud to be numbered among their successors. Bringing Parnell down was a masterstroke, but killing him off was the coup de grace. There are no comebacks from the grave.
There is no doubt that both the O’Shea’s were well connected. Husband and wife, at different times, would have had dealings with the British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone. But the circumstances of the downfall of the Irish leader who, by 1890, was a staunch ally of the Liberal Prime Minister, were almost as much of an embarrassment to Gladstone as they were to the Irish party. That’s why it has to be a diabolical Tory plot.
The problem with that scenario is, when Parnell and Katharine met, and embarked on their ten-year affair, the Tories had just been tossed out of office. They didn’t get a whiff of power for another five years and thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle of Parnell baiting Gladstone and the Liberals for most of their period in opposition. Until they got back into government, in 1886, five years after the affair began, they would have had no interest whatever in shaming of humiliating Parnell by exposing his relationship with a married woman.
Which leaves us with the Victorian ‘deep state’, the shadowy institution that lives forever, irrespective of who is in power. It’s tempting to believe anything of an establishment that, because of its many mansions, and competing agents provocateurs, succeeded, in 1887, in exposing a plot against the life of Queen Victoria which its own agents had concocted in the first place. But there’s not a shred of evidence for this proposition. In addition to which anyone even vaguely familiar with William O’Shea is always astonished that he was able to put on his own boots every morning. A former military type, he was always at least one brigade short of a division.
And anyone familiar with the relationship between Parnell and Katharine O’Shea would never accept that it was based on a treacherous deception.
So, even though one is prone to believe William O’Shea capable of almost anything, is it possible that he and his wife were British spies given the onerous chore of destroying Charles Stewart Parnell? Not a hope. That’s fake history.