Category: Archive

111 years ago: Parnell ensnared in Kitty O’Shea scandal

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

One hundred eleven years ago this week, on Nov. 15, 1890, Charles Stewart Parnell’s brilliant career in Irish politics began to unravel. The occasion was neither a lost election nor a defeated bill in Parliament, but rather a high-profile divorce case. For 10 years Parnell had carried on a love affair with one Kitty O’Shea, wife of an army officer. When the latter decided to sue for divorce, he named Parnell as “co-respondent” — i.e., his wife’s adulterous lover. The revelation touched off a frenzy of media coverage and effectively ended Parnell’s brilliant political career.

Parnell was born in Avondale, Co. Wicklow, in 1846. Despite being born into a wealthy, landed Protestant family, he grew up to became a staunch Irish nationalist. He was genuinely sympathetic to the plight of Irish Catholics and hostile toward English domination of Irish affairs. Part of this Anglophobia derived, no doubt, from the fact that his mother was an American, the daughter of Commodore Charles Stewart of the U.S. Navy, who, during the War of 1812, sank two British warships.

First elected to Parliament in 1875, Parnell joined forces with other like-minded Irish nationalists to press for home rule — the granting of greater autonomy for Ireland within the United Kingdom through the reestablishment of an Irish parliament. A superb speaker and tactician, Parnell became the undisputed leader of the Home Rule Party by the end of the 1870s.

From 1879 to ’82, Parnell’s reputation soared ever higher as he joined forces with nationalists John Devoy and Michael Davitt in the Land League movement. While the Land League failed to gain home rule for Ireland, it did compel the Gladstone government to enact several important land reforms. The Land League dissolved in 1882, but Parnell continued in his quest for home rule as head of the National League. The effort very nearly succeeded when Gladstone cast his support for a home rule bill, but a split in Gladstone’s Liberal Party resulted in the home rule bill’s defeat in 1886.

The home rule campaign of 1886 marked the high point of Parnell’s career. Thereafter, he was beset by problems. First, his health began to decline. Second, he alienated some of his more radical followers by opposing their efforts to revive tenant farmer activism (the so-called Plan of Campaign) as a protest against continued high rents and evictions despite the Land Act of 1881. Third, in 1887 he became the victim of a smear campaign led by the London Times that falsely accused him, through forged letters, of sanctioning Fenian terrorism and murder during the Land League agitation. Parnell was acquitted of all charges in the case in 1890.

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These trials and tribulations left Parnell bruised, but not defeated. Then came the Kitty O’Shea revelations. O’Shea was born Katharine Wood in England in 1846. She married Capt. William Henry O’Shea in 1867, but the marriage was an unhappy one. Capt. O’Shea spent long periods away from their home in England seeking his fortune in one foreign venture after another (going bankrupt each time). By the late 1870s, the couple had ceased to live as husband and wife, though Capt. O’Shea did visit on occasion. In 1880, he settled in Ireland, joined Parnell’s home rule party, and won a seat in the House of Commons.

Later that year, O’Shea made one of his rare visits to Kitty. He spoke so effusively of Parnell that Kitty went to London to meet him. They took an instant liking to each other and soon became lovers. O’Shea bore three children by Parnell between 1882 and ’84. The affair remained secret until Capt. O’Shea decided to file for divorce in November 1890.

Although he certainly knew of the affair years before he filed his papers, O’Shea presented himself as a wronged man suddenly confronted with the awful truth. For his part, Parnell offered no defense — he had none. The media had a field day, especially the London Times. Still smarting from its humiliating defeat in the battle with Parnell over the forged letters, the Times sensed an opportunity for revenge. Day after day it hammered Parnell, denouncing him as a lecherous family wrecker.

The political fallout came swiftly. Gladstone called upon Parnell to resign, as did the Catholic bishops of Ireland. He refused. Trusted friends and allies disowned him and still he held firm. In December, members of his own party convened to discuss his fate. After a week of bitter debate, the party split into pro- and anti-Parnell factions. Still Parnell refused to step down. He hoped the by-elections in 1891 would bring vindication to him and his loyalists, but the results were devastating.

With Parnell’s political career in shambles and O’Shea now officially divorced, the two were married in June 1891. But by then Parnell was a broken man and his health began to decline sharply. Suffering from a bout of rheumatic fever, Charles Stewart Parnell — the man once dubbed “the uncrowned king of Ireland” — died suddenly on Oct. 6, 1891. He was only 45.


Nov. 14, 1889: Nellie Cochrane Bly commences her sensational around-the-world journey.

Nov. 15, 1985: Margaret Thatcher and Garrett Fitzgerald sign the Anglo-Irish agreement, establishing greater cooperation between Britain and Ireland regarding Northern Ireland.

Nov. 19, 1798: The leader of the United Irishmen uprising, Theobald Wolfe Tone, commits suicide in his cell awaiting execution.


Nov. 15, 1887: artist Georgia O’Keefe is born in Sun Prairie Wis.

Nov. 19, 1935: General Electric CEO Jack Welch Jr. is born in Salem, Mass.

Nov. 20, 1874: Boston Mayor and Massachusetts Gov. James Michael Curley is born in Roxbury, Mass.

Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@EdwardTODonnell.com.

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