Katharine O’Shea, called Katie O’Shea by friends and Kitty O’Shea by enemies, dies on February 5, 1921 in Littlehampton, England. O’Shea is an English woman of aristocratic background whose decade-long secret affair with Charles Stewart Parnell leads to a widely publicized divorce in 1890 and, ultimately, his political downfall.
Katharine first meets Parnell in 1880, when she is separated from but still legally married to Captain William O’Shea, a Catholic Nationalist Member of Parliament (MP) for County Clare. As a result of her family’s connection to the Liberal Party, she acts as liaison between Parnell and William Gladstone during negotiations prior to the introduction of the First Irish Home Rule Bill in April 1886. During the summer of that year, Parnell moves into her home in Eltham, near the London-Kent border. Parnell fathers three of Katharine’s children.
Captain O’Shea is aware of the relationship and challenges Parnell to a duel in 1881, however, when Parnell accepts the challenge, O’Shea backs down. Initially, O’Shea forbids his ex-wife to see Parnell, although she says that he encourages her in the relationship. O’Shea keeps quiet publicly for several years, possibly in hopes of an inheritance from Katharine’s rich aunt who has been in failing health. When she dies in 1889, however, her money is left in trust to cousins.
Although their relationship is a subject of gossip in London political circles from 1881, later public knowledge of the affair in an England governed by “Victorian morality” with a “nonconformist conscience” creates a huge scandal, as adultery is prohibited by the Ten Commandments.
After the divorce proceedings in November 1890, in which Parnell is named as co-respondent, the court awards custody of Katharine’s two daughters by Parnell to her ex-husband. The divorce and eventual remarriage leads to Parnell being deserted by a majority of his own Irish Parliamentary Party and to his downfall as its leader in December 1890.
Catholic Ireland feels a profound sense of shock when Katharine breaks the vows of her previous Catholic marriage by marrying Parnell on June 25, 1891. The marriage, however, is short-lived. With Parnell’s political life and health essentially ruined, he dies in Katharine’s arms at the age of 45 in Hove, England, on October 6, 1891, less than four months after their marriage. The cause of death is determined to be cancer of the stomach, possibly complicated by coronary heart disease inherited from his grandfather and father.
Katharine publishes a biography of Parnell in 1914 as “Katharine O’Shea (Mrs. Charles Stewart Parnell),” though to her friends she is known as Katie O’Shea. Parnell’s enemies, in order to damage him personally, call her “Kitty O’Shea” because “kitty,” although a Hiberno-English version of Katharine, is also a slang term for a prostitute. After Parnell’s death, Katharine suffers from a nervous breakdown and disappears from public life. She dies on February 5, 1921 after spending her final years moving from rented house to rented house all over the south coast of England. Katharine O’Shea is buried in Littlehampton, Sussex, England.
Captain Henry Harrison, MP, who acts as Parnell’s bodyguard and aide-de-camp, devotes himself after Parnell’s death to the service of his widow. From her he hears a completely different version of the events surrounding the divorce issue from that which had appeared in the press in 1890. This forms the seed of two of Harrison’s later books defending Parnell which are published in 1931 and 1938. They have a major impact on Irish historiography, leading to a more favourable view of Parnell’s role in the O’Shea affair.