Katharine O’Shea (née Wood), English woman of aristocratic background, whose decade-long secret adultery with Charles Stewart Parnell leads to a widely publicized divorce in 1890 and his political downfall, is born in Braintree, Essex on January 30, 1846.
Katharine is the daughter of Sir John Page Wood, 2nd Baronet (1796–1866), and granddaughter of Sir Matthew Wood, a former Lord Mayor of London. She has an elder brother who becomes Field Marshal Sir Henry Evelyn Wood and is also the niece of both Western Wood MP (1804–1863) and Lord William Wood, William Ewart Gladstone‘s first Liberal Lord Chancellor.
Katharine marries Captain William O’Shea in 1867, a Catholic Nationalist MP for Clare from whom she separates around 1875. She first meets Parnell in 1880 and begins a relationship with him. Three of her children are fathered by Parnell. Although Captain O’Shea keeps publicly quiet for several years, he is aware of the relationship. He challenges Parnell to a duel in 1881 and initially forbids his estranged wife to see him, although she says that he encouraged her in the relationship. 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.
Out of her family connection to the Liberal Party, Katharine acts as liaison between Parnell and Gladstone during negotiations prior to the introduction of the First Irish Home Rule Bill in April 1886. Parnell moves to her home in Eltham, close to the London-Kent border, that summer.
Captain O’Shea files for divorce in 1889 and his reasons are a matter for speculation. Some say he may have political motives. Alternatively, it is claimed that he has been hoping for an inheritance from Katharine’s rich aunt whom he had expected to die earlier, but when she dies in 1889 her money is left in trust to cousins. After the divorce the court awards custody of Katharine O’Shea and C.S. Parnell’s two surviving daughters to her ex-husband.
Katharine’s November divorce proceedings from Captain O’Shea, in which Parnell is named as co-respondent, leads to Parnell’s 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. With his political life and his health essentially ruined, Parnell dies at the age of 45 in Hove on October 6, 1891 in her arms, less than four months after their marriage. The cause is stomach cancer, possibly complicated by coronary artery disease inherited from his grandfather and father, who also died prematurely.
Though to her friends Katharine is known as Katie O’Shea, Parnell’s enemies, in order to damage him personally, call her “Kitty O’Shea” because at that time “kitty,” as well as being an Hiberno-English version of Catherine/Katherine/Katharine, is also a slang term for a prostitute. She lives the rest of her life in relative obscurity. She dies on February 5, 1921, at the age of 75, and is buried in Littlehampton, Sussex, England, apparently never once setting foot on Irish soil.
Captain Henry Harrison, MP, who had acted 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, and this is to form the seed of his later two books defending Parnell 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.