The Legacy of Katie O’Shea & Charles Stewart Parnell

This week I spoke to author and senior research fellow of the Institute of Historical Research, University of London Elisabeth Kehoe about the relationship between Charles Stewart Parnell and Katie O’Shea (later dubbed Kitty O’Shea) – a love story of an infamous Victorian love triangle that shook the political system to its core.

Holly Smith: Hello, and welcome back to Past Loves the new weekly history podcast that explores affection, infatuation and attachment across time to bring you the lighter side history and a touch of romance to daily life. I hope that this episode finds you well, it’s a bumper of an episode. So I think we should just get into it. With this story I feel like I’m revisiting my A level History because I studied Irish history and like the Irish question at A Level and so when I came across a letter between these two people, I recognised that names but I’d kind of forgotten that story. And actually, I was remembering Kitty O’Shea with a name that was never hers, with a name that was given to her because of the reaction of the public to this relationship. I’m of course talking about the relationship between Katharine O’Shea and Charles Stewart Parnell – and Katharine or Katie is now more famously known as Kitty O’Shea, which was a derogatory slur against her as this homewrecker. But what you find is this beautiful love story about two people who genuinely needed each other, who found solace and their other half in each other. And unfortunately, our memory of them is different because of the way in which the media reacted and reported their story. And so I was so so grateful that my guest came on today to talk about their love story – which she did admit is not the happiest of tales and I agree it’s not but it is a testament to the power of love. So my guest today is Elisabeth Kehoe, an author and senior research fellow at the Institute of historical research at the University of London. Now Elisabeth’s book, Ireland’s Misfortune: The Turbulent Life of Kitty O’Shea is a biography about the courageous actions of a vastly underestimated woman who has, over the years been vilified as a homewrecker of history as she defied societal norms to pursue a passionate commitment with Charles Stewart Parnell. And just to set the tone to show that this was a true love story, I thought before we speak to Elisabeth, I will just read you her description of Charles. She writes:  ‘As our eyes met he turned and walked by my side. He did not speak…He helped me into the train and sat opposite me…I leant back and closed my eyes and could have slept but that the little flames deep down in Parnell’s eyes kept flickering before mine though they were closed…He crossed over…and leaning over me to fold the coat more closely around my knees he whispered, “I love you”…and I slipped my hand into his and I knew I was not afraid.’ So I really hope that what you gain from this episode is a more well rounded understanding of Katharine, her relationship with Charles Stewart Parnell and the extent of their love for each other.

Welcome, Elisabeth, and thank you for joining me today.

Elisabeth Kehoe: Pleasure, thank you for having me.

Holly: I think this tale feels like we should be talking about a setting in Ireland, but actually, we’re going to start in Essex, because Katharine O’Shea was an English woman and she was born in Essex and grew up there in 1845.

rivenhall place essex john wood
Rivenhall Place, Essex, William Henry Bartlett

Elisabeth: Yes, indeed. In fact, when I was writing this book, one of the jokes was actually the original Essex girl. But moving swiftly on from that – yes and what’s interesting about Katie, about Katharine known as Katie, is that she is very much a product of her environment. Her father’s an anglican Vicar, her family’s very well established. They have supreme connections, even though they’re not top aristocracy. They are very much of an upper class county set. And Katie was the youngest of 13 children, and she had six surviving siblings. She was very much the baby of the family, adored by her father, who is a very educated man. And not only is she born in is quite stable environment in terms of family and connections. But she has the enormous advantage of having a mother who is very accomplished. She’s very accomplished in the artistic, literary, musical spheres. She’s well educated, as is indeed her father, and they both encouraged the education of their children. And that’s huge for women in that period. That’s not something that happens very often. And so to have that benefit, as a child and as a young woman is really enormous. And it’s something that really for me, characterises Katie for the rest of her life. It imbues her with a self confidence and a sense of self that otherwise is often lacking when you look at women of the period. The second huge advantage that she has, she has a mother who believes in her and what you find a very typical pattern with Victorian women is you see distant parents, particularly in that class, and mothers who are not necessarily very warm and affectionate towards their children in general, but girls specifically, and there are a lot of reasons for that. But this does not happen to Katie. She has a mother who takes enormous pride in her children’s accomplishments. So what you have is a family that has everything except money. There is never enough money. They’re always poor. And one of the outcomes of that is that they don’t have anywhere particularly nice to live. And once again, the connections that I’ve talked about come into play where they are lent, for minimal rent, this large house in Rivenhall in Essex, which has splendid grounds. It’s not in very good repair, but there’s a waterfall, there’s a lake, there’s a pond. Katie has a pony. There’s lots of rooms. There’s not a huge amount of staff, but there’s enough to make for a very comfortable life. And the backgrounds that we have for our young Katie, Katie Wood.

Holly: She seems from reading about her that she became quite an engaging and effervescent woman. She really felt like she had a strong character when I was reading about her.

Elisabeth: I think you’re absolutely right. That is one of the things that I was looking at. And you would almost say that she was possibly a little bit spoiled. When you read her own stories, Katie is the star in her own show. So anytime she tells about an event or any kind of an occurrence or meeting people, she’s always the one she’s brought the food to the old people. She’s the one recognised by the neighbour. She’s the one that the groomsmen falls in love with when she’s a young woman. And so she has a great sense of drama, in a very, to my mind, quite likeable way. 

Holly: Yes, no she’s very likeable.

Elisabeth: She’s very very engaging. She’s got this confidence. She’s pretty, not necessarily according to the records of great beauty, but she’s pretty enough to have an impact. So yes, very engaging, effervescent, well educated learned, so she can have conversations at the table. She’s not someone who’s going to sit in the corner. She’s someone who really can hold her own.

Holly: And so she was 21 when she married her first husband, Captain William O’Shea.

who was kitty o'shea married to
Willie O’Shea

Elisabeth: Yes, she does marry him. And this is a really interesting story. And I think it’s a story that has very modern resonance. She’s 15 when she first laid eyes on him, and Willie O’Shea is a very, very handsome man. So he is someone who’s extremely good looking. And he’s a crack steeplechase rider and what you have to imagine is this kind of dreamy drama young woman meeting this man first. He’s dressed in Hassars uniform. This is blue and white and gold with a sword and helmet and high riding boots. He just looks magnificent. And Katie’s smitten. She tries to deny it later, but when you look at the documents, she’s smitten. Now neither family is keen on the match. William O’Shea comes from an interesting

background in Ireland, completely different to the ones that we are used to seeing. We’re used to seeing the sort of Anglo Protestant ascendancy, which was the ruling elite landowning class, typically Protestant, upper class, British by affiliation, royalists, as compared to a Catholic, more lower middle class and peasant population. And I say peasants, very carefully because, in fact, they didn’t even own the land. And that was one of the big problems with Irish independence is that they hadn’t had land before. So you have this kind of polarised society with at the apex, the Anglo Protestants, but then you have something called the Castle Catholics. And the Castle Catholics are Catholic by religious persuasion, but they are Anglo-Protestant by affiliation. So the reason they’re called Castle Catholics is because Dublin Castle is where the Viceroy lives, typically with his family and that’s where the balls and the dinners are held for the Anglo Protestant society. And Castle Catholics are part of that society. So they’re neither fish nor fowl. They’re actually quite peripheral, an outsider, as they’ve been disenfranchised as had Willie O’Shea’s family over the years from land because Catholics weren’t allowed to own land. So they don’t have that kind of prosperity and land ownership. But at the same time, they feel themselves to be very British. Willie O’Shea’s educated in England. He’s sent off to boarding school. He enlisted in the British Army – his father purchases him a commission. He runs up massive amounts of debt which is also a liability of some of the very well heeled British gentlemen of the time. So his family looks at Katie and doesn’t think much of that they’ve got the splendid son. They’re thinking he could do really well – he could marry an Anglo Protestant woman at home, therefore, elevating their social status or married heiress, because he’s so good looking and to their mind so accomplished. He’s another one’s quite spoilt. And instead of which he sort of ends up with someone that they don’t really know, and they don’t think much of. His mother is a staunch Catholic, of the most conservative kind, as is his sister. And Katie is an Anglican. So for them, this is a mixed marriage. It’s outrageous. It should not be happening. They do not support it. Katie and Wille go on through this courtship on and off, on and off, and when they do marry, it is largely because her father suddenly dies. And she’s heartbroken and the family is left destitute, destitute, there’s nothing for her mother. There’s nothing for her – she’s the youngest child still living at home. And I think she marries Willie, first of all because of father was dead and he objected to the match. He didn’t think that Willie was a suitable husband for her. He’s gone. So those objections are gone. And I think also she felt a bit desperate. What happens is that her mother Emma’s sister, known Aunt Ben, whose extremely wealthy, the two brothers (Katie’s father, John and Benjamin, his brother) had married two sisters. And Aunt Ben actually ended up extremely wealthy. She was a very wealthy widow, and she’s one who helps her sister, but there’s nothing really. The children are each going to get £5000, which is really nice as a marriage settlement, and that’s quite an enticement for Katie. So Wille is going to sell his commission in the army, they’re going to have her £5000, and they figured that’s enough to get married. My opinion, they’re both very, very young. It’s more of an infatuation. I think hormones have a lot to answer for and I think…

Holly: Don’t they always?

Elisabeth: Don’t they? Some things never change, something’s never changed. And what happens in that era is that you have to get married. And so what would happen now is the kind of getting it out of our system and going through various heartbreaks and unsuitable relationships and all of the things that we do, and experience in our young adult lives, these are not allowed. So that’s what I think has happened. And I think there was a very good chance from the get go, that this is not necessarily going to be the most well founded marriage. 

Holly: Yeah, I definitely think just through William’s business pursuits, you can see this kind of uncertainty, this searching for something that is not tangible, like he, he runs a stud farm in Hertfordshire, a sulphur mine in Spain. It just seems that they’re all over the place, trying to find this moment where they finally become this rich couple and can settle down and be quite comfortable just never seems to happen for them.

Hertfordshire countryside
The Hertfordshire Countryside

Elisabeth: I think that you’re right. And I think that what Willie, as he was known to one and all, what Willie really lacks is just true grit and stick-to-itiveness. Again, not uncommon. You find this a lot during the period of overindulged sons. And what happens when Willie joins the British Army, his father says you just be magnificent and send the bills to me. Willie runs up £15,000 of debt. He has no concept of budgeting, and he has been indulged his entire life. And when his father dies, his mother completely dotes on him as the man of the family. And it’s a misplaced devotion because although Willie O’Shea is handsome and charming, he throws himself into things. They decide after the wedding, they’re going to go to Spain. He’s going to work in his Uncle’s banking business. He goes, he does that for a while that doesn’t work out. And what you find is there’s a regular pattern to Willie’s professional life is that things somehow start with a great bang. And then they don’t work out. And Katie’s relatives, again, her connections are brought in to help because they run out of money and they start having children – in 1870 they have their first son Gerard, and they have another daughter, Nora in 1873 Carmen 1874. So this is happening. So Katie is managing this. She’s managing the children. She’s managing this rather feckless husband, getting money from her relatives. Aunt Ben is applied to. She also has an uncle who’s Lord Chancellor. So she’s reaching out and they do get bailouts. A number of times, things get invested in then they kind of go out with a whimper.

What ultimately happens is that Katie realises that her husband is not going to be a provider. And here’s where I think she really shows her character. And one of the things that I have noticed about her when you study her life is that she is not someone who sits on her hands and says, ‘woe is me.’ There’s no blushing Victorian maiden about Katie at all, not even a little bit. So she’s, she’s very smart. I wouldn’t call her a top intellectual. She’s not an abstract thinker, but she’s very good at the brass tacks, and very good I would say at the EQ, at understanding situations, she realises that she cannot rely on her husband. She has three children. What is she to do? She sees a source of income, which is the venerable Aunt Ben. Aunt Ben is living in Eltham, near Greenwich, and in a magnificent huge house. She’s very eccentric. She’s aging. She’s an old woman. She has a lot of paid help, but she lacks companionship. Katie and Willie start visiting a lot. Now again there have been some comments made, comments made about, you know, was there a vested interest there? I’m sure there was. And ultimately Aunt Ben makes a proposition to Katie, and says, I would like to be my paid companion. And for this, I will buy you a house that’s just five minutes away, where you can have your children and your staff. I will pay you an annual stipend and in return, you will come and she didn’t have to do any nursing, but she was the companion doing all the things that companion would do with the advantage of being family. A formal agreement is drawn up. And so there’s nothing untoward about it. They’re very careful, so that there’ll be no accusations later on and Katie settles herself in Eltham. She has her income sorted out, she has employment for herself. She has her three children in a stable environment. And Willie is free to go off to pursue his mining interests. He just has to go back to Spain. There’s a bit of this. There’s a bit of that. And this is when the pattern emerges in the mid 1870s, until 1880, you start to see this pattern of Willie coming and going. So when one is backtracking and looking at what happened when it’s quite difficult to pinpoint. What you do find is they adopt this kind of lifestyle where she is very much anchored, and he is not. He’s dipping in and out. And Katie has grown up with the values of home and hearth. This is something that she has imbued and this is something she reproduces, she does it for her Aunt Ben, and she does it in her own household, and it’s very, very much representative of her. In fact, when you look at what happens later, one of the most distressing things I would have thought for her is that she’s portrayed as his homewrecker who doesn’t care about home and hearth. And in fact, she’s the absolute opposite. This is something that she devotes her life to providing.

Willie is again at a loose end and comes up with the idea that he’s going to go into politics. Again, a very common choice for young men of the time, who are at a loose end. He doesn’t do it in England, because in England, it’s very expensive. Actually there, they’re not paid and you have to be independently wealthy. In order to run for a seat, you need to be given a safe seat. That’s not going to happen. He has no reputation. He has no backing, they have no money, but with Aunt Ben’s backing, he can stand for a seat in Ireland. What has happened in Ireland is that they’ve had enfranchisement and so there’s a much larger electorate, far more MPs. And so Willie stands for a seat in County Clare which he obtains. Again he gets the money from Aunt Ben and this is why from 1880 onwards Katie is hostessing these little parties. She’s based at Eltham, she’s making sure she does everything right by Aunt Ben. The children are fine. But there’s a nurse, a nanny, there’s, you know, Katie is never without servants. The house is very stable. And then she’s back and forth to London, staying in St. Thomas’ Hotel, which is where she’d stayed with her parents when she was a girl. And there she has in a private room, these little dinner parties for Willie – something she’s done in the past to help him. She’s always sort of entertained clients and guests to help. This is something he encourages her to do. One description that I thought was rather wonderful of her is saying that ‘she was an empress, rather than a nymph.’ And I think that’s rather good. He describes her as intelligent and lively and audacious and very knowledgeable about social, political, literary, artistic affairs. So she’s an asset. She has this enterprising spirit. She’s a great hostess. She’s very self confident. And she likes this. She enjoys it. 

kitty o'shea parnell
Katie O’Shea and Charles Stewart Parnell

Holly: Yeah, she was good at it. 

Elisabeth: She’s good at it. She’s good at it. She’s in her prime and she feels good. Her life is settled, her life is secure. And she’s actually I would say very happy at this point in her life.

Holly: And then it’s at one of these dinner parties that she meets Charles Stewart Parnell.

Elisabeth: What happens then is as she’s getting this reputation as being quite a good hostess for the Irish MP, is that people comment ‘well you haven’t had Charles Stewart Parnell.’ Charles Stewart Parnell entered Parliament 1875 and by 1880, he is a phenomenon. And the reason he is a phenomenon is that this is the first time in Westminster that the MPs, the cabinet, the Prime Minister are being met on an equal footing by an Irish politician. Charles Stewart Parnell is an Anglo-Protestant. He’s been brought up in a landlord family although of course they didn’t have any money either because nobody in the story has any money – we can just take that for granted. He has no money but he comes from a very comfortable background unusually, for Anglo Protestant, quite a rebellious one. His mother was a great supporter of Irish independence. Charles Stewart Parnell has a miserable childhood. He’s sent away to boarding school at the age of seven. He never sees his family. I mean barbaric and he’s sent me to England so he’s far away from anything he knows. His father dies when he’s about 14. I remember reading descriptions of the family, they never sat down to meals together. Everything was very chaotic, very rapid. He is the antithesis of Katie in terms of his upbringing, no warmth, very little love. So he is at heart a very, very lonely little boy. And I think when you look at their love story, it’s important to think of that part of Charles Parnell because it is so much at odds with his public image. He’s tall. He’s very attractive. He is commanding. He has a forbidding presence. He’s what the British will call clubbable. They feel at ease with him. He speaks the way they do. He dresses the way they do. He has been educated the way that they have been. He can fit in with the British elite. So even though they don’t want to be seen with him, because he is an Irish independence MP. They feel comfortable with him as a gentleman. So Parnell doesn’t like socialising. He’s very shy. He’s aloof, he’s forbidding. And for Katie he becomes a bit of a challenge. So ‘oh you’ve never had, you’ve never had the leader’ and for her that’s like waving a red flag at a bull. And she says ‘Okay, okay, I’ve never had the leader. Just you wait and see, I will have one of my dinner parties. Next time I have a dinner party that’s where he’ll sit.’

So then she invites him and of course, he doesn’t reply. He never does. He just doesn’t do the whole social thing. Just no interest. So we only have her word for this story. So it could be an apocryphal tale. But I think the essence of what is in it is very true. She goes with her sister, she has a sister Anna Steele, who is separated from her husband and drives to the House of Commons to Westminster to deliver the invitation in person. This would be entirely typical, I would expect from Katie and she talks about meeting him by accident in front of the House of Commons at Westminster. There is no question in my mind, that the impact on him is immediate. He falls head over heels in love It’s harder to tell for Katie and I think that it’s harder to tell for very good reasons. She’s a married woman. She has three children. She’s not going to launch yourself into anything.

charles stewart parnell and kitty o'shea

Holly: No, it’s too high risk at this point.

Elisabeth: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s too high risk. This is not what she’s looking for. I think for her, there is certainly an attraction. But what you see, immediately he’s writing to her. He does the running. I think this is the critical thing in between the time that they’re meeting in July, until October. Those months he is the one chasing her. He’s sending her note upon note. He’s bombarding her with letters. They meet for dinner. They have a private dinner at St. Thomas’ Hotel. Once Katie does this, she has stepped into the forbidden fruit land. That’s a point of no return. I think at this point she is so she is literally swept off her feet. And I think the very tender and emotional element of this story is that Katie has been so accustomed to being responsible and taking care of everybody. She has to take care of Aunt Ben and that whole household. She has to take care of the three children. She has to take care of the staff. She has to take care of that wayward husband. She has to take care of his colleagues and make sure that everybody’s happy. And for once in her life, she meets someone who says, ‘I will take care of you. That’s what I want.’ And I think for her, this brings her back to her adoration of her father, to a life of security, to being loved, to being wanted, to being appreciated, and it’s quite quite overwhelming.

However, this is when we start entering into very, very risky territory and at first they pretend that it’s just a friendship. She’s just doing this to help her husband, Charles Parnell comes to stay at the house of Eltham. And what you have is this dual relationship. He’s travelling back and forth to Ireland, and coming back to Eltham, and he writes two strings of letters. One letter is Dear Mrs. O’Shea – very formal about his rivals and everything. And then he’s writing my own wife, my dear wifey. So what these letters tell us and very tellingly Katie does not publish her own correspondence. But his own correspondence makes it very clear that for him, this was a committed relationship. She was his wife. It was just a matter of circumstance until they would be able to regularise their situation and they will be able to live as a couple. That is clearly what he has in mind and what she has in mind, we don’t know. At the same time, lots happening on the Irish scene, we’ve got all the factionalism, we’ve got the terrorist acts, we’ve got the land act, we’ve got land reform, agitations for land reform, tenants being turfed out of their homes so Charles Parnell is at the centre of this. Nobody would believe in a million years that this man who was out there leading the masses, but allaying the worries at Westminster could possibly be writing to my own wifey. It’s unthinkable. It’s unthinkable that this man who is considered a god – was called the chief in Ireland such is his veneration – he has mythic status. They then nip off to Brighton together could it be more archetypal?

Holly: I mean!

Elisabeth: A clandestine trip in April 1881. It’s very, very important because Katie later is pregnant and we just don’t know who the father is because Katie is still living with Willie. Interestingly enough in July we have the crisis. July 1981, all of a sudden, Willie flies down to Eltham to accuse Kate, he’s heard rumours, there’s a huge row. He’s heard that she’s been unfaithful. We don’t know what was discussed between the four walls. But we do know that Willie O’Shea challenges Parnell to a dual, that is how upset he is. So one might look at it as a man love and a man deeply hurt. Willie’s also very big on his honour and on the family honour, values that he transmits very efficiently to his son. Gerad is the same. So he will not take this lightly. And Westminster is a village everybody knows everything, all the MPs and especially the Irish MP they’re living in each other’s pockets. So I think for him, this needs to be sorted. Katie’s sister steps in as a mediator. This is catastrophic. This cannot happen. This upsetting the apple cart. First of all, there’s Aunt Ben, the income. Aunt Ben is very conservative. When Katie’s brother Evelyn married a Roman Catholic, he did not get his £5000 pounds marriage settlement. So this is really serious. And at this point, this is the only family income. This is the only income for Willie O’Shea because he’s got his flat in London and MP expenses. This is the only income for her, the only income for her household. So the first and most important priority is to make sure that no scandal reaches her ears. Something with which Willie concurs, so when he calms down and has a little chat with him. He challenges Parnell in conversation and Parnell apparently promises to discontinue the intimacy So what we have there is quite a lot if you unpack it because what you have is an acknowledgement on Parnell’s side that there has been something happening. We have a commitment from him to discontinue, which he clearly has no intention of honouring. We have Katie rather desperately keeping Willie in his box. And the reason this is so pivotal is that the next 10 years are spent keeping Willie in his box. Basically it’s all about, every time Willie pops up threatening to do something that’s going to ruin her life. She has to get him back, get him back. And so she’s able to do this most efficiently when Aunt Ben is alive. Then in October of 1881 Parnell is arrested and he’s imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail. This is really, really important for the Irish independence movement.

Kilmainham Jail charles stewart parnell
Kilmainham Jail

Holly: It’s a very significant turning point in Irish history.

Elisabeth: It’s really the making of an era. And so again, this is important because while he is consolidating what is becoming the most significant nationalist movement in Ireland, in its history, he’s also writing letters to Katie who is pregnant and Parnell thinks, of course, that it’s his child because he cannot imagine for a microsecond that she would be sleeping with her husband as one of the ways of keeping him in his box. 

Holly: Yeah. 

Elisabeth: There are politicians, but who definitely had an in for Katie, who go so far as to say they knew for a fact that she was visiting my husband in Albert mansions in London at the time. If I ever Katie, that would be a very sensible thing to do, because certainly cannot afford to get pregnant by your lover in 1881. But Parnell ends up in this incredible situation where he’s writing to Katie explaining about invisible ink writing in code, all these incredibly tender, passionate letters. And touchingly, for me, he’s more concerned about her than she is about him. Katie again sort of goes into drama queen mode when she’s pregnant and it’s very it’s all very awful for her, which it is. She’s got a lot of pressure on her, she doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him. They may never let him out. And then she thinks ‘what’s going to become with me? I’m going be left with this husband who now probably hates me and I’m pregnant and it’s a disaster. It’s a nightmare.’ So she needs copious reassurance. So the baby’s born. Claude Sophie is born in February and is unfortunately a sickly child, a sickly baby and she dies. What’s aside from being very sad, is really quite remarkable, is that the birth is announced in The Times – as were the other three births- as being Willie O’Shea’s child. And Willie O’Shea attends the funeral. Willie O’Shea’s mother and daughter write their sympathies to Katie, on the death of this baby. So this is, to my mind, very significant. We are looking at in 1882 at a situation where Katie and Willie are very much considered to be married and are behaving in that way. Willie now sees his opportunity, as he always does to advance in the Irish Party on the coattails of Parnell. Does he know, not know about Parnell and Katie continuing? Who knows. They’re really there is an element of the story that will always be a mystery. Whatever the case may be, he sets himself up as a prime player in negotiating Parnell’s release and the Kilmainham Treaty. So this is hugely important because this happens in the spring of 1882 and what it does is it gets the leaders released from jail and it also looks as though they’re moving ever closer to being able to get legislation in England.

Then we have the Phoenix Park murders. That’s catastrophic because again what you have is, one historian refers to Parnell as ‘riding the tiger.’ He’s on the one hand at Westminster being this incredible parliamentarian, and on the other, he’s got these Fenians who really, really crazy, they’re burning down houses, they’re killing people. They’re maiming animals. And he’s having to reconcile these elements. And he is the first and one might argue the last leader who’s ever able to do that. It’s mystical. So he is now negotiating, he cannot negotiate face to face with Gladstone. What I explained to people is, it’s like expecting Margaret Thatcher to meet Gerry Adams. It’s not going to happen. You can’t be seen to negotiate with terrorists and all the Irish MPs are de facto terrorists. That’s just the way it is as far as the British establishment is concerned. So what happens here is here’s Katie with her impeccable liberal credentials. She starts corresponding with Gladstone as Parnell’s mouthpiece. She is not just his mouthpiece. When you look at the draft of the letters that she publishes and the comments that she later makes about them, they are staying up all night going through this. Is she a politician? Is she a strategic brain? No. Is she someone who is the midwife to very significant political progress? Absolutely. She is first of all creating the conditions for it to happen. Secondly being the conduit, she actually meets with Gladstone on more than one occasion, face to face to make the case for Irish independence and again in this period 1883, 84, 45. This is not what Victorian women are doing. So she clearly takes this cause to heart and she, to my mind, does it for love. She’s never been to Ireland. She has all the preconceptions of most of the British women of her social group would have. And yet Charles Stewart Parnell has really brought it to life for her, and she loves him. His cause becomes her cause. And I think that’s another really important element to remember with what happens later of how hurtful the repercussions of this are for her because she really does identify with his purpose and wants to be there with him. They are not just lovers and in love. They are allies. And I think at this point, it’s absolutely out of the question that she’s involved with Willie O’Shea. But he now sees his advantage with Parnell and all Katie and Charles want is to set up home together. She has a conservatory built in Eltham. He has his horses in the stables and she has a cricket pitch built for him. When we remember the frightened seven year old, Katie is just calm. He says the carpet is poisoned. She doesn’t say ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ She has a little piece cut, sends it to London for analysis. It comes back and it’s not poisoned. What he is is embraced in the home and hearth that he’s never had with the dogs and the horses and the children. And Katie has two more children.

katie and charles parnell
Katie and Charles

Holly: Yeah, I really got the sense that Charles relied emotionally so significantly on Katie, you know, she held him up.

Elisabeth: Yes, I would completely agree. I think that Katie really is the absolute touchstone of his existence. I think emotionally he has become entirely dependent on her. He doesn’t have any friends. He’s not close to siblings. He views his colleagues with suspicion. He is more venerated than loved. And he cultivates that. So all of his emotions are reserved for Katie. I think for her, he moves from being her protector to being her inspiration. He’s not her protector anymore because he cannot protect her from Willie. And by 1885/1886 Willie’s had enough. Willie O’Shea now, for whatever reason has decided that this can’t go on. It’s not on. This is when the cracks are getting larger and larger. Willie is not staying in his box and he starts haranguing and harassing Katie. So he starts saying that he doesn’t want Parnell ever to go there. Parnell’s now ill all the time; he’s miserable without Katie. So she’s got on the one hand she’s got this man that she loves but who’s a bit needy and then he’s got the husband who’s Mr. angry. Meanwhile, in the backdrop, and Aunt Ben is living forever – well into her nineties. She’s into her nineties at this point.

Holly: She lives for an incredibly long time.

Elisabeth: Unbelievable! So at this point Willie has run out of money. He steps down from his seat so he no longer has the political hook keeping him in game. Parnell has run out of money. He’s had to mortgage off his estate at Avondale which really wasn’t a lot of land anyway. Katie is really really fighting for her life here. Now she has five children. Five children, the horses, dogs – the whole thing. In 1887, newspapers are starting to make hints. There’s already a hint made in 1886 in the Pall Mall Gazette which is why Willie goes absolutely ballistic. And in 1887 Aunt Ben changes her will. Now, we are talking about a lot of money here. Aunt Ben is very wealthy, we’re talking in today’s money an equivalent of close £18 million. So this is a large fortune. She makes it over to Katie as sole beneficiary. 

Holly: Wow

Elisabeth: Wow. Wow indeed. Katie is able to use this with Willie, saying ‘look don’t do anything stupid now. We are on the home stretch. This is it. We’re there. Light at the end of the tunnel. This is not the moment to do anything!’ Willie and Katie by 1887 or so are not on speaking terms and Gerard the oldest son takes his father’s side and reports if Parnell is in the house so it starts to get a little bit ugly.

Holly: A little bit nasty.

Elisabeth: 1888, we’ve got the full breakdown of the marriage. I think at that point we can say it’s a point of no return. However in May 1888 Aunt Ben dies at the age of 98.

Holly: Wow, 98. Blooming nora that’s good for nowadays.

Elisabeth: Unbelievable. Unbelievable. She also has £18 million to leave for you. Katie and Parnell instantly move to Brighton. There’s no longer a need for secrecy. Aunt Ben is dead. She can now be with Parnell. And then disastrously for her is that Willie decides, he’s approached by Katie’s siblings who want to challenge the will and saying ‘you’re better off with us. We’re going to overturn the will on the basis that (and this is what you could do in Victorian times) she is unfit to receive the money.

Holly: Morally unfit.

Elisabeth: Because she is an adulteress and because of what she has done. Willie thinks about it and weighs it up and thinks ‘yep, yep…’

Holly: ‘…it’s worth £18 million at this point.’

Elisabeth: ‘It’s worth the money. We’ll go for it.’ And this is terrible, terrible timing because in 1889, Parnell is getting on so well with Gladstone that he is invited to his home. Relations are very very good. Once or twice a senior politician on the Irish and British side might have mentioned to Parnell that he has heard some rumours and he had always been adamant saying ‘nothing dishonourable is taking place.’ Now in Parnell’s mind, perhaps, if he thinks that Katie’s marriage was a sham at the point at which he enters into it, one could argue that he is being sincere.

Holly: Yes and his letters attest to the fact that he believed she was his wife. It was a sincere belief that they were married.

Elisabeth: He wants her to use the initials KP. She’s Katharine Parnell. He believes that they’re married. However…

Holly: they’re not!

Elisabeth: This is not the world of a 7 year old. This is the real world and it’s terrible timing. Willie files for divorce finally and at this point Willie decides he’s going to throw caution to the wind. He’s lost everything. He joins the siblings. He files for divorce and Parnell and Katie react incredibly badly to this. By badly I mean they are disorganised. They don’t know what they’re going to do. They put it off for as long as possible. Katie doesn’t reply to any of the letters. They come for seven months, she doesn’t respond. Parnell is named as co-respondent, he doesn’t answer. Katie tries to bribe Willie during the period. So there’s a lot happening and people are begging Parnell to defend the case because there is a defence to be made. He isn’t being horrible. He’d fallen in love, they were living as man and wife but for the sake of children or what have you the story is not quite as ghastly as Willie O’Shea is making out.

Clark Gable as Parnell in the 1937 film Parnell | Credit: imdb

Holly: No there’s some incredible tales that come out like Parnell sneaking in and out, but we know he had a cricket field. He probably wasn’t sneaking in and out and to allow that…

Elisabeth: But it makes great copy! And at this point you’ve got a column on the front page of The Star – a newspaper calleds mainly about people so it’s gossip, it’s wonderful fodder. There’s pictures of Parnell clambering down the fire escape. Things that never happened. But to juxtapose it with this man, this legend of a man, this hero of a man to be so traduced in this way. People are saying he’s going to defend himself and have his day in court. Now at this point the difficulty is that their defence is that Willie knew all about it. Now, in English law, if Willie knew about it that is called connivance; where there is connivance there can be no divorce. Charles decides he wants to marry her. He can’t marry her without a divorce.

Holly: Right so, he has to allow it.

Elisabeth: This is the love story. This is when a man sacrifices everything that he has built for the love of a woman. One of the things that she writes that he has said is that he says ‘I have given and will give Ireland what is in me to give. That I have vowed to her, but my private life shall never belong to any country but to one woman.’ And I think that sums him up. What he doesn’t understand is that he doesn’t have a private life. He is a public figure and Irish MPs especially and in fact many MPs, they lived far away from home, they were always travelling and fundraising. They made huge sacrifices to be away from their family. It’s not as though he could make a clear demarcation. His is the party. So this is how he sees it but it is not how his colleagues see it.

Holly: No, how did they react?

Elisabeth: So what happens disastrously is that the divorce is undefended. That means that O’Shea’s wildest accusations are given airtime and credence. Everything is reported in the newspapers – they make hay with all of these salacious details. The political opponents are delighted. So everyone who opposes home rule, everyone who opposes any form of independence, everyone who doesn’t like the Irish, who doesn’t like Parnell in the Irish party, they have a field day and Parnell is practically manic. It’s as if he couldn’t see it coming. His erstwhile colleagues and indeed lieutenants within the party, some of them turn on him and there are seven days of very heated negotiations in a private room at Westminster and there is the very very famous split – the Parnell Split where he’s only left with a minority of MPs to support him. Because of this bitter debate Parnell completely turns on the Irish party and what happens is that one of his colleagues, an especially senior colleague, turns on Katie. This is 1891, this is when all of those hopes and aspirations for British independence are being crushed and Katie is blamed. The kinds of words that are being used are degraded, disgraced, shameful, wretched, guilty years of Kitty. This when they start calling her Kitty and they start calling her Kitty (which was never her name) because it was slang for prostitute or for a serving maid. It’s to belittle her and one of things she says is that ‘it was a little thing to bear for the man who loved me like no woman has ever been loved before.’

So meanwhile what happens is that everyone is broke because the will is in probate because it’s being challenged. Katie and Willie had to borrow money for the legal fees. They’re penniless. They do get married by civil service. They hope for a marriage in a church or a blessing but this is not something that is going to happen. The reaction in England, interestingly enough is quite positive and the reason that it’s quite positive is that there’s a story of redemption. That this wasn’t a mere affair. In Ireland it is absolutely scathing. It’s absolutely scathing because it confirms that he was sleeping with a married woman and they refer to him as partner in guilt, a public compact for the continuance of their shameful career. He’s damned himself beyond redemption for guilty pleasures, a marriage of climax of brazen horrors. Basically what has happened is that Katie is completely traduced. One of the rhymes that’s going around in Ireland is ‘8 hours of work, 8 hours of play, 8 hours in bed with Kitty O’Shea’ which, you know, lovely. Meanwhile, very sadly Parnell is campaigning to save his career and what he decides is the bypass the party and go straight to the public but what that means, though, is that he has to campaign in person. So he’s travelling back and forth from Ireland. He’s already ill, he catches a chill, he comes back from Ireland very ill and he dies in October 1891 at the age of 45 and they’ve been married for 3 months.

Holly: It’s so sad.

Elisabeth: What then happens is that the machinery moves into gear. Representatives of the Irish Party arrive straightaway. Katie is beside herself; she’s prostrate with grief. They turn up, the body is removed. He’s not going to be buried in Brighton, he’s not going to be buried anywhere near her. He’s brought back to Ireland for a state funeral. People are trying to get little bits of his casket as relics. There’s half a million people lining the streets in Dublin. It’s as though all is forgiven. It’s all the fault of that dreadful woman, that dreadful, dreadful woman – it is hadn’t been for her!

Holly: That corrupting woman.

Elisabeth: The corrupting married, experienced woman who ought to have known better. And because of this she is completely airbrushed from the scene. In 1913, there’s a letter published by William O’Brien an Irish Nationalist and he publishes a letter from Parnell, claiming that if he’d given evidence that he would have proven that he was a victim of circumstance rather than the destroyer of a happy home. Gerard is furious, absolutely furious. His father has died and Katie is not too happy either. It implies that they were a pair of schemers and Parnell was the victim. And all that resentment that she has for the Irish party that killed her husband for not supporting him after the divorce, lack of funds, she decides that she will publish his memoirs but what his memoirs will be will be his letters and this is sensational. You can imagine how embarrassing for the liberals, it makes Gladstone look like an idiot.

Holly: It really does.

Elisabeth: There are many many objections on grounds of taste, they talk about the dragging down of idols. But it’s a huge commercial success. It runs to three printings – lots of sensationalism. It creates massive embarrassment. In Ireland the book is completely traduced, most shops won’t carry it, the Catholic church bans it, most people refuse to read it and so it’s terribly sad when I think about this woman and her extraordinary qualities as a mother, as an enabler and as someone who really really helps and tried to help people be the best that they could be – it’s just the saddest legacy on many levels. But as you rightly say, a huge love story.

Holly: From my side I truly think that their legacy is that it was considered shameful and awful but they pursued it anyway because it was a stronger force than this outside chatter.

Elisabeth: I agree with you and I think when we go back to Katie’s original encounter with Charles is that for the first time in her life she feels that maybe she can have some happiness. Both she and he are punished so greatly by society for daring to seek happiness, for daring to want to be together. And it shows the demands, and again very resonate for today’s time, I think the demands that we make of our public figures and all you have to do is look at someone like Prince Charles marrying Camilla and the reactions to that that you know how dare these people in which we put some much of our veneration or adoration, how dare they let us down by showing us that they are human?

Holly: I think that is the perfect place to end, a poignant place to end, thank you so much for talking to me. Thank you.

Elisabeth: Thank you so much.

Holly: And thank you also for listening, I so enjoyed talking to Elisabeth she was so incredibly knowledgeable about Katharine’s, Katie’s, life and her love for Parnell. He quite clearly adored her. In a way they gave up their lives to try and build another life together and it is heart-breaking that that so quickly came to an end. I definitely think that I gained a new affection for Katharine because she really seemed like a woman who knew what she wanted and I think that is desperately clear in the way in which they first met trying to get Charles to come to one of her dinner parties. I just absolutely loved the story and I will never refer to her as Kitty O’Shea again because that was not her name and she deserves so much more than that. If you have enjoyed this episode please rate, review and subscribe to Past Loves wherever you are listening to it now – perhaps you could review it by telling me what you learnt at school, your favourite topics in history at school. I’d love to know if there were any stories that you were taught at school that you realise you now have a completely different perspective on like I do with Katharine and Charles. Elisabeth’s book Ireland’s Misfortune: The Turbulent Life of Kitty O’Shea was published by Atlantic Books, is now available on Amazon and at your favourite book shop. It’s important for us to read about incredible women and their relationships like this one. If Past Loves has become your current love please be sure to come follow me over on Instagram (@pastlovespodcast) where the discussion continues. I look forward to the next episode – until soon.

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