(This is the first of two consecutive posts about Charles Stewart Parnell. Next, a guest post from a new Irish Academic Press collection. MH)
The deaths of former newsmakers, often years after they’ve faded from public attention, usually prompt reflections of their time in the spotlight and sometimes help contextualize contemporary issues. That’s what happened with the Feb. 5, 1921, passing of the former Katherine Wood, who first became Mrs. William O’Shea, then Mrs. Charles Stewart Parnell. She died a week after reaching age 76, having outlived her famous second husband by 30 years, her first by 16 years.
The adultery between Mrs. O’Shea and Parnell was exposed by the first husband’s 1889 divorce filing. The scandal isolated Parnell as leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party and stopped momentum toward Irish domestic autonomy, called home rule, which he had been building for years. The Irish party split over whether or not to support Parnell. Other home rule allies, including liberal British politicians and the Catholic Church hierarchy, quickly distanced themselves from the effort.
Mrs. Parnell’s death evoked “deplorably sad” memories for contemporaries of the “Parnell movement”, but little more than “passing attention from the younger generation of Irishmen,” the Freeman’s Journal wrote in February 1921.“Death of Mrs. Parnell”, Freeman’s Journal, Feb. 7, 1921. The paper continued:
No more tragic episode is contained in the annals of human history than the dramatic fall of Ireland’s chief. He–as the uncrowned king–was leading his people triumphantly in demolishing the trenches of feudalism and ascendancy and heading straight for the goal of national freedom, when the lamentable intrigue with the lady whose death is just announced dashed the hopes of the Irish nation to the ground.
The Irish Independent cattily noted that “Mrs. Parnell was not Irish … she was of purely English descent, and her supposed Irish qualities had no more foundation than might be derived from her first marriage”“Death of Mrs. Parnell, Widow of Irish Leader”, Irish Independent, Feb. 7, 1921., in 1867, to O’Shea, a Dublin-born captain in the British Army. Parnell was born in County Wicklow to an Anglo-Irish father and American mother. Both men were parliamentary colleagues during most of the 1880s.
The divorce episode “led to the ruin of the Irish leader and to a great split in the Irish movement which completely demoralized it and dislocated Irish politics for many years,” wrote John Devoy, editor of The Gaelic American and a veteran of the Irish struggle from before the Parnell period. In a February 1921 analysis,”The Tragic End of Charles Stewart Parnell“, The Gaelic American, Feb. 19, 1921. Devoy insisted there were “lessons for the present generation.”
The really essential factor in the Irish Question is a United Irish Race. That was true in Parnell’s day and it is true now. A United Irish Race is treated with contempt and the English are encouraged to start secret intrigues and public propaganda to widen the breach. That was what occurred in the Parnell Split, and the same thing is going on today. And [Prime Minister] Lloyd George is doing it very skillfully. Knowing the Irish are divided, he is maneuvering to placate groups and sections, so as to detach them from the “extremists,” who really represented the whole Race a few months ago and represent its real spirit today. Had the unity of six months ago remained, he would be faced by the strength, resources and combined ability of the Race throughout the world and his pettifogging tactics would now be useless. Now the most important part of his propaganda–that aimed at the destruction of the Irish leaders in America–is carried on by Irishmen and the cost is defrayed by money collected for the Irish Republic.
The last phrase appears aimed at supporters of Sinn Féin leader Éamon de Valera, who returned to Ireland in December 1920 after an 18-month tour of America seeking U.S. political recognition and money for Irish independence. The establishment, Devoy-allied Friends of Irish Freedom (FOIF) and de Valera argued over the best way to win backing for Ireland from U.S. political parties at the summer 1920 presidential nominating conventions. Their feuding backfired, with no pledge from either the Republicans or Democrats. Before he sailed home, de Valera and his loyalists also split from FOIF and created the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic (AARIR) to control money and the Irish narrative in America.
Devoy went on:
When Irishmen want a split–and the fit takes them periodically–any old reason is good enough for a pretext. In Parnell’s time the pretext was zeal for morality, but the real reason was that the English wanted to get rid of the only Irishman who was capable of beating them … so they would have an easier job in dealing with lesser men … Today the pretext is zeal for the Irish Republic, and the method is to get rid of the real Republicans in America and put the movement in the hands of men who don’t care a thraneen for the Irish Republic–or the American Republic.
Devoy rehashed 30-year-old speculation of whether Mrs. O’Shea seduced Parnell of her own volition, or was “set on him” by the English. Either way, the Irish movement was ruined. The couple married in June 1891, but Parnell died that October, age 45.
The widow became notorious as Kitty O’Shea, the forename variation also a slang term for a prostitute. She published a tell-all memoir in 1914 “in which she exposed to the vulgar world all the secrets, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies of the great statesman she attracted, excluded those elements of sympathy that naturally go forth to a woman who, herself, was the victim of her own passion and thereby suffered heavily for her moral delinquencies,” the Freeman’s Journal noted.
The New York Herald reported the book “caused a brief sensation until the outbreak of the war eclipsed it in public attention.”“Widow of Parnell Dies in England”, New York Herald, Feb. 6, 1921. A century later, Parnell remains familiar in Ireland, if obscure elsewhere; while the “purely English” Kitty O’Shea survives as the name of countless Irish pubs around the world.
See my American Reporting of Irish Independence series.
|↑1||“Death of Mrs. Parnell”, Freeman’s Journal, Feb. 7, 1921.|
|↑2||“Death of Mrs. Parnell, Widow of Irish Leader”, Irish Independent, Feb. 7, 1921.|
|↑3||”The Tragic End of Charles Stewart Parnell“, The Gaelic American, Feb. 19, 1921.|
|↑4||“Widow of Parnell Dies in England”, New York Herald, Feb. 6, 1921.|