Katharine O'Shea

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Katharine Parnell
Katharine Wood

(1846-01-30)30 January 1846
Braintree, Essex, England
Died5 February 1921(1921-02-05) (aged 75)
Spouse(s)William O'Shea
Charles Stewart Parnell

Katharine Parnell (née Wood; 30 January 1846 – 5 February 1921), known before her second marriage as Katharine O'Shea, and usually called Katie O'Shea by friends and Kitty O'Shea by enemies, was an English woman of aristocratic background whose decade-long secret affair with Charles Stewart Parnell led to a widely publicized divorce in 1890 and his political downfall.


Katharine was born in Braintree, Essex, on 30 January 1846, the daughter of Sir John Page Wood, 2nd Baronet (1796–1866),[1] and granddaughter of Sir Matthew Wood,[2] a former Lord Mayor of London. She had an elder brother who became Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood and was also the niece of both Western Wood MP (1804–1863) and Lord Hatherley, Gladstone's first Liberal Lord Chancellor.

Relationship with Parnell[edit]

In 1867, Katharine married Captain William O'Shea, a Catholic Nationalist MP for County Clare from whom she separated around 1875.[3] Katharine first met Parnell in 1880 and began an affair with him. Three of Katharine's children were fathered by Parnell; the first, Claude Sophie, died early in 1882. The others were Claire (born 1883) and Katharine (born 1884). Captain O'Shea knew about the relationship. He challenged Parnell to a duel in 1881 and initially forbade his estranged wife to see him, although she said that he encouraged her in the relationship. However, he kept publicly quiet for several years. Although their relationship was a subject of gossip in London political circles from 1881,[4] later public knowledge of the affair in an England governed by "Victorian morality" with a "nonconformist conscience" created a huge scandal, as adultery was prohibited by the Ten Commandments.

Out of her family connection to the Liberal Party, Katharine acted as liaison between Parnell and Gladstone during negotiations prior to the introduction of the First Irish Home Rule Bill in April 1886. Parnell moved to her home in Eltham, close to the London-Kent border, that summer.[5]

Captain O'Shea filed for divorce in 1889; his reasons are a matter for speculation. He may have had political motives. Alternatively, it was claimed that he had been hoping for an inheritance from Katharine's rich aunt whom he had expected to die earlier, but when she died in 1889 her money was left in trust to cousins. After the divorce the court awarded 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 was named as co-respondent, led 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 felt a profound sense of shock when Katharine broke the vows of her previous Catholic marriage by marrying Parnell on 25 June 1891.[4] With both his political life and his health essentially ruined, Parnell died in her arms at the age of 45 on 6 October 1891 in Hove, less than four months after their marriage. The cause was cancer of the stomach, possibly complicated by coronary heart disease inherited from his grandfather and father, who also died prematurely.

O'Shea in 1914

Katharine published a biography of Parnell in 1914 as "Katharine O'Shea (Mrs. Charles Stewart Parnell)".[6]

Though to her friends she was known as Katie O'Shea, Parnell's enemies, in order to damage him personally, called her Kitty O'Shea because at that time "kitty", as well as being a Hiberno-English version of Catherine/Katherine/Katharine, was also a slang term for a prostitute. She lived the rest of her life in relative obscurity and is buried in Littlehampton, West Sussex, England.

Her daughter by Parnell, Claire O'Shea (1883–1909), married Dr. Bertram Sydney Osmund Maunsell, and their only son, Assheton Clare Bowyer-Lane Maunsell (1909–34), died of enteric fever while serving with the British army in India. Katharine’s other daughter by Parnell, Katharine O'Shea (1884–1947), married Arthur Moule of the East Lancashire Regiment and died in an asylum.[7]

Captain Henry Harrison, MP, who had acted as Parnell's bodyguard and aide-de-camp, devoted himself after Parnell's death to the service of his widow, Katharine. From her he heard a completely different version of the events surrounding the divorce from that which had appeared in the press, and this was to form the seed of his later two books defending Parnell published in 1931 and 1938. They had a major impact on Irish historiography, leading to a more favourable view of Parnell's role in the O’Shea affair.[8]


  1. ^ Fargnoli, A. Nicholas; Gillespie, Michael Patrick (2006). Critical companion to James Joyce: A literary reference to his life and work. New York: Facts on File, Inc. ISBN 9781438108483. Archived from the original on 15 April 2021. Retrieved 6 November 2016.
  2. ^ Collen, G. W. (1840). Debrett's baronetage of England. revised, corrected and continued by G.W. Collen. Vol. 3. London. p. 593. Archived from the original on 15 April 2021. Retrieved 12 December 2020.
  3. ^ Boyce, David George (1990). Nineteenth-century Ireland: The search for stability. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan. ISBN 0-7171-1620-4. OCLC 23061804.
  4. ^ a b Bew, Paul, Parnell, Charles Stewart (1846–1891) , Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Archived 3 April 2012 at the Wayback Machine Section: "President of the Irish National Land League". quote: As Katharine herself said in an interview with Henry Harrison after the publication of her memoirs: "Did Captain O'Shea know? Of course he knew.... There was no bargain; there were no discussions; people do not talk about such things. But he knew, and he actually encouraged me at all times" (H. Harrison, Parnell Vindicated (1931) p.123. (2004–5)
  5. ^ Kennett, John (1995). Eltham: A pictorial history. Chichester: Phillimore. ISBN 1-86077-004-5. OCLC 35207701.
  6. ^ "General books of importance". The Independent. 14 December 1914. Retrieved 24 July 2012.
  7. ^ Mac Stiofán, Seán. "Parnell's only grandson, Assheton". Politics.ie. Archived from the original on 1 April 2016. Retrieved 23 March 2022.
  8. ^ Lyons, F. S. L. (1977). Charles Stewart Parnell. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 324. ISBN 0-19-519949-9. OCLC 3095864. Harrison 'did more than anyone else to uncover what seems to have been the true facts' about the Parnell-O'Shea liaison.


  • O'Shea, Katharine (1914) Charles Stewart Parnell. London: Cassell
  • Harrison, Henry (1931) Parnell Vindicated: the lifting of the veil. London: Constable
  • Kehoe, Elisabeth (2008) Ireland's Misfortune: The Turbulent Life of Kitty O'Shea. London: Atlantic Books ISBN 978-1-84354-561-3

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