Katharine O'Shea

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Katharine O'Shea
Born (1846-01-30)30 January 1846
Braintree, Essex
Died 5 February 1921(1921-02-05) (aged 75)
Residence Eltham, Kent
Nationality English
Occupation Gentlewoman
Spouse(s) William O'Shea
Charles Stewart Parnell
Children Claude Sophie

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


She was born Katharine Wood 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]

Katharine first met Parnell in 1880, when she was married to but already separated from Captain William O'Shea, a Catholic Nationalist MP for County Clare. Out of her family connection to the Liberal Party, she 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. Three of Katharine's children were fathered by Parnell; the first died early in 1882. The others were Claire (1883–1909) and Katharine (1884–1947).

Captain O'Shea knew about the relationship. He challenged Parnell to a duel in 1881 and initially forbade his ex-wife to see him, although she said that he encouraged her in the relationship. However, he kept publicly quiet for several years. His reasons for filing for divorce in 1889 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.

Although their relationship was a subject of gossip in London political circles from 1881,[3] 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.

After the divorce the court awarded custody of Katharine O'Shea and CS Parnell's two daughters to her ex-husband, William O'Shea.

The divorce and remarriage 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 following Katharine's November divorce proceedings from Captain O'Shea, in which Parnell was named as co-respondent. Catholic Ireland only 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 Parnell's political life and his health essentially ruined, he died at the age of 45 in Hove on 6 October 1891 in her arms, 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)",[5] 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 an 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, Sussex, England.

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 issue 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.[6]


  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. Retrieved 6 December 2010. 
  2. ^ Collen, G. W. (1840). Debrett's baronetage of England. revised, corrected and continued by G.W. Collen 3. London. p. 593. Retrieved 6 December 2010. 
  3. ^ Bew, Paul, Parnell, Charles Stewart (1846–1891) , Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 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)
  4. ^ Bew, Paul: Parnell, Charles Stewart (1846–1891)
  5. ^ "General books of importance". The Independent. 14 December 1914. Retrieved 24 July 2012. 
  6. ^ Lyons, F. S. L. in his Charles Stewart Parnell (1977), p. 324, commented that 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

External links[edit]