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Revealed: secret evidence in the Parnell, Kitty O'Shea scandal

David Robbins

It was the greatest scandal of its time, a two-day divorce hearing that changed the course of Irish history. This week, with the release of sensitive court records, new light has been thrown on the Parnell adultery case.

The basic facts are known to every history student: Charles Stewart Parnell, the great nationalist leader, had been having a long-term affair with a married woman, Katharine O'Shea.

When her husband, Captain William O'Shea, filed for divorce, the resulting scandal ended the political career of the man who had been called "the uncrowned king of Ireland".

"The divorce was heard over two days in 1890. Parnell was not represented, and Katherine did not contest the evidence," says UCD's professor of modern Irish history Diarmaid Ferriter. In effect, their side of the story was not heard.

Now, the release of UK civil divorce records from 1858-1911 via the ancestry.co.uk genealogy website, gives the first insight into pre-trial claims and counterclaims.

In several affidavits Katharine denied committing adultery with Parnell, and if she did, it was with the connivance of her husband.

She claimed O'Shea was guilty of "willful neglect and misconduct as has conduced to the ... adultery, if any", and that he "willfully separated himself" from her "without reasonable cause".

Captain O'Shea replies with an affidavit setting out the dates and places where Parnell and Katharine were lovers: at Wonersh Lodge, Eltham from 1880 to 1888; in Brighton in 1883 and 1884 and at Nos 9 and 10 Walsingham Terrace, Aldington from August to December, 1889.

Katharine replies again, setting out in more urgent detail her belief that her husband, to further his own interests, threw her and Parnell together, left them alone on numerous occasions and created the circumstances in which an affair could take place.

She also accuses Captain O'Shea of assaulting her while she was pregnant, of depriving her of money left to her by her family and of squandering it on "horse racing and rash speculations".

He "habitually committed adultery with divers prostitutes" in France, Spain and London. He "was guilty of inducing, directing and requiring" her to "form an acquaintance" with Parnell and "ask favours of him" in his own interest.

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O'Shea was "basically a scoundrel", says Prof Ferriter. "O'Shea and Kitty were expecting some sort of bequest to come through, and it turned out it wasn't available to them, so he took the case with a certain degree of cynicism. Parnell and Kitty O'Shea didn't have the money to pay him off – I think a sum of £20,000 was mentioned," he adds.

"The consensus seems to be that he stayed in the marriage for money," says UCD historian Dr Conor Mulvagh, a specialist in the politics of the period.

"Katharine's aunt was basically keeping them going." Certainly, according to the divorce records, O'Shea – one-time MP for Clare and a captain in the 18th Hussars – appears to have been trying to make money out of his wife's connection to Parnell; at one point, she accuses him of "trafficking in his alleged influence over" the politician.

Later documents filed by Katharine – she was called Kitty only by anti-Parnellites because it was slang for prostitute – go into great detail about her husband's infidelities. She states that he was unfaithful to her with Thérèse Dubuisson and Marie Grande in Paris in the spring of 1874 and with Maria Dominguez in Las Minas in Spain in 1877 and 1878. He also was unfaithful "in the year 1875 at Mortlake, with Sarah Winrow, the parlour maid employed at the house where the petitioner resided with the respondent".

Then there was Mrs Deerehurst in Haymarket in 1881, Elise Guérin in Paris, 1882, Amelia Villarde in Madrid, 1885, and Rosa Terrice in 1884 at No 1 Albert Mansions in London. And, perhaps most shamefully of all, he seduced Katherine's sister, Anna Caroline.

"The sheer drama of it, the tragedy of it, and the hypocrisy of it" are such key features, says Prof Ferriter.

Parnell's popularity was high; he had just been vindicated by an inquiry into a series of articles in The Times claiming he had fostered violence in the struggle for land reform and was connected to the infamous Phoenix Park murders.

He was given a standing ovation on his return to the House of Commons after The Times' verdict, and he "tried to portray the divorce case as another smear", says Prof Ferriter.

Gladstone, the British prime minister, said Parnell could not continue to lead his party, but he tried to stay on, creating a split in the nationalist ranks that took decades to heal.

The case "did affect the course of constitutional nationalism," says Prof Ferriter. "There wasn't another Home Rule Bill until 1912."

"The case had a huge cultural and psychological impact," says Dr Mulvagh.

"A whole generation of Irish people became disillusioned with politics. Many instead became involved in the revival of the Irish language, the GAA and the Irish literary revival. It even had an influence on Joyce, who wrote about it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

O'Shea and Parnell married in 1891 in a registry office – they were refused a church wedding. He died of a heart attack in her arms three months later. He was 45.

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