By Pauline Murphy
Katharine Wood was born in Essex in 1845, the youngest of thirteen children of the Catholic British Baron, Sir John Wood, and the artist, Lady Emma Wood. Katharine’s life would change at the age of 21 when she married a Dubliner – Captain William O’Shea of the 18th British Hussars. The couple first met when Katharine visited her brother’s regiment. They married in 1867 and had three children but by 1875 they were living apart.
Captain O’Shea preferred the life of a rake rather than that of a family man. He had a gambling problem, a drink problem and a problem staying faithful to his wife. For a while, Katharine turned a blind eye to her husband’s behaviour and played the dutiful wife.
To advance his political career she hosted dinner parties and mingled with the parliamentary elite. In the summer of 1880 while in Westminster, Katharine grabbed the chance to confront Charles Stuart Parnell who had snubbed several of her dinner party invites. Rather than a cold confrontation it was instead love at first sight.
Parnell was a bachelor while Katharine was a married woman with children but it did not stop them from falling head over heels for each other and before long they were living together in the London suburb of Eltham. Captain O’Shea knew about the affair but like the way his wife turned a blind eye to his behaviour, he did likewise with hers.
In 1882 while Parnell was imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail, Katharine gave birth to their daughter Sophia. The infant was very ill and when Parnell was released he held his firstborn child for the first and last time as she died in his arms. Parnell and Katharine would have a further two children together.
Their somewhat secret love life seemed to work out for a while until Katarine’s rich aunt died. Katharine had been taking care of her aunt and when she died she left a large inheritance to Katharine. When Captain O’Shea found out he wanted a piece of the inheritance. To do this he would need to divorce his wife and this would begin a scandal which would end Parnell’s career, Katharine’s reputation and the prospects of Home Rule for Ireland. Captain O’Shea filed for divorce on Christmas Eve 1889.
The Catholic supporters of Parnell were appalled he would conduct an affair with a married Catholic woman and a split occurred in the Home Rule movement. It was at this time the press labelled Katharine as “Kitty” which was a Victorian slang term for an immoral woman.
The divorced Katharine was now free to marry the man she loved and they did so, in a very small way. With just their house servants as witnesses, Katharine and Parnell went to a Sussex registry office on the morning of June 25th 1891. Four months later the marriage came to a sad end. After their wedding Parnell set about trying to repair his fractured Home Rule party.
He was already in poor health when he went to Ireland to revive the prospects of Home Rule. At a rally in Roscommon the heavens opened and Parnell insisted on finishing his speech in the pouring rain. He caught a bad cold which proved fatal.
Parnell left Ireland a broken man, he made his way back to England where he died in Katharine’s arms at their Sussex home on the 6th of October 1891. After Parnell’s death Katharine remained in the south of England, moving from one home to another. She was declared bankrupt in 1892.
Katharine fell into a depression and fell victim to alcoholism. Katharine’s family abandoned her and so too did many of her friends. She became very paranoid and carried a loaded revolver wherever she went. Katharine never remarried, in fact she never ever got over the death of Parnell.
Katharine’s final home was 39 Eastham Road, Littlehampton. She was 75 years old when she died there on the 5th of February 1921. Katharine was not buried with her beloved Parnell in Glasnevin, instead she was laid to rest in Littlehampton Cemetery where decades later The Parnell Society placed a plaque at her grave with the following words: “I will give my life to Ireland, but to you I give my love.” When Katharine died in 1921 her death went unnoticed in the land her beloved Parnell was once declared the uncrowned king of. Ireland was by then in the throes of a war, not for home rule, but for total independence and the name Katharine “Kitty” O’Shea had been consigned to history.