First, Charles Stewart Parnell’s mistress was never actually called ‘Kitty O’Shea’, as Elisabeth Kehoe quite properly explains in this meticulous biography. ‘Kitty’ was a public, and perhaps pejorative, nickname that has principally lived on as a name for Irish-themed pubs: the Kitty O’Shea Tavern and Inn. It is supposed to signal an ooh-la-la sauciness and Madame Naughty in a basque – Parnell’s fancy-woman who was allegedly the cause of ‘Ireland’s Misfortune’.
But of course it wasn’t like that at all: it never is. It was an infinitely more complicated and multi-layered story of passionate commitment, involving poor judgement, character blindspots, and, above all, a chronic problem with money. Far from being a saucy sexpot, Mrs Katharine O’Shea was a strong-minded, cultivated and self-assured Victorian matron with whom the otherwise frighteningly icy Parnell was utterly smitten.
The legend, by now, is famous – made so by W B Yeats’s ballad (‘A husband that had sold his wife / And after that betrayed’) and James Joyce’s matchless Parnell episode in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The aloof but bewitching Charles Stewart Parnell, known as