Charles Stewart Parnell was known as the “uncrowned king of Ireland” during the late 19th century. He was a brilliant politician who wielded unprecedented power and influence as he campaigned for the rights off the Irish who were living under British rule at that time.
He was followed by adoring crowds as the figurehead of the Irish bid for independence.
Even his enemies in the British Government had to admire his intelligence and his ability to mobilise his followers. He was even given a standing ovation in the House of Commons in London after clearing his name when The Times newspaper made false allegations against him.
For a while it seemed as though Parnell could do no wrong…and then, at the height of his power and influence, his world came crashing down around him. The reason for his downfall was his love for a married woman.
A relationship with another MP’s wife
His reputation was destroyed when it was publicly revealed that he had been having a relationship with the wife of a fellow MP. Parnell was named as co-respondent in the divorce of Captain O’Shea and Kitty O’Shea.
Parnell had been having a relationship with Kitty for several years. The two had three children together. Parnell and O’Shea had made no effort to conceal their relationship. It was reported as being the “worst kept secret in London”.
Captain O’Shea was aware of his wife’s adultery but was content to keep quiet about it because he was waiting for an inheritance from one of Kitty’s aunts and didn’t want to do anything that would upset her. However, when it became clear the inheritance wasn’t going to materialise, he began divorce proceedings.
In late nineteenth century, divorce was almost unheard of, and with the people involved being public figures, it became a national scandal.
Parnell knew the damage that the affair could have on his political career but he was not prepared to give up the woman he loved. He allowed the divorce proceedings to go ahead in public, in order to allow him to marry Kitty himself. The effect it had on his career though was catastrophic.
Parnell lost his supporters
A meeting of the members of the Irish party was arranged to decide whether Parnell could remain as leader. A vast number turned against him for his part in what they regarded as a sordid public affair.
British Prime Minister William Gladstone told Parnell that if he didn’t resign as leader of the Irish party, then their alliance would be finished along with any prospects of Home Rule for Ireland. Parnell was ousted from parliament and his political career was destroyed.
Parnell went on to marry Kitty in a register office after failing to gain permission for a church wedding. He attempted to revive his support in Ireland but was now rejected by the same people that had followed him so passionately.
He died at his home in Brighton in 1891 aged just 45 after a failed election tour in Ireland. A crowd of over 200,000 people are reported to have attended his funeral. Kitty lived the rest of her life in relative obscurity and isolation.