Ireland's Misfortune: The Turbulent Life of Kitty O'Shea

September 4, 2008

I recall at postgraduate seminars at Trinity College Dublin, T. W. Moody, a father of modern Irish history, politely but firmly correcting my reference to "Kitty O'Shea" - "Mrs Katherine O'Shea, please."

In the same spirit, Elisabeth Kehoe in Ireland's Misfortune: The Turbulent Life of Kitty O'Shea has stated that "Kitty" was used to convey disapproval of Katherine O'Shea by those who blamed the sorry state of Irish politics, with its bitter divisions in the 1890s, on her affair with the Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell. Kehoe's aim is to bring Katherine out of the shadows, to give a balanced account of her life and to seek to redeem her reputation.

Kehoe's book offers a full account of O'Shea's life, based on thorough research. There is some interesting information on her family and her marriage to Captain Willie O'Shea, and the development of her relationship with Parnell is carefully charted.

There are some useful observations: the distinction drawn between English and Irish perceptions of Parnell's behaviour; the crucial role that money played in the love triangle; the role of the press in the creation of the Parnell myth; the hint that it was Parnell the political hero that so attracted Katherine to him.

The scandal of the divorce proceedings O'Shea brought against his wife, citing Parnell as the co-respondent, and the split in the Irish Party have already been fully explored by historians; and it is appropriate that Kehoe does not devote too much space to this. However, Katherine O'Shea has also been much written about, including Jane Jordan's fine biography Kitty O'Shea: An Irish Affair (2005).

For those unfamiliar with English or Irish history, Kehoe has meticulously provided background, although these forays often prove a distraction to the flow of the writing and could have been reduced. There are also oversights. She could have given more analysis of Katherine within the context of Victorian women's role in society; she touches only briefly on problems she faced as a divorcee, a widow and a "fallen woman".

Kehoe could perhaps have shown more awareness of Parnell's relations with members of the Irish Party and the tensions that built up in the 1880s as he sought to mould and dominate it, and she could have recognised the more complex relationship Parnell had with the Catholic Church in the 1880s, when they often worked together to shape policy and select suitable parliamentary candidates. This would have added perspective to her reflection on the divorce case as a turning point in Irish history, and how much had Katherine been "Ireland's misfortune".

A key reason for the continued split in the party in the 1890s was the dominance Parnell had enjoyed, for there was no obvious successor to the leadership (a point Kehoe implies but could have pursued further).

Although Kehoe does convey sympathetically the tragic course of Katherine's relationship with Parnell and their snatched moments of happiness, O'Shea remains a shadowy figure.

Admittedly, a biography of Katherine would never be an easy one to write, as so few of her letters have survived. Kehoe consequently leans very heavily on Katherine's own later published and rather one-sided account (in which her letters to Parnell are not included), a work that Kehoe acknowledges is unreliable in many places.

In Ireland's Misfortune, Kehoe has paid considerable attention to detail, but in her commendable concern to be objective and to present different explanations she has left the reader uncertain as to what she herself believes.

She is perhaps too caught up with the narrative and could have focused more on developing analysis.

Although the more pedestrian, mundane details of Parnell and Katherine's lives together are described, she could have done more to capture the passion that underlay their love for one another.

Ireland's Misfortune: The Turbulent Life of Kitty O'Shea

By Elisabeth Kehoe. Atlantic Books. 608pp, £19.99. ISBN 9781843544869. Published 12 May 2008

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