Charles Stewart Parnell died on October 6, 1891, in the midst of what was essentially the first major democratic heave in modern Irish history. This was to have profound historical implications.
Parnell was at the height of his power at the end of 1889 when Captain William O’Shea filed for a divorce from his wife Catherine (Kitty) on Christmas Eve, citing Parnell as a correspondent in the case. Parnell assured colleagues that he had nothing to fear, and they would understand when the truth came out.
He had been living with Kitty O’Shea in Britain for almost 10 years and had fathered three of her children. Thereported that Captain O’Shea had been long aware of the arrangement. He had separated from his wife in 1875 after eight years of marriage. He actually used Parnell’s relationship with his estranged wife to further his own career.
In 1886 O’Shea was elected to Westminster from Galway with the help of Parnell, but he resigned his seat after only four months. His political relationship with Parnell was thereafter seriously undermined.
O’Shea’s allegations were relatively minor in comparison to the massive scandal that had surrounded Parnell after he was accused of encouraging the violence that led to the infamous murders of the chief secretary for Ireland and his undersecretary in Phoenix Park in 1882. Parnell had denounced those murders, but in April 1887of London published a pamphlet with facsimiles of letters purportedly written by Parnell, seeking to excuse his public denunciation of the murders.
One letter supposedly written on January 9, 1882 was clearly an incitement to violence. “What are these fellows waiting for? This inaction is inexcusable; our best men are in prison, and nothing is being done,” Parnell purportedly wrote. “Let there be an end to this hesitancy. Prompt action is called for.”
Parnell denounced the letter as “a villainous and bare-faced forgery”. Parliament set up a select commission to investigate the allegations, but Parnell was able to demonstrate that his supposed letters had been forged by Richard Piggott, a somewhat deranged Irish journalist who was trying to destroy Parnell.
Piggott admitted the forgeries and fled to Spain, where he took his life in March 1889. Parnell duly took a libel action against, which gave him £5,000 in an out-of-court settlement in February 1890. By then he had already been served with legal papers citing him as a correspondent in the O’Shea divorce case, which did not come to court until November 15, 1890. The case lasted only two days in court.
Anxious for the divorce to be concluded as quickly as possible, Parnell did not contest O’Shea’s allegations. He did not even contest O’Shea’s false claim that Parnell used to slip out by a fire-escape when he returned home.
O’Shea’s marriage had broken up over five years before Parnell even met Kitty. He was never living in the house while Parnell was there, but in the wake of his failure to contest those allegations, it seemed that the adulterous affair had destroyed O’Shea’s marriage.
William Gladstone, the leader of the Liberal Party, informed Justin McCarthy, the recognised deputy leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), that he could no longer do business with Parnell. If the IPP did not get a new leader, Home Rule was dead, warned Gladstone.
While on a visit to the US representing the IPP, William O’Brien, TP O’Connor, and John Dillon called on their colleagues to repudiate Parnell. On the same day, November 30, 1890, Thomas W Croke, the Archbishop of Cashel, sent a telegram to Justin McCarthy calling for Parnell to stand down.
“In God’s name let him retire quietly and with good grace from the leadership,” the archbishop telegraphed. If Parnell did not step down, Croke warned, the alliance with the Liberal Party would disintegrate and the IPP would be “seriously damaged, if not wholly broken up”. The same day 26 priests in Cork called on Parnell to step down, and the Bishop of Cork, Thomas Alphonsus O’Callaghan, issued a personal statement denouncing him. “In consequence of recent proceedings,” he said, “I have lost all confidence in him.” The next day, 73 members of the IPP began six days of meetings in London to discuss the leadership issue. While this was being debated in London, the four Irish Catholic archbishops — Michael Logue of Armagh, William Walsh of Dublin, Thomas Croke of Cashel, and John McEvilly of Tuam — condemned Parnell as unfit to lead the IPP.
“We cannot regard Mr Parnell in any light than as a man convicted of one of the greatest offences known to religion and society,” proclaimed the archbishops. Their views were formally endorsed by 19 bishops.
Some 60% of the IPP clearly wished for Parnell to stand down. But he refused to budge. He contended that Gladstone was trying to dictate to party. On the sixth day the majority walked out.
There was a trial of strength before the end of the month with a by-election in Kilkenny. Parnell’s supporters were initially confident of success, but the anti-Parnell candidate won a decisive victory with over 64% of the vote.
Parnell blamed the Catholic bishops for his defeat. He denounced Archbishop Croke in Limerick on January 10, 1891. “It is not open to the Irish bishops to claim they had interfered on the question of morality, because they were too late,” said Parnell. They had not spoken out for two weeks after the divorce case, and when they did speak out it was clearly “a question of politics”, he insisted.
When Parnell married Kitty O’Shea on June 25, 1891, the Catholic bishops issued a statement reaffirming their December pronouncement contending he had “utterly disqualified himself to be their leader”. The next electoral test was a by-election in Carlow less than a fortnight later. Parnell’s critics won over 70% of the vote. By this stage Parnell was an ill man. He had been suffering for over a year from Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment. He died in early October at the age of 45 — more than 200,000 people attended his funeral.
What was really a political heave was to have a profound influence on the developing partition issue, as well as on the broader history of the island over the next hundred years. Indeed, it still has ramifications as people complain about the deference of politicians to the Church on political issues.