Monday, September 8, 2014

Kitty O'Shea's Book 'Charles Stewart Parnell'

‘A good book is the best of friends, the same today and forever’.  I can’t recall who penned these words but they strike a chord with me given my interest in books and the printed word.  Over the years I have discovered many great books and some not so good, but all of them nevertheless gave enjoyment, while sometimes proving useful and informative.  Earlier this year while on a visit to a second-hand book shop in Charing Cross Road, London I came across the two volume set of Kitty O’Shea’s book, ‘Charles Stewart Parnell, his Love Story and Political Life’. 

I first purchased a copy of these volumes in Greene’s bookshop in Clare Street, Dublin perhaps 35 years or so ago.  I was working then in Baggot Street and Greene’s bookshop and Parsons book shop on Baggot Street Bridge where May O’Flaherty held court, were almost daily ports of call.  Despite already having a copy of Kitty O’Shea’s book I decided to buy the set on sale at the Charing Cross Road book shop.  The book was very reasonably priced and was a nice copy, despite some adoring mother having inscribed a dedication on the fly leaf.

Some months later a copy of the same book was for auction in England.  The book was inscribed by Kitty O’Shea, using her married name Katherine Parnell and with it was a letter signed by Gladstone, the British Prime Minister addressed to Captain O’Shea M.P.  I have always had a high regard for William Ewart Gladstone, the first British Prime Minister ever to take a considerate view to what the British call ‘The Irish Question’.  He drew up the first Home Rule Bill and resigned in 1886 when many of his own party voted against the measure, thereby ensuring its defeat.  One of the longest serving Westminster politicians, Gladstone finally resigned from politics in 1894 when he was 84 years of age.  His espousal of the cause of Irish Home Rule was just one of the many causes which marked his as the greatest political career of the 19th century. 

Gladstone’s letter coupled with Kitty O’Shea’s inscribed book was the prize I succeeded in securing at the auction and some weeks later both items arrived in Athy.  Katherine Parnell had inscribed Volume 1 of her book to ‘T.S. Curtis with kind regards’.  Her writing looked familiar and I wondered where I had seen it before.  I turned to the other recently acquired volumes of the same book and there in the same hand with obviously the same pen was the inscription ‘Norah, with dearest love from mother.’  It was Kitty O’Shea’s handwriting and she had signed the volumes published in 1914 to her daughter Norah.  You can imagine my delight at such an unexpected find.

Kitty O’Shea married Charles Stewart Parnell just five months before he died in Brighton on 6th October 1891.  Their relationship which began soon after they met in 1880 resulted in the birth of three children, the first of whom died soon after birth, while the other two daughters of Parnell lived until 1909 and 1947 respectively.  Both married and his daughter Clare had an only daughter who died in 1941.  There is no surviving direct descendant of Parnell. 

Norah, to whom Kitty O’Shea inscribed her book, was her second child by Captain O’Shea and was born seven years before Parnell met her mother.  Norah continued to live with her mother Kitty following Parnell’s death and they moved house on several occasions over the years, always living on the South coast of England, before returning to Brighton. 

The book, ‘Charles Stewart Parnell, his Love Story and Political Life’, was published in 1914 at a time when Katherine Parnell was in dire financial straits and is believed to have been edited by her son Gerard O’Shea.  Reviewed by the National newspapers of the day the book was lambasted by many, although the London Times in its review gave an accurate resume of the book and commented that it gave a new insight into the Parnell O’Shea relationship which redeemed Captain O’Shea’s reputation from the previously made charge of connivance in his wife’s affair with Parnell. 

The book sales allowed the impoverished Kitty to live in some comfort and shortly before she died in 1921 she moved to the seaside town of Littlehampton.  Her daughter Norah who had by then moved to London as her mother’s health and wealth improved, now returned to Littlehampton.  Katherine Parnell passed away on 5th February 1921, 30 years after the death of the Irish leader.  In contrast to the huge funeral which Parnell was given in Dublin, his wife Kitty’s coffin was followed by only two horsedrawn carriages, one of which was empty as it passed slowly through the streets of Littlehampton to the local cemetery.  Her grave is marked with a cross inscribed ‘To the beloved memory of Katherine, widow of Charles Stewart Parnell – born 30th January 1845.  Died 5th February 1921, Fide et Amore.’

Kitty’s daughter Norah was penniless following her mother’s death and sought help from the Irish Parliamentarian T.P. O’Connor who got her a position as a nursery governess in a London hospital.  She used the name Norah Woods, rather than O’Shea, because of the notoriety attached to her mother’s name which even so many years after Parnell’s death was still likely to lead to troublesome questions.  Norah died aged 50 years on 16th July 1923 and was buried next to her mother at Littlehampton.  She left a box containing relics of her mother’s relationship with Parnell which in 1956 was passed to Sir Shane Leslie who eventually gave the contents to the Kilmainham Jail Museum in Dublin.

How the book inscribed by Kitty to her daughter Norah came to be in the second-hand bookshop in Charing Cross Road is a mystery.  The happy coincidence of a book auction purchase of a book inscribed by Katherine Parnell allowed a book inscribed ‘To Norah from her mother’ to be identified as written by the former Kitty O’Shea whose love for the Irish political leader Charles Stewart Parnell had far reaching and lasting consequences for the political destiny of the Irish people.

Your own opportunity to buy books of interest comes with the Lions Book Sale scheduled to take place in the premises next to the Emigrant Pub at Barrow Quay on Saturday and Sunday, 28th and 29th November.  The premises have been kindly lent for the book sale by John Gallagher and books will be on sale on Saturday from 10a.m. to 6p.m. and on Sunday from 12noon to 5p.m.  All proceeds go to local charities and donations of good clean books are very welcome.  Books can be left into the offices of Taaffe & Co. at Edmund Rice Square, Athy up to and including Friday and into the book sale premises on either Saturday and Sunday.

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