Parnell and Kitty O’Shea – a Sussex love story

Kitty O'Shea in 1914
Kitty O'Shea in 1914

“Yes, that’s the grave most people want to see,” said the lady at Littlehampton Cemetery when I asked where Katharine O’Shea was buried.

She was known as Kate to her family and as Kitty to history, a name she would have hated as it was slang for a woman of loose morals.

Kitty O'Shea's grave in Littlehampton Cemetery

Kitty O'Shea's grave in Littlehampton Cemetery

I had read a great deal about her and, having moved to the town, felt it was time to pay my respects.

By her grave was a plaque with the words of her husband and lover Charles Stewart Parnell: ‘I will give my life to Ireland, but to you I give my love.’

Parnell was the leader of the Irish Home Rule movement who campaigned for Irish independence.

He was the Alex Salmond of his day, a man with the ability to inspire his followers and a burning belief in independence for his people from British rule.

She was the dutiful if estranged wife of an Irish MP called William O’Shea.

Although they were a married couple in name only she dutifully hosted dinner parties to help her husband’s career.

Parnell was always invited, always accepted but never showed up and so she went to confront him in Westminster one fateful day in 1880.

The effect was immediate and within months the two had begun a relationship and were living as man and wife in her home in Eltham.

She bore him three children while still married to O’Shea and possibly a further stillborn son after their brief marriage in 1891.

Parnell’s health was broken by this time as he campaigned to win back the support he had lost as a result of the scandal that arose from the revelation of his affair with the wife of a colleague and fellow MP.

He spoke at an open air rally in Galway but caught a chill and died soon afterwards in Katharine’s arms.

The hope for a peaceful transition to Irish home rule was destroyed by Parnell’s fall from grace.

A quarter of a century later Irish rebels rose up in rebellion on Easter Monday in 1916, seized the city of Dublin and were executed by British troops when their ill-fated rebellion was defeated.

Who knows whether this would have happened if Parnell and Katharine had not met and fallen in love.

By the time the couple were married they had moved to Sussex and set up home in Hove.

Katharine lived quietly in Littlehampton in her later years and was buried in the cemetery after her death in 1921 at the age of 75.

Whereas a crowd approaching half a million came to line the streets of Dublin when Parnell was buried in Glasnevin cemetery, only half a dozen of her family were there to see Katharine laid to rest.

She had been in the limelight quite enough by then.

These two famous lovers were portrayed by Clark Gable and Myrna Loy in an ill-fated Hollywood film called Parnell, which was released in 1937.

The film was not a happy experience for Gable and flopped at the box office.

Gable said he did not want to do any more costume dramas and told the studios to find him more contemporary roles.

A year later he was offered the part of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind and he changed his mind, winning an Oscar as a result.