Archetypical figure of his epoch


HISTORY: FRANK CALLANAN reviews The Captain and the King: William O'Shea, Parnell and late Victorian Ireland, by Miles Dungan

MYLES DUNGAN HAS written what is the first biography of William Henry O’Shea (against four of his former wife, Katharine), which transpires to be a most worthwhile project. WH O’Shea (pronounced “O’Shee”, a fact that gave rise to much worthless humour in the clubs and music halls at the time of the divorce decree) was born in 1840, the son of a Catholic Limerick solicitor. He was educated in England. He travelled at his father’s expense before his father purchased a commission in the 18th Hussars. He married Katharine Wood in 1867. Profligate and commercially unsuccessful (he was made bankrupt in 1869, and would be again), he and Katharine were increasingly dependent on the generosity of her extremely wealthy aunt, Mrs Benjamin Wood. He was a member of parliament for Clare 1880-5 and was imposed by Parnell on Galway in 1886. He abstained on the Home Rule Bill and resigned. He gave evidence against Parnell at the special commission and in late 1889 instituted proceedings for divorce. His divorce broke Parnell’s leadership of the Irish Party. O’Shea des-cended into the obscurity in which he died at Hove in 1905. As one re-approaches Capt O’Shea one might think perhaps that he had been stereotypically cast as a knave.

O’Shea is, however, a villain of resilience. His caricatural aspects work in an almost Dickensian way to mitigate his profound unpleasantness of character. Myles Dungan’s fine book charts the continuity with which O’Shea opportunistically switches from the political theatre to the matrimonial-legal in 1886, using Katharine’s two surviving daughters by Parnell as pawns. Of the contrived course of correspondence from O’Shea read out in the divorce proceedings Henry Labouchere’s Truth wondered why O’Shea was “perpetually writing to his wife” rather than going down to Eltham in Kent to survey for himself his wife’s domestic arrangements.

O’Shea is in some respects an exemplary figure of his epoch, illuminating the Victorian, as a gourmet of its notions of respectability, and in his exploitation of its patriarchal matrimonial laws. The radical historification of O’Shea, however, doesn’t quite work because so many of his contemporaries, Irish and English, disliked and mistrusted him.

Gladstone’s shrewd secretary, EW Hamilton, an admirer of neither O’Shea, characterised him as “not of the straightest”.

Dungan wisely does not essay a rehabilitation of the Captain.

O’Shea’s understanding of politics was remorselessly superficial. He sought to speak the language of high politics with casual suavity but struck a succession of false notes. He had enough appreciation of Irish politics to align himself to a degree with Parnell, for whom he voted as leader of the Irish Party in 1880, but immediately reverted to the mode of Irish political opportunism at Westminster – pejoratively termed “Whig” – that was hopelessly at odds with the new Parnellite dispensation of the 1880s. In terms of Westminster politics he gravitated to the radical Joseph Chamberlain. Far too egotistical to be a satisfactory intermediary, the outbreak of open antagonism between Parnell and Chamberlain rendered his role redundant.

Parnell was breathtakingly reckless in his deployment of WH O’Shea as an intermediary, and in his placation of O’Shea generally, though the editorialising pronouncement that Parnell “knowingly and willingly caused a disaster in his decade-long relationship with another man’s wife” does not perhaps get us very far.

MYLES DUNGAN HAS written an original history of some importance. He has trawled the archives to good effect and cross-cuts to O’Shea’s role as member for Clare and Galway. The correspondence between O’Shea and Chamberlain defuses the idea (to which Parnell held with tenacity) that they had played a significant role in the publication of the Times forgeries.

While it seems that Chamberlain encouraged O’Shea to institute divorce proceedings (“I am not sure that the boldest course is not always wisest”), one feels that he did so as much because O’Shea expected his approval as anything else.

There are traces in the correspondence of Katharine O’Shea, in her memoirs, of what had been a love story between Katharine and WH O’Shea, the dashing captain she had married just short of her 22nd birthday. There remained a complicit affection and Katharine remained protective of her politically and commercially importunate husband at least until 1886. The transition from wife to O’Shea, to lover and wife (for five embattled months of 1891) of Parnell was more phased than the coup de foudre in the yard of the Palace of Westminster in July 1880, where she had gone to find Parnell, who had eluded her dinner invitation, might suggest. On the subject of what FS Lyons fastidiously termed the “unpleasant hypothesis” that Katharine maintained sexual relations with both men for a period, Dungan argues sensibly that WH O’Shea’s final de facto recognition that two households had been constituted dated from mid- to late 1884.

If Parnell’s horses were famously called “President”, “Dictator” and “Home Rule”, the Captain, after his election, for Clare purchased a bay called “Banker”.

Frank Callanan is writing a book on James Joyce’s nationalism