Chapter 13: Parnell Divorce Court Proceedings

Divorce Court Proceedings – League Meeting – Leinster Hall Meeting – McCartan, Grehan, Jordan, Justin McCarthy – Enthusiastic Support for Parnell – The Church Keeps Out – I Find Parnell in London – His Promise to Retire – Room 15 – The Party Turns Tail – Gladstone’s Position and Policy – Canon Daniel – Merchant’s Quay Franciscans


When I saw the report of the undisputed proceedings in the Divorce Court I was astounded and troubled as I seldom have been.[1] My heart seemed to stand still – something like the way I felt when I heard of his arrest in Kilmainham. I wandered away to Dublin in the evening to learn the effect of the news. I heard with dismay that the League people held a meeting and decided to stand by Parnell under all circumstances,[2] and that a meeting advertised for some other purpose for the following evening in the Leinster Hall[3] was to be turned into a Parnell confidence meeting. I spent a bad time at home and got to Dublin next evening early. At the Imperial Hotel I found Michael McCartan[4] just after coming from Meath where a public meeting had decided to stand by Parnell. (McCartan and I were such old friends that I remembered declining to see Archbishop Croke in Kilmainham sooner than forgo an appointment I had with him.) He asked me ought he go to the Freeman and get the news from Meath wired to London. I told him that I thought the people were all wrong, that was a day of mourning that should be called for when Church and State should come together and devise means to meet the horrible situation. We were soon joined by men from all parts, and amongst them Jordan, M.P., of Enniskillen, and J. F. Grehan of Cabinteely, who had to lift me literally off the chair to get me to go to the Leinster Hall meeting. I went as I said to take notes, not to take part in the proceedings. I never felt such foreboding about any meeting I ever attended, particularly when I heard Justin McCarthy[5] make such another speech as he made ten years before when the policy of combat to settle the land question was decided upon in the Westminster Palace Hotel. At the Leinster Hall meeting Mr. Davitt’s Labour World retirement proposal was sneered at, and Parnell was called upon not to desert the men who had burned their boats and who were prepared to defy England and to stand by Ireland and the institution of Parnellism, come what would.[6]

Then followed the enthusiastic election of Parnell as Chairman of the Party, my old friend of the Imperial Hotel and many another place, Jordan of Enniskillen, alone demurring.[7] Mr. Parnell was thus challenged to stand by the Irish flag in Dublin, and was pushed into a position to do so in London. Men pledged as patriots in Ireland and as gentlemen in England. No wonder Mr. Gladstone thought he could safely issue his challenge for an Irish revolt to whip up to his own lines, Harcourt[8] and the Party who I learned were thoroughly unsound on the Irish question.[9] The Irish Church, led by the Archbishop of Dublin,[10] kept out of the wrangle until the very last moment.[11] When I saw what I instinctively dreaded, the announcement that the Irish Parliamentary Party were going to turn tail, I literally rushed to London, and when I got there it was rumoured that Mr. Parnell had gone to Ireland. But when I called at the Labour World office, Mr. Davitt told me that I would find Mr. Parnell at the Westminster Palace Hotel. I met him on the main stairs coming down with some papers in his hand. I got a good grip of his other hand to try to gauge the state of his health, as I was in the habit of doing since he got ill. His first word was: “Well, Kettle, these men are in a great hurry to get rid of me.” “Well,” I said, and we walking down, “you are not gone yet, but I have come over to tell you that there is an uneasy feeling rising and spreading in Ireland that you should devise some means of retiring before this storm, but I cannot advise you, nor do I know who can, and even now under the avalanche of misfortune that has fallen across your path you must look for guidance to a higher power.” “Well,” he says, “I have my mind made up to retire, and want the Party to get those guarantees that we are now after drafting,” and which he read for me, “from the Liberal Party to safeguard the work of my life. If I get that done the Liberals will have to preach Irish Home Rule in England, and I can quietly retire.[12] There is a meeting of the Party to be held at twelve o’clock in the House. It is nearly that now and I must soon go.” I said: “I will go over and see everyone and help you to convince them to take your advice, but I warn you to be prepared for the worst. They will not revolt against the Liberal Party because that is what your proposition amounts to. Since the failure of some of these men to stand by the Land League fighting policy ten years ago, I have a very humble opinion of their stability. God grant I may be wrong. They will not stand on the Leinster Hall line. If they meant to, they would not be calling such a meeting for today.” “But,” he says, “it is their interest to do so. It will give them an opportunity of taking up my position at the head of the Liberal Party instead of at their tail.” “They won’t see it,” I said, “but I hope I may be wrong.”[13]

He went to Room 15 and I went to the House and saw everyone and hung about there, day and night, until after the secession.[14] Only two circumstances occurred during that memorable discussion in which I was concerned and which were not publicly recorded. The first was my interview with Mr. Sexton. It was earnest at first but ended angrily. I told him that Parnell told me that he meant to retire, and that it was the interest of the leaders of the Party, and particularly himself, to press the Liberals for the necessary guarantees before making themselves responsible for the guidance of the movement. But he worked himself into a rage about Parnell, reflecting on their honour by saying their independence was sapped, and said he was not justified in treating the Irish Party and the Liberal Party in the way he had done. I urged him to try an independent attitude towards the Liberals for a week or a month, that the sky was not likely to fall or the end of the world to come in the meantime, and that the alliance could be renewed if the effects of the move were not satisfactory. But he wanted no arguments, and he grew impatient and commenced to abuse Parnell when I turned sharply on my heel saying: “You are lost and gone.” I have had no conversation with him since. Mr. Sexton was the ablest of the Irish Parliamentarians, and it was thought he ambitioned to become the chief Parliamentary medium between the two countries on the establishment of Home Rule, a position for which he was well qualified. But he was a poor kind of statesman and could not understand Parnell. It was given out at the time that there was not ability enough in the Party to break it up but for Sexton’s talking powers. The other circumstance occurred on the night of the third sitting in Room 15. There were very few people about the House, and I was so long waiting that I dozed asleep on a side bench and was awakened by the noise made by the Party leaving the room. I had been getting reports of what was taking place at the meeting from several members, but chiefly from Mr. Jordan. He came out this night and when I expressed astonishment at how long they sat and asked what happened and who spoke: “Oh, the misery of it,” he rejoined, “the misery of it that I have to oppose a man like that!” “What happened?” I said, “What did he say?” “Well,” he says, “we are in there now so many hours, and I can only tell you that Mr. Parnell at the head of that table is physically and mentally acting like a lion shaking his mane over a lot of small dogs.”

Timothy Michael Healy, Justin McCarthy, and Thomas Sexton, drawing by Harry Furniss, c. 1891

History tells how the secession occurred and, whether rightly or wrongly I always thought that if the men in London were standing on the Leinster Hall lines Mr. Healy would not have urged them to leave it. I say this, although I never exchanged an opinion with Mr. Healy in my life. I found when he was secretary to Mr. Parnell that he could not depend on his own judgement or temperament, so I determined never to trust him. Mr. Parnell admired Mr. Healy’s ability, but nothing could induce him to take him seriously.

After the secession, I left London without seeing Mr. Parnell. I took no responsibility for his policy or leadership until his visit to Boulogne, because I feared his health would break down.[15] But I watched his every word and motion at a distance.

This may be the most convenient place to state my convictions about Mr. Gladstone’s tactics at this crisis. Mr. Gladstone and his henchmen knew more about Mrs. O’Shea and her doings than most people. We all know now what I learned from Mr. Parnell after the visit at Hawarden that the Liberal Party were thoroughly unsound on the Home Rule question. An Irish revolt was just what was required to drive the Party into a corner and to compel them to preach Home Rule and to popularise it. The Tories at the time had a large majority over the Liberals and had the Irish revolted as Parnell asked them to do the Liberals would have had no choice but to make terms with them. I know Mr. Parnell wanted to make his retirement of eminent service to Ireland. It must always stand in judgement against the seceders that Parnell offered to retire if they sought the necessary guarantees to safeguard the cause just then. He first asked that the guarantees should be publicly given, and then that they might be privately given to satisfy not him but the men who ambitioned to lead in his place. None of the men who seceded knew how the matter stood between Gladstone and Parnell. Was it not their plain, common-sense duty to enquire? They even admitted the logic of Parnell’s request and went to Gladstone to seek for information. As a matter of course, they did not get it. Then instead of standing on their own honour and manhood they succumbed to Sir William Harcourt and the unsound Liberals and threw away everything they possessed, except their tongues. An Irish revolt would have enabled Mr. Parnell to retire on his own motion. What would an Irish revolt have done for Gladstone? It would have enabled him to say to his own unsound Party: “Gentlemen, our Party is now in such a miserable minority that we can have no hope of coming to power for a long time, and I must retire unless we can make terms with the Irish leaders. Perhaps what they ask is not unreasonable as Home Rule might not work well without the things they seek.” The Harcourts and the humbugs would have had no choice but to make terms and to preach Home Rule. Mr. Davitt writes rather bitterly about Parnell’s pride and selfishness, but I know that unfortunately Davitt’s pride and vanity of opinion had more to do with the catastrophe of 1891, than he seems to be cognisant of. The Parliamentary men who called on Parnell to stand, and whose independence had been sapped as Parnell divined, took shelter for their recreancy under Davitt’s hasty, ill-considered attitude, and no man threw more bitterness into the general campaign of maligning and hounding down Parnell, than Davitt did. Of course no man repents like Mr. Davitt and I hope he has been forgiven. He and they have been punished with failure and disappointment since Parnell died. Any concessions that have been given to Ireland since, came from the Tories, and not one iota from the men whose word, and honour, and good faith, were preferred to Parnell’s by his own countrymen. He led them well, and would have placed them in a position of real power on his retirement, had they believed his word and taken his advice.[16]

Katherine O’Shea

Some time after the secession, I paid a visit, when passing, to the parish church in Francis Street, Dublin, and was kneeling when a hand was laid on my shoulder, and when I looked up I met the gaze of Canon Daniel, the parish priest, one of the few Irish clergymen who had a political training as editor of the Church columns of the Freeman’s Journal for years. I stood up and he commented in Mr. Jordan’s words, “Oh, the misery of it! Why did not these men accept Mr. Parnell’s word, and take the advice of the only man who understood the English? If they stood back from the Liberal Alliance, as he begged of them to do, the Liberals would have had no choice but to give them their terms, and he could have retired, as he offered to do, and the Church would not be called on to act at all, and all this misery would have been avoided. Oh, the poor, mistaken men! They have, I fear, a hard future before them.” “God bless you, Canon,” I said. “You are the first priest I have met who has taken the plain, common-sense political view of what looks like a complete national collapse.” “Yes,” he says, “we trust the honour and word of the foreigner, but refuse to trust one another. We are not fit for freedom. Oh, the misery of it!” I found afterwards that some of the large-minded Franciscans of Merchant’s Quay took the very same view of the cause of all the misery. Why did not those men take Parnell’s advice for a week or a month even? What did they really know about Mr. Parnell’s interviews with Carnarvon or Gladstone? What have they achieved since and where are they now? They seem to be beating the air and to have muddled everything they have touched from that day to this.

  1. On 15 November 1890 the divorce case between Katherine and Captain William O’Shea began. It included a detailed, biased, and unflattering account of the liaison between Parnell and Mrs. O’Shea. No defence was entered and the trial lasted just two days.
  2. This meeting occurred on 18 November 1890, the day after the granting of the divorce, when the Dublin branch of the National League passed a resolution upholding Parnell’s leadership.
  3. Leinster Hall was a lecture, meeting, and exhibition space located at 35 Molesworth Street in the centre of Dublin.
  4. Michael McCartan (1851-1902) was an Irish nationalist politician. He was born in County Down, was educated in Belfast, and became a solicitor in 1882. He served as an MP from County Down from 1886 to 1902. McCartan was a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party until the split in 1890, when he joined the anti-Parnellite Irish National Federation. When the two sides reunited in 1900, he rejoined the Irish Parliamentary Party (Wikipedia 2022, ‘Michael McCartan’).
  5. Justin McCarthy (1830-1912) was a journalist, historian, novelist, and politician who was an MP from 1879 to 1900. He joined the Westminster Home Rule Association in 1877, was elected MP for Co. Longford in the 1879 by-election, and served as vice-chairman of the Home Rule Party from 1880 to 1890. He acted as a conduit between British leaders and Parnell. After the party divided in 1890, McCarthy became chairman of the anti-Parnellite group (DIB 2009, ‘McCarthy, Justin’).
  6. Parnell’s lieutenants and supporters were slow to disown him. Davitt was the first to say that Parnell should go, and in his newspaper Labour World on 22 November he advised Parnell to retire temporarily. The Leinster Hall meeting on 20 November 1890, and the subsequent election of Parnell as party chairman on 25 November, was held before the members of the party were aware of Gladstone’s assessment of the situation, many of whom would not support an alliance if the Irish Party continued to be led by Parnell. Gladstone conveyed, through Justin McCarthy, that Parnell’s continued leadership would mean the loss of the next election and the shelving of Home Rule (Bew 2007, 359).
  7. Jordan understood the political importance of the revelation of Parnell’s relationship with Katherine O’Shea and he appealed to Parnell to step down ‘even if only for a month’ in order to maintain the support for Home Rule. While expressing moral outrage at the revelations in the divorce court, he also defended the alliance with the Liberals as Parnell’s greatest achievement and felt that its loss would be greater than losing Parnell’s leadership (DIB 2009, ‘Jordan, Jeremiah’).
  8. Sir William Harcourt (1827-1904).
  9. Kettle believed that an Irish Parliamentary Party threat to withdraw its support for the Liberal Party in Parliament would force the members of the Liberal Party to support the Home Rule cause.
  10. William Joseph Walsh (1841-1921).
  11. Initially, the bishops either said nothing about the matter or held that it was purely political. On 3 December, however, they issued a statement declaring that Parnell was unfit on both moral and political grounds to be the leader of the party (Comerford 1996b, 78).
  12. Parnell had published a manifesto entitled ‘To the People of Ireland’ on 29 November 1890 in which he had attempted to make damaging revelations about his visit to Gladstone in Hawarden the previous year. These included unfavourable Home Rule proposals which he claimed the next Liberal administration were proposing to introduce. Such an open breach with the Liberal Party, which was contradicted in devastating detail by Gladstone, was severely damaging to the cause of Home Rule. During the subsequent party meetings, Parnell sought guarantees from Gladstone regarding Home Rule. If granted, Parnell would then retire (Bew 2011, 171).
  13. The ‘Lenister Hall line’ refers to the initial meeting on 20 November 1890 when all members of the party had stood by Parnell before the Liberal stance had become known. Parnell’s proposed strategy was that the party should remain united and thus exert enough pressure on the Liberals to make satisfactory Home Rule concessions.
  14. Parnell’s leadership was debated by the Irish Party in Committee Room 15 of the House of Commons in Westminster from 1 to 6 December 1890. Parnell insisted that the independence of the Irish Party could not be compromised either by Gladstone or by the Catholic Church. The party tried desperately to reach a compromise. Guarantees were sought from Gladstone of an acceptable Home Rule measure on condition that Parnell would retire, but Gladstone either refused or found it impossible to offer anything. With no definite outcome to the deliberations in sight, the anti-Parnellites led by Justin McCarthy, 45 in all, withdrew on 6 December, leaving Parnell with 28 followers (Bew 2011, 172; Callanan 1992).
  15. Throughout January and February 1891, a group of MPs led by William O’Brien and John Dillon attempted to heal the party divisions at talks with Parnell in Boulogne, France, but without success.
  16. Kettle was a strong defender of Parnell (although privately telling him that his conduct that led to the divorce scandal was sinful). Many, however, believed that Parnell had put his own ambition before the cause of the Liberal Alliance, party unity, or, indeed, Home Rule. Since he no longer had a future with the Liberals, and there were no guarantees of his resignation, many feared that he was reverting to a policy of independence and consolidating his leadership of the party. Despite Kettle’s defence of Parnell, according to Comerford, ‘the fact that in refusing to surrender his post he defied the cardinal principle of representative democracy, namely that when votes go against them leaders give way, no matter how mistaken or misguided they may believe the voters to be’ (DIB 2009, ‘Kettle, Andrew Joseph’; Comerford 1996b, 77-79).


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The Material for Victory: The Memoirs of Andrew J. Kettle Copyright © 2023 by Open Press at the University of Galway is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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