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  • The Captain and the King: William O’Shea, Parnell and Late Victorian Ireland
  • Jane Jordan (bio)
The Captain and the King: William O’Shea, Parnell and Late Victorian Ireland, by Myles Dungan; pp. xxiv + 439. Dublin: New Island, 2009, £26.99, $47.95.

The sensational divorce case brought in November 1890 by Captain William O’Shea wrecked both the political future of the Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell and the movement for Home Rule. In his justification for writing a biography of the MP whom Parnell cuckolded over a period of years, Myles Dungan argues that O’Shea was “far more than the mere catalyst in a national tragedy” (xvi). Dungan’s aim is not to contest the ways in which O’Shea has been portrayed—whether in political memoirs by contemporaries or in twentieth- and twenty-first-century reassessments of both Parnell and Katharine O’Shea—as “a self-deluded mari complaisant” and a “place seeker par excellence” (xv, 105). Rather, it is his case that since Katharine’s role in the affair (in particular, her lesser-known role as Parnell’s intermediary with William Gladstone) has been revised so extensively (even “re-invented” [xv]), a reassessment of O’Shea is overdue. It’s a valid position, and Dungan’s focus upon O’Shea does indeed bring out neglected aspects of the political scene at the time, in particular the extent to which Irish Whigs like O’Shea, or “West Britons” as they were derisively known, served as a counterpoint to nationalist politics and to the Home Rule movement specifically (54). Dungan is particularly good at explaining the significance of the 1884 Reform Act, which more than trebled the number of Irish voters and necessarily strengthened the nationalist cause. No wonder that his Clare constituents ousted O’Shea before the general election of 1885: “O’Shea’s brand of watered-down nationalism was proving increasingly unpopular in an environment where militancy was becoming de rigeur” (160). This new study also uncovers some wonderful ironies: while he boasted to Gladstone that he was a member of Parnell’s inner circle (in order to impress upon the British Prime Minister his own credentials as go-between), O’Shea’s voting record was abysmal: “During the sessions of 1883 and 1884 [he missed] 22 out of a total of 35 divisions of Irish concern” (169). Dungan’s diligent analysis of this, and of the topics on which O’Shea chose to intervene on the floor of the House, reveal that “fewer than half of his questions or interventions related to Ireland” while “a dozen questions concerned the House of Commons smoking room” (171). That’s not to say that O’Shea neglected his Clare constituents. There’s persuasive research here into O’Shea’s cultivation of clientelist politics and his noisy efforts on behalf of local extremists imprisoned in Limerick Gaol, which helps to explain Fenian support for O’Shea when he later found himself without a parliamentary seat (an improbable alliance which has long been a puzzle to historians): “O’Shea, although his political credo could hardly have been more different, was perceived as harbouring a similar level of ambivalence towards Parnellism as the Fenians themselves” (207).

Dungan is perfectly frank regarding O’Shea’s professional failings and absurdities—he was a man who could “combine intelligent discourse and subtle argument with a thudding pomposity” (175). Ultimately, his was “a singularly undistinguished career, marked by a notable lack of accomplishment” (263). O’Shea made some spectacular misjudgments. Having thrust himself forward as Parnell’s channel of communication with the British government while Parnell was imprisoned in Kilmainham, and having succeeded in getting a letter from the Irish leader promising a new spirit of cooperation with the Liberals on condition that the land question was settled—what quickly became known as the Kilmainham treaty—O’Shea took his [End Page 133] trophy not to Joseph Chamberlain, then President of the Board of Trade, as had been agreed, but directly to the Chief Secretary, W. E. Forster, “the one person most likely to use it to ill-effect” (130). Forster subsequently exposed the terms of the treaty as well as O...


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