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  • “Our Modern Code of Morals”:Public Responses to the 1890 O’Shea v. O’Shea Divorce Case
  • Jane Jordan (bio)

The O’Shea v. O’Shea divorce case was one of the most notorious sex scandals of the late Victorian period. It brought about the downfall of Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and dealt a devastating blow to the movement for Irish home rule. The case—which rested on the Irish leader’s affair with Katharine (Kitty) O’Shea, wife of the Nationalist mp for County Clare—both energized and divided public opinion. Public responses to the scandal reveal emergent attitudes to sexual morality in the latter years of the nineteenth century, specifically the period immediately after the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment (cla) Act and the formation of the National Vigilance Association (nva) in 1885. The cla Act, which introduced measures to protect girls and young women from rape and procurement,1 had been “passed on a wave of popular anger” (qtd. in Jordan, Josephine Butler 277), owing to a series of sensational articles by W.T. Stead in his newspaper, the Pall Mall Gazette. With the objective of ensuring that the new legislation was strictly enforced in order to convict men guilty of sexual exploitation, Stead founded a new purity society, the National Vigilance Association. This “New Factor in Politics,” as Stead termed it, was to support the work of government by calling upon the people to take personal responsibility for the moral health of the nation and meet “on a common platform to discuss what can be done to staunch a running sore in the body politic” (qtd. in Schults 172). The nva was one of a number of purity organizations, differing in size and degree of intervention, united by the common aim of regenerating morality by “mak[ing] men chaste” (Bartley 155). The interest of social purists in the Parnell scandal is explained by the fact that for them, “Public morality was considered to be of greater importance than personal privacy” (185). The purity movement had its roots in the Liberal Party due to its “fundamental aspiration … for the re-Christianisation of society” through “the creation of a commonwealth of religious men” (Parry 202, 199–200). And this strong bond between Liberalism and social purity was doubly problematic for Parnell in that, under William Ewart Gladstone’s leadership, the Liberal Party was committed to fight the next general election on the question of home rule for Ireland.

The peculiar moral climate of the late 1880s, characterized by a heightened interest in social purity, helps to explain why the O’Shea v. O’Shea divorce [End Page 75] case so energized public feeling and the public nature of the moral debate that followed. Here was evidence indeed of Stead’s “New Factor in Politics.” In the correspondence pages of English newspapers, the place of religion within public discourses of sex was much debated. Of particular interest, however, is the degree to which certain sections of the public reacted against those calls for Parnell to resign from parliamentary life on the grounds that he was morally unfit. Thus, unequivocal denunciations of adultery sit side by side with letters that expressed considerable impatience with purity advocates. The case prompted middle-class and newly enfranchised working-class readers to articulate widely (and newly) divergent attitudes toward the private morality of public men. Taking as its focus new source material—letters from the public addressed to Gladstone personally and those published in the secular liberal press—this essay examines public and popular discourses of morality at the Victorian fin de siècle.

On Christmas Eve 1889, a matter of days after he had been invited by Gladstone to his home at Hawarden to discuss confidentially the terms of the second Home Rule Bill, Parnell was named co-respondent in a divorce suit brought by one of his former mps, Captain William Henry O’Shea. Parnell was initially alleged to have conducted an affair with O’Shea’s English wife, Katharine, since April 1886. The divorce hearing opened on 15 November 1890. Neither Parnell nor Katharine attended the proceedings. Yet, because Katharine had submitted shocking counter-accusations...


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pp. 75-87
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