In the popular mythology of our culture, women have had a bad rap. The stereotypical images of the Mother-in-Law (never the Father-in-Law), the Dumb Blonde, and the Woman Driver – to say nothing of the Stage Mother, and the Spinster Schoolmarm – have been the butt of innumerable jokes.
There has also been the legendary femme fatale, a compelling answer, in scores of detective stories, to the question “how can this be explained?” – “Cherchez la femme” – “look for the woman.”
As a kind of getting even, it is true that, although powerless politically until quite recently, women, in many cases, have been responsible for the ruination of many an otherwise honorable man, thus sometimes changing the course of history. A vivid and tragic example was that of Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891), but for whose calamitous downfall, the whole of Ireland might by now have been one unified nation – a dream yet to be fulfilled.
In the nineteenth century, the island of Ireland was still a part of the British “United Kingdom,” and had been for hundreds of years. Since 1801, Ireland had sent its own “Members” to the British Parliament in Westminster, where they came to form a solid voting bloc, sometimes holding the balance of power between the main British political parties.
Over the centuries, various movements had arisen in Ireland to wrest control from Britain. These were sometimes of a very violent nature, reminiscent of the successful breaking-away of the American colonies. As in that episode, France, when at war with Britain, attempted to take advantage of Irish discontent. The consequence was that Britain, after defeating the French, tightened its grip on Ireland, both militarily and economically, to the extent that any prospect of total independence was virtually out of the question. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the best that even the most optimistic reformers could hope for lay in the Cause of “Home Rule,” i.e. some form of self-government, under the British Crown.
Charles Parnell was a very unlikely leader of that cause. Most Irish were Catholics, but he was a Protestant. His fellow-countrymen were mostly landless peasants, while he stemmed from the small class of wealthy landowners. Nevertheless, by the sheer force of his intellect, and great personal charm, he rose to acquire such influence in the British political system that the Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, who had long resisted the idea, was persuaded to take up the cause of Home Rule for Ireland.
Meanwhile, however, a storm was brewing which was to destroy Parnell, and defeat all the efforts of Gladstone, who had declared, upon first becoming Prime Minister in 1868, that “My mission is to pacify Ireland.” And, of course, to uncover the roots of this disaster, we must be guided by the precept “cherchez la femme.”
The femme in this case was a lady named Katharine, or “Kitty,” O’Shea. Coming from an aristocratic English background, she had been legally married, since 1867, to Captain William O’Shea, an eminent Irish soldier and Member of Parliament. But her meeting with Parnell in 1880 led to a long and very close relationship, in which they lived together, and eventually became the parents of three children. We are talking about Victorian England, an era in which it was vitally important that an adulterous affair such as this be kept from public knowledge. Captain O’Shea knew what was going on, and had it in his power, at any time, to expose Parnell. But, for various still-disputed reasons, he waited ten years – until 1890 – before bringing divorce proceedings. The divorce was granted, and Parnell immediately married Kitty.
But divorce itself was then considered a scandalous matter, by every section of society – and this disgraceful affair not only had the whole nation in an uproar, but wreaked havoc on both Parnell and his cause. No respectable member of any Parliamentary party was going to support a leader who had so blatantly been living in sin. Parnell’s health broke down completely, he died the following year, at the age of only 45. His political convert, Gladstone, himself then in his late 80s, continued to try, but failed, to get a second Home Rule Bill through Parliament. The ghost of Parnell hung over the whole proceedings.
No doubt, evidence in many such cases has included incriminating letters. My father had an abundance of witty wisdom, among which was this little maxim: “Do right, and fear no man. Don’t write, and fear no woman.”
Ashleigh Brilliant born England 1933, came to California in 1955, to Santa Barbara in 1973, to the Montecito Journal in 2016. Best-known for his illustrated epigrams, called “Pot-Shots,” now a series of 10,000. email: firstname.lastname@example.org. web: www.ashleighbrilliant.com.