How to pronounce Parnell and say O'Shea

The relationship between Charles Stewart Parnell and Katharine O'Shea is one of the great tragic love stories of the nineteenth century. Yet, somehow, over a century later, their names are invariably mispronounced.

This note uses primitive phonetics, with examples of pronunciation enclosed in square brackets. Nowadays, the doomed couple are generally known as [Parnell] and Kitty [O'Shay].[1] Most contemporaries knew them to be [Parn'l] and Mrs [O'Shee].

There are occasional indications that the correct form of Parnell's surname was used, even in England where it would not have been well known: he appears as "Parnel" in a report of Cambridge examination results in 1866, probably transcribed by a local journalist from a list that had been read out aloud.[2] It was certainly the Irish leader's preference, as Katharine testified. On holiday, incognito, in Sussex in 1886, he was recognised by a crowd who mobbed him, shouting "'Parnell, Parnell!' with that horrible emphasis on the 'nell' that is so prevalent".[3] In the summer of 1887, Punch decided to clear up the misunderstanding. The satirical magazine's humour depended to a considerable extent upon the play of words, which can throw useful light upon their articulation: thus its jest in 1887 that Conservatives regarded Gladstone as a "Hawarden'd sinner" confirms that the Grand Old Man's Welsh country retreat was pronounced [hard'n].[4]  Its commentary on the proper rendering of the Irish leader's surname requires its own elucidation:

A man there is of noted name,

Which all men don't pronounce the same,

But if you would the question sift,

You only need to read your Swift.

Thus, after Horace, in a parley

With Oxford, to the Dean says Harley –

"Or, have you nothing new to-day

From Pope, from Parnell, or from Gay?"

So wrote the Dean, as also spoke he,

Not an iambus, but a trochee.

Henceforth you'll place the accent right.

And thank us for this Parnell light.[5]

Punch made considerable demands upon its readers, for instance assuming that they could understand jokes in Latin and were familiar with the plays of Ibsen. In this case, the core of the verse was clumsily compacted and needs to be unravelled. The allusion is to Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, and a noted poet, satirist and wit. In the reign of Queen Anne, Swift spent much of his time in London, where he was associated with literary figures such as John Gay and Alexander Pope – and another truant Irish cleric, Thomas Parnell, the Archdeacon of Clogher. (Charles Stewart Parnell was a sixth generation collateral descendant.)[6]  Swift was closely involved in Tory politics and court power struggles, particularly as an ally – more accurately, an acolyte – of Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford. In 1714, Swift provided a glimpse of their conversations in his "Imitation of Part of the Sixth Satire of the Second Book of Horace". Swift found travelling with Harley between parliament in London and the court in Windsor a strained experience, since his patron had difficulty in making light conversation. Harley's suggested topics evidently did not take fire, and Punch dropped into Swift's list of them at its close:

Or, "Have you nothing new to-day

From Pope, from Parnell, or from Gay?"

Such tattle often entertains

My lord and me as far as Staines,

As once a week we travel down

To Windsor, and again to town…

A London publisher had perhaps revived interest in Swift by issuing a popular edition of his works in 1876, and maybe the proprietors of Punch assumed that it was on the shelves of their typical subscriber.[7] The cleverest feature of this complicated verse lay in its concluding (but entirely proper) double entendre, which telescoped "Parnell light" with the implied "Parnellite".

The statement that Tom Parnell's surname was a trochee and not an iambus was also hardly an inclusive offering from a popular magazine. Schoolboys studying Latin verse would probably have encountered – and maybe even comprehended and remembered – that a trochee is a long or stressed syllable followed by one that is short and unstressed, such as "harmless" or "sitting". By contrast, an iambus (nowadays, usually simply an iamb) is a word in which the second part is emphasised, such as "reduce" or "expose". It might have been simpler to point out that simple scansion required Swift's couplet to refer to [Parn'l] not [Parnell].

The point may also be made in a much later notable contribution to Anglo-Irish literature, the nostalgic appeal to the hero of Home Rule days by W.B. Yeats, in his 1937 poem, "Come Gather Round Me Parnellites":

Whatever good a farmer's got

He brought it all to pass;

And here's another reason,

That Parnell loved a lass.[8]

As with Swift, so the lines of Yeats could not scan with "that horrible emphasis on the 'nell'".

Of course, it might be said that the most helpful contribution versifiers could make to the clarification of pronunciation would not be through scansion, but by the more direct use of rhyme. Unfortunately, there were few words that could be paired with the Irish leader's surname. Nonetheless, in 1891 Punch managed to identify a rhyme as it delighted in the mutually destructive invective of Nationalist politicians during the Split. The scene was set in opening lines:

When Parnell's mocked by Healy,

In strident voice and squealy;

When Healy's snubbed by Parnell,

In voice as from the charnel …[9]

If the doggerel was in some sense a compensation for the convolutions of its earlier appeal to Swift, it has to be said that the adjectives seem trite and convenient. For instance, there is no evidence that Healy had a high-pitched voice, although it probably suited Punch to imply that his denunciations were unbalanced.[10]  Sad to say, the invocation of Parnell's cold response to his tormenter would prove accidentally prescient: within six months he was dead.

As Myles Dungan noted in 2009, although the evidence shows that Parnell himself preferred to stress the first syllable of his surname, a century later "all but a faithful few place the emphasis on the second".[11] Part of the explanation for this may be found in the historical caesura caused by half a century of national revolution: the Ireland of 1916 obliterated the Ireland of 1886.  Parnell's name, like his politics, vanished from political discourse, his life now seen an irrelevance which could be recast by Hollywood. (The unlikely figure of Clark Gable was chosen for the role, in what has been hailed as one of the fifty worst movies of all time.) But a popular tradition may have been more resilient in rural and small-town Ireland. In the early twenty-first century, I heard an elderly resident of County Cork refer, unprompted, to [Parn'l].[12] The prevalence of [Parnell] may be an example of the embarrassment felt by an urban and educated society towards the inherited speech patterns and the folklore towards the Hidden Ireland that, even yet, can be heard on the streets and the boreens beyond the cities. Not until the appearance of scholarly overviews of Parnell's career – by Roy Foster in 1976, and F.S.L. Lyons a year later – did academics revisit and reassess the importance of the Home Rule movement. In the era of the Troubles, there were larger issues to confront than pronunciation.[13]

It should be said that historians of the twenty-first century have proved punctilious in pointing out that Katharine O'Shea and her first husband, Willie, were known as [O'Shee].[14] Myles Dungan's suggestion that Captain O'Shea adopted "an anglicised affectation" of the more usual Irish [O'Shay] may be unfair, not least since he appears to have inherited the usage from his father.[15] It may simply be a regional variant. Alongside Willie O'Shea, we may put another Limerick personality, Willie O'Dea [O'Dee], elected to Dáil Éireann in 1982 and still, at the time of writing in 2023, a stalwart representative of the Fianna Fáil party. Deputy O'Dea is neither anglicised nor affected. However, although Katharine and her wastrel first husband are now officially tagged as [O'Shee], there can be little doubt that they remain [O'Shay] in the popular memory.

This ought not to be the case. Katharine's kiss-and-tell 1914 autobiography made the pronunciation clear, and there is plenty of evidence that it was widely known during the couple's lifetime. Katharine told of amateur dramatics, in which the bulky Captain O'Shea was implausibly cast to play the role of Queen Elizabeth before an audience that included his fellow Army officers. At Willie's appearance on stage, garbed in a red wig and flowing skirts, some of his comrades began to sing in an undertone: "O She is a jolly good fellow".  Before long, the entire audience had taken up the refrain, "O she’s a jolly good fellow", and its target, "who was then (and always) very sensitive as to foolish puns upon his name", gathered up his regal train and stormed off "with as much dignity as he could muster".[16] Katharine's married sister engaged in match-making: planning a dinner party, she said of "Katie", "she shall go with O'Shea".[17] Throughout the eighteen-eighties, an Edinburgh publishing company, William Blackwood & Sons, issued a series of scurrilous anti-Gladstone squibs. One publication – it could hardly even be termed a pamphlet – was a versified alphabet, a device that permitted the caricature of the Liberal leader's acolytes, the condemnation of his qualities and the celebration of his foes. The letter F was assigned to W.E. Forster, who had resigned as Chief Secretary for Ireland in protest against the Kilmainham Treaty:

F is for Forster, who didn't agree

With all that was spoken by Captain O'Shea...[18]

Punch also assumed that its readers knew how to pronounce the gallant Captain's surname. As the intermediary in the deal that freed Parnell from prison, Willie O'Shea enjoyed a brief moment of glory. However, it was punctured by Henry Lucy, parliamentary sketch-writer for Punch, who whimsically raised "the grammar of the thing". It was – and is – colloquial practice in Ireland to omit the prefix in O'- and Mac- surnames. What pronoun, Lucy asked, applied to O'Shea's negotiation of the "Treaty of Kilmainham"? "Of course you would say 'he did it' not 'Shea did it'." Did this mean that the accusative form was "O'Shim" rather than "O'Shea" [O'Shee]? It is difficult to feel sympathy for the victim, but it is surely understandable that the Captain was "very sensitive as to foolish puns upon his name".[19] However, not even the serious-minded Gladstone could resist the temptation. As the 1885 general election approached, Katharine and Willie engaged in a rare joint endeavour, begging the Liberal leader to find him a seat for the next parliament. "I inclose two letters from O'Sheas, he and she", he remarked as he passed on the request to his party's election manager.[20] In August 1886, Punch made a half-hearted attempt to revive the jest, depicting Patrick O'Hea, Nationalist member for West Donegal, as "a sort of Parliamentary widower", after O'Shea had faced the inevitable and accepted that his political career was over. It was, at best, a strained witticism: O'Hea had been first elected barely a year earlier, and had overlapped with the member for Galway for only a few months. As even Punch acknowledged, "[t]he two were not on very good terms whilst they sat in Parliament."[21] The point here is not the failure of the joke, but the fact that it was only possible on the assumption that the correct pronunciation of O'Shea's surname was widely known.

The eruption of the O'Shea divorce case in 1890 thrust Katharine into the spotlight and, for Tim Healy at least, the correct pronunciation of her surname formed a key part of his venomous invective. Parnell's enemies depicted him as a weak man ensnared by the "Saxon smile" of a designing and demanding woman. In this scenario, Katharine had insisted that he abandon his comrades to escape from internment in Kilmainham and she had forced him to impose her cuckolded husband upon the Galway constituency. Healy mocked the argument that negotiations with the Liberal party had broken down because Gladstone had no address for the notoriously secretive Irish leader, and accordingly could not write to him. Surely his whereabouts had been obvious? "They could make a rhyme out of it: C.S. Parnell MP / Care of Kitty O'Shea / Down at Brighton by the sea."[22] One of the most successful novels of the decade was  Rider Haggard's She: a History of Adventure, about a mysterious African kingdom ruled by a mysterious queen known as "She-who-must-be-obeyed". Katharine quickly became "O'Shea who must be obeyed".[23] Some of Healy's vicious throw-away lines – "the she-wolf", "the Brighton banshee" – depended for their impact on the [O'Shee] pronunciation of her surname.

Yet the Split may also have sown the seeds of the subsequent dominance of the [O'Shay] version of the name. In the hard-fought April 1891 North Sligo by-election, Parnell's candidate polled over forty percent of the vote.[24] Michael Davitt  was imported to strengthen the anti-Parnellite campaign. Reared in the English working class and hardened by years of penal servitude for his Fenian activities, he was hardly likely to care about Willie O'Shea and his effete surname. Not only a radical land reformer but an activist in the labour movement, Davitt particularly resented Parnell's attempt to broaden his support base by claiming to be a friend of the working man. Davitt dismissed Parnell's pretence with a scurrilous parody of a familiar slogan for shorter working hours:

Eight hours of work, eight hours of play,

Eight hours in bed with Kitty O'Shea.[25]

The Victorians were censorious, and there is no evidence that the unexpurgated version ever made it into print (a laundered report was not very effective), but they were also salacious, and it may be that the couplet circulated widely, by word of mouth. Davitt's choice of [O'Shay] perhaps reflected a changing popular pronunciation, but his salty couplet may well have assisted the process.

It is an uncomfortable thought, and hence one that is rarely articulated, that the historical biography is much closer to the historical novel than we might hope. Novelists take figures from the past, construct plots around them and invent their dialogue. Biographers weave accounts and interpretations from the speeches and writings of their subjects, sometimes conjuring some part of the real personality, but perhaps obscuring or distorting others. In the case of Charles Stewart Parnell and Katharine O'Shea, not merely did the individuals become exhibits in a historical waxworks, but they have been transmuted into different people by the mispronunciation of their names in garbled forms that they themselves either rejected or would not have recognised. Since Foster effectively re-set the agenda in 1976, historians have faced the challenge of excavating and extricating the real Parnell from a miasma of mythic caricature. Much progress has been made in half a century, but the aura of a great and tragic love story still tends to divide the public from the private life of the Irish leader.[26] We might make a start in integrating the chief elements of Parnell's life if we resolved to call him, as he wished to be called, Charles Stewart [Parn'l], and recognise his partner Katharine [O'Shee].


[1] Katharine was a never "Kitty", a belittling name fastened upon her during the Split of 1890-1. She married her lover shortly before his death in 1891, and ought retrospectively to be known as Katharine Parnell. Parnell called her "Queenie", presumably an allusion to his own (political) nickname as Ireland's uncrowned king, and also "Katie" and "Wifie". F. Callanan, "Parnell [née Wood; other married name O'Shea], Katharine", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.


[3] K. O'Shea (Parnell), Charles Stewart Parnell: his Love Story and Political Life (2 vols, London, 1914), ii, 110. (ii, 103 in the New York edition). Martin Mansergh reissued the text as The Uncrowned King of Ireland (Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2005): the incident appears on 210. The crowd gathered at Pevensey.

[4] Punch, 22 January 1887, 41.

[5] "Rhymes on a Home Ruler", Punch, 11 June 1887, 286.

[6]  On one occasion, the Irish leader addressed a love poem to Katharine O'Shea, claiming that it was "as good as any of Tom Parnell's stuff". In this, he probably deceived himself.

[7] The Choice Works of Dean Swift In Prose and Verse... (London, 1876), 501.

[8] Roy Foster suggests that Yeats became interested in the Parnell tradition through contact with Henry Harrison, the Irish leader's former private secretary and lifelong defender. R. Foster, W.B. Yeats: a Life, ii… (Oxford, 2003),  548. The poem was explicitly presented as a drinking song, a point emphasised in a rare collaboration with his brother, Jack B. Yeats, who drew an accompanying pen-and-ink sketch of ageing revellers:

 Two further extracts also capture the traditional pronunciation in their scansion:

And here's a final reason, / He was of such a kind / Every man that sings a song / Keeps Parnell in his mind.... But stories that live longest / Are sung above the glass, / And Parnell loved his country / And Parnell loved his lass.

[9] Punch, 25 April 1891, 198.

[10] Accounts of Healy's commanding parliamentary style in F. Callanan, T.M. Healy (Cork, 1996), 211-13, 443-8 give no hint of squealiness.

[11] M. Dungan, The Captain and the King... (Dublin, 2009), xix.

[12] Joan Barry of Carrigtwohill, County Cork, lived all her life on a family farm. She declined to confirm her age but was assumed to be around 90 by the time of her death in 2004, suggesting that her pronunciation reflected usage still current in the neighbourhood during the 1920s, 30 years after Parnell's death. Her comment to me – "[Parn'l] was a good man – until he met Mrs [O'Shay]" – indicates that the Irish leader's surname was more clearly remembered than that of his partner. It is also evidence of an attempt to exonerate Parnell and portray Katharine as a designing temptress, perhaps a standard device in Cumann na nGaedheal households.

[13] Foster's Charles Stewart Parnell: the Man and his Family (Hassocks, Sussex, 1976) remains the foundation for an understanding of Parnell, upon which I have attempted to build in "Charles Stewart Parnell: Economics and Politics of a Building Trade Entrepreneur" (  Paul Bew offered a useful discussion of the revival of Parnell studies in his Enigma... (rev. ed., 2011), xi-4. I never met Lyons, but suspect that his social background and his association with Trinity College Dublin, where he was Provost from 1974 to 1981, may have led him to take for granted that his subject was [Parn'l]. It was perhaps unfortunate that his Charles Stewart Parnell (London, 1977) should have been in the press before the publication of Foster's book (see 21n.), which might have prompted reassessments of various lingering assumptions about Parnell.

[14] E.g. Jane Jordan, Kitty O'Shea: an Irish Affair (Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2005), 6 and Patrick Long, "O'Shea, William Henry", Dictionary of Irish Biography.

[15] Dungan, The Captain and the King... (Dublin, 2009), xix but cf. Long in Dictionary of Irish Biography (above). In fairness to Dungan, the Irish language form of the surname (usually "Ó Sé") clearly points to [O'Shay].

[16] O'Shea [Parnell], Charles Stewart Parnell: his Love Story and Political Life, i, 31; Mansergh, The Uncrowned King of Ireland, 32.

[17] O'Shea [Parnell], Charles Stewart Parnell: his Love Story and Political Life, i, 22; Mansergh, The Uncrowned King of Ireland, 26.

[18] The Gladstone A.B.C was reissued as part of Gladstone & Co by William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh, probably in 1885. It was unpaginated.

[19] Punch, 27 May 1882, 242.

[20] Gladstone to Lord Richard Grosvenor, 24 October 1885, Gladstone Diaries, xi, 416.

[21] Punch, 21 August 1886, 95. O'Hea spoke frequently in the House of Commons, but resigned his seat in 1890. I can find no information about him, and certainly nothing to indicate how his surname was pronounced. Punch possibly indulged in a contrived eye rhyme.

[22] Callanan, T.M. Healy, 319.

[23] Dungan, The Captain and the King, xix. The tag was in sufficiently wide circulation to be reported in the Australian press: Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 24 January 1891. Rider Haggard's She had been published in 1887.

[24] For the North Sligo by-election, Lyons, Charles Stewart Parnell, 581-4; F. Callanan, The Parnell Split 1890-91 (Cork, 1992), 113-15.  Davitt's antipathy to Parnell during the Split is discussed in L. Marley, Michael Davitt… (Dublin, 2010), 111-24.

[25] Callanan, T.M. Healy, 309. An alternative version which was actually reported, with "in company of" in place of "in bed with", obviously does not scan. Katharine's name was omitted in the report.

[26] Robert Kee broke much new ground in his sympathetic and readable attempt to integrate the public and private Parnell: The Laurel and the Ivy (London, 1993).