In the latest instalment of my week-long feature to celebrate International Podcast Month, Holly from Past Loves Podcast – a podcast devoted to the greatest love stories from history – tells the Hisdoryan blog all about her podcast, including her favourite episode so far.
Since I finished my undergraduate in History & Economics at the University of York, I have been trying to talk to people about history. In the office, at parties, it didn’t matter where I was or who I was with I wanted to discuss history. In fact, it was a running joke in the office that I could turn any conversation onto the topic of Russian history, a particular favourite of mine.
At the same time, I am an avid podcast fan. I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t utter the words “I heard on a podcast that…” and I had been throwing around podcast ideas for a while. Then, lockdown and furlough gave me the opportunity to work on one of my ideas. I knew that I would never have as good a time to invest hours upon hours in researching, interviewing and editing a podcast. So I decided to take a leap of faith and start…
Past Loves is a weekly history podcast that takes listeners on a journey into the most heart-warming, joyous and gut-wrenching tales of love throughout time. Each episode features a special guest from the world of heritage or academia to discuss the more passionate side of history. In season one I was lucky enough to welcome guests from well-known heritage sites such as Castle Howard, as well as international best-sellers like Helen Rappaport. There is a love story for everyone and fans of Downton Abbey, the Brontë sisters and Queen Victoria are sure to find a couple that steals their heart in the first season.
My favourite couple featured in season one, whom I discussed with author and senior research fellow of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London Elisabeth Kehoe, was Charles Stewart Parnell and Katie O’Shea. I came across one of their letters to each of other when I was in the very early stages of creating the podcast and their love story instantly came to mind. I’d learnt about the pair in passing whilst studying the Irish Question for A Level history but I knew Katie by another name – Kitty O’Shea. Kitty was the nickname given to Katie amid the vehement public response to Charles and Katie’s relationship. In many ways, she was vilified as the most hated woman in Ireland and it was by this derogatory slur that I remembered her. She was so much more. Their love story was so much more.
In the 1880s MP Charles Stewart Parnell was revered within politics. For the first time the Leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party was respected. He was listened to. An extraordinary parliamentarian, Charles fell in love with Katie at a dinner party that she was hosting for her husband Willie O’Shea – also an MP at the time. One of the most famous love triangles of the Victorian period then ensued. Katie and Wille’s marriage was complicated and for years they had been living it seems two entirely different lives. Katie was still apprehensive though of Charles’ advances. She was a married woman and there was a lot at risk.
Nevertheless, they fell deeply in love with each other. Charles spent his time at Katie’s home in Eltham where she even built him a cricket pitch. Charles referred to Katie as his ‘wifey’. He wanted her to use the initials KP – Katie Parnell. Katie on the other hand affectionately created a home for her and Charles, something they both craved. This home was a place they both valued and needed. It is saddeningly ironic to think that she became regarded as the ‘homewrecker of history’. They were not public with their relationship but, by 1887, newspapers were starting to make hints. In fact, there was already a hint made in 1886 in the Pall Mall Gazette. So, for many reasons, by the end of the decade Willie decided to file for divorce, naming Charles as corespondent. From then on things started to unravel but Charles and Katie were committed to each other.
As the divorce case proceeded without rebuttal, Charles and Katie’s acceptance of mutual self-destruction is desperately clear. Katie was dubbed Kitty – slang that at the time to referred to a prostitute or a serving maid. Charles lost his position in politics and the scandal undermined his authority in his party and parliament. But they were at last free to officially marry each other as they had wanted to do for so very long. This is why it is the most memorable episode for me. Charles and Katie endured so much to be together and then, they were only legally married for a few months, from June until Charles died in the October of 1891. In her book, Katie wrote of their final moments together:
“The last words Parnell spoke were given to the wife who had never failed him, to the love that was stronger than death—”Kiss me, sweet Wifie, and I will try to sleep a little.”
Finding these intimate and affectionate moments in history is why I love hosting the Past Loves podcast. We all understand these feelings. They connect us with historical figures in a unique and poignant way. This podcast has given me the space to be creative, to research these people whose love stories link us to the past and to recognise the legacies that these couples have left. I have found my history buzz again and even better, I have found a community of like-minded people who will always have conversations with me about history, Russian or otherwise.
The second season of Past Loves podcast will be starting in September which will cover even more love stories from around the world – those we think we know and those seemingly lost in the fabric of time. Who knows, maybe one day there will be a Past Loves book. But until then, I will be continuing to talk to incredible academics and curators to explore this more human side of history, adding a touch of romance to daily life.