William Smith O’Brien (1803-64)


Life
b. Dromoland Castle, Co. Clare, son of Sir William Edward [var. Lucius]; ed. Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge; Conservative MP for Ennis, 1828-31 [vars. 1825; 1826-1841], resisting opposition from Daniel O’Connell’s candidate for in this seat; supported Catholic Emancipation; joined O’Connell’s Anti-Tory Association, 1835; successfully contested Limerick against Catholic and O’Connellite opposition, MP 1835-49; supported anti-Tithes movement; proposed peasant ownership of reclaimed land, 1838; resigned post as Commissioner of the Peace after dismissal of pro-Repeal magistrates, 1843;
 
joined Repeal Association, 1843 [var. 1844]; protested at state trial and subsequent imprisonment of O’Connell (1843-44); became convinced that ‘Ireland has nothing to hope from the sagacity, the justice and the generosity of the English Parliament’, and joined Repeal Association, 1844; ; proposed Repeal Pledge, Nov. 1844; informed ’82 Club in Dublin that he was returning to Westminster to oppose Coercion Bill sought by Irish landlords; tells Westminster house that 100,000 people are famishing in Ireland, and that he has seem families eating meals ‘which any member of the house would be sorry to offer to his hogs’;
 
did not share anti-landlord politics of Mitchel and Lalor; withdraws with Thomas D’Arcy Magee and other Young Irelanders from Repeal Association, 28 July 1846; co-fnd. Irish Confederation, acting as its leader, Jan. 1847; co-fndr. Irish Confederation, 1847; supported non-denominational Queen’s Colleges; objected to O’Connell’s alliance with Whigs, believing that only the ‘shipwreck’ of successive English ministries could led to the establishment of a separate Irish legislature; with Mitchel and Thomas Meagher, arranged Young Ireland meeting in Belfast and met with riotous hostility of supporters of O’Connell who blamed them for his recent death; suspension of habeas corpus, 1848; arrested and tried, with John Mitchel and T. F. Meagher, March 1848; acquitted, though Mitchel was retried under the Treason Felony Act (1848);
 

attended Irish League (formerly Irish Confederation) meeting on Tipperary-Kilkenny border; O’Brien unique in favouring armed struggle; sought to establish a National Guard and a Council of Three Hundred on French lines;govt. suspended habeas corpus, 22 July 1848; Young Ireland embarked on abortive rising, raising the tricolour on a march in Wexford, Kilkenny and Tipperary, 23-29 July; met opposition at The Commons, a village in Tipperary, where they were pursued by contingent of police under Capt. Trant who took refuge in the house of widow Mrs McCormack at Ballingarry [aka, ‘the battle of the Widow McCormack’s cabbage garden’; var. derog. ‘patch’], 29 July, 1848;

 
O’Brien said to have instructed his men not to attack private property; several insurgents killed when they attacked; arrested afterwards at Thurles station, 5 Aug.; described the rising as ‘an escapade’ and was the sole principal arrested, Michael Doheny, James Stephens (his aide de camp), and John Blake Dillon escaping; sentenced to death; sentence commuted to transportation; incarcerated in Kilmainham before being transported to Tasmania, reaching Van Diemen’s Land in 1849 after 4 months journey on board HMS Swift ; served his sentence at New Norfolk; released to America with conditional pardon, 1854; returned to UK;
 

writes article in The Nation advocating ‘moral force’ rather than ‘physical force’ to the Phoenix Club of Fenians; retired to Bangor, North Wales; issued Principles of Government, 2 vols. (Dublin 1856); O'Brien visited Poland a year before his death, and then lectured on the Polish uprising in Dublin during 1863, gathering money for the Poles in their struggle against Russian; d. Bangor, 16 June; the commemorative statue on mid-O’Connell St. is by Farrell; unpublished writing, incl. travel journals in Poland, &c., held in National Library of Ireland [NLI]. PI ODNB JMC DIB DIW DIH OCIL

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Works
  • Richard Davis, ed., To Solitude Consigned: The Tasmanian Journal of William Smith O’Brien 1849-1853, with an introduction to William Smith O’Brien’s career, a summary of his voyage to Van Dieman’s Land and an epilogue on his last ten years after leaving Tasmania ... Also including O’Brien’s pocket diaries for 1852 and 1853, advisory editors, Blanche Touhill, Catherine Fahy, with a foreword by Paul Keating (Darlinghurst: Crossing Press 1995), xi,484pp., ill., [incl. maps].
  • Richard & Marianne Davis, eds., The Rebel in his Family: Selected Papers of William Smith O’Brien ([Irish Narratives Ser.] (Cork UP 1998), vi, 94pp.

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Criticism
  • Richard Davis, William Smith O’Brien : Ireland - 1848 - Tasmania ([Dublin:] Geography Publications 1989), 71pp., ill. [maps, ports.
  • Richard Davis, Revolutionary Imperialist: William Smith O’Brien 1803-1864 (Dublin: Lilliput Press 1998), 420pp.;
  • Robert Sloan, William Smith O’Brien & The Young Ireland Rebellion of 1848 (Dublin: Four Courts Press 2000), 320pp. [pb.].
  • Thomas Keneally, The Great Shame: A Story of the Irish in the Old World and the New (London: Chatto & Windus 1998), pp.205 et passim.
See also ...
  • John George Hodges, Report of the trial of William Smith O’Brien, for high treason, at the Special Commission for the Co. Tipperary, held at Clonmel, September and October, 1848: with the judgment of the Court of Queen’s Bench, Ireland, and of the House of Lords, on the writs of error (Dublin: A. Thom 1849), xii, 984pp. [26cm.; copies in Cambridge UL and ULRLS];
  • Emigration: Speech of Mr. William Smith O’Brien, M.P. on moving resolutions relative to emigration in the House of Commons on Tuesday, the 2d of June, 1840 [Emigration Tracts. Vol. V, 1838-41] (London: Printed by permission of the Proprietors of the Mirror of Parliament 1840), 19pp. [24cm.; Plan of an association in aid of the Irish poor law].
  • James Connery, The Reformer; or, an Infallible remedy to prevent pauperism, and periodical returns of famine, with other salutary measures for the support of the destitute poor, the enforcement of cleanliness and suppression of usury, and establishing the futility of the plan of William Smyth O’Brien ... to mitigate any of those grievances in Ireland. Third edition, with several amendments, &c. [5th edn.] (Dublin: William Shaw & Son 1834), 49pp., 12º.

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Commentary

John Mitchel: ‘I am not afraid of either cowardice or treachery on the part of our chiefest men. [...] O’Brien is bold and high-minded, but capricious, unaccountable, intractable ; also, he is an aristocrat born and bred, and, being a genuine Irishman himself, he cannot be brought to see that his fellow-aristocrats are not Irish, but the irreconcilable enemies of Ireland.’ (Jail Journal, 1854; 1913 Dublin edn., p.7; see also his chapter sections “Attempted Insurrection in Tipperary” [Chap. V] and “O’Brien, Meagher, MacManus, O’Donoghue, Sentenced to Death” [Chap. VI], et al.)

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Patrick Rafroidi, Irish Literature in English, The Romantic Period, 1789-1850 (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1980), Vol. I; p.84; W. S. O’Brien, writing during the trial of O’Connell, ‘Slowly, reluctantly convinced that Ireland has nothing to hope from the sagacity, the justice and the generosity of the English Parliament, my reliance shall henceforth be placed upon our own native energy and patriotism.’ (‘O’Brien Papers’, quoted in Denis Gwynn, Young Ireland and 1848, p.17.) Charles Gavan Duffy gives an account of William Smith O’Brien in Young Ireland, ‘His family were birth and possessions amongst the most distinguished of the Protestant gentry…. He was the incarnation of public duty. At the forty years of age, with tastes, opinions, and friendships unchangeably formed, he separated himself from his associates of a lifetime, to join a party in their day of humiliation - many of whom offended his taste and some of whom alarmed his judgement - because he believed that in joining them he followed the path of duty. From his English education he derived manners which his country regarded as cold, but they covered a firmness of purpose and fidelity in friendship not always found in men of more expansive nature. He never attained to popular eloquence, but it was an impressive and hopeful spectacle in later times to see an Irish audience listening with eager interest to his measured and sometimes stilted language on the public platform; because they had come to understand that it represented his opinions and intentions with exact accuracy.’ (p.189-90.) [Cont.]

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Patrick Rafroidi (Irish Literature in English, 1980, Vol. I) - cont: O’Brien made an inflammatory speech on his way back to Ireland from France: ‘I trust that the Repealers of Ireland will accept the aid which the Chartists are universally prepared to give.’ (quoted in Mitchel, The Last Conquest &c., Letter XVII, p.249.) Back in Ireland, he formed an Irish Guard and a council of Three Hundred, as a parliament; both bodies banned by the Castle. The rising which he ordered at Slievanamon, was opposed by the clergy. In prison, he wrote, ‘I am compelled to admit, that our escapade - it does not deserve the name of an insurrection - was in a supreme degree contemptible…. / I am compelled to charge myself with having totally miscalculated the energies of the Irish People … / I regret with bitterness that the events have strengthened the hands of our enemies, discouraged the hearts of our fiends, and dimmed for a time the hopes which led us to believe that an era was approaching fraught with national happiness and national glory.’ (‘O’Brien Papers’ quoted in Denis Gwynn, Young Ireland and 1848, p.234.) [89].

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Brendan Ó Cathaoir, ‘Famine Diary’, in The Irish Times (20 April 1996), cites William Smith O’Brien’s speech in Westminster on 17 April 1846, when he stated that while accepting the Crown, he rejected the imperial parliament; further argues that during the recent Coercion Bill debate the Irish people were alienated, perhaps irrevocably; finds linking relief with repression disingenuous; in exchanges with the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, he said ‘How different would have been the conduct of an Irish government and an Irish parliament. An Irish government would have summoned an Irish parliament to meet in November last, to consider the steps necessary to meet the unforeseen calamity; instead of coupling measures of coercion and relief […] out of the resources of Ireland they would have made preparations to prevent famine among the people; cited incidents of deaths reported in Roscommon Journal and in letter from Relief Commissioners, in answer to Graham’s assertion that he had been officially notified of no cases. (See also under Mrs Elizabeth Smith.)

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Quotations
Community with Britain: ‘Nearly a million of our countrymen have fixed their homes in England and Scotland. Every family the Kingdom is linked by domestic connexion with England - every British colony teems with the children of our soil ... Deep indeed must be the wounds inflicted upon our national pride, and upon our national interests, before we can consent to deplore the associations which belong to identity of language, similarity of constitutions, connexion of kindred, and community of glory ...’ (Letter to The Nation, 30 Dec. 1843; quoted in Robert Kee, The Green Flag: A History of Irish Nationalism, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1972 [epigraph].)

Famine Speech (House of Commons, 27 April [1847]: ‘The circumstance which appeared most aggravating was that the people were starving in the midst of plenty, and that every tide carried from the Irish ports corn sufficient for the maintenance of thousands of the Irish people.’ (Quoted in Brendan Ó Cathaoir, ‘Famine diary’, Irish Times (27 April. 1996).

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References
Justin McCarthy ed., Irish Literature (Washington: University of America 1904), gives ‘Amusements of the People’, an extract from Principles of Government. See also Irish Book Lover, Vols. 1, 2, 3.

R. F. Foster, Modern Ireland (London: Allen Lane 1988): ed. Harrow and Cambridge; MP for Ennis, 1826-31; early a member of the Repeal Association, he opposed O’Connell’s radical politics, but swung towards extremism; co-fnd Irish Confederation and stressed the need to employ ‘force of opinion’ against Mitchel’s more violent counsels; urged formation of national Guard; arrested and tried but released; planned rebellion, his name being omitted from War Directory of 21 July; led insurrection at suspension of habeas corpus, 23 July; sentenced and commuted; Principles of Government or Meditations in Exile (1856); pardoned, 1856, abstaining from politics. (Foster, p.315.) Bibl., Richard Davis, William Smith O’Brien, Ireland – 1848 – Tasmania (Geography Publs. 1989), 83pp.

Belfast Public Library lists Croagh Patrick under William S[mith] O’Brien (not so listed in British Library).

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Notes
The 1848 Rising: Tricolour unfurled for the first time; Sub-Inspector Trant with 46 other local policemen barricaded themselves into a large two-story farm-house, taking the five young children of the owner, Mrs. Margaret McCormack, a widow, as hostages; the house surrounded by the rebels; Mrs. McCormack demanded entrance and the release of her children but was refused; encontered William Smith O’Brien reconnoitring the out-buildings and enquired about her children; both proceeded to the parlour window to speak to the police, when O’Brien stated: ‘We are all Irishmen - give up your guns and you are free to go’, shaking hands with some through the window. In the initial report to the Lord Lieutenant it is stated that a constable fired the first shot at O’Brien, then attempting to negotiate; general firing then ensued on both sides. O’Brien was dragged out of the line of fire by James Stephens and Terence Bellew MacManus, both of whom were wounded. After five hours of exchange of fire, the siege raised by continent of police from Cashel under Sub-Inspector Cox, seen arriving over Boulea Hill. During the action two men were shot dead by fire from the house - viz., Thomas Walsh and Patrick MacBride. O’Brien was arrested at Thurles railway station on 5 August. After the guilty verdict, the sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering was commuted by Queen Victoria herself who thought it too harsh for the crime. The McCormack House, known also as the “Warhouse”, has been designated as a national memorial and historical building by the Irish State. (See under “Young Ireland Rebellion”, in Wikipedia online; also “Warhouse” online - accessed 14.07.2009; also ).

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Gaol baptism: O’Brien’s infant son Charles was brought into Kilmainham Gaol [Jail] and christened in the Protestant chapel in his father’s presence. (See Fraser Drew, ‘Ghosts of Kilmainham’, in Éire-Ireland, 4, 3, Autumn 1969, pp.110-13; p.111.)

Portrait: There is a photograph of William Smith O’Brien and T. F. Meagher together in prison in 1848 (rep. in Myrtle Hill & Vivienne Pollock, ‘Images of the Past: Photographs as Historical Evidence’, in History Ireland, 2, 1, 1994. A posthumous port. of O’Brien was executed by by Dermod O’Brien, and lent to Ulster Museum Irish Portraits Exhibition by Brendan O’Brien in in 1965 (see Ann Cruikshank, Exhibition Catalogue; 1965).

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