William Smith O'Brien

O’Brien, William Smith, grandson of preceding [Sir Lucius O’Brien] (second son of Sir Edward O’Brien, a member of the Irish Parliament, who strenuously opposed the Union), was born at Dromoland, County of Clare, 17th October 1803.

He was educated at Harrow and Cambridge University, entered Parliament in the Conservative interest in 1826, as member for Ennis, and represented the County of Limerick from 1835 to 1848.

His name does not appear in Hansard until the 3rd June 1828, when he addressed the House in favour of the paper currency.

In July of the same year he spoke in Parliament in favour of Emancipation, and avowed himself a member of the Catholic Association; yet he opposed O’Connell’s second candidature for Clare in 1829, and fought a duel with Thomas Steele.[255]

In 1830 he published a pamphlet on the question of Irish Poor Relief.

Although his views must have been gradually veering towards those held by the Irish nationalists, it was not until January 1844 that he formally joined the Repeal Association, and presided over a meeting in Conciliation Hall, Dublin.

“I find it impossible,” exclaimed O’Connell, who was present on the occasion, “to give adequate expression to the delight with which I hail Mr. O’Brien’s presence in the Association. He now occupies his natural position—the position which centuries ago was occupied by his ancestor, Brian Boru.”

Six weeks afterwards a banquet was given in Limerick to celebrate his adhesion to the Nationalist cause. O’Connell was present.

O’Brien gave the following as the reasons which had wrought such a change in his opinions:

“The feelings of the Irish nation have been exasperated by every species of irritation and insult; every proposal tending to develop the resources of our industry, to raise the character and improve the condition of our population, has been discountenanced, distorted, or rejected. Ireland, instead of taking its place as an integral portion of the great empire which the valour of her sons has contributed to win, has been treated as a dependent tributary province; and at this moment, after forty-three years of nominal union, the affections of the two nations are so entirely alienated from each other, that England trusts for the maintenance of their connexion, not to the attachment of the Irish people, but to the bayonets which menace our bosoms, and the cannon which she has planted in all our strongholds.”

The prospects of the Repeal movement were not at their brightest when O’Brien entered Conciliation Hall; nevertheless the prestige of his name and the influence of his example were expected to do much.

He soon perceived the disasters likely to arise from the party temporizing with the Government and permitting its adherents to take government pay and government place, in the expectation that the influence in favour of Repeal would thereby be strengthened.

An ever-widening breach was soon apparent between the Old and Young Irelanders—the parties of O’Connell and O’Brien—one tending more every day to timidity and conservatism—the other advancing farther on the path of revolution and republicanism.

In July 1846, O’Brien, Mitchel, Meagher, and Duffy, with their followers, quitted Conciliation Hall.

Six months later a meeting was held in the Rotunda, at which the Irish Confederation was established, for the purpose of “protecting our national interests, and obtaining the legislative independence of Ireland by the force of opinion, by the combination of all classes of Irishmen, and by the exercise of all the political, moral, and social influence within our reach.”

The horrors of the famine, and the French Revolution of February 1848 combined to urge the Confederation to extreme measures.

In the spring of 1848, O’Brien, Meagher, and O’Gorman went to Paris and presented a congratulatory address to Lamartine, President of the French Republic, but received a vague reply, which extinguished their hopes of support from France in any possible revolutionary movement.

On his return through London he thus expressed himself in what proved to be his last speech in Parliament:

“I do not profess disloyalty to the Queen of England. But … it shall be the study of my life to overthrow the dominion of this Parliament over Ireland. … I would gladly accept the most ignominious death … rather than witness the sufferings and the indignities … inflicted by this Legislature upon my countrymen during the last thirty years.”

On the 15th May he was tried before the Queen’s Bench, Dublin, for speeches “inducing the people to rise in rebellion,” but the jury disagreed.

Matters now rapidly precipitated themselves.

Treason-Felony Acts, Arms Acts, Coercion Acts were passed.

Mitchel was arrested and convicted. Duffy, Martin, Doheny, and O’Doherty were arrested.

Duffy’s trial was fixed for August, and this was the time selected for taking the field.

Although O’Brien and Dillon advocated delay until the crops were reaped, on 21st July a war directory, consisting of Dillon, Reilly, O’Gorman, Meagher, and Father Kenyon was appointed, and on the following morning O’Gorman started for Limerick, Doheny for Cashel, and O’Brien for Wexford, to prepare the people for an outbreak.

At this time Ireland was flooded with troops, and almost every public building in Dublin was turned into a barrack, and on the morning that O’Brien set out on his mission, the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act came into operation.

Meagher and Dillon joined O’Brien, and it was determined to raise the standard of revolt near Kilkenny.

Their harangues on the way thither were listened to with enthusiasm by the people, who, however, showed no inclination to take the initiative.

At Kilkenny not one in eight of the men enrolled under their banner possessed a musket, and even the supply of pikes was miserably small.

They left Kilkenny on the 24th, and at Callan and Carrick-on-Suir addressed large gatherings, and at Mullinahone they reviewed their first body of adherents, numbering 3,000 or 4,000, about 300 of whom were armed with guns, pistols, swords and pitchforks.

We are told that O’Brien wore a plaid scarf across his shoulders, and carried a pistol in his breast, and he assured the people that Ireland would have a government of her own before many weeks.

On 26th July his men were left the whole day without food or shelter. O’Brien gave them all the money he had, but told them that in future they should provide for themselves as he could allow no one’s property to be interfered with.

“Hungry and exhausted, the men who listened to him returned at night to their homes; they were sensible enough to perceive that insurrection within the lines laid down by their leaders was impossible; the news that they were expected to fight on empty stomachs was spread amongst the people, and from that day forward the number of O’Brien’s followers dwindled away.”[308]

He was joined at Ballingarry by MacManus and Doheny.

On the 27th they returned to Mullinahone, and went thence to Killenaule. A barricade was thrown up in the latter village.

Great disinclination was shown by the leaders to shed the first blood, and a small party of dragoons was permitted to pass through this barricade on the officer giving his word of honour that he was not going to arrest O’Brien.

The hearts of the most resolute of O’Brien’s followers now began to falter.

It was clear the case was desperate, and that nothing awaited them but ruin and death.

Only about 200 men, wretchedly armed, adhered to him, and the country generally showed no signs of rising.

But Smith O’Brien was immovable, and declared “he would do his duty by his country, let the country answer for its duty towards him.”

The collision came at last.

On 29th July a party of forty-six police, under Sub-Inspector Trant, marched to Ballingarry to arrest O’Brien.

They were opposed by a crowd of insurgents behind a barricade, and thereupon rushed across some fields, and occupied a house.

Of the 200 weak and hungry men whom O’Brien now led to the attack of the Constabulary, not more than twenty possessed fire-arms, about twice that number were armed with pikes and pitchforks, and the remainder had but their naked hands and the stones they could gather by the wayside.

Before the fighting began, the owner of the house implored O’Brien to get her children out of the house; and at the risk of his life he endeavoured to persuade the police to permit this, but they declined, and a contest commenced which continued for nearly two hours.

The insurgents’ ammunition was soon exhausted.

MacManus attempted to fire the house by wheeling a cart-load of burning hay up to the door; but O’Brien put a stop to the movement on account of the children.

Some Catholic clergymen now appeared on the scene, one of whom has since written an account of the transaction.[17a]

They pointed out the hopelessness of the struggle, and induced the people to disperse.

Two of the insurgents had been killed, and a large number wounded, amongst whom was James Stephens.

O’Brien had all through acted with perfect coolness, needlessly exposing himself to the firing, and for a long time refused the entreaties of his friends to leave the spot.

A reward of £500 was now placed upon his head by Government; but he was effectually concealed by the peasantry, although many who were arrested and imprisoned might have gained liberty and wealth by giving evidence as to his whereabouts; whilst his spirit forbade him availing himself of the opportunities afforded for escape out of Ireland.

At length he resolved upon paying a last visit to his family and then surrendering himself for trial.

On the 5th August he appeared openly at Thurles railway station and took a ticket for Limerick; whereupon an English guard in the employment of the railway earned the reward by arresting him.

O’Brien was at once sent under escort in a special train to Dublin.

“I have played the game, and lost,” he remarked to the officer of the Constabulary, “and am ready to pay the penalty of having failed. I hope that those who accompanied me maybe dealt with in clemency. I care not what happens to myself.”

On 21st September O’Brien, MacManus, Meagher, and a few others were arraigned for high treason at Clonmel.

The trial lasted from the 28th September to 9th October, and resulted in a verdict of guilty, with a strong recommendation to mercy.

A similar verdict, accompanied by a similar recommendation, was returned in the cases of his companions.

Several witnesses refused to give evidence against him, and were imprisoned for contempt.

One of them, John O’Donnell, a respectable farmer, on being proffered the book, exclaimed:

"No, I won’t be sworn; if I were placed before a rank of soldiers not one word would I speak, though twenty bayonets were to be driven into my heart. … Directly or indirectly I will give no evidence.”

O’Brien, before sentence of death was passed, made a short speech, in which he said:

“I am perfectly satisfied with the consciousness that I have performed my duty to my country—that I have done only that which it was, in my opinion, the duty of every Irishman to have done.”[7]

Mr. O’Brien, who in the spring of 1848 had been committed to the custody of the Master-at-Arms, for refusing to serve on committees of the House of Commons, was, after his conviction, formally expelled the House.

A writ of error in his case and that of Terence Bellew MacManus was argued before the Queen’s Bench, and its decision establishing the judgment of the court below was confirmed, on appeal, by the House of Lords in May 1849.

The capital sentence was commuted to transportation for life, and after a detention of about nine months at Spike Island, in Cork Harbour, O’Brien, Meagher, MacManus, and O’Donohoe were sent, on the 29th July 1849, from Kingstown to Tasmania in the brig Swift.

In November they reached Hobart Town. He refused the ticket-of-leave accepted by his companions, and was confined on Maria Island.

Thence he made an ineffectual effort to escape, and was removed to closer confinement at Port Arthur; but his health breaking down, he was ultimately induced to accept a ticket-of-leave and comparative freedom.

On 26th February 1854, without any solicitation on his part, a pardon was accorded to him, conditional on his not setting foot within the United Kingdom.

At Melbourne, on his way to Europe, a golden cup, value £1,000, was presented to him, which he bequeathed to the Royal Irish Academy at his death.

Mr. O’Brien spent two years with his family on the Continent.

At Brussels, in 1856, he wrote two volumes of Principles of Government, or Meditations in Exile (published in Dublin), characterized by clear and moderate views, especially with regard to the position of the Australian colonies.

A free pardon was sent him in May 1856, and on 8th July he stood once more on Irish soil.

Although thenceforward he took little active part in politics, his opinions remained unchanged.

In 1859 he travelled in America, and he gave the results of his observations in a series of lectures in Dublin.

In the early part of 1864 his health began to fail; and on 16th of June he died at Bangor, North Wales, aged 60.

His remains were laid in the churchyard of Rathronan, County of Limerick, being followed in their passage through Dublin by an immense number of mourners.

When taking the field in 1848, he conveyed his property to trustees for the benefit of his family; and he latterly lived on £1,000 a year allowed him by them.

O’Brien was over six feet high, and walked very erect. His figure was elegant, graceful in proportion and motion, vigorous in appearance: he was very active: his features were by no means handsome: he was of a rather reserved manner, except to his intimates.

Mr. Lecky thus estimates his character:

“Though very deficient, both in oratorical abilities and in judgment, he obtained great weight with the people from the charm that ever hangs around a chivalrous and polished gentleman, and from the transparent purity of a patriotism on which suspicion has never rested; and he was also a skilful and ready writer. Of the wisdom he displayed in one unhappy episode of his career there are not likely to be two opinions, but it should not be forgotten that it was the ceaseless labour of his life to inculcate the importance of self-reliance, to dissociate the national cause from the claptrap and bombast by which it was so frequently disfigured, and to teach the people that Liberal politics are only truly adopted when they are applied without respect of persons and without fear of consequences. It was thus that he laboured during the lifetime of O’Connell to check the place-hunting and the boasting that disgraced the Repeal cause, and that near the close of his life he calmly and fearlessly risked all the popularity which years of suffering had gained him, by opposing those who sought to identify Irish liberalism with Italian despotism, and to draw down upon their country the horrors of a French invasion. Few politicians have sacrificed more to what they believed to be right, and the invariable integrity of his motives has more than redeemed the errors of his judgment.”

All his children (five sons and two daughters) survived him.

His wife died in 1861.


7. Annual Register. London, 1756–1877.

17a. Ballingarry, Personal Recollections of: Rev. P. FitzGerald, P.P. Dublin, 1861. (Pamphlet.)

158. Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates.
Hardiman, James, see Nos. 188, 346.
Harris, Walter, see Nos. 110a, 160a, 339, 347a.

212. Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland—Swift, Flood, Grattan, and O’Connell: William E. H. Lecky. First and Second Editions. London, 1861–’71.
Lecky, William E. H., see No. 212.

217c. Lords, House of, Cases in.

233. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.

255. O’Connell, Daniel, Life and Times: M. F. Cusack. Kenmare, 1872.

308. Speeches from the Dock: Alexander M. Sullivan. Dublin, 1868.