Part 1 Before the Insurrection of 1848
Although William Smith O’Brien was very proud of his descent from the great Irish High-King, Brian Boru, he was critical of his ancestors who had traded independence for English titles. William was born in 1803, the son of Sir Edward O’Brien, (Baronet) of Dromoland Castle, in Co. Clare. William’s mother, Lady Charlotte, was the daughter of William Smith, and inherited his Cahirmoyle estate in County Limerick. Sir Edward’s eldest son, Lucius, was the natural heir to Dromoland Castle and his father’s title, but Cahirmoyle was given to William, the second son, who unofficially added ‘Smith’ to his name. While Sir Edward strongly believed that William, as his second son, should earn his own living, the young man wanted an allowance paid to him until he came of age to take over Cahirmoyle.
Strangely, Sir Edward opposed the 1800 Act of Union and consistently supported Catholic claims in parliament, but his wife, Lady O’Brien, was a strong evangelical and proselytising Protestant. During William’s early years she taught her son that the Pope was Antichrist and that the Catholic population must be converted to Protestantism. As a result, William went through an intense evangelical phase of life before he discovered that many Catholics were often more devout and good-living than those extreme Protestants who constantly condemned them.
When William attained the age of eight years he was sent by his parents to school in England. From that time, until he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1821, he returned home to Clare only for the Christmas holidays. From his ‘private school’ at Willing, in Sussex, William moved on to Harrow. Although he quickly proved that he was above average in ability, he became disgusted by the ‘fagging’ system employed at the school, which made young boys the virtual slaves of their elders. The demands of the older boys constantly interfered with a pupil’s schoolwork and could earn the unfortunate ‘fag’ a thrashing from his teacher for his bad school work. Not surprisingly, William failed to develop any personal interest in learning. Thankfully, William was saved from Harrow by his father moving to Orleans with his family as an economy measure. Although he found his French tutors more stimulating than those at Harrow, William soon found himself back at private schools in England. Among these he attended the evangelical establishments of the Reverends Scott and Bradley, which caused William to reach a high pitch of religious enthusiasm. This enthusiasm would, however, completely disappear by the time he reached the age of seventeen and entered Trinity College.
William had a flair for the classics, but he still had to work hard for his first examination at Trinity and achieved a first-class pass. In his second year of his course, however, he allowed himself to be seduced by social side of university life. He spent his evenings playing cards and drinking port wine, before he would stagger back to his rooms in the early morning hours. At this time, William also refused to attend chapel and incurred upon himself a series of punishments. But, he enjoyed the penalty of memorising Greek poetry and transcribing Euclid’s theorems, which only encouraged him to continue his boycott of the chapel. It was just good luck and the good offices of his tutor, a brilliant mathematician, that prevented him from being ‘sent down’ by the end of term.
Because he was unable to gain a first-class-honours in his next examination, William deliberately failed his second test in an effort to avoid appearing to be second-rate. He refused to answer easy questions, and this caused him to drop to seventh grade. Naturally, his parents were not amused at this failure and they kept him at Dromoland for the next year. At home, William read more generally in Sir Edward’s well-stocked library and diverted himself by visiting local landowners, whose regular habit of imbibing quantities of port wine reminded him of his time among the undergraduates of Trinity College. Despite his fervent claim that he was always an Irish nationalist, it was probably during this period of his life that he had more opportunity than he ever had, at school or university in England, to study Ireland and its culture. Nevertheless, although achieving high honours was now impossible, William returned to Cambridge and idly came to grips with the great questions of existence without giving up his social pleasures. It appears that he eventually reached the conclusion that because religion could not be proven by reason alone he should adhere to simple, traditional belief. Therefore, for the rest of his life, O’Brien maintained a middle-of-the-road tolerant Anglicanism.
Sir Edward had hoped that his youngest son would earn a handsome living as a barrister, in London or Dublin and, for a time, William obediently attended Lincoln’s Inn, London, where he tenaciously studied his legal texts. Then Sir Edward decided that it might be advantageous considered returning William for the ‘pocket borough’ of Ennis, which before the 1832 Reform Bill was shared by the local O’Brien and Fitzgerald families. Although Sir Edward was of the opinion that the law and politics were a good combination, William quickly lost any interest in the law and prepared for parliament by reading politics and political economy. In which he duly graduated in 1826.
After graduating, William took an active part in the wild celebrations that spread through the town of Cambridge. When the student revellers erupted into the town itself, O’Brien, too drunk to know what he was doing, assaulted a university proctor who was attempting to restrain him. He was very fortunate to avoid serious punishment from the academic authorities, but William was now ordered home for the second time by his outraged parents. Sir Edward was now completely convinced that his youngest son lacked both the temperament and the industry to succeed at the ‘bar’.
Left with nothing to do, William became frustrated and miserable. To pile further hurt upon his son, Sir Edward refused to pay a marriage settlement to the wealthy Earl of Kingston caused William’s engagement to the earl’s daughter to fall through. Furthermore, his father also refused to finance a grand European tour for a son who had strayed from the course and standards that had been laid down for him. William was, however, permitted to visit Dublin and, in that city, he was to find his life changed. It was there that he joined Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association. Although his father, Sir Edward, and other leading Protestants had long supported the right of Catholics to sit in parliament, but it was rare for a Protestant to actually become a member of the Association. Although William did not attend any meetings, his membership of the Association did him immense good in Ireland, and especially in his home county of Clare.
When a general election was called in 1828, despite his misgivings Sir Edward placed William in the borough of Ennis, while his elder brother Lucius was elected for County Clare. Now, with a definite purpose in his life, William threw himself wholeheartedly into parliamentary work. His maiden speech on the complex subject of paper money was made soon after his arrival at Westminster and, although badly delivered, according to his own account, the speech earned William widespread respect. In his autobiography he insisted that, though confident in many ways, he found public speaking to be very painful. But, eventually, through sheer will-power he learned to address large audiences, while he always kept notes close to avoid any lapses of memory.
When ‘The East India Company’ charter came up for renewal, William carefully researched the issue and produced a pamphlet on the subject, which impressed the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel. As a result, William was appointed to the committee on the ‘East India Company’, which was a great honour for such an inexperienced politician. Finally, Sir Edward had something to make him proud of his son. William, however, spoiled this new relationship with his father by not always voting for the Tories, as Sir Edward wanted him to. It was made plain to William, therefore, that he must vote for the government or resign his seat.
The political issue of ‘Catholic Emancipation’ had now reached its peak and Sir Edward’s friend, Vesey Fitzgerald, because he had taken up a post in the Tory government of Peel and Wellington, was forced to recontest his parliamentary seat for County Clare. Although Fitzgerald was a supporter of Catholic Emancipation, he had now joined a government that was opposed to such a measure, and ‘The Catholic Association’ sought an opponent to run against him. William was, of course, invited to stand but he, naturally, refused. Finally, Daniel O’Connell himself took up the challenge and defeated the combined forces of the O’Briens and Fitzgeralds in this constituency. William, now in parliament, took no part in the campaign but quickly claimed to have been one of the first parliamentarians to recognise that O’Connell’s election must be followed by ‘Catholic Emancipation’. At the same time, however, William wrote scathing article concerning O’Connell’s intervention in County Clare. When a passionate supporter of O’Connell, Thomas Steele, replied venomously to the article, O’Brien challenged him to a duel. Neither man, however, was injured in the resulting fight.
When the Tory government led Peel and Wellington passes the ‘An Act for the Relief of His Majesty’s Roman Catholic Subjects’ in 1829, it allowed William in good conscience to support, as his father had demanded, the now-embattled Prime Minister. Now, with O’Connell finally in parliament, William kept his distance from the great man. In his opinion, after achieving Emancipation, O’Connell should have concentrated his efforts on ‘Irish Reform’ and not the repeal of the union. Therefore, in an effort to politically outflank O’Connell, William sought an Irish ‘Poor Law’, demanding outdoor relief for the weak and helpless. O’Brien’s bill on the subject, however, lapsed when he conceded his parliamentary seat in 1831.
The bitter quarrel between the Dromoland O’Briens and O’Connell’s supporters continued to fester. William’s brother Lucius was defeated in the 1830 general election by O’Connell’s supporter The O’Gorman Mahon. It was William, however, who organised the subsequent evidence that had Mahon removed from his seat for electoral corruption. In the resultant by-election, Sir Edward himself stood for Parliament but was no more successful than his son Lucius. The grave insults to Sir Edward made by O’Gorman Mahon’s brother provoked William to fight another duel. Although William escaped his opponent’s pistol, he could not avoid his mother’s fury at what she saw was his unchristian conduct. Henceforth, William made every effort to moderate his future rhetoric.
By the 1830s parliamentary reform had become the leading issue at Westminster and sitting for a ‘pocket borough’, William found himself to be in a weak position. While campaigning in Ireland, he missed one of the vital votes on the issue. While he favoured reform in general, William thought the Whig bill was inconsistent and too radical. He believed that some seats for good candidates who were unlikely to obtain sufficient votes should be retained. But, O’Brien deplored the Whig acceptance of the Tory refusal to allow an increase of Irish electorates according to existing population. With Vesey Fitzgerald assuming the Ennis seat at the 1831 election, William, after a promising parliamentary start, now found himself once again without an occupation. He was, however, saved from his frustration by the ‘Terry Alt’ outbreak of violence in County Clare, which was caused by increased rents and anti-Catholic proselytisers. The ‘Terry Alt Movement’ of 1828-31 has been one of the least studied of the pre-Famine rural revolts, partly because it was dwarfed by the great anti-tithe agitation with which it temporarily shared the limelight at the outset of the 1830s.
The name, “Terry Alt” itself is obscure. According to some the name arose from the marauders, perhaps more out of sport than malice, being in the habit of crying out- “Well done, Terry! Well done, Terry Alt!’” At its peak the outbreak was similar to a volcanic eruption, with a gradual accumulation of pressure before a great explosion in the late winter and spring of 1830-31, followed by a rapid subsidence into an orderly peace. But, during its explosive phase, in its heartland of County Clare, the movement was marked by a level of activity and a degree of popular mobilisation that were unprecedented.
What caused the rise of this movement appears to have been a rich and complex mixture of economic distress, sectarian hostilities, and political antagonisms. Formal parliamentary politics had a very unusual impact on the outbreak which, in its characteristic form of protest was both open and communal to an extraordinary extent. Although secret-nocturnal activity remained important throughout the outbreak, there were great daytime gatherings of diggers and sod-breakers, who were cheered on by large, enthusiastic crowds.
In his autobiography, O’Brien shows that he sympathised with ‘Terry’ objectives, but also saw the need for law and order. While other landlords fled to the cities and towns seeking refuge, William took the lead in fortifying Dromoland Castle and organising a defensive posse that consisted of his brothers and loyal tenants. He successfully persuaded his father to address the people in one of the ‘Terry’ strongholds, and on one occasion he personally led a party of dragoons in pursuit of a group of insurgents. Outpacing his allies, with only a small pistol he confronted the ‘Terries’ and caused them all to run away. Subsequently, when some of the ringleaders were captured and faced court, O’Brien did his duty as a fearless juryman, and ensured several transportation sentences were enforced. For a period of time he lived alone, unprotected and unmolested, in a cottage at Inchiquin, which lay at the centre of ‘Terry Alt’ power. He proved that although the ‘Terries’ were ruthless against traitors and informers of their own class, they accepted the gentry upholding the existing law of the land.
Eventually he moved to his grandfather’s estates in Limerick, and he was triumphantly elected to parliament for that county. It was a seat he was to retain until he was expelled from the Houses of Parliament after his insurrection in 1848.
William Smith O’Brien’s half-cocked rebellion of July 1848 ended in dismal failure, and the leaders were quickly rounded up. He was found guilty of sedition, convicted and sentenced to death despite the absolute fiasco into which that rising in Tipperary fell. Nevertheless, he had committed high treason and was rather fortunate that his death sentence was later commuted to one of transportation to the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). The Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey, had decided that the best policy in regard to the “Young Irelanders” was not to make them martyrs for the cause of Irish freedom. It was much better, he felt, to send the prisoners into gentlemanly oblivion. While the Governor of Van-Diemen’s Land, Sir William Denison, preferred that the prisoners should be treated as normal convicts, he was obliged to offer O’Brien a ‘ticket-of-leave’. William, however, initially refused the offer because it had a condition attached to it, which would prevent him making any attempt to escape. Thus, while his fellow-revolutionaries, Patrick O’Donohoe, Thomas Meagher and Terence MacManus, set free immediately, William was moved to Maria Island, which represented the penal settlement’s remotest outpost. So, one year after the failure of his rebellion, William Smith O’Brien was sitting in a small cottage, isolated from the other convicts. He now found himself with enough leisure time to write a long-postponed autobiography. There were not many leaders of armed rebellions in Ireland, during the centuries of English domination, that had the opportunity to look back on their actions in the years that followed. But, an attempt by O’Brien to escape his confinement was badly bungled and, in August 1850, he was transferred to Port Arthur.
William now found himself housed in a cottage in Port Arthur, which has been preserved by the city authorities as a historic site. The cottage itself remains a pleasant enough building painted in a bright pumpkin-colour. The front rooms are set back from a pillared porch and the house has a garden at the rear. From its position on a ridge the cottage occupies a commanding site above the main penitentiary buildings and parade ground. Just off shore in Carnarvon Bay, O’Brien could see the ‘Isle of the Dead’, which was a burial ground for the convicts, as well as the penal colony’s officials, soldiers and their wives.
O’Brien was fortunate to be spared the worst horrors of convict life in Van Diemen’s Land, and the greatest hardship he had to endure at Port Arthur was his isolation. But he had books to occupy himself and he tended to the garden, as well as starting a journal for Lucy. William also took advantage of the time he had to correspond with his family and friends. These letters and O’Brien’s journal show the man to have had integrity, sensitivity and an unswerving patriotism for his country. His sense of patriotism combined a ‘gentleman’s’ sense of honour with an unshakeable conviction that his country’s cause was sacred. He wrote to his wife at this time, saying “No holier cause than that in which I was engaged ever led a patriot into the field or conducted him to the scaffold.” She, however, was less enthusiastic than her husband about the cause of Ireland’s freedom.
After spending three months in Port Arthur, William was urged by his sympathisers in Hobart to apply for a ‘ticket-of-leave’, which he did, successfully. ‘The Young Irelanders’ in general began, at this time, to benefit from the local distaste for England’s policy of transportation and they themselves had formed movements that sought representation for the people. In popular newspapers like the ‘Hobart Town Courier’ and the ‘Launceston Examiner’, the ‘Young Irelanders were described as patriotic heroes, who may have lacked good judgement in their actions. Nevertheless, this was a marked contrast to the vitriolic outpourings against ‘The Young Irelanders’ published in the ‘The Times of London’. Such was O’Brien’s standing in Hobart that he received a popular ovation when he arrived there, but nervous authorities would not allow him to settle in Hobart and moved him on to New Norfolk. William took lodgings in ‘Elwin’s Hotel’, (now the ‘Glen Derwent’) a pleasant rural inn on the river Derwent, and remained there for two and a half years, until he moved to Richmond. It was a matter of government policy that the ‘Young Ireland’ prisoners were required to live in separate districts, and Thomas Francis Meagher resided in Campbell Town and Ross, while John Mitchel lived at Nant Cottage, Bothwell.
On a regular basis, funds were sent to Smith O’Brien from his Cahirmoyle estate in Ireland. As it was with most of the other ‘Young Irelanders’ who had been transported, private means greatly alleviated the hardships brought on by their exile. Fortuitously, during the Crown’s proceedings against him, O’Brien had placed his estate in trust to forestall any possible confiscation of his assets. But, William’s correspondence from New Norfolk demonstrates that he punctiliously attended to his day-to-day business.
The ‘Young Irelanders’ had been heartened and inspired by the French Revolution in 1848, because the revolutionaries were able to rid the land of King Louis Philippe, and to keep existing property intact. The Irish leaders wanted the same result through their middle-class revolution, which would act as a strong barrier against a possible peasant uprising. But, this was a subtlety which the British government, unfortunately failed to grasp at the time. They did not quite accept that Smith O’Brien was not another leader simply speaking republican doctrine. On 20th August 1850, Smith wrote to an English supporter of Young Ireland, T. Chisholm Anstey, saying – “As for personal loyalty to the sovereign, I am not aware that I have ever during the course of my life uttered a word disrespectful to the queen and though in the event of a national war between Great Britain and Ireland I should have acquiesced in the establishment of a republic as the only form of government which circumstances have permitted. Yet my political principles have never been republican and I should have much preferred to any novel experiment a restoration of the ancient constitution of Ireland: the Queen, Lords and Commons of Ireland.”
Smith O’Brien had been badly disillusioned by the sheer inadequacy of the British Government’s policies towards Ireland during the Famine years, and that to prevent further disasters he wanted Ireland to be self-governed under the Crown. He had many harsh things to say about the government’s policies during the Famine and suggested that if the British Government had not caused it, they at least encouraged its effects on the Irish people. He claimed that Ireland’s people were now undergoing greater loss of life from British mismanagement of the famine than might result from the outbreak of revolution. But, Smith O’Brien’s had his critics, and they accused him of having a total disregard for the people by expecting them to take part in an uprising after suffering years of starvation. It appears that he had forgotten that history has taught us that successful revolutions take place, not when things are at their worst for the oppressed but, when they are getting better. It would, however, be a long time after 1848 that things really began to improve for the Irish people.
Naturally, on reaching ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, O’Brien’s first impressions of the Tasmanian countryside were not favourable, especially when suffering from serious homesickness. This new land may have had its beauty spots, mountains and flowing streams, but none as beautiful as the valleys, loughs, hills and forests of Ireland, many of which had been immortalised in song. Anyone who has read his correspondence from exile can see how much he was influenced by romance of his homeland, rather than attempt a totally objective observation of the magnificence of the semi-wilderness that was the Tasmanian bush. At the same time, he preferred to remain oblivious to the spiritual significance with which the aboriginal people of that land had invested their environment. But, because he was a landowner himself, William was extremely interested in farming conditions of his new home and local animal husbandry. At one point, he even considered following John Mitchel’s example by investing in a farm and bringing out his family to live there. Ultimately, he decided against taking his wife and several children out to this far-off land. He wrote bitterly, “Nothing has yet shaken my determination to abstain in whatever sacrifice to myself from placing my wife and children under the control of the brutes who govern the prisoner population of this colony.”
There is little doubt that O’Brien did suffer because of his separation from his family and friends in Ireland, but he was not short of good company and a lively social life in Tasmania. The journal that he kept and the many letters he wrote record the routine life that a country gentleman expects to live. He spent his time studying classical authors and wrote of his impressions. William also rode and walked about the countryside, and went to St Matthew’s Anglican church, where he struck up a good friendship with the Revd. Seaman. For a short time, he moved to the Avoca region in Tasmania and became tutor to the young sons of Dr. Brock, an Irish naval surgeon.
Although, at first, William felt cold-shouldered by the local gentry, by November 1852 he was able to write to his wife of “visits to the settlers in whose houses I feel that I am not only welcome but a cherished guest!” The home of the Fenton family, especially, became almost a second home for O’Brien. Captain Fenton had served in the Indian army but, like O’Brien himself, he was Irish and Protestant. His wife, Elizabeth, and their daughters found that they had much in common with William, including a shared taste for literature and music. ‘The Young Ireland’ movement had stimulated Irish balladeers to produce a prolific crop of patriotic verses and song, to which Smith O’Brien no doubt introduced his hostess and her daughters. In September 1852 wrote to his own wife, Lucy, and asked her to send “a copy of Bunting’s Irish melodies and the quarto edition of the Songs of the Nation which I have promised to Mrs. Fenton.”
Captain Fenton, however, had a more substantial reason for cultivating the company of William O’Brien. He was a member of the Tasmanian Legislative Council and he was a leading advocate for Tasmanian self-government. Knowing that O’Brien had represented his native Limerick in the House of Commons in London for seventeen years, Fenton realised he would have invaluable expertise to give him. In later years Fenton would become Speaker of the Tasmanian Legislature and was a member of the committee that drafted a constitution for Tasmania. O’Brien for his part drafted a model constitution and worked on his ‘Reflections in Exile’, published after his release as ‘Principles of Government’.
Supporters and well-wishers in Ireland, England and America, campaigned ceaselessly for O’Brien to be pardoned. He was a celebrated figure in many countries and, eventually, the British Government granted him a conditional pardon in the summer of 1854. He wrote to his wife at this time, rejoicing in the fact that he had been pardoned and that he had not been asked to retract or apologise for his past actions. “I had firmly resolved”, he wrote, “not to say or write or do anything which could be interpreted as a confession on my part that I consider myself a “criminal” in regard to the transactions of 1848.”
Before Smith O’Brien left Tasmania after spending five-years there, he was honorary guest at a series of functions and he was presented with congratulatory speeches in both Hobart and Launceston. In Melbourne ‘Long John’ O’Shaunessy, who would later be Sir John and Premier of the State of Victoria, organised a testimonial dinner for O’Brien and his friends. At the same time there were various local communities who honoured him, including those people who lived in the Bendigo goldfields.
In 1856, William’s final pardon came through, expedited because so many of those serving with distinction in the Crimean campaign were Irish. He was now free to return to Ireland, after having spent the intervening years in Brussels. When he came home at last, he found himself once again honoured and feted, receiving a hero’s welcome from Irish Americans when he went to the United States, where he met President James Buchanan. But, sadly, O’Brien’s final years were less happy. His health failed him and in 1861 his beloved wife died. Three years after this tragedy, in 1864, he himself died at the age of sixty. He was subsequently buried in Rathronan churchyard in County Limerick.
Six years after his death, a statue which stands in O’Connell Street, Dublin, just north of the O’Connell monument, was unveiled. John Martin, MP for Meath, another veteran ‘Young Irelander’ and former Tasmanian exile, performed the ceremony. Neither O’Brien’s son and heir, Edward, nor Lord Inchiquin, who was head of the family, was present for the ceremony. While in exile, Smith O’Brien had insisted that his children should be educated in such a manner that they would take pride in their Irish heritage and serve their country, and yet, he had written to Lucy, “I have never endeavoured to force patriotic feeling upon the minds of our children”. Although his son, Edward, appears to have disagreed with his father’s politics, William’s spirit of service was nobly carried on by his daughter, Charlotte Grace. She devoted her life to improving conditions of travel and settlement for thousands of young Irish women emigrating to the United States, at a time when social services were either minimal or completely non-existent.
- R. Davis, The Young Ireland Movement (Dublin 1987).
- B. Touhill, William Smith O’Brien and his Irish Revolutionary Companions in Penal Exile (Missouri 1981).