Abraham, William (1840–1915), nationalist MP, was born in Limerick city, the son of William Abraham of Mount Prospect, Roxborough, Limerick, plant nurseryman, and his wife Eliza. According to T. P. O'Connor (qv), Abraham used to remark humorously that he came of 'old Cromwellian stock'. This 'Cromwellian' identity may have been reinforced by Abraham's congregationalism (the same denomination as Oliver Cromwell (qv)). According to the catholic bishop Edward Thomas O'Dwyer (qv), however, Abraham's faith was purely nominal; in a private letter of 18 March 1891 to Mgr Tobias Kirby (qv) of the Irish College in Rome, in which O'Dwyer disputed the view that anti-Parnellite home rulers were morally preferable to Parnellites, he called Abraham 'one of the worst libertines whom I have ever known [who] returned himself an atheist in the last census paper' (Morrissey, 137). It is possible that, as Terence de Vere White (qv) suggests in the case of Isaac Butt (qv), being seen as disreputable by mainstream protestant society may have influenced Abraham's adherence to nationalism.
Abraham had three sisters, of whom Rose (d. 1905) married the Shetland-born businessman Sir Peter Tait (1829–90), founder of the Limerick Clothing Factory which was one of the city's major employers from c.1853 until its closure in 1974; Abraham's brother-in-law Peter Hamilton managed the factory until his death in 1896, and another brother-in-law, Peter Thom, was a partner in the original company. Abraham was a manager in the factory (which primarily made shirts), and around 1868 became a partner in the new firm of Peter Tait and Co., which took over the factory for reasons probably connected with the bankruptcy of the original firm soon afterwards. Abraham remained involved in the management of the factory through various changes in its management structure (some with unhappy results for creditors), even after it was finally sold by Tait in 1884, and in 1890 became a director of its successor, the Auxiliary Forces Uniform and Equipment Company. As an MP in 1886 and 1895, Abraham lobbied with some success to secure government contracts for the factory.
In the 1870s and early 1880s, Abraham was also proprietor of a plant nursery at Mount Prospect, which he inherited from his parents. His regular advertisements in the conservative Nenagh Guardian suggest a certain flair for marketing, but they also suggest an inherent tension between a career as a radical nationalist and land activist and a business involving the sale of luxury shrubs and flowers to well-to-do customers, which helps to explain why he gave it up at some point after 1881. In later life Abraham lived in Hornsey, London, and combined his parliamentary duties (unpaid until 1911, though he received a stipend from party funds in the 1890s and 1900s) with work as manager of an insurance company in the City of London.
Abraham's first major venture into public affairs was in the 1868 general election, when he campaigned for Tait in the Limerick City constituency against two clerically-backed Liberal candidates. After Tait's defeat through massive clerical intimidation, Abraham tried to gather evidence for a petition against the result, but without success. Tait's candidacy had been supported tactically by local Fenians, and Abraham subsequently appeared at demonstrations with John Daly (qv) and subscribed to a testimonial for John Mitchel (qv). Although this may have been influenced by Tait's continuing parliamentary ambitions (he was an unsuccessful candidate at the 1874 general election), it probably reflected Abraham's personal beliefs (he is said to have stated that he had been a nationalist from his youth). From 1874 he campaigned actively for Isaac Butt and William Henry O'Sullivan (qv).
Abraham was active in tenant right politics, and from 1879 spoke regularly at Land League meetings. He was secretary, and later treasurer, of the Limerick and Clare Farmers' Club, which became the Limerick branch of the Land League, actively participating in its arbitration courts and protesting at auctions of property seized for non-payment of rent.
In October 1881 Abraham was arrested at the Land League rooms in Limerick; his removal from the police station to Limerick county prison under heavy police and army escort led to a riot in which shots were fired and a woman onlooker severely injured. After five-months' imprisonment in Limerick, in Clonmel, and in Kilmainham (where he briefly shared a cell with Charles Stewart Parnell (qv)), he returned to Limerick where at the end of March 1882 he was elected first nationalist chairman of Limerick board of guardians, narrowly defeating Lord Emly (William Monsell (qv)). (He was chairman 1882–3 and 1885–6.) In April 1882 Abraham was rearrested and sentenced to three-months' imprisonment for addressing an illegal meeting organised by the Ladies' Land League. He served a third brief term of imprisonment in the late 1880s. In October 1882, Abraham was elected to the thirty-member governing body of the Irish National League, which replaced the Land League. In 1883, 1884 and 1886 he was nominated as high sheriff of Limerick city by the corporation, but was passed over by Dublin Castle.
At the general election of 1885, Abraham was returned unopposed as Parnellite MP for Limerick County West; his nominators, and Abraham himself, emphasised that the support of the Limerick priests for this protestant candidate showed there would be no religious intolerance under home rule. Abraham was re-elected unopposed in 1886. He proved ineffective as a parliamentary speech-maker, apparently due to shyness; he rarely spoke in debates, though throughout his career he assiduously put down questions on constituency matters and supported the licensed trade against proposed temperance legislation. (On his death it was stated that he had a better attendance record at Westminster than any other IPP MP.)
On the other hand, Abraham proved a highly effective platform speaker; this, together with his protestantism, made him a considerable asset at Gladstonian meetings in Britain. From 1886 until 1895 Abraham (with other protestant home-rule MPs) was regularly sent to campaign for Liberal candidates in British by-elections, and toured around the country; his obituaries state that at one time or another he addressed meetings in every British constituency including Orkney and Shetland (this apparently exotic detail may reflect his connection with Tait). In February 1888, Michael Davitt (qv) told Abraham's constituents that their MP's absence was not due to neglect but reflected these commitments: 'I don't know a single member in the Irish parliamentary party who has worked more assiduously, more intelligently, or more successfully in the cause of home rule in Great Britain' (Weekly Irish Times, 4 February 1888). For the rest of his life Abraham was a committee member of the Irish National League of Great Britain and its successor organisation, the United Irish League of Great Britain. The Parnell commission investigated allegations made by a Limerick journalist, Timothy Coffey, that Abraham had been implicated in murder and other outrages; when questioned by the commission, Coffey admitted that he had fabricated the whole thing and was jailed for contempt.
Abraham was among a number of MPs who were noticeably unenthusiastic at the unopposed re-election of Parnell as leader of the Irish party on 25 November 1890 (after the O'Shea divorce court revelations, but before Gladstone's public announcement that he could not remain Liberal leader if Parnell was retained). During the subsequent debates in Committee Room 15, Abraham was commissioned by the anti-Parnellite majority to move a motion of no confidence in Parnell (partly because as a protestant he could not be accused of sectarian hostility to Parnell), and it was Parnell's decision to rule the motion out of order after Abraham had spoken that caused the anti-Parnellites to walk out. Abraham based his arguments purely on the need to secure home rule by a Gladstonian victory at the next general election (his views were probably influenced by his British campaigning activities) and on the view that the party must take precedence over any individual member.
When the anti-Parnellites organised as a separate body, Abraham was elected to their eight-man leadership committee. It is possible that this was simply a piece of tokenism aimed at retaining a nominal protestant presence among the leadership; but the fact that from March 1894 Abraham was always either a joint treasurer or joint secretary of the Irish party, and that in the later stages of his career he served on the public accounts committee of the house of commons, suggests that he had useful administrative abilities. In the divisions of the 1890s, Abraham consistently supported the Dillonite faction (which favoured a centralised party and the maintenance of the Liberal alliance). He participated in the negotiations for party reunification in the late 1890s and supported the election of John Redmond (qv) as party leader in 1900.
Possibly because of O'Dwyer's hostility, Abraham retired as MP for Limerick West at the 1892 general election, but the following year was returned for Cork County North-East at a by-election caused by the disqualification of Michael Davitt. He was unopposed in the general elections of 1895 and 1900, but his continued support for the party leadership after the secession of William O'Brien (qv) in 1903 rendered Abraham's position precarious (as Cork North-East was O'Brien's native area).
Some diplomatic manoeuvres by Abraham, and general desire to avoid all-out conflict between the two groups, secured him another unopposed return in 1906, but at the January 1910 general election Abraham was opposed in person by O'Brien, who denounced him as a token protestant frontman for a party dominated by the catholic-exclusivist Ancient Order of Hibernians, and as complicit in the alleged sabotage of the Wyndham land act by John Dillon (qv) (who feared a land settlement would weaken support for home rule). Abraham was heavily defeated; the Redmondites then contrasted O'Brien's professed support for conciliating unionists with his defeat of a veteran protestant nationalist, and in April 1910 Abraham was returned for the vacancy in the Harbour division of Dublin City caused by the death of Timothy Harrington (qv). Abraham's return was assisted by the fact that the party organisation in Harbour was weak and was divided among local candidates. Arthur Griffith (qv) protested at the surrender of an old Parnellite seat to this opponent of Parnell, and at the December 1910 election an O'Brienite candidate opposed Abraham; the O'Brienite, however, failed to win Sinn Féin support because he was not an abstentionist, and Abraham won by 3,244 votes to 631.
As MP for Dublin Harbour, Abraham remained a diligent though inconspicuous attendant at Westminster. His lack of contacts in Dublin and declining health, exacerbated by worry over his wife's own health problems, made him ineffective as a constituency representative, and his absence from Dublin during the 1913–14 strike and lockout was widely commented upon.
William Abraham died 2 August 1915 at his home, 26 Ashmount Road, Hornsey Lane, London, of heart failure following a bout of influenza, and was buried in the nonconformist section of Finchley cemetery. His estate was valued at £533 9s. 3d. He and his wife, Ann Jane, had two sons and two daughters. One of his sons, Louis Arnold Abraham (1893–1983), had a distinguished career as a parliamentary scholar, attending Cambridge University with the help of several scholarships and becoming president of the Cambridge Union. After serving in the British army during the first world war, he became assistant clerk in the house of commons in 1920, clerk of private bills (1945–52), and principal clerk of committees (1952–8). His publications include A parliamentary dictionary (1956) and a revision of Palgrave's chairman's handbook (1964).
William Abraham has attracted little attention from historians apart from his walk-on role in the fall of Parnell, but he appears to have been a significant if unprosperous and possibly somewhat unscrupulous businessman. Although a second-rank member of the Irish party, he did much to assist its smooth administration and win support among British Liberals. T. P. O'Connor eulogised him as one of the modest privates that do the fighting and hold their tongue' (Limerick Leader, 13 February 1915).