O'Brien, James (‘Bronterre ’) (1804–64), chartist, was born in Granard, Co. Longford, in February 1804. He was the son of a wine, spirit, and tobacco merchant, Daniel O'Brien, and his wife, Mary Kearney. James was baptised in the catholic faith in February 1804, as was a sister, in January 1806. Daniel's business failed and, endeavouring to restore his fortunes, he emigrated alone to the West Indies. He died shortly after arriving there, leaving a hard-pressed widow and two children. This calamity notwithstanding, James was sent to the local Granard parochial school, where the master, recognising his abilities and application, secured a place for him in the renowned model school set up by the Edgeworths in Edgeworthstown, seven miles away, in 1816. Here, from 1818, James enjoyed the benefits of a broad education and the practical support of the Edgeworths, who almost certainly made possible his enrolment and education at TCD. There he continually distinguished himself academically before graduating in 1829. He proceeded to study for the bar at King's Inns, Dublin, before transferring to Gray's Inn, London, in 1830, with a view to qualifying for the bar in England.
In London O'Brien soon became caught up in radical politics and radical journalism. It was the beginning of two decades when Britain was convulsed by struggles over parliamentary reform, extension of the right to vote, freedom of the press, factory legislation, the new poor law, working-class organisation in trade unions, Owenite socialism and chartism. O'Brien quickly acquired skill and reputation as theorist, speaker, and writer on these matters. He soon found himself in the company of famous British radicals, such as ‘Orator’ Henry Hunt and the great populist journalist William Cobbett. The most decisive experience shaping O'Brien's early London career in popular politics was the campaign for a free newspaper press, the so-called ‘War of the Unstamped’ (the government tax or ‘stamp’ on newspapers putting their price beyond the means of the masses). Leading the campaign against the stamp duty were William Carpenter, Henry Hetherington, William Cobbett, and the Irishman John Cleave (1795?–1850). It was in Carpenter's unstamped Political Letters (1830–31) that O'Brien's first known published article, ‘A political mirror’, appeared on 7 January 1831, signed with the nom de plume ‘Bronterre’, which he thereafter used as a middle name. Devoted to the repeal of the Act of Union, this, with his two other articles in Carpenter's journal, dealing with Owenite socialism, established his reputation as a trenchant advocate of radical reform. His case for repeal, unlike that of Daniel O'Connell (qv), rested on a class-based interpretation of history and politics.
Soon afterwards O'Brien became editor of Henry Hetherington's Poor Man's Guardian, the most famous organ in the campaign for a free press in Britain. O'Brien's writing style, with its lucidity, rationality, and thrust, made his and the journal's reputation. He was outstanding among the agitators of the age for the logical quality of his arguments, avoiding the resort to bluster and demagogy characteristic of many contemporary popular leaders. Over the next few years he became involved in a succession of radical journalistic enterprises, the object of which was to enable the mass of working people to acquire knowledge as a prelude to power, and to acquire power for the purpose of profound social reform. He became the foremost advocate of democracy as the means to social change, introducing a link between political power and the dynamics of social class that was absent from older, and even contemporary, radicalism of anti-corruption. As his ideas developed in the 1830s and 1840s they anticipated elements of the social democracy that arose in Britain from the late 1870s onwards. Uniquely too, among his leading contemporaries, through his knowledge of French language and history, he linked his ideas to those generated during the most socially radical stages of the French revolution, and specifically with the radical egalitarianism of Gracchus Babeuf, revolutionary leader of the Conspiracy of the Equals in 1796. One of the survivors of Babeuf's conspiracy was Philippe Buonarotti who, in 1828, published his La conspiration pour l'égalité dite de Babeuf. In 1836 O'Brien published his translation of this, finding in its history ideas similar to his own, particularly on nationalisation of the land. He also planned a two-volume biography of Robespierre, but he had written only the first volume when mounting debts led to the confiscation of his library of books and notes.
Despite his commitment to the cause of his fellow countrymen and to the repeal of the union of Great Britain and Ireland, O'Brien came into serious conflict with Daniel O'Connell when the latter launched his notorious attack on trade unions and trade unionism in 1837 and O'Brien counter-attacked in the pages of his short-lived Bronterre's National Reformer. In the previous year they had both been elected to the newly organised London Working Men's Association (LWMA), a body that became one of the constituent foundation organisations of the chartist movement in Britain from 1838. The LWMA, led by William Lovett, became the embodiment of the moderate element of the chartist movement, and it censured O'Brien for dragging its name into the conflict with O'Connell. O'Brien, as a result, left London to join his fellow Irishman the radical journalist Fergus O'Connor (qv) in developing the chartist movement in the north of England and in producing O'Connor's hugely successful working-class paper Northern Star. By O'Connor's own admission, O'Brien's writings contributed greatly to the popularity and success of the paper.
O'Brien now became an evangelist for the growing movement's campaign for electoral reform and universal suffrage. He spoke ambivalently on the issue of the use of arms in the event of the movement's peaceful demands being rebuffed; he suggested that the people should arm themselves in their own defence but stopped short of any suggestion of armed initiatives against the government if it refused to concede the democratic demands of the People's Charter. He was a leading member of the first great chartist convention, which met in London in February 1839, and was the key influence in getting it moved out of London to Birmingham, away from the influence of the LWMA and the risk of mass arrests by the government. Following the rejection by the house of commons of the first national petition for the charter, the convention resolved on calling a general strike – a strategically unwise move in the light of prevailing economic and political conditions, and one that O'Brien successfully opposed: his and O'Connor's motion to call off the proposed general strike was carried in the convention on 6 August 1839.
Yet O'Brien's tactical moderation did not save him from the clutches of the law. After the Newport uprising of November 1839 the government came down heavily on the chartists and O'Brien was one of those tried for sedition. Acquitted of the charge at Newcastle in February 1840, he was convicted on separate charges at Liverpool in April and spent the next eighteen months jailed in Lancaster castle. During this period, despite a modesty subsidy from O'Connor's Northern Star, O'Brien's family of wife and four children were in dire straits, and worse was to follow when he broke with O'Connor in July 1841. The breach occurred over the impending general election and O'Connor's anti-whig determination to urge support for tory candidates.
On his release from prison O'Brien resumed his lecturing and journalism, advocating land nationalisation, the creation of a national bank, direct taxation of land and property, and church disestablishment. His worsening relations with O'Connor, whose next venture, the chartist Land Plan, which aimed to provide small, proprietary freeholdings for the working class, he vigorously opposed, cost O'Brien extensive support. For the rest of the 1840s he became a marginalised, if not silent, supporter for his version of chartism. He moved with his family to the Isle of Man in 1844, where he ran a stationery business and where he was able to publish and distribute his latest paper, National Reformer and Manx Weekly Review of Home and Foreign Affairs free of the stamp. He kept it going till May 1847, when mounting debts forced its closure. He returned to England as the chartist movement was reviving and heading for its third and final peak in the spring of 1848. Although he was elected to the third chartist convention in April 1848, he found himself at odds with the new militancy of the movement, which was now almost totally within the grasp of O'Connor's leadership. O'Brien resigned from the convention on the eve of its fiasco on Kennington Common on 10 April 1848, when the threat of a mass demonstration folded in the face of cool-headed government control. Thereafter, O'Brien, struggling with poverty and ill health, continued to eke out a living by contributions to various radical newspapers and periodicals, most notably G. W. M. Reynolds's Political Instructor and later Reynolds's Weekly.
In 1850, in the wake of the decline of chartism as a mass movement, O'Brien was to the fore in the creation of the National Reform League for the Peaceful Regeneration of Society. The National Reform League perpetuated several key ideas of O'Brien's social and political repertoire, including nationalisation of land, mines, and minerals, public ownership of utilities, a free, compulsory system of national education, and a new, humane poor law to provide decent employment and maintenance. Simultaneously, he developed his interest in adult education and in 1851 opened his Eclectic Institute for this purpose in Soho, London. Dogged by O'Brien's ill health and poverty, the institute ran into difficulties. While he continued to publish widely and forcefully in press and pamphlets, attacking notably Britain's role in the Crimean war and Palmerston's foreign policy, he was in serious decline at the end of the 1850s. He had around him a devoted band of friends and followers, notably Martin Boon, Patrick Hennessy, and Charles and James Francis Murray. These, together with the rising radical Charles Bradlaugh (1833–91), organised a testimonial fund for him in 1859 and this kept a roof over the heads of the O'Brien family, in Pentonville, London, where he died 23 December 1864.
Almost nothing is known of O'Brien's private or family life, despite his having been so public a person during the 1830s to 1850s. He was survived by his wife, by one boy who became an actor and by another who went to sea. Of the other two children nothing has so far been chronicled. His memory survived through his followers, Boon, Hennessy, and the Murrays. Through their Land and Labour League from the 1860s and through the First International in the 1860s and 1870s they kept his ideas on land nationalisation alive. They became the bridge between his radicalism in the chartist era and the revival of socialism in the 1880s. It was Martin Boon and his associates who gathered together his journalistic pieces of the 1850s and in 1885 published them in book form as The rise, progress and phases of human slavery. Of his other writings, the best-known include State socialism (1850), Bronterre O'Brien's European letters (1851), and Sermons on the day of public fast and humiliation for England's disasters in the Crimea (1856).
There is no memorial to O'Brien's memory in his native Granard or elsewhere in Ireland. At his place of burial in Abney Park cemetery, Stoke Newington, London, there is a memorial sarcophagus, paid for by his friends in England and Scotland, and bearing the epitaph: ‘His life was grand. His death was sad and drear.’ There is one undated, mid-life portrait of him in the National Portrait Gallery in London, by an unknown artist (NPG, D5374), a daguerreotype photograph taken in 1850, and a contemporary engraving of O'Brien with O'Connor in 1839.