O'Brien, Richard Barry (1847–1918), Irish nationalist biographer, historian, and publicist, was born 7 March 1847 in Kilrush, Co. Clare, third son of Patrick Barry O'Brien and Sarah O'Brien (née Hannan). In 1863 he went to Dublin, passing from the St Laurence O'Toole preparatory school into the Catholic University. Its students were grouped into two sections, the ‘Fenian party’ and the ‘Sullivan party’, to the first of which he adhered. In 1869 O'Brien went to London to read for the bar. Influenced by John Bright and latterly W. E. Gladstone, he came to apprehend the possibilities of what might be achieved by constitutional agitation. Proposed by Isaac Butt (qv) as a member of the Home Government Association at a meeting on 21 November 1871, he attended the Home Rule conference in the Rotunda in Dublin in 1873. He was called to the Irish bar in the Michaelmas term of 1874, and to the English bar in 1875, where he practised for a short time. He was for some time the pupil and political secretary of Patrick McMahon (1813–75), a leading member of the English bar and an Irish Liberal MP till 1874.
Barry O'Brien rapidly established himself as a leading publicist and historical authority on the ‘Irish question’, and his works and articles maintained in relation to the unfolding of Gladstone's Irish policy a striking anticipatory rhythm. The Irish land question and English public opinion from 1829 to 1869 (1879) was followed by The parliamentary history of the Irish land question (1880), and Fifty years of concessions to Ireland 1831–1881 (1883–5), notable for its treatment of the tithe war of 1830–33.
In August 1885 he was approached at Gladstone's behest by James Knowles, founder and editor of the Nineteenth Century, and wrote two articles, the first entitled ‘Irish wrongs and English remedies’, and the second (and more important) on the minimal nationalist requirements for a scheme of home rule, in response to Knowles’ desire ‘to get Mr Parnell's mind on paper’ (Dublin Castle, 2nd ed., pp ix–xi). The prophetic conclusion to the first of these articles showed how far O'Brien's concerns transcended legislative antiquarianism: ‘English legislation for Ireland in the past has been “legislation by fractions”. Almost every concession has been a half-measure spoiled by a grudging spirit, and wanting the sympathy that crowns a gracious deed. Shall it still be so? Will English statesmen meet the renewed demand with the old uncompromising cry of “Never!”, then grant a fractional part, and end by yielding everything to violence and rebellion?’
O'Brien's writings played a significant part in the massive evangelisation of English opinion that attended the Liberal–Nationalist alliance. He tutored Charles Russell (qv) (whose biography he later wrote) on Irish history in preparation for Russell's great set-piece address to the special commission in April 1889. He was one of several figures from the world of journalism close to C. S. Parnell (qv). On 8 December 1890, the Monday that followed the breakup of the Irish party, Parnell, looking ‘tired, ill, distressed’, asked him in the smoking room of the commons if he would be prepared to stand as the Parnellite candidate in the pending Kilkenny election. Barry O'Brien thought it ought to be possible to get a stronger candidate, and by the time he reached Kilkenny North, Vincent Scully (qv), a popular Tipperary landlord, had agreed to run (O'Brien, Parnell, ii, 289, 299–300).
The first biography Barry O'Brien wrote (1889) was of Thomas Drummond (qv). His greatest work was his two-volume biography of Parnell, which appeared in 1898. O'Brien was of course a partisan of Parnell's, and was obliged to work without access to Parnell's probably non-extant papers; he had to rely on published newspaper and parliamentary material, his own considerable knowledge, and interviews with leading contemporaries. Written just within the time-frame of accurate recall of Parnell by the author and his interlocutors, Barry O'Brien's Parnell was a masterpiece. On the day of its publication the biography was huffily reviewed by the anti-Parnellite Freeman's Journal: ‘the historian who chronicles the events of Parnell's fall and omits the pronouncements of the Irish hierarchy is careless indeed’ (10 Nov. 1898). The review in the Parnellite Irish Independent got it right: ‘Mr O'Brien has given Ireland a new possession: for the Parnell of this book is the Parnell that will last’ (23 Nov. 1898).
The first sustained treatment of the Parnell ‘enigma’, Barry O'Brien's biography commanded close attention in England as in Ireland. James Bryce (qv) referred to it in 1903 as having ‘taken rank among the best biographies of the last half-century’ (Studies in contemporary biography, 227). It was invoked over a half-century after its publication by Michael Foot in justification of his biography of Aneurin Bevan, as demonstrating that it was possible to write an enduring biography of a contemporary to whom the author had been close. F. H. O'Donnell (qv) characterised Barry O'Brien as ‘Mr Parnell's super-eulogistic biographer’ (Irish parliamentary party, i, 172). Historians from W. E. H. Lecky (qv) onwards cavilled about its rigour and sources, and lavishly availed themselves of its contents. The biography was critical to the intellectual reconceptualisation of Parnell as to the later high literary myth of W. B. Yeats (qv) and James Joyce (qv), and it is difficult to conceive of the modern biographical treatment of Parnell in the absence of Barry O'Brien's work.
Set against the twenty-first century cult of celebrity, his Parnell had one signal omission. As Henry Harrison (qv) complained, ‘it was silent as to the circumstances of the great love story’ which provided the backdrop to Parnell's career across the final decade (Parnell, Chamberlain and Garvin, 15–16); the lacuna was filled, in some respects problematically, by Katharine O'Shea in her memoir of Parnell of 1914, which, as Harrison noted, itself ‘owed not a little to Mr O'Brien's work’ (Parnell vindicated, 30–31). This was not inadvertent on O'Brien's part: ‘I do not think that it is any part of my duty as Parnell's biographer to enter into the details of his liaison with Mrs O'Shea. I have only to deal with the subject as it affects his public career, and when I have stated that he lived maritally with Mrs O'Shea I feel that I have done all that may reasonably be expected of me’ (Parnell, ii, 163).
Barry O'Brien's sense of Parnell's relations with the Fenians was almost as nuancé as Parnell's own; the intersection of parliamentary nationalism and Fenianism was a subject on which O'Brien wrote with authority. In his exchanges with Sir Charles Russell during the special commission, Barry O'Brien sparred with a disconcerted Russell, asserting that The Times's case in relation to the leadership of the Land League had a substantial element of truth: while the Land League was not a separatist movement, it was ‘bossed by separatists’ (Russell, 243–50).
Although he had acquired a settled and influential position in English journalism and public affairs, O'Brien continued to regard English policy in Ireland with pronounced scepticism; his forthrightness on the subject was perhaps what particularly attracted political attention in England. He once complained to a cabinet minister: ‘No Irishman ever gets anything from you till he goes to you with the head of a landlord in one hand and the tail of a cow in the other’ (Lady Gregory's diaries, 136). A contributor to the London Nation wrote on Barry O'Brien's death that no man then living ‘did more to keep the spirit of Parnellism alive than the biographer of Parnell, and although he was extremely fond of England, understood her character and politics well, and had many friends among her statesmen, he never trusted her in her dealings with Ireland’ (23 Mar. 1918).
His assessment of contemporary Fenianism was similarly undeluded. Of P. N. Fitzgerald (qv), inveterate Munster Fenian and prominent supporter of Parnell in the split, he wrote to John O'Leary (qv) in March 1891: ‘I like P. N. Fitzgerald. He said he would hang me when he got the chance and I agreed to deal equally liberally with him when I became chief secretary. On this basis, we worked smoothly together’ (McGee, IRB, 199).
In 1907 Barry O'Brien spent several months in Dublin visiting the Castle and the principal government departments, and two years later published the influential Dublin Castle and the Irish people. While the idea of his running for his native Clare was mooted in later years – his name was one of those in contention for the nationalist candidacy in Clare West at the 1906 election, but he did not appear at the UIL convention in Kilrush – he never showed any particular urge to enter parliament. He was close to, and informally advised, John Redmond (qv). While he staunchly supported Irish participation in the Allied war effort (four of his five sons served in the British army, and one in the Royal Navy), his nationalism was less imaginatively circumscribed than Redmond's. Encountering O'Brien in Dublin for a period in June 1916, Katharine Tynan (qv) found him intrigued and stirred by the rising (Memories, 327–30).
O'Brien had something of a fetish for compiling lists of instructive books on Ireland: as ‘Historicus’ he devised and organised a series of contributions to the Freeman's Journal in 1886 on ‘the best hundred Irish books’, a benchmark of the pre-‘Celtic twilight’ politico-literary canon. He linked the worlds of the Irish party and the literary revival. He was the chief organising force of the Irish Literary Society, which, as Katharine Tynan observed, he ruled with a rod of iron. His literary taste could be grimly conservative, at least where his political prejudices were engaged: in a review of the exquisite Parnell and his island in Truth he characterised George Moore (qv) as ‘a night-soil novelist’, and allied himself with Sir Charles Russell in seeking to have Moore, whom Yeats had proposed, blackballed by the committee of the society (Frazier, George Moore, 298, 543; Yeats Autobiographies, 433; Yeats, Collected letters, ii, 603–21). In his later years Barry O'Brien devoted much effort to the establishment of an Irish Institute in London.
In the period of his life that followed Parnell's death his principal occupation was as acting editor, in the absence of the nominal editor, Sir Thomas Wemyss Reid, of the influential Liberal weekly The Speaker, established in 1890 as a counterpart to the tory Spectator, in which role he commissioned work from contributors ranging from Lord Acton to W. B. Yeats. He was chiefly responsible for the erection of the Fontenoy memorial, unveiled in 1907. Barry O'Brien died in London, within a fortnight of John Redmond, on St Patrick's day 1918. He was survived by his wife, Kathleen Mary (née Teevan; m. 1877), and by their five sons and two daughters.
John Butler Yeats (qv) undertook a sketch of O'Brien in December 1900 (J. B. Yeats, Letters to his son, 64; W. B. Yeats, Collected letters, ii, 609–10; W. M. Murphy, Prodigal father, 231). A photograph of Barry O'Brien appeared in Good reading 1895–6, a prospectus published by T. Fisher Unwin. There are no Barry O'Brien papers in any public collection. Some individual letters survive in the papers of his correspondents: for example, in the Redmond papers and the correspondence of W. J. Fitzpatrick (qv) in the NLI.