O'Brien, Sir Lucius Henry (1731–95), 3rd baronet, politician, was born at Dromoland, Newmarket, Co. Clare, on 21 September 1731, the second of eight children and the eldest son of Sir Edward O'Brien (qv) (1705–65), 2nd baronet and MP (Co. Clare, 1727–65, and Peterborough, 1727–8), and Mary O'Brien (née Hickman; d. 1760).
Early life and relations with his father Educated at Hillsborough School, Leixlip, Co. Kildare (1743–8), and TCD, to which he was admitted in 1748, O'Brien graduated BA in 1752. He entered the Middle Temple in London a year later, and was called to the Irish bar in 1758. Though this was a common career choice, few eldest sons who stood to inherit a title and a significant estate ever practised, and it is likely that O'Brien was guided in his actions by his strained relationship with his father. The main source of tension was money. Unlike his immediate antecedents, who had expanded and improved the O'Brien estates, Sir Edward was financially irresponsible, and the combination of six years’ residence in England, during which time he was returned to the Westminster parliament to represent the borough of Peterborough, a passion for horses, and a general inability to live within his means meant that he was so heavily indebted by the late 1750s that it was necessary to vest the estates in trustees, despite his objections. He also resented the sale of his prized string of horses and other emergency interventions that Lucius deemed necessary, and the two men seem to have clashed sharply and repeatedly at this time.
To compound matters, Sir Edward and his son did not see eye to eye politically. The father's political instincts, and his friendship with the eighth earl of Thomond, who promoted his candidature at Peterborough in 1727, drew him towards toryism, while Lucius's inclinations were firmly whig. They patched up their differences sufficiently to ensure Lucius's election in 1761 to the seat for Ennis borough left vacant by the demise of Samuel Bindon (1680–1760), but this did not prove enduring. Relations between the two men remained difficult for the remainder of Sir Edward's life. He died on 29 November 1765, and Lucius succeeded to the baronetcy.
Early political career, 1761–8 By the time of his father's death, Lucius O'Brien was already acknowledged as one of the leading voices in the house of commons. This reflected his determination, from his assumption of his seat in 1761, to take an active political role. Though desirous, in common with most independent country gentlemen, to preserve his freedom of action, his political instincts drew him towards the invigorated ranks of the parliamentary opposition. He demonstrated this in joining Charles Lucas (qv), William Osborne, Edmond Sexten Pery (qv), and others in 1761 to urge the rejection of the money bill prepared by the Irish privy council to satisfy the requirement of Poynings' law that due and appropriate cause be provided to the crown to authorise the convening of an Irish parliament. This was a matter upon which O'Brien held strong opinions deriving from his conviction that control over the raising of revenue was crucial to the ‘prerogative’ of parliament; he again raised the matter unsuccessfully in 1763. He was also unsuccessful in promoting a septennial bill in 1761 to limit the duration of parliament, and his proposed legislation to enhance the independence of the judiciary by altering the terms on which judges held office was defeated in 1763. Nevertheless, his preparedness to press such issues earned him complimentary notice and by the mid-1760s he was widely acknowledged as one of the more energetic members of the vocal phalanx of patriot MPs in the house of commons.
O'Brien's political standing was further enhanced by his efforts in aid of the Church of Ireland. As a devout member of that communion, he was happy to do what he could to foster protestantism in the stony soil of Clare by supporting the establishment in the 1760s of a charter school at Newmarket and by highlighting the impoverished fabric of the Church of Ireland in the county. He also believed that it was ‘necessary to lay the Papists under some restraints’ (Caldwell, 658), and he was unwilling for this reason to support a number of initiatives in the early 1760s to allow catholics to lend money on mortgage, on the grounds that they might use this as leverage at election times to influence the membership of the house of commons. O'Brien has been wrongly accused of anti-catholicism arising out of the position he took on this issue in 1764: his outlook was entirely in keeping with that of a majority of protestant patriots.
O'Brien was more committed than most to making law, and while once again his efforts during the 1765–6 session to alter the tenure of judges, to limit the duration of parliament, to prevent the buying and selling of offices, and to encourage conversion to protestantism came to nought, he obtained approval for a temporary ban on distilling and a prohibition on the exportation of grain and flour in 1766 to help combat the impact of food scarcity. Two years later he was to the fore once more in promoting a judiciary bill, which was controversially lost, and a septennial bill, which made it to law as an octennial act. The octennial act necessitated a general election, and O'Brien had the satisfaction of securing public endorsement of his political activity when he was returned to represent Co. Clare.
The Townshend administration, 1769–72 Despite his pleasure that a law limiting the duration of parliament had finally made it to the statute book, O'Brien shared the general dissatisfaction of independent country gentlemen with the government of Lord Townshend (qv), who became lord lieutenant of Ireland in 1767. He made this clear by moving and securing approval for an address on 2 May 1768, in which MPs affirmed that the kingdom could not afford to fund the augmentation of the army, which was Townshend's priority measure. He moved to centre stage on the assembly of the new parliament when, in the absence of Henry Flood (qv), who was tied up with a contested election petition, he led the opposition in the commons in December 1769 in resisting another privy council money bill, on the grounds that it was incompatible with the exclusive right of the Irish parliament to raise money for the government of Ireland. He was also nominated at the beginning of the 1769 session to chair the committee of privileges and elections, which adjudicated contested elections.
O'Brien's enhanced profile encouraged Lord Charlemont (qv), the éminence grise of Irish patriotism, to invite him in 1770 and 1771 to approach the various strands of opposition with a view to developing a concerted strategy aimed at resisting Lord Townshend's tactics in parliament. O'Brien declined: he did not possess the requisite vision, drive, or leadership skills. He was happy, however, to support Flood and others in resisting Townshend's scheme to divide the revenue board in 1771–2. He also successfully pursued the implementation of legislation that reorganised the method of hearing claims of controverted elections (the so-called ‘O'Brien–Lucas Act’; 11 Geo. III, c. 12), and was responsible for a measure prohibiting brick burning in and near the metropolis (11 Geo. III, c. 6). Furthermore, he assisted Robert French (qv), the MP for Galway borough, to prepare and secure approval in 1771 for a ‘bogland act’ that extended the entitlement of catholics to lease land for reclamation purposes.
Though a minor measure, the ‘bogland act’ represented a change in political direction by O'Brien, who was to the fore from this point in promoting catholic relief. This can be attributed in part to the influence of Robert French, whom O'Brien regarded very highly and towards whom he gravitated following his marriage to French's daughter, Anne, in 1768. Their most notable legislative contribution was the 1774 oath of allegiance, since this paved the way for the concession of further rights to catholics, but they were also at one in their commitment to promote domestic economic development. One of the issues that generated a lively debate at this time was the construction of the Grand Canal, which was in danger of grinding to a halt for want of money and direction; encouraged by French, O'Brien lobbied strongly, and with some success, for the establishment in 1772 of the Grand Canal Company to take over the development of the waterway from the commissioners for inland navigation.
Ally of the administration, 1772–80 Such achievements, added to his success, also in 1772, in securing approval for a rum bill augmenting the revenue receipts of government, encouraged O'Brien to contemplate forging a closer relationship with the Irish administration. He was also prompted by the replacement of the controversial Townshend by Earl Harcourt (qv) and by the example of Edmond Sexten Pery (with whom he was so closely identified after their shared endeavour in the 1760s that he was described – inaccurately – on one Castle list as Pery's ‘jackall’ (Bodkin, 180)) to forsake active opposition, in the belief that it might prove more advantageous legislatively. Furthermore, he had a financial motive. Despite his efforts to promote linen production at Newmarket and good husbandry on his estate, he remained encumbered by heavy debt. Much of this was of his father’s rather than his own making, but it was no less pressing for that, and he had already acquired something of a reputation for not paying his bills on time.
Persuaded that he could serve both the country and himself by working with, rather than against, the Irish administration he promoted a series of initiatives during Earl Harcourt's administration (1772–7) aimed at encouraging linen production, grain cultivation, land reclamation, the fishing industry, and internal and external trade. In return, Earl Harcourt bestowed a number of minor offices and pensions on his nominees, but nothing was forthcoming for O'Brien personally. This was due in part to the fact that O'Brien was a modest parliamentary performer. He spoke often in the commons, but he failed to command the house because ‘his voice is indifferent, his elocution bad, and his language neither correct nor elegant’ (Falkland, 28). His forte was commercial detail, but while his understanding of the intricacies of the many commercial issues he took up earned him deserved respect, his limited capacity to digest information and to present it coherently diminished his appeal. Nonetheless, his persistent efforts from the late 1760s to gain Ireland greater access to Britain's colonial markets meant that he was well placed to exploit this when the removal of the long-established mercantilist restrictions on Ireland's right to trade moved to centre stage in the late 1770s.
O'Brien actively lobbied officials such as William Knox (qv) and sympathetic politicians such as Lord Nugent (qv). He also played a useful role in circumventing resistance at Westminster in 1778 to the proposal to enhance Ireland's right to trade, but though he later maintained that the ‘principal and all the material parts’ of ‘free trade’ (O'Brien, Letters, 48) were conceded at that point, and Edmund Burke (qv) applauded his contribution, others were more reserved. This was particularly true in Ireland. Indeed, his role in piloting a major measure of catholic relief into law in 1778, unencumbered by a provision to relieve presbyterians from having to subscribe to the sacramental test, attracted little positive notice. His unwillingness in 1779 openly to support the campaign for free trade, his unease with the Volunteers, and his contribution to the approval of anti-combination legislation in 1780 proved still more costly; O'Brien was sharply criticised in the popular press for his stance on each issue.
Commercial and constitutional issues, 1780–90 Given this experience and the failure of the Irish administration and of Lord North, the prime minister, whom he approached directly in 1778, to meet his request for a seat on the revenue board, O'Brien distanced himself from the Irish administration in the early 1780s. He did not join actively with the patriot phalanx in the commons, but his support for the mutiny bill in the summer of 1780, his persistent raising of the refusal of the Portuguese court to admit Irish goods following the concession of free trade in 1780, his suggestion that Ireland should found its own navy to protect its commercial interests, and his backing for legislative independence were indicative. He had not given up hope of a lucrative office, however, for when the duke of Portland (qv) took up the reins of power and oversaw the concession of legislative independence, O'Brien was quick to signal his support. He also opposed Henry Flood (qv) and those Volunteers who demanded in 1782–3 that the British parliament should renounce its right to legislate for Ireland, though he took this stand at a high personal cost as it resulted in his failure to secure re-election for Co. Clare and obliged him to purchase a seat for the borough of Tuam in 1783.
Chastened by the experience, O'Brien adopted a lower profile in the 1783–90 parliament. He did not neglect commercial issues. He pressed the Portuguese trade dispute issue for more than five years, and was forthcoming also on the subject of Ireland's expanding its trading relationship with Spain, France, and Russia. Consistent with this, he opposed the introduction of protecting duties in 1784 though this exacerbated his already difficult relationship with the Dublin public. Similar concerns encouraged him initially to support William Pitt's attempt to link Britain and Ireland in a ‘commercial union’ and to publish a pamphlet challenging Lord Sheffield's celebrated effort to stir up controversy on the subject. O'Brien's pamphlet was one of the lesser contributions to an animated public debate, because, as the chief secretary Thomas Orde (qv) observed, he was unable to ‘confine his arguments to one side of the question’ (Beresford corr., i, 282). More significant was O'Brien's refusal subsequently to accept the implications of Pitt's attempt to introduce a new provision requiring that Britain and Ireland should adopt uniform commercial regulations on the grounds that it was inconsistent with Irish legislative independence. Despite this, and their decision in 1784 not to award to O'Brien the lucrative patentee office of registrar of deeds, the Irish administration of the duke of Rutland (qv) determined to honour its commitment to raise O'Brien to office. They signalled their intention by recommending him to the privy council, to which he was appointed in February 1786, and he was made clerk of the crown and hanaper, with an additional salary of £1,500, in August 1787.
Last years Having finally secured the office he had long desired, O'Brien did not become a sleeping supporter of the Irish administration, like many holders of sinecure office. His legislative activity was restrained compared with what it had been in the 1760s and 1770s, but this was in keeping with his position. Significantly, he took a prominent part with the administration on the regency in 1789. He was re-elected to the house of commons for Ennis borough in 1790, but his health deteriorated soon afterwards, and he took little part in public life during the following five years. His election to membership of the RIA in 1790 constituted fitting recognition of his continuing support for antiquarian investigation, previously manifest in 1772 when he was a leading light of the short-lived committee on antiquities established by the Dublin Society, but his declining health precluded his active involvement. He died, aged sixty-three, on 15 January 1795 having, over nearly thirty-five years in parliament, demonstrated a singular commitment to the economic improvement of the kingdom of Ireland. He was succeeded by his son, Edward (1773–1837), the eldest of the twelve children (six sons and six daughters) that resulted from his marriage to Anne French. His extensive papers are in the Inchiquin collection in the NLI.