O'Brien, William (1852–1928), Irish nationalist leader, agrarian campaigner, journalist, and author, was born 2 October 1852 in Mallow, Co. Cork, second son of James O'Brien, solicitor's clerk, and his wife Kate, daughter of James Nagle, a local shopkeeper. It was generally believed that through the Nagle family they were connected to the catholic relatives of Edmund Burke (qv), a biography of whom O'Brien was eventually to write, and for whom he retained a lifelong admiration. Although a Roman catholic, O'Brien received his secondary education at the local Church of Ireland school, Cloyne Diocesan College. He had some peripheral experience of the Fenian disturbances of 1867 through his older brother James, who was a participant, and O'Brien himself became active in the Fenian movement, resigning from it in the mid 1870s. At QCC he studied law, but was forced to abandon his studies to give financial support to his mother and siblings, becoming in 1869 a reporter on the Cork Daily Herald. In late 1877 and early 1878 O'Brien – by then on the staff of the Freeman's Journal – toured the Buckley estate in the Galtee Mountains, where the impoverished tenants were threatened with eviction, and from that experience wrote a series of articles subsequently published as a pamphlet, Christmas on the Galtees. In August and September 1879, coinciding with the emergence of the Land League as a major national political force, he made a significant journalistic contribution, anonymously, to escalating public interest in the land issue through his part in a ‘land commission’ set up by the Freeman's Journal to report on the plight of tenant farmers throughout the country. In 1881 Charles Stewart Parnell (qv) appointed him editor of the Land League newspaper, United Ireland, and while imprisoned with other nationalist leaders in Kilmainham jail later that year he drafted the famous ‘No rent manifesto’.
Parliament: the Parnell era
O'Brien was first elected to parliament in 1883, at a by-election for the seat of Mallow. This was the beginning of a parliamentary career in which he was a member of the house of commons almost continuously till the general election of 1918, with only three periods of absence: in 1886–7, between 1895 and 1900, and for eight months in 1904. Apart from Mallow (1883–5), he was also member for Tyrone South (1886), Cork North-East (1887–92), and Cork city (1892–5, 1901–18). He was a colourful member of the house, partly because of a use of language that was very expressive, but that some thought extravagant, and partly because of theatrical representations of occurrences in Ireland, most famously when he appeared there in the suit of clothes that had been smuggled into Tullamore jail for him in 1888. This imprisonment, for activities associated with the Plan of Campaign, of which he was one of the principal architects, was one of several such incarcerations for O'Brien, first in Kilmainham in 1881 and finally in Galway jail in the first half of 1891, in company with John Dillon (qv), again on charges arising from the Plan of Campaign.
On 11 June 1890 O'Brien married Sophie Raffalovich (see Sophie Raffalovich O'Brien (qv)), daughter of a Russian Jewish banker, Hermann Raffalovich, domiciled in Paris. The wedding was in the church of St Charles Borromeo in Ogle St., London. Sophie had been prepared for admission into the Roman catholic church by the parish priest, but unexpectedly for the couple O'Brien's spiritual guide and friend, Thomas William Croke (qv), archbishop of Cashel, announced his intention of attending the wedding, and it was he who officiated. The tiny church was crowded, including Parnell himself as best man, and eighty-two members of the Irish parliamentary party. It was the last occasion on which virtually the whole party was together before the acrimonious split that followed the O'Shea divorce case. Sophie Raffalovich brought to the marriage very considerable wealth, enabling O'Brien to act over the years with an unusual degree of political independence, to the point even of being able to establish his own newspapers. His marriage also began for him a deep and abiding love of France and interest in its affairs and politics, a sympathy that was inevitably to influence his political attitudes during the first world war.
While both were in Galway jail in 1891, O'Brien attempted to persuade John Dillon that on their release they should remain aloof from the fratricidal strife that followed the Parnell split, preserving themselves as a ‘dispassionate tribunal’ (Olive branch, 54) to which other nationalists might turn as the factionalism receded. Dillon did not agree, and O'Brien, recoiling from the idea that the two colleagues and friends should take opposing positions, conceded that they should join the anti-Parnellite majority party. This reluctant subordination of his judgement to Dillon's was to lay the seeds of a rapidly widening gap between them on Irish political matters, eventually resulting in a bitter personal and public alienation. O'Brien's misgivings about actively joining the anti-Parnellite party arose from his sense that it would mean separation from the most active and politically vital elements of Irish nationalism, a view that was certainly not contradicted by later events. On the other hand, however, O'Brien retained his very strong respect for William Ewart Gladstone and a belief that everything possible should be done to test his commitment to the cause of Irish home rule, and with the latter's return to office in 1892 O'Brien threw his energies into the negotiations with the government leading to the 1893 home rule bill. This was probably the period when he was most engaged with the legislative processes of the house of commons, as distinct from its use as a platform for the public voicing of his political beliefs. With the defeat of the home rule bill in the house of lords and Gladstone's retirement, however, he became increasingly disillusioned with parliamentary politics.
Action outside parliament: the United Irish League
With the Gladstonian commitment to home rule having run its course, O'Brien returned to the views that had shaped his preferred position while in Galway jail. Resigning his seat in 1895, he developed a strategy that was not so solely focused on parliament. He believed that agitational politics in the country was necessary to retain the attachment of more extreme nationalists to constitutionalism, to transcend the factionalism that beset the parliamentary party, and to maximise pressure on British parties at Westminster. Both for these purposes and for the personal one of enjoying for the first time since his marriage a more settled life with his wife, he acquired a house near Westport, Co. Mayo, naming it Mallow Cottage. In that area local and disconnected land agitations, isolated from national politics by the party split, had formed, and O'Brien set himself the task of building on these to establish a more coherent organisation that, in his own words, would draw ‘an irresistible strength and reality from conditions in the west, [and] . . . throw open to the free air of a new national spirit those caverns and tabernacles of faction in which good men . . . had been suffocating’(Olive branch, 89). The outcome of this was the United Irish League (UIL), founded in January 1898. Intended as a focus for agrarian agitation, especially in the west, it served also as a commemoration of the centenary of the 1798 rebellions and, as such, a rallying call for all nationalists, in a similar way to that of the ‘new departure’ of the late 1870s. Within two years the organisation had spread throughout the country and had fulfilled O'Brien's objectives beyond both the regional and agrarian focus of its origins. In particular, it had won the support of Parnellites as well as anti-Parnellites, and drawn into its ranks many who had been previously associated with Fenianism. In its support for compulsory purchase of estates from the landlords and the transfer of ownership to the tenant farmers it also achieved an alliance with the presbyterian tenant farmers of the north, evoking memories of the 1850s ‘League of North and South’.
The success of the UIL precipitated a reunion of the nationalist parliamentary factions in January 1900; but rather than the popularly driven unity for which O'Brien had striven, this was a largely defensive manoeuvre by the parliamentarians in face of the popular momentum of the new organisation. In his own words, ‘the party was reunified, rather than reformed’ (Olive branch, 123). Thus, most of those members discredited by the factionalism of the 1890s were reelected in the general election of 1900, greatly to O'Brien's disappointment. However, on account of the dominance that the circumstances of the reunion gave to the UIL as the national organisation, O'Brien became for a period the most influential figure within the nationalist movement, although not formally its leader. The leadership went to John Redmond (qv) as the result of an earlier anti-Parnellite gesture of conciliation towards the Parnellite faction.
‘Conference, conciliation, consent’
From the position of strength the UIL's success had given him, O'Brien led a new agitation to press the government to introduce compulsory purchase of landlord estates and the resale of farms to the occupiers, a campaign that reached its climax in the summer of 1902. Out of this conflict, and the desire of both sides to resolve it, arose a conference of landlords and tenants to seek a settlement by agreement, resulting in 1903 in a land act (the ‘Wyndham act’) that provided for a government-facilitated system of voluntary purchase. In many respects, and certainly for O'Brien, the method by which this outcome was brought about was as significant as the achievement itself. The idea of a conference had come from the son of a Galway landlord, Capt. John Shawe-Taylor (qv), and had been predicated on the assumption that Irishmen sitting down together should be able to resolve this problem themselves. Equally significant was that, in the face of the rejection of the idea of a conference by the official leadership of the landlord organisation, it was endorsed in an informal plebiscite of landlords. Thus had the majority of landlords signalled, against their leaders, a desire to settle the dispute that had dominated Irish politics for the previous quarter of a century. O'Brien's conclusion, following these events and their successful culmination in legislation, was that the ground was shifting in Irish politics, and that issues that had served to stereotype alignments in the past could now be addressed in more constructive ways. With this in sight he guided the official nationalist movement into endorsement of a new policy of conciliation, designed to remove the sharp polarisation between the erstwhile landlord and tenant classes, to facilitate cooperation in the resolution of other intractable problems, and potentially to allow for a broadening of the basis of nationalism. To O'Brien this was a logical political consequence of the abolition of landlordism, which he saw correctly as the outcome of the Wyndham act.
O'Brien labelled this new approach ‘Conference, conciliation, consent’, and saw in it the potential to bridge, not only economic, but also religious and ethnic divisions in Ireland. He already foresaw that unless this could be done nationalist objectives would be frustrated, and he was to live to see the realisation of his worst fears in the partition of Ireland. While he recognised that unionists were not going to become nationalists overnight, he believed that there were important areas of Irish affairs – university education, evicted tenants, population congestion, devolution – where there could now be cooperation between the mass of the population and members of the ascendancy class, and that this cooperation could lead to new attitudes to questions of Irish government. This conciliatory approach, however, was unacceptable to a number of O'Brien's colleagues, and a campaign, led by John Dillon, Michael Davitt (qv), and Thomas Sexton (qv), was launched against the new policy. Faced with the failure of the party's leader, John Redmond, to control this dissent, in November 1903 O'Brien resigned from his positions in the movement, hoping thereby to shock the party and public opinion into realising the need for unity behind a clear policy. His action was, however, counter-productive, leaving to his opponents control of the party and its organisation, and excluding him from further influence in the movement which he had played the principal part in reconstructing. In this withdrawal from leadership positions O'Brien demonstrated a propensity – evident in other periods of his life – to equivocate in the face of ultimate responsibility for political actions.
From 1903 to 1916 O'Brien was critical of the strategy pursued by his former colleagues, warning against the increasingly sectarian basis of their actions, condemning the refusal to reciprocate the cooperative attitude of more moderate members of the landlord class, and predicting the resurgence of revolutionary nationalism. Despite initial inclinations to withdraw from active political life, he became the parliamentary leader of a group of dissident nationalists, from 1909 onwards known as the All-for-Ireland League, with its principal support in Co. Cork. Not taken seriously by contemporaries, and largely ignored by historians, the existence of this party created a situation in Ireland in which there were effectively three parliamentary forces, one principally based in the north and representative of largely protestant sectarian interests, one principally based in the south, comprising both catholic and protestant elements, enunciating a non-sectarian policy, and in the rest of the country a nationalist party, non-sectarian in ideology but increasingly the prisoner of catholic sectarian interests and pursuing narrow electoral strategies. Furthermore, O'Brien was critical of his erstwhile colleagues and their uncritical adherence to an alliance with a British Liberal party that had put Irish home rule low on its agenda when not dependent on Irish parliamentary votes. He also saw the official nationalist party sacrificing opportunities to reestablish a degree of parliamentary independence by supporting sympathetic Conservative initiatives. For him the Irish parliamentary party seemed to have lost all sense of the need for grass-roots vitality, such as had existed in Land League and UIL times, and he saw this as an abandonment of one of the essentials of Irish politics if British parties were to be kept committed to Irish interests. When Irish home rule once more became a serious parliamentary option after 1912, O'Brien temporarily withdrew much of his public criticism, but the eventual outcome confirmed his underlying scepticism. The suspension of home rule in 1914, the 1916 rising, and the eclipse of the parliamentary party by Sinn Féin in 1918 were to him vindication of the policies he had articulated since 1903.
During the years after 1903 O'Brien applied himself to extensive writing and publication of a general literary and autobiographical nature, including accounts of the events in which he had been a participant. His robust and colourful language, together with the distinctiveness of his point of view on political events, made his works popular in Ireland. His publications comprise two novels, about ten substantial literary, autobiographical, or historical volumes, approximately ten pamphlets, and more than twenty articles in contemporary journals. He edited, owned, or sponsored newspapers, for which he wrote extensively: United Ireland in the 1880s; the Irish People from 1899 to 1909; the Cork Accent in 1910; and the Cork Free Press from 1910 to 1916. His writings embodied a view that an effective Irish polity required the accommodation of a broad cross-section of Irish interests. Thus, at times in his career his focus was on those who stood at the extreme end of nationalism, the Fenians earlier, the anti-treatyites later; at other times landlord and protestant interests, once these could be more readily reconciled to majority interests, as he saw becoming possible after the land conference of 1902–3. In his final years he took comfort from the readiness of Irish Free State governments to endorse that perspective, with their incorporation of members of the former ascendancy into the institutions of the state, for example as senators. The partition of Ireland was for him testimony, not only of the failure of British governments to deal honestly with Ireland, but more particularly of the abandonment by the Irish parliamentary party after 1904 of the principles of non-sectarianism and of representing a breadth of interests. O'Brien believed himself to be the inheritor of the traditions of Edmund Burke, Isaac Butt (qv), and Charles Stewart Parnell. He rejoiced in the eclipse in 1918 of the party of John Redmond and John Dillon, ‘not because it was the parliamentary movement of Parnell, but because it had long ceased to deserve the description’ (Evening memories, 501). His particular perspective on how Irish problems were to be addressed falls into a longer historical trajectory when linked to the principles that have underlain the peace process in late twentieth-century Northern Ireland.
In 1918 O'Brien finally withdrew himself and his small party from active political life, believing that Sinn Féin had earned the right to represent the nationalist interest. With the outbreak of the civil war his sympathies moved sharply to the anti-treaty side, believing as he did that ‘there cannot be any tolerable peace until it is made possible for the republicans freely to reenter the public life of the country’ (Irish revolution, 453). Consistently with that view, by the time of the Irish Free State elections of 1927 he had publicly committed himself to the Fianna Fáil party. O'Brien died suddenly of heart failure on 25 February 1928 at the Belgravia Hotel, Victoria, aged seventy-five, while on a visit to London with his wife. A requiem mass at Westminster cathedral, where he had often worshipped while in London as a member of parliament, preceded the return of his body to Ireland, for burial in the churchyard at Mallow. His wife later returned to live in Paris, where she died in 1960. Her final years were lived in poverty, her fortune having been completely lost as a result of confiscations of property in Russia by the Bolsheviks. O'Brien and his wife had no children. His parents, and his three siblings, had all died before he was thirty.