O'Brien, William (1881–1968), labour leader and trade union official, was born 23 January 1881 at Ballygurteen, Clonakilty, Co. Cork, third son and youngest among four children of Daniel O'Brien of Co. Tipperary, member of the RIC, and Mary O'Brien (née Butler) of Co. Kilkenny. When his father – a nationalist, devout catholic, and Irish-language revivalist – retired with the rank of head constable, the family moved (1886) to Dublin, where O'Brien, who suffered from the disability of a club foot, became a tailor and was employed as a tailoring instructor in the North Dublin workhouse until 1919. Like two older brothers, O'Brien as a very young man became an active union member, and first took part in socialist agitation when he joined the Irish Socialist Republican Party, a small group organised by James Connolly (qv) in 1896. An early proponent of the organisation of unskilled labour, he supported the leadership of James Larkin (qv) in the formation of the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union (1908). He also was instrumental in providing funds for the return of Connolly from the USA (1910); Connolly then became the Belfast organiser of the transport union.
As president of the Dublin trades council O'Brien was successful in winning its support in 1911 for the formation of a local Labour Party. That year he was elected to the executive of the Irish Trade Union Congress, where he was a consistent supporter of expanded labour activity – both political and industrial. With an Irish home rule parliament looming as an approaching reality, the congress voted to establish a national Labour Party in 1912.
It was as a trade union official and member of the executives of national labour bodies that O'Brien attained his positions of power. The dominant member of the transport union executive from 1918 until his retirement in 1946, he served as president of the trades’ congress in 1913, 1918, 1925, and 1941. He also had an abbreviated career as a public representative, being elected an alderman to Dublin corporation (1920), and serving brief terms as a member of Dáil Éireann (1922–3, June–September 1927, 1937–8). With austere public demeanour, and as a demanding official, he had little political appeal. A bachelor who neither smoked nor drank, he led a simple private life. He was remembered bicycling through Dublin, looking straight ahead, as if to avoid contact with people.
In the conflict between militant labourism and the major Dublin employers which culminated in the 1913 strike/lock-out, O'Brien had an effective supporting role as head of the workers’ support committee. He worked closely with James Connolly when Connolly assumed James Larkin's position as general secretary of the transport union on the latter's departure for the USA in the spring of 1914. Probably due to his physical disability, O'Brien did not take part in the Easter rebellion of 1916, but was closely involved in its planning.
After a short period of internment including a month in Frongoch detention camp, where he met Michael Collins (qv), he was part of the group that rebuilt the transport union, where his administrative ability was valuable. Although he only became a member in 1917, he was elected general treasurer in 1918 and acting general secretary the next year. Taking advantage of nationalist enthusiasm, most effectively exploited by Sinn Féin, the transport union rose to be the largest in the country; by 1920 some observers anticipated that its pronounced syndicalist approach would make it the dominant force in Ireland, with O'Brien as its Lenin.
O'Brien was among the Labour Party leaders who concluded that massive unionisation, rather than direct political activity, was the best route to create a socialist society, and thus he did not take part in the decisive 1918 general election. On the formation of Dáil Éireann by the victorious Sinn Féin, the transport union was an unofficial but effective ally, with O'Brien as the reliable, trusted contact person at the top. He assisted Thomas Johnson (qv) and Cathal O'Shannon (qv) in drafting the dáil's ‘democratic programme’ (1919). During the struggle for self-government in 1919–22, the opportunities for revolutionary worker action held no appeal for O'Brien. Seizure of factories and the like were threats to the union's growth, finances, and power. Why endanger these when the tide of events was moving towards Labour's objectives?
He was again arrested on 2 March 1920 and was moved to Wormwood Scrubs in London, where he joined a hunger strike (18 March) and was eventually released (12 May). He and Thomas Foran (qv), the union president, took part (March 1921) in the contacts between Sinn Féin and the Castle that led to truce in July; he was also among the leaders both in the unions and the Labour Party, pragmatists all, who accepted the Anglo–Irish treaty of December 1921 as providing the means for self-government and non-violent political development.
O'Brien was faced with a personal crisis with the return of James Larkin in 1923. To prevent Larkin from resuming his near-dictatorial role in the union, O'Brien was part of the executive that brought in new rules limiting the authority of the general secretary. This was a leading factor in the open breach that quickly erupted in the union, which was to continue throughout the lives of the two men. Larkin was expelled from the body and responded by carrying the bulk of its Dublin membership into his new Workers’ Union of Ireland. With O'Brien now its general secretary, the transport union began a period of continuous decline, but O'Brien's standing among other labour leaders was such that he long succeeded in excluding Larkin from both the Labour Party and the trades union congress. The split within both of its branches weakened the labour movement, paralleling the break within Sinn Féin on the treaty issue. When in the early 1940s Larkin was accepted as a Labour candidate for the party and his union brought into the congress, O'Brien proceeded to create both a breakaway party and congress. This was the end of O'Brien's role in the labour movement, where he had been a conspicuously efficient organiser; Larkin himself was reported to have said that ‘William O'Brien was the only colleague of his who ever really worked’ (Leader, 1953). When he reached the mandatory age for retirement for his union's officials in 1946, he was dispatched with a pension of less than £6 a week.
While his great rival, who died a year later, was to be celebrated in story and song and his sons carried on as party and union leaders, O'Brien continued his quiet activity through to great old age. He remained an adviser to the transport union and wrote for Liberty, the union periodical. Together with Desmond Ryan (qv), he edited the papers of John Devoy (qv) and the works of James Connolly. Based on tape recordings and containing valuable appendices, his memoir, which contained little about the period after 1922, was published the year after his death. He died 30 October 1968 in a convalescent home at Bray, Co. Wicklow, and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin, on 3 November. His massive collection of reports, letters, pamphlets, and more, donated to the NLI, was his legacy to history and historians.