Osborne, Ralph Bernal (1808–82), politician, was born 26 March 1808 in London, eldest child of Ralph Bernal, barrister, antiquarian and MP, and his first wife, Anne Elizabeth White, only daughter of Richard Samuel White of New Ormond St., London. His family was of mixed Jewish and Spanish origins and his ancestors had moved to London in the eighteenth century, where they became prominent merchants in the West Indian trade. His grandfather was Jacob Bernal of Fitzroy Square, London, a Sephardic Jew who became a Christian after a dispute with the rabbi at his synagogue. Tragedy struck his family in July 1823 when his mother's clothes caught fire and she died as a result of serious burns. Ralph's early education was at Charterhouse, and in February 1826 he was admitted as a pensioner at Trinity College, Cambridge. He did not take his academic career seriously, however, and frittered away the time writing satirical verse and performing as an amateur actor.
His father, who realised that he would never take his degree, secured an ensign's commission for him in the 71st Foot (1830). Promoted to lieutenant, in April 1835, he was appointed ADC to the newly appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Mulgrave (qv). He remained in Ireland until 1841, serving first with Mulgrave (1835–9) and later with his successor Viscount Ebrington (1839–41). In later life he claimed that this period in Ireland affected him deeply, and Irish affairs were a major concern for him during his political career. During his time in Dublin, he became noted as a flamboyant society figure, and sat on the committees of both the Union Club and later the Stephen's Green Club. Promoted to captain in the 7th Foot (July 1838), he returned to England in 1841 after the fall of Lord Melbourne's (qv) administration. Selling his commission, he left the army to embark on a political career.
Invited by the Liberal party to stand for Chipping Wycombe, he was duly elected (1841). A powerful orator, he advocated changes to the corn laws and the new poor law, and often attacked the protectionist policies of Benjamin Disraeli, chancellor of the exchequer. He allied himself with the radical faction in parliament and spoke in favour of the ballot and the abolition of flogging in the army. Increasingly seen as a champion of reform in Ireland, in 1843 he opposed the coercion bill of Sir Robert Peel (qv), and supported two motions to abolish the office of Irish viceroy (1843, 1844).
In August 1844 he married an Irish heiress, Catherine Isabella, only child of Sir Thomas Osborne, MP for Carysfort (1776–97), of Newtown Anner, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, and Thicknesse, Kincoe, Co. Waterford. Sir Thomas had died in June 1821 and through this marriage Bernal came into large estates in Ireland. By royal licence he adopted the additional surname of Osborne and was henceforth known as ‘Bernal Osborne’. He immediately became more involved in Irish affairs, and at various times acted as sheriff, magistrate, and DL of Co. Waterford. During the famine he served as chairman of the local poor law union and often spoke in the commons on the inadequacies of famine relief measures. In 1846 he published a pamphlet, To the resident proprietors of small landed estates in Ireland and a few words to the aristocracy. In this he proposed radical land reform and also suggested that the small farmers of Ireland organise themselves into a national association to campaign for reform. This increased his popularity to such an extent that he was petitioned to stand as a candidate for Cork in the forthcoming elections.
Instead, he was elected MP for Middlesex (1847–57) and during this term he followed a largely independent line, supporting parliamentary reform and occasionally renewing contacts with the whigs. In July 1850 he presided at a banquet in the Reform Club held in honour of Lord Palmerston, and was one of the most vocal opponents of Lord Derby's short-lived administration of February–December 1852. When a coalition whig administration was returned to office under Lord Aberdeen, Bernal Osborne was appointed secretary to the admiralty (1852–8). Later he sat for Dover (1857–9), Liskeard (1859–65), and Nottingham (1866–8). During the 1860s his parliamentary career went into a decline. He clashed with Palmerston about Irish policy and also over Schleswig-Holstein, thus alienating his most powerful political ally. He also suffered the criticism of his own radical electorate who doubted his commitment to true reform. In successive elections he moved from constituency to constituency, and in the commons increasingly began to play to the gallery. At the start of his career he had been renowned as one of the few MPs who could hold his own against Disraeli, but by the late 1860s he was regarded as something of a parliamentary buffoon.
In November 1869 he stood as a Liberal in the Waterford city by-election. He emerged as the popular candidate (his main opponent was Sir Henry Winston Barron (1795–1872), an unpopular landlord) and addressed enthusiastic crowds, always ending his speeches with ‘God save Ireland!’. The election was a contentious and close-run affair and inspired a popular local ballad, entitled ‘Osborne and Barron’. Many of Osborne's supporters did not qualify for the franchise and Barron won by sixteen votes. Osborne subsequently lodged a petition and the resulting inquiry declared the election void, finding evidence of bribery on Barron's part.
Osborne had another difficult contest in Waterford in February 1870 when he was opposed by Patrick J. Smyth (qv), a popular nationalist candidate. The days preceding the election were notable for the intimidation of voters. On polling day, extra police and troops were drafted in to maintain order but, when Osborne won by eight votes, wholesale rioting ensued and many premises were attacked and looted. Osborne found himself besieged with his followers in Commin's Hotel, even exchanging shots with his besiegers during the course of the night, and had to be smuggled out of the city. When he next addressed the commons he proposed major electoral reforms to combat the intimidation of candidates and voters. In the general election of 1874 he stood again for Waterford city but had no hope of winning the seat owing to the popularity of the home rule candidates, Richard Power (1851–91) and Maj. Purcell O'Gorman (qv). Osborne came last and polled only 160 votes, which effectively ended his political career. His wife died in 1880 and his last years were dogged by ill-health. He died on 4 January 1882 at Brestwood Lodge, Nottinghamshire, the seat of the duke of Albans, who was his son-in-law. He was buried at Brestwood.
Throughout his career Osborne had written both political pieces and satirical verse, many of which were published in The Times and the Gentleman's Magazine. Selections of his verse and political writings were reproduced by Philip Henry Bagenal (qv) in his The life of Ralph Bernal Osborne, MP (1884). A lithograph of Osborne (1846) by Count D'Orsay is in the BL, and a chromo-lithograph by Alfred Thompson, originally published in Vanity Fair, 28 May 1870, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.