Roberts, William Randall (1830–1897), Fenian leader and American politician, was born 6 February 1830 in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork, son of Randall Roberts, baker, and Mary Roberts (née Bishop). He was educated locally and in July 1849 left with his family for the USA. For several years he worked as a clerk for a dry goods company in New York. In 1857 he set up his own dry goods business, the ‘Crystal Palace’, which became successful, and in 1869 he retired as a very wealthy man.
Having joined the American Fenian Brotherhood in 1863, he gave it strong financial support for the remainder of the decade. He also supported several Irish-American charitable organisations, including the Knights of St Patrick, of which he was president. In October 1865 he was responsible for a change in the constitution of the Fenian Brotherhood, which resulted in a split in the movement. The majority of the Brotherhood supported his proposal to elect a ‘senate’ to govern the organisation, with himself as president, in place of the autocratic leader, John O'Mahony (qv). After the suppression of the Irish People and the arrest of the IRB leaders in Dublin (September 1865) Roberts believed that it would be foolish to send American Fenian troops to Ireland. Seeking to capitalise on the bad relations that developed between the USA and Britain during the American civil war (1861–5), Roberts hoped that if the Fenian Brotherhood invaded Canada it would provoke a war between Britain and the USA and thereby make a successful insurrection in Ireland more possible. Once the invasion took place (31 May–3 June 1866), however, the American government seized the Fenians' supplies and reinforcements, thereby prompting him to abandon the attack. He was arrested in New York on 7 June and detained in prison, but escaped prosecution and was released on 15 June. Three days later, with the support of Irish-American politicians, he was allowed to deliver an address to the US senate appealing for support for the cause of the amnesty of IRB prisoners in Ireland. Thereafter he went on a lecture tour and argued that American politicians could not hope to receive Irish-American electoral support if they did not support the Fenian cause. In response to demands from Irish-American politicians, in September 1866 President Johnson ordered that the arms seized by the United States army be returned to the Fenian Brotherhood.
After the failure of the rising in Ireland (March 1867), Roberts sent men to Ireland to assume command of the IRB on his behalf. A significant number of IRB men followed his lead, and in June 1867 a convention was held in Paris over which he presided. At this he proposed the establishment of a supreme council to govern the IRB, a proposal that was soon accepted. Roberts sought to be appointed president of the new supreme council, but the IRB refused owing to his being such a divisive figure within American Fenianism. In dismay he resigned as president of the ‘Senate’ wing of the Fenian Brotherhood (31 December 1867) and became less active in the revolutionary movement. In 1870 he opposed the attempt of Fenians to invade Canada once more, and in January 1871 organised a welcoming committee in New York for five recently released IRB leaders who had been banished from Ireland.
By that time, however, he was more concerned with American politics. During 1870 he had been elected to congress as a Democratic party candidate for New York city, a seat he held until 1874 when, due to financial difficulties, he decided not to run for reelection. As a congressman he criticised the Republican government for its policy towards the former confederate states, opposed the increasing power of railroad companies, demanded greater protection for American citizens living in foreign countries (including the Fenians imprisoned in Canada), and supported civil rights for black people. He also attracted much praise for his strong criticism of British foreign policy. After leaving congress he became a member of the Tammany Society and attained prominence in New York municipal politics, being elected president of the New York board of aldermen during 1878. The following year he ran for the position of sheriff of New York, but was defeated. Thereafter he left the Tammany Society and established a rival organisation, the New York County Democracy. In 1882 he supported Grover Cleveland for the governorship of New York and in 1884 as the Democratic candidate for the US presidency. He was rewarded on 2 April 1885 when President Cleveland appointed him minister to Chile.
Roberts's term of office was cut short, however, when he suffered a paralytic stroke in May 1888. He was sent back to New York and to hospital, where he remained for nine years. He never regained his mental or physical health and died 9 August 1897. His funeral and burial took place on hospital grounds with few people in attendance. He had been separated from his wife (of whom nothing is known, except that they had at least one son) prior to being admitted to hospital.