Robinson, William Erigena (1814–92), journalist and politician, was born 6 May 1814 in Unagh, near Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, son of Thomas Robinson, farmer, and Mary Robinson (née Sloss). He was educated at the classical school in Cookstown and the RBAI, which he entered in 1832. Falling ill with typhus fever, he returned home, where he remained until he emigrated to America in 1836. The following year he entered Yale, where he was a prominent student, founding the Yale Banner. Forced to earn his living, he also contributed stories and articles to the New Haven Daily Herald and the Log Cabin and in 1840 worked on the presidential campaign of the whig William H. Harrison. After graduating in 1841 he studied at the Yale law school (1842–3) and briefly served as editor of the New Haven Daily Courier before being taken on to the staff of the New York Tribune. From 1844 to 1848 he contributed to this paper the Washington dispatches under the pen name ‘Richelieu’. These articles established his reputation and he became known as ‘Richelieu Robinson’. After an anonymous article appeared in the New York Tribune describing the eating habits of Congressman Sawyer from Ohio, which resulted in his being known as ‘Sausage’ Sawyer, Robinson apparently did an impersonation in the congress press gallery of Sawyer munching on sausages, which led to all Tribune reporters being barred for a time from the press gallery. In 1846 he was briefly editor of the Buffalo Daily Express. He helped found the People (1849), a short-lived publication devoted to European politics, and from 1850 to 1853 was editor of the Newark Daily Mercury. During this period he was also a weigher in the New York custom house. In 1854 he was admitted to the New York bar but seems not to have much practised.
A passionate Irish nationalist, he was asked by the Hibernian Society as early as 1842 to give the oration for the inaugural St Patrick's Day parade; thereafter he gave the oration frequently. In 1847 he organised the New York relief for the Irish famine and procured the authorisation of congress for sending the frigate Macedonian with provisions to Ireland. The following year he came out strongly in support of the attempted Young Ireland insurrection. An address, ‘The Celt and the Saxon’, which he delivered (30 July 1851) to Hamilton College, Clinton, New York, was published and aroused adverse comment in English newspapers and in Westminster. This led to his being nicknamed ‘the British lion's tail-twister’. Five years later he made a tour of Ireland and Europe. He made his only tour of Britain and Ireland in 1859.
From 1862 to 1867 he was assessor of internal revenue for Brooklyn and resigned this job to take his seat in congress, to which he was finally elected as a Democrat for New York. He had run on various tickets unsuccessfully for years: as a Republican, a Democrat, and, when he could find no place on any regular ticket, an independent. He sat from March 1867 to March 1869 and March 1881 to March 1885.
In congress Robinson's most enduring legacy was securing the passage in 1868 of the bill establishing the right to expatriation and naturalisation, which resulted in the abandonment of the doctrine of perpetual allegiance by Great Britain and Germany. His bellicose anti-Englishness continued unabated into old age. In March 1867 he seconded a resolution in the house sympathising with the Fenian rebellion, and then declared that as Irishmen already governed England through their positions in parliament, the press, and the military, they were certainly able to govern themselves. Speaking on the anniversary of the ‘Manchester martyrs’ executions in 1885 he said: ‘I thank God for the invention of dynamite . . . We don't want to raise money now for molasses, nor for taffy, but for war, for slaughter’ (United Ireland, 5 Dec. 1885). While out of congress, his journalistic activities continued; he was a member of the editorial board of the Irish World during 1871 and published the Shamrock, a Brooklyn weekly newspaper, in 1872. His poems appeared in the Boston Pilot and other papers, and he was engaged in the last years of his life on a treatise entitled ‘The origin and source of American people’, which was intended to demonstrate the superiority of the Irish in American life but was never published. He died in Brooklyn on 23 January 1892 and was buried in Green-Wood cemetery. He married (1853) Helen Augusta Dougherty, who predeceased him; they had four daughters and two sons.