O'Brien, William Smith (1803–64), politician, was born 17 October 1803 at Dromoland, Co. Clare, second son of Sir Edward O'Brien (1773–1837), baronet, and his wife, Charlotte (1781–1856), elder daughter of William Smith of Cahirmoyle (or Cahermoyle). William was descended from the eleventh-century high-king Brian Bórama (qv). The author Edward O'Brien (qv) was a younger brother. The Dromoland O'Briens participated in the eighteenth-century Irish parliament. Sir Edward opposed the union. Educated at Harrow with his elder brother Lucius (later 13th Baron Inchiquin), William followed Lucius to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1821, graduating in 1826.
Early political career, 1828–43
Admitted to Lincoln's Inn (1827), William did not practise but was nominated (1828) by his father for the pocket borough of Ennis. His maiden speech as an MP (3 June 1828) advocated paper currency. In parliament on 3 July 1828 William supported catholic claims. He joined the Catholic Association of Daniel O'Connell (qv), but, with his family, opposed O'Connell's election for Clare in 1828. Two duels with O'Connell supporters followed. Campaigning for his father in Clare, William missed a vital division on the whig government's new reform bill, but voted with the reformers on 19 April 1831. He unsuccessfully introduced an Irish poor law bill, also publishing Plan for the relief of the poor in Ireland (1831). O'Brien supported Edward Gibbon Wakefield's imperial views, joining the National Colonisation Society and defending the East India Company's monopoly in Considerations relative to the renewal of the East-India Company's charter (1830), and expounding Wakefield's views in parliament on 2 June 1840.
Out of parliament after 1831, O'Brien married (19 September 1832) Lucy Caroline Gabbett (1811–61), eldest daughter of William Gabbett, a former mayor of Limerick. Living initially in Limerick city, O'Brien campaigned for emigration, education, and port development. He then settled at Cahirmoyle with 5,000 acres and joined O'Connell's Anti-Tory Association. Backed by the Limerick Liberal Club, O'Brien, as an independent whig, won a Co. Limerick seat in 1835. A petition against catholic clerical dictation in the election failed, and O'Brien retained the seat easily in 1837. Financially dependent on his strongly conservative mother, Charlotte O'Brien, he still differed from O'Connell on poor laws, tithe commutation, voter registration, and repeal of the corn laws. With Thomas Wyse (qv), he worked for non-denominational education. The fact that he passed his formative years within a circle of broadly liberal families and intellectuals in Co. Limerick exercised a particular influence on his political outlook and personal life.
In 1839 O'Connellites tried to force O'Brien out of parliament when he threatened the Melbourne government by an adverse vote on Jamaica legislation. O'Brien rebuffed the challenge by convening a representative meeting of supporters in Co. Limerick. Sir Robert Peel (qv) and his tories defeated the whigs in 1841, but O'Brien, unlike some O'Connell supporters, retained his seat.
During O'Connell's 1843 ‘monster’ repeal meetings, O'Brien resigned as JP in protest against the dismissal of other justices for attending repeal functions. During the June parliamentary session, not yet a repealer, he denounced British rule in Ireland, unsuccessfully demanding religious equality, industrial development, and franchise extension. In October 1843 O'Brien joined a delighted Repeal Association, weakened by the prohibition of the Clontarf demonstration and the indictment of O'Connell.
During O'Connell's 1844 trial and brief incarceration before exoneration by the house of lords in September, O'Brien boycotted parliament and led the Repeal Association. He established a parliamentary committee, producing well-researched reports, and worked with the Young Irelanders Thomas Davis (qv) and Charles Gavan Duffy (qv), and their Nation newspaper. Tension between O'Connell's Old Ireland and Young Ireland climaxed in early 1845 when the former rejected Peel's Irish non-denominational university colleges. Trying to mediate, O'Brien sympathised with the Young Ireland ideal of united education for catholic and protestant. Nevertheless, he voted against the bill when safeguards for catholics were omitted.
Young Ireland gave O'Brien his chief support in April 1846 during his twenty-five-day imprisonment by the house of commons for refusing service on a non-Irish committee, sending a delegation that visited him in his cell at Westminster. O'Brien and Young Ireland demanded that repealers maintain complete independence of the new whig government. In July 1846, when the Young Irelanders refused to accept O'Connell's assertion of total non-violence except in defence, O'Brien led a secession from the repeal movement.
Preoccupied with famine relief in Co. Limerick and parliamentary criticism of the whig government's inadequate laissez-faire response, O'Brien advocated ‘reproductive employment’ from railway construction, colonisation, and infrastructure building on docks, piers, and canals. These, he hoped, would avoid bankrupting landlords with excessive poor rates expended on useless schemes. Somewhat reluctantly, in January 1847 O'Brien took the lead in the Young Irelanders’ new Irish Confederation, supporting the constitutional policies of Duffy and strongly opposing the call by John Mitchel (qv) for a national rent strike. The death of O'Connell (May 1847) caused a revulsion against the Young Irelanders, who were believed to have hastened the Liberator's death. In the general election of 1847 O'Brien, nominated by his friends in absentia, was the only Confederate to win a seat in parliament.
The 1848 rebellion
After the French revolution of February 1848, O'Brien, hitherto very moderate, joined Duffy and Mitchel in bellicose speeches. O'Brien hoped an armed citizenry, backed by a middle-class National Guard, could extort repeal without force. His delegation to France in March sought moral, rather than physical, support. To a furious house of commons on 10 April, he denied seeking military aid from France, but admitted advising the Irish to arm and seek aid from the chartists. Badly injured with a blow to the face in a riot at Limerick in April by O'Connellites attempting to punish Mitchel, O'Brien considered retiring from public life and was unsuccessfully tried for sedition in May. When Mitchel, however, was transported at the end of May, O'Brien with other leaders opposed a rescue attempt. Instead, O'Brien tried unsuccessfully to unite repealers and Confederates in a new Irish League.
While Duffy and others considered an Irish rising after the harvest, O'Brien, nursing his wound, remained in the background. In early July he made a leisurely tour south and east to the clubs now proliferating in support of the Confederates. At Cork he argued that teaching men group cooperation was more profitable than military drill. The government finally suspended habeas corpus on 22 July and arrested Duffy and other leaders. O'Brien later explained that at Enniscorthy he could have accepted arrest, fled, or resisted. Honour required the third, but he later believed that forcing a government prosecution would have been a better option.
Promised support in Enniscorthy, Kilkenny, and Carrick-on-Suir soon evaporated. Attempting to enlist men in the Tipperary villages of Ballingarry, Mullinahone, and Killenaule, O'Brien was followed by several thousands who dropped away when he refused to commandeer provisions and the catholic priests opposed him. A minor success was achieved at Killenaule by forcing a troop of hussars to pass, one by one, through a barricade. At a council of war at Ballingarry (28 July) O'Brien told his lieutenants to disperse. Later it was suggested that there was a move to depose, or even assassinate, the leader. O'Brien's most revolutionary action was to threaten the owners of the Boulah coal mines with dispossession unless they raised the wages of the miners and lowered their prices.
On 29 July 1848 O'Brien's motley force besieged forty-six well armed police, who were secure, with her children as hostages, inside Widow McCormack's house at Farrenory near Ballingarry. Although O'Brien was later ridiculed for hiding in a cabbage patch, in reality he acted with gallantry, negotiating at the cottage window for the release of the children. He refused to burn the house. Undisciplined stone-throwing, provoking police fire which killed two men, endangered his life. After enduring intermittent police fire for several hours the crowd disintegrated on the arrival of police reinforcements.
Escaping for a few days, O'Brien was arrested at Thurles railway station on 7 August. With three colleagues, Thomas Meagher (qv), Patrick O'Donohoe (qv), and Terence McManus (qv), he was convicted of high treason at Clonmel in October. Although all were sentenced to death, the government (intending transportation, not execution) introduced special legislation when O'Brien refused to petition for commutation. The Clonmel four were joined in Van Diemen's Land by Young Irelanders John Martin (qv), Kevin O'Doherty (qv), and John Mitchel.
From late 1849 to mid 1854 O'Brien remained in Van Diemen's Land. Initially refusing his parole, unlike his colleagues, O'Brien remained in gentlemanly isolation at the penal stations of Maria Island and Port Arthur for nine and three months respectively. At Maria Island he attempted an escape and was accused of behaving improperly with the daughter of the lenient Irish commandant, Samuel Lapham. Meanwhile news of his treatment fuelled an international movement for his release not only in the UK but also the US and Canada. Finally, responding to friends and family, hoping to help Samuel Lapham, sacked for leniency towards him, and in order to meet debts from the bungled escape, O'Brien gave his parole and left Port Arthur.
After taking a ticket-of-leave, O'Brien for nine months tutored the two young sons of an Irish doctor on a farm in the Avoca region. But for two and a half years he lived at a comfortable inn at New Norfolk, visiting and entertaining local settlers and Young Ireland colleagues (despite their sharp political differences he and Mitchel liked and respected each other). He was also particularly friendly towards an important Irish member of the Van Diemen's Land legislative council, Capt. Michael Fenton (1789–1874). In June 1854 O'Brien and his two remaining colleagues, Martin and O'Doherty, received pardons, conditional on not returning to the UK.
Honoured by public dinners in Van Diemen's Land, and Victoria, where he received a gold cup from Irish miners, O'Brien proceeded to Brussels, via Madras and Egypt. In Brussels he published Principles of government, or meditations in exile, surprisingly favourable to the transportation system and demonstrating that his experience had not entirely negated his early imperialism. Included was a model constitution for a self-governing Tasmania (as Van Diemen's Land was soon to become), originally published anonymously in a local newspaper.
O'Brien travelled extensively through France, Italy, and Switzerland during his European exile. While touring Greece with his eldest son Edward in May 1856, he learned of his unconditional pardon from Lord Palmerston's government, achieved by a massive publicity campaign supported by MPs of all parties, and returned to Ireland amid great rejoicing on 6 July 1856.
In Ireland and abroad, 1856–64
Back in Limerick with his family, O'Brien refused to return to parliament or participate at public meetings. No longer believing physical force feasible, he maintained his principles as the honoured elder statesman of Irish nationalism, studying the Irish language and endeavouring to educate by press and pamphlet. He gave no support to the secret, revolutionary Fenians, some of whom were former Young Irelanders. Instead, O'Brien fulfilled his duties as a landlord, chaired the Newcastle West poor law guardians, encouraged industrial development, and wrote several letters supporting constitutional agitation to the Nation, now edited by A. M. Sullivan (qv).
As an inveterate traveller, foreign affairs greatly interested O'Brien. He denounced British repression during the Indian mutiny (1857), but was unsympathetic towards the Italian risorgimento, and supported the papal temporal power. France under Napoleon III incurred his suspicions, and he doubted that war between France and England would help Ireland. In 1859 O'Brien was enthusiastically received on an extensive tour of Canada and the US. After meeting President Buchanan and other leading politicians, he endeavoured to mediate on the outbreak of civil war in 1861, and was politely rebuffed by the secretary of state, William Seward. Though he disapproved of secession and slavery, O'Brien opposed forceful suppression and advised Irish-Americans to remain neutral, thus differing from Mitchel and Meagher, engaged on opposite sides.
The death of O'Brien's devoted wife Lucy (13 June 1861) led to a dispute with his trustees, his brother Lucius and long-term friend, Woronzow Greig. Having placed his property in Lucy's name to avoid possible confiscation after conviction for treason, O'Brien was now unable to reclaim it. A chancery compromise conferred Cahirmoyle on O'Brien's son Edward William (1837–1909), leaving his father a considerable annuity of £2,000. O'Brien, furious with Lucius, moved to Killiney, but concentrated on European travel. Visiting Hungary in late 1861 O'Brien was converted to the passive resistance of Ferencz Déak, who achieved a dual-monarchy settlement with Austria in 1867. O'Brien also travelled to Poland, later producing a pamphlet and address in aid of Polish exiles fleeing Russian persecution.
Smith O'Brien died at Bangor, north Wales, on 18 June 1864 of a heart attack hastened by a liver complaint. O'Brien was interred in the family mausoleum at Rathronan churchyard in Co. Limerick, and his passing was mourned by crowds in Dublin. He left four sons and two daughters. In 1870 a statue of O'Brien by Thomas Farrell (qv) was unveiled. It stands in O'Connell St., Dublin.
Smith O'Brien was less a revolutionary leader than a nationalist advocate. His speeches, public letters, Principles of government, or meditations in exile, and his Tasmanian journal of exile, To solitude consigned, show a scholar and critic who sought a liberal, non-sectarian country sympathetic to all oppressed races. Devoted to his wife Lucy, and family, O'Brien was no saint, fathering two children outside marriage. A sincere protestant, he was devoid of religious prejudice. With a knowledge of the major European languages, O'Brien devoted himself to the mastery of Gaelic. His extensive travels in Europe, Australia, India, and North America were carefully recorded in journals and pamphlets. Never relinquishing his interest in British imperial affairs, O'Brien's nationalism was based on love of Ireland rather than hatred of England.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).