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William Smith O’Brien

Famine Warhouse 1848 – Historical Documents

 William Smith O’Brien – Leader of 1848 Rising – Article about his life

(1803-1864)

(appreciation to Martin Vaughan)

The bi-centenary of the birth of William Smith O’Brien occurred on 17th October, 2003. O’Brien played a leading role in the Young Ireland attempts to stage a rising which culminated in the events at the Warhouse near The Commons in 1848. Because of this association with Ballingarry Parish the following article, by Brendan O’Cathaoir, has been reproduced with kind permission of The Irish Times, where it first appeared in ‘An Irish Man’s Diary’ on Monday, October 20,2003: 

A significant bicentenary passed almost unremarked last Friday; that of the Young Irelander William Smith O’Brien, who was born on October 17th, 1803, a month after the execution of Robert Emmet. While Smith O’Brien, like Emmet, would be convicted of high treason, in his case the death sentence was commuted to transportation for life.

O’Brien was no revolutionary but what we would call today a Commonwealth man, who placed claims of personal honour at the front of everything. An unlikely and reluctant rebel leader, he made a principled stand in 1848.

Young Ireland spoke with more than one voice. O’Brien told Thomas Davis that a “union between Orange and Green” was “the dream” of his life. Those like O’Brien and Charles Gavan Duffy, who followed closest in the footsteps of Davis, though theoretical revolutionists, were much more wedded to Davis’s doctrine of reconciliation; and since they attached importance to winning over men of property, they were prepared to permit the use of force only as a last resort. They viewed the doctrine, of James Fintan Lalor and John Mitchel as anarchic.

Those who looked to O’Brien for leadership hoped for a political, not a social revolution. While showing personal gallantry, their attitude to war was much too genteel to offer the slightest prospect of success.

Moreover, O’Brien was a leader with dangerously deceptive qualities, Prof Seán McConville observes in his book Irish Political Prisoners, 1848-1922 (just published by Routledge): “It was a measure of Young Ireland that so much depended on this complicated man, whose sensibilities and refinement of political beliefs periodically caught him in a paralysing vice.”

He was born in Dromoland Castle, Co. Clare, into a sept of ancient lineage which had been Anglican for several generations. Despite receiving an English education – Harrow, Cambridge and Lincoln’s Inn – he was conscious of being a scion of “one of the oldest and most distinguished families in Europe”. The O’Briens had been the chief family in Clare for centuries, and provided parliamentary representatives for seven generations.

On his father’s nomination O’Brien became MP for Ennis in 1828, as a Tory who supported Catholic emancipation. Elected as member for Co. Limerick in 1835, he sat as an independent Liberal. In 1843, objecting to measures which the British government took to counter O’Connell’s repeal agitation, he resigned as a magistrate. His growing conviction that the British parliament was incapable of legislating justly for Ireland, culminated in him joining the Repeal Association later that year, to the consternation of his unionist family.

O’Brien was O’Connell’s deputy during the latter’s brief imprisonment on sedition charges arising from the proscribed Clontarf meeting. In a typically quixotic gesture, O’Brien pledged to abstain from alcohol until the Act of Union was repealed.

He excoriated Britain’s response to the Great Famine as “a sin against God”. As early as March 1846, he warned a deaf House of Commons that 100,000 Irish people were starving “in the midst of plenty”.

He had a particular affinity with the Young Ireland vision of a united nation, however, and the differences with O’Connell ended in a split. During an adversarial debate on physical force, which no one seriously contemplated using in 1846, O’Brien led the young men out of the Repeal Association.

But a series of revolts on the Continent in the spring of 1848 gave new hope to the divided and dispirited repeal movement. Relatively bloodless, if transient, regime changes suggested that Irish independence might be won with similar ease.

For a man who spent 20 years in the House of Commons O’Brien had little grasp of reality. He hoped a show of force could achieve self-government without bloodshed. Britain responded to Young Ireland rhetoric by flooding the country with 35,000 troops.

The Young Ireland plans, such as they were, involved a rising in the autumn, but the government’s suspension of habeas corpus in July made a humiliating submission or a premature revolt unavoidable. O’Brien’s cohort spent a week attempting half-heartedly to start the insurrection. Failure to feed his ragged army, together with clerical admonition, doomed an already improbable venture.

As a military commander O’Brien resembled Don Quixote more than his forebear Brian Boru. When the threat of revolution evaporated, fear turned to derision in official circles and the British press poured ridicule on his aimless anabasis. An English railway guard claimed the £500 for his capture at Thurles station on August 5th.

Thomas Francis Meagher, second from right, and William Smith O’Brien, seated, under guard at Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, before being deported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmanai), Australia

He was convicted of high treason with three others, but the government had no intention of enforcing the death penalty. O’Brien, willing to sacrifice his life, was unprepared for the indignity of transportation.

Smith O’Brien’s cottage at the penal settlement Port Arthur, Tasmania

In Tasmania he had an amicable reunion with Mitchel, whose Jail Journal describes O’Brien as “a rare and noble sight to see: a man who cannot be crushed, bowed or broken; who can stand firm on his own feet against all the tumult and tempests of this ruffianly world, his clear eye and soul open as ever to all the melodies and splendours of earth and heaven.”

Granted a full pardon at the end of the Crimean war, O’Brien returned to Ireland in 1856. He declined to re-enter politics but was still prepared to tilt at windmills to vindicate the national honour.

When he died in 1864 the family did not want a political demonstration. None the less, police estimated that 8,000 people followed his coffin as it was borne through Dublin for interment in west Limerick. A statue of O’Brien was unveiled six years later. Next to O’Connell’s in Dublin city centre, it is enveloped in Luas disruption at present.

Smith O’Brien bequeathed Gaelic manuscripts to the Royal Irish Academy. Appropriately, the academy hosted a bicentenary ceremony last Friday to honour a scholarly patriot who spent himself in the struggle for Irish freedom.

The events of the week 24 – 29 July, 1848 have special significance for the people of the Commons. The monument recently erected at the cross-roads in the village tells us that it was here in Sullivans Public House that some of Ireland’s most distinguished patriots met on the evening of Thursday 28th July, 1848 to determine a course of action for the Irish Confederation – We now know that apart from William Smith O’Brien, James Stephens, Terence Bellew McManus and Patrick O’Donohue, the other leaders left the Commons to prepare for a Rising in Autumn.

The encounter at the Warhouse next day terminated all these plans. I include two items concerning 1848 in this piece, one is the little known Smith O’Brien letter to the Mining Company of Ireland which indicates his sympathy with the plight of the miners many of whom had been laid off due to the recession caused by the Famine. This letter was written some time during the early morning of 29th July, and delivered to Mr. Cullen, Manager of the collieries.

It was one of the Acts of Treason with which O’Brien was later charged at Clonmel. The letter demonstrates that O’Brien was not oblivious of the world of commerce and it may well have been the first reference to nationalisation of the Mines.

Prof. William Nolan

This letter is dated, 29th of July, 1848.

“Mr. William Smith O’Brien presents his compliments to the Directors of the Mining Company, and feeling it incumbent upon him to do all in his power to prevent the inhabitants of the collieries from suffering inconvenience, in consequence of the noble and courageous protection afforded by them to him, takes the liberty of offering the following suggestions:- He recommends that for the present the whole of the proceeds arising weekly from the sale of coal and culm be applied in payment of men employed by contract in raising coal and culm.”

“He recommends that a brisk demand be encouraged by lowering the price of coal and culm to the public.”

“In case he should find that the Mining Company endeavours to distress the people by witholding wages and other means, Mr. O’Brien will instruct the colliers to occupy and work the mines on their own account; and in case the Irish revolution should succeed, the property of the Mining Company will be confiscated as national property.”

“On the contrary, if the Mining Company observes a strict and honourable neutrality, doing their utmost to give support to the population of this district during their present time of difficulty and trial, then their property shall be protected to the utmost extent of Mr. O’Briens power.”

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