Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/O'Byrne, William Richard

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1410859Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement, Volume 3 — O'Byrne, William Richard1901John Knox Laughton

O'BYRNE, WILLIAM RICHARD (1823–1896), author of the 'Naval Biographical Dictionary' (1849, 8vo), born in 1823, was elder son of Robert O'Byrne and his wife Martha Trougher, daughter of Joseph Clark. He was scarcely out of his teens when he conceived the idea of compiling and publishing a record of the service of every living naval officer of the executive branch. For six years he worked at this, publishing the first parts in 1845, and completing the volume of fourteen hundred closely printed royal 8vo pages in 1849. The labour must have been very great, for the admiralty records were in a semi-chaotic state, and it was mainly to them that he trusted. He had, indeed, a very extended correspondence with the subjects of his memoirs, but he seems in all cases to have checked their statements by the official documents. The work is one of almost unparalleled accuracy a fact which the present writer has had very many occasions to test and to prove. On the other hand, the work has no literary pretensions; the bare facts are stated in the baldest possible way; the book is a register and nothing more; invaluable as a work of reference, but not intended to be read. Financially the book was not a success, as far as the author was concerned. An edition of two thousand was sold at 42s. a copy; but out of the proceeds 100l. was all that O'Byrne received as payment for six years' labour and expenses. In acknowledgment of the value of his work the admiralty awarded him 100l., and Sir Francis Thornhill Baring (Lord Northbrook) [q. v.] appointed him librarian at the admiralty; but, going out of office shortly afterwards, his successor, the Duke of Northumberland, refused to confirm the appointment. On this a testimonial from officers of thei navy was set going, and at a meeting at the Royal United Service Institution O'Byrne was presented with a piece of plate and a purse of 400l. In 1857 he was specially elected a member of the Athenæum Club.

In 1859 he began a second edition of the Dictionary, brought up to date, and containing also the memoirs of officers of the civil branches of the service. This which is by no means so accurate as the first edition did not pay, and was not carried beyond the letter G, with the less regret on O'Byrne's part, as about that time, on the death of his cousin Georgiana O'Byrne, he succeeded to the Cabinteely estate, co. Wicklow, which had been in the family for very many generations, though probably not quite for fifty-four, as they claimed. In 1872 he was high sheriff of Wicklow, and was M.P. for the county from 1874 to 1880. But the property to which he had succeeded was heavily mortgaged, and on the depreciation of Irish land he was unable to pay the interest. The mortgagees foreclosed, and O'Byrne was left practically destitute. The following years were years of privation and struggle. In 1884 he was awarded 100l. from the royal bounty, and endeavoured to get the admiralty to appoint him officially, at a regular salary, to prepare a new edition of his Dictionary. The admiralty refused to do this, or to further the project in any way, as under the modern improved system of keeping the records the work would be useless to them, while the fact that it would not pay a publisher to take it up seemed to show that the public did not want it. During his later years O'Byrne's health broke down, and he was mainly dependent on the work of his daughter, whose exertions at this very trying time are spoken of as beyond all praise. In the summer of 1896 he was granted 125l. from the royal bounty, but too late to be of personal advantage. He died in South Kensington on 7 July 1896. His wife, by whom he had one daughter, predeceased him.

[O'Hart's Irish Pedigrees, 4th ed. i. 617,619; Times, 16 July 1896; private information.]

J. K. L.