O'Brien, William Smith (DNB00)
O'BRIEN, WILLIAM SMITH (1803–1864), Irish nationalist, born at Dromoland, co. Clare, on 17 Oct. 1803, was the second son of Sir Edward O'Brien, bart., a descendant of the ancient earls of Thomond, by his wife Charlotte, eldest daughter and coheiress of William Smith of Cahirmoyle, co. Limerick. His grandfather, Sir Lucius O'Brien [q. v.], and his younger brother, Edward [q. v.], are separately noticed. He was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated B.A. in 1826 as William O'Brien. He assumed the additional name of Smith on the death of his maternal grandfather, William Smith of Cahirmoyle, whose estates in Limerick he inherited. At a by-election in April 1828 he was returned to the House of Commons, as a supporter of Sir Robert Peel, for the borough of Ennis, which he continued to represent until April 1831. He appears to have addressed the house for the first time on 3 June 1828, when he spoke in favour of a paper currency (Parl. Debates, 2nd ser. xix. 1014). In the following month he declared his approval of Roman catholic emancipation, and avowed himself a member of the catholic association (ib. 2nd ser. xix. 1613–14). During the debate on the introduction of the Bill for the suppression of that association in February 1829, he expressed his ‘concurrence in any act which would put an end to the ascendancy of a faction which already revelled in the anticipated triumph of a civil war’ (ib. 2nd ser. xx. 212). In the same year he opposed O'Connell's second candidature for Clare, and fought a duel with Thomas Steele, O'Connell's ‘head pacificator’ (Cusack, The Liberator: his Life and Times, 1872, pp. 573–5). In 1830 he published a pamphlet entitled ‘Considerations relative to the Renewal of the East India Company's Charter’ (London, 8vo); and in May of this year spoke against O'Connell's Manhood Suffrage Bill and defended the borough system (Parl. Debates, 2nd ser. xxiv. 1234–5). On 8 Feb. 1831 O'Brien brought in a bill for the relief of the aged and helpless poor of Ireland (ib. 3rd ser. ii. 246), but failed to carry it through the house. He was absent unpaired from the division on the second reading of the first Reform Bill, but voted with the government against General Gascoigne's amendment on 19 April 1831. At the general election in January 1835 O'Brien was returned for the county of Limerick. In the following March he again brought the question of the Irish poor laws before the house (ib. 3rd ser. xxvi. 1206–11, 1230–1231), and seconded Sir Richard Musgrave's motion for leave to bring in a bill for the relief of the poor in Ireland (ib. 3rd ser. xxvii. 203). In May he seconded the introduction of Mr. Wyse's bill for the establishment of a board of national education, and the advancement of elementary education in Ireland (ib. 3rd ser. xxvii. 1228). On 8 March 1836 he supported the Irish Municipal Reform Bill (ib. 3rd ser. xxxii. 1–7), and on 5 July, at O'Connell's suggestion, withdrew his resolutions ‘expressive of regret experienced by the house at the conduct of the House of Lords in rejecting’ that bill (ib. 3rd ser. xxxiv. 1282). His own bill for the relief of the poor in Ireland was read a second time on 11 May 1836, but was subsequently shelved (ib. 3rd ser. xxxiii. 833–834). On 28 April 1837 he supported the second reading of the Irish Poor Law Bill, which he considered capable, after a few modifications in committee, ‘of being rendered a most efficient and useful enactment’ (ib. 3rd ser. xxxviii. 392–402). Although a protestant, O'Brien expressed his opinion that the principal objection to the Maynooth grant was that it was so small, and advocated the payment of the Roman catholic clergy by the state (ib. 3rd ser. xxxviii. 1628). On 5 March 1839 he brought in a bill for the registration of voters in Ireland (ib. 3rd ser. xlv. 1286). During the prolonged debate on Mr. C. P. Villiers's motion in the same month, O'Brien expressed his opinion that he ‘did not see that any advantage would result from the repeal of the corn laws sufficient to counterbalance the sacrifice of the agricultural interest’ (ib. 3rd ser. xlvi. 809–11); and on 6 May, much to O'Connell's disgust, he voted with Sir Robert Peel against the Jamaica Government Bill (ib. 3rd ser. xlvii. 971; Correspondence of Daniel O'Connell, edited by W. J. Fitzpatrick, 1888, ii. 177, 183–4). In this year a paper written by O'Brien, on ‘Education in Ireland,’ was published by the Central Society of Education (third publication, pp. 140–83, London, 8vo). On 4 Feb. 1840 O'Brien seconded a motion for the appointment of a select committee to inquire into the causes of discontent among the working classes (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. li. 1234–6), and on 2 June he moved a resolution in favour of free emigration to the colonies (ib. 3rd ser. liv. 832–67). In February 1841 he supported the second reading of the Parliamentary Voters (Ireland) Bill (ib. 3rd ser. lvi. 867–9), and on 6 April strongly advocated the appointment of a minister of public instruction (ib. 3rd ser. lvii. 942–8).
During the debate on the address in August 1841 O'Brien warmly defended the whig ministry, and declared that it was ‘the first government that had made an approach towards governing Ireland upon the principles upon which alone she could now be governed’ (ib. 3rd ser. lix. 290–3). On 23 March 1843 he moved for the appointment of a select committee to inquire into the manner in which the act for the relief of the poor in Ireland (1 & 2 Vict. c. 56) had been carried into operation, but was defeated by a majority of eighty-five (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. lxvii. 1347–69, 1405). On 30 May he opposed the second reading of the Arms Bill, and threatened ‘to divide not only on every stage of the bill, but upon every clause’ (ib. 3rd ser. lxix. 1118–20). On the removal of O'Connell and other prominent repealers from the list of magistrates by the Irish lord chancellor, O'Brien resigned his seat on the bench as a protest against such an arbitrary act. He was, however, reappointed a justice of the peace in 1846 at the special request of the magistrates of Limerick (Duffy, Four Years of Irish History, 1883, pp. 331–2). Still an avowed opponent to repeal, O'Brien, on 4 July 1843, as a final effort to obtain justice for his country, moved that the house should take into consideration ‘the causes of the discontent at present prevailing in Ireland, with a view to the redress of grievances and to the establishment of a system of just and impartial government in that part of the United Kingdom.’ In a long and forcible speech, O'Brien made a full and temperate statement of the Irish claims. While arraigning ‘the British government and the British parliament for having misgoverned’ Ireland, he confessed that he began to doubt whether ‘the abstract opinions which I have formed in favour of an union, such as seems never about to be realised, are consistent with the duty which I owe to the country possessing the first claim upon my devotion’ (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. lxx. 630–77). O'Brien's motion, though supported by ‘young England,’ was rejected after five nights' debate by a majority of seventy-nine.
Despairing of obtaining relief from parliament, and incensed at the prosecution of O'Connell, O'Brien formally joined the Repeal Association on 20 Oct. 1843, and ‘immediately became by common consent the second man in the movement’ (Duffy, Thomas Davis, 1890, p. 188). During O'Connell's confinement in Richmond penitentiary the leadership of the association was entrusted to O'Brien, who vowed not to taste wine or any intoxicating liquor until the union was repealed (Duffy, Young Ireland, 1880, p. 481). In the federal controversy O'Brien avowed his preference for repeal ‘as more easily attainable, and more useful when attained, than any federal constitution which could be devised’ (ib. p. 592). Though he endeavoured to maintain a complete neutrality between the two sections of the Irish party, he pronounced in favour of mixed education, in spite of O'Connell's denunciations of the ‘godless colleges.’ He also opposed O'Connell in the matter of the whig alliance, declaring that his motto was ‘Repeal and no compromise.’ In the spring of 1846 O'Brien appears to have made some approaches to Lord George Bentinck, who assured him that he would cordially assent to a temporary suspension of the corn laws during the Irish famine if desired by the Irish members (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. lxxxv. 980–92; see D'Israeli, Lord George Bentinck, a Political Biography, 1861, pp. 130–44). In consequence of his refusal to serve on a railway committee of which he had been appointed a member, a motion declaring O'Brien ‘guilty of a contempt of this house’ was carried by 133 to 13 votes on 28 April 1846 (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. lxxxv. 1152–92), and on the 30th he was committed to the custody of the serjeant-at-arms (ib. 3rd ser. lxxxv. 1192–8, 1290–5, 1300, 1351–2). While in custody he was permitted by the house to attend and give evidence before a committee of the House of Lords on the operation of the Irish poor law (ib. 3rd ser. lxxxv. 1333–4), and on 25 May the order for his discharge was unanimously made (ib. 3rd ser. lxxxvi. 1198–1201). O'Brien's reasons for declining to serve on the railway committee appear to have been his desire that ‘none but the representatives of the Irish nation should legislate for Ireland,’ and that they should not ‘intermeddle with the affairs of England or Scotland, except so far as they may be connected with the interests of Ireland or with the general policy of the empire’ (ib. 3rd ser. lxxxv. 1156).
On 27 July 1846 the final rupture between the young Irelanders and the followers of O'Connell took place on the question of the peace resolutions, and O'Brien, followed by Duffy, Meagher, Mitchel, and their adherents, seceded from Conciliation Hall. At O'Brien's suggestion special papers on the public wants and interests of Ireland were from time to time published in the ‘Nation,’ to which he contributed several letters advocating the establishment of model farms and agricultural schools, the colonisation of waste lands, and a national system of railways (Duffy, Four Years of Irish History, pp. 316–17, 332–3). Soon afterwards O'Brien, aided by Duffy and other prominent seceders from the Repeal Association, founded the Irish Confederation, the first meeting of which took place on 13 Jan. 1847. On the 19th of that month O'Brien drew the attention of the House of Commons to the state of distress in Ireland (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. lxxxix. 76–84), and on 18 March moved a resolution in favour of imposing a tax upon the estates of Irish absentee proprietors, which was defeated by 70 to 19 votes (ib. 3rd ser. xci. 159–66, 186). He took part in the conference which was held on 4 May in the vain attempt to reconcile the differences between the Confederation and the Repeal Association. In November O'Brien, accompanied by a strong deputation from the Confederation, visited the north of Ireland, where he made a favourable impression. On 13 Dec. he spoke against the third reading of the Crime and Outrage Bill (ib. 3rd ser. xcv. 976–9, 990). Towards the close of this year he published ‘Reproductive Employment; or a Series of Letters to the Landed Proprietors of Ireland, with a preliminary letter to Lord John Russell’ (Dublin, 8vo). At the meeting of the confederation early in 1848 O'Brien carried his series of ten resolutions, the keynote of which was ‘that this confederation was established to attain an Irish parliament by the combination of classes, and by the force of opinion exercised in constitutional operations, and that no means of a contrary character can be recommended or promoted through its organisation while its present fundamental rules remain unaltered’ (Duffy, Four Years of Irish History, pp. 511–12 n.) These resolutions were aimed at Mitchel, who had declared in favour of a more violent policy, but who was defeated by a majority of 129 votes. The combined effects of the French revolution of 1848 and the pressure of the Irish famine, however, accelerated the course of events, and on 15 March O'Brien addressed a great meeting of the confederates in the music-hall in Abbey Street, Dublin, when he urged the formation of a national guard, and added that ‘he had recently deprecated the advice that the people ought to be trained in military knowledge; but the circumstances were entirely altered, and he now thought that the attention of intelligent young men should be turned to such questions as how strong places can be captured and weak ones defended’ (ib. pp. 561–2). Accompanied by Meagher and Holywood, O'Brien went to Paris to present a congratulatory address from the Confederation to the newly formed French republic. They were received by Lamartine, whose refusal to interfere with the internal affairs of the British empire was a great disappointment to the deputation, the main object of which was to awaken sympathy for Ireland in France. Returning through London, O'Brien made his last speech in the House of Commons on 10 April 1848 (the day of the great chartist demonstration), during the debate on the second reading of the Treason-Felony Bill. He warned the government that if the Irish claims for a separate legislature were refused ‘during the present year, you will have to encounter the chance of a republic in Ireland.’ Amid a chorus of groans and hisses, he denied the charge of being a traitor to the crown, though, he added, ‘if it is treason to profess disloyalty to this house and to the government of Ireland by the parliament of Great Britain—if that be treason, I avow the treason;’ he boldly confessed that he had been ‘instrumental in asking his countrymen to arm’ (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. xcviii. 73–80, 82, 102). On 29 April O'Brien met Mitchel at the confederate soirée at Limerick, an event burlesqued by Thackeray in his amusing ‘Battle of Limerick.’
The government had now resolved to proceed against the leaders of the Confederation. On 15 May O'Brien was tried before Lord chief-justice Blackburne and a special jury in the court of queen's bench, Dublin, for his speech at the meeting of the Irish Confederation on the previous 15 March. He was defended by Isaac Butt, and the jury, being unable to agree, were discharged on the following morning without returning a verdict.
Meanwhile (29 March) Mitchel had been sentenced to transportation. The confederate chiefs, who were fiercely denounced for their procrastination by some of their more violent followers, were thus compelled to take some decisive course. August was fixed as the date of a proposed insurrection, but no preparations were made, and O'Brien was still unable to abandon his delusive hope that support would be forthcoming from the Irish landed gentry. Meanwhile Lord Clarendon took immediate measures for the suppression of any disturbance, and Duffy, Martin, and others were arrested. O'Brien visited the south of Ireland for the purpose of organising that part of the country, and on his return to Dublin a war directory of five was appointed (21 July), consisting of Dillon, Meagher, O'Gorman, McGee, and Devin Reilly, O'Brien's name being omitted from the list by his own desire. On the following morning O'Brien started for Wexford in order to continue his tour of inspection. The same day the news reached Dublin that the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act had been resolved on by the government, and Dillon, Meagher, and McGee joined O'Brien at Ballynakill. On hearing the news O'Brien agreed that they must fight, and at Enniscorthy (23 July) he announced his intention, though warned by the priest that the people were not prepared for war. Failing to raise Kilkenny, Carrick, or Cashel, O'Brien determined to fall back upon the rural districts, and on the 25th proceeded to Mullinahone, where the chapel bell was rung. A number of peasants armed with pikes answered his appeal, and some barricades were erected. There were, however, no provisions, and most of those who had joined the movement returned home on being told by O'Brien that they would have to procure food for themselves, ‘as he had no means of doing so, and did not mean to offer violence to any one's person or property’ (Fitzgerald, Personal Recollections of the Insurrection at Ballingarry, 1861, pp. 13–14). The succeeding three days were spent by O'Brien in endeavouring to gather adherents. On the 29th he attacked a body of police, numbering forty-six men, under the command of Sub-inspector Trant, who defended themselves in a house on Boulah Common, near Ballingarry. The scene of the encounter was known as widow McCormack's ‘cabbage garden.’ The attack failed, and the half-armed mob of disorganised peasants fled. With this pitiable incident the abortive insurrection terminated. O'Brien, for whose capture a reward of 500l. had been offered, successfully concealed himself from the police for several days. Tired of hiding, he determined to go straight home, and on 5 Aug. was arrested at the railway station at Thurles by Hulme, a guard in the employment of the railway company. O'Brien was sent by special train to Dublin the same day, and lodged in Kilmainham gaol. He was tried at Clonmel by a special commission, consisting of Lord chief-justice Blackburne, Lord chief-justice Doherty, and Mr. Justice Moore, on 28 Sept. 1848. He was defended by James Whiteside (afterwards lord chief-justice of the queen's bench) and Francis Alexander Fitzgerald (afterwards a baron of the exchequer). The trial lasted nine days, and on 7 Oct. he was found guilty of high treason, the verdict of the jury being accompanied by a unanimous recommendation that his life should be spared. On the 9th he was sentenced by Blackburne to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. The writ of error, which was subsequently brought on purely technical grounds, was decided against O'Brien on 16 Jan. 1849 by the Irish court of queen's bench, whose judgment was confirmed by the House of Lords on 11 May following (Clark and Finnelly, House of Lords Cases, 1851, ii. 465–96). On the motion of Lord John Russell the House of Commons on 18 May ordered the speaker to issue a writ for a new election for the county of Limerick ‘in the room of William Smith O'Brien, adjudged guilty of high treason’ (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. cv. 667–70). On the intimation to O'Brien that the queen had been advised to commute the sentence of death into transportation for life, he declared that he preferred death to transportation, and insisted that the government had no power to force him to accept the commutation of the sentence. Accordingly an ‘act to remove doubts concerning the transportation of offenders under judgment of death, to whom mercy may be extended in Ireland’ (12 & 13 Vict. c. 27), was rapidly passed through both houses, and received the royal assent on 26 June. On 29 July following O'Brien was sent on board the Swift from Kingstown to Tasmania. On reaching Hobart Town he refused a ticket-of-leave, which had been accepted by his companions in exile. He was accordingly confined on Maria Island, from which he made an ineffectual attempt to escape, and was subsequently removed to Port Arthur. Owing to ‘the statement made and repeated several times at long intervals by Lord Palmerston in the House of Commons,’ it was generally supposed that O'Brien disapproved of the plan adopted by John Mitchel in escaping from Tasmania. This, however, is not the case, as O'Brien at a public dinner given to him at Melbourne in 1854 expressed his entire approval of the manner of Mitchel's escape, and asserted that his only reason for not adopting it himself was that he was not prepared to take a step which would have rendered it impossible for him to return to Ireland (McCarthy, History of our own Times, 1880, vol. iv. p. vi).
His health having broken down, O'Brien was induced to accept a ticket-of-leave, and, having given his parole, was allowed to reside in the district of New Norfolk, whence he subsequently removed to Avoca. There he remained until a pardon was granted to him (26 Feb. 1854) on condition that he should not set his foot in the United Kingdom. In 1854 he came to Europe, and settled at Brussels with his family. Here he completed his ‘Principles of Government, or Meditations in Exile’ (Dublin, 1856, 8vo, 2 vols.), the greater part of which had been written by him in Tasmania. Receiving an unconditional pardon in May 1856, O'Brien returned to Ireland in July of that year. Though he took no further active part in politics, he frequently contributed letters to the ‘Nation’ on Irish topics. In 1859 he made a voyage to America, and upon his return in November of that year he delivered two lectures on his American tour in the hall of the Mechanics' Institute, Dublin. In 1863 he visited Poland. A letter written by him, dated 1 May 1863, was published in Paris under the title of ‘Du véritable Caractère de l'Insurrection Polonaise de 1863’ (8vo), and on 1 July 1863 he gave a lecture at the Rotunda, Dublin, for the benefit of the Polish relief fund. Early in 1864 he visited England for the sake of his health. He died at the Penrhyn Arms, Bangor, on 18 June 1864, aged 60. The arrival of his body at Dublin on 23 June was the scene of a great nationalist demonstration, and he was buried in Rathronan churchyard, co. Limerick, on the following day.
O'Brien, who was inordinately proud of his descent from the famous Brian Boroimhe, was a truthful, kind-hearted, vain man, of good abilities, and a great capacity for work. Though grave and frigid in his demeanour, and devoid of humour and eloquence, his chivalrous devotion to Ireland and the transparent integrity of his motives secured him the enthusiastic attachment of the people. The growth of his political views was curiously gradual. ‘He advanced,’ says Sir C. G. Duffy, ‘slowly and tentatively, but he never made a backward step. An opinion which he accepted became part of his being, as inseparable from him as a function of his nature’ (Four Years of Irish History, p. 547). Destitute of judgment and foresight, and incapable of prompt decision, O'Brien was singularly unfitted for the part of a revolutionary leader. In order to avoid forfeiture, O'Brien, previously to the insurrection in 1848, conveyed his property to trustees for the benefit of his family. On his return to Ireland he instituted a chancery suit against the trustees, but a compromise was ultimately arrived at on O'Brien's formal resignation of his position as a landed proprietor in consideration of an annuity of 2,000l. His eldest brother Lucius succeeded his father as the fifth baronet in March 1837, and in July 1855 became thirteenth Baron Inchiquin on the death of his kinsman, James, third marquis of Thomond, his right to the barony being confirmed by the committee of privileges of the House of Lords on 11 April 1862. The surviving brothers and sisters of Lord Inchiquin (with the exception of William Smith O'Brien) were by royal license dated 12 Sept. 1862 granted the style and precedence of the younger children of a baron.
O'Brien married, on 19 Sept. 1832, Lucy Caroline, eldest daughter of Joseph Gabbett of High Park, co. Limerick, by whom he had five sons and two daughters. His wife died on 13 June 1861. The voluminous correspondence addressed to O'Brien, to which Sir C. G. Duffy was given access when writing his ‘Young Ireland,’ is in the possession of Mr. Edward William O'Brien at Cahirmoyle. A statue of O'Brien by Thomas Farrell, R.H.A., was erected in 1870 at the end of Westmorland Street, Dublin, close to O'Connell Bridge. The only painting of O'Brien is a small miniature in the possession of Mr. E. W. O'Brien.
[Besides the authorities quoted in the text the following, among others, have been consulted: Walpole's Hist. of England, 1880–6, vols. iii. and iv.; Dillon's Life of John Mitchel, 1888; Mitchel's Jail Journal, 1868; Mitchel's Hist. of Ireland, 1869, ii. 302–460; Sullivan's New Ireland, 1878, pp. 1–103; Sullivan's Speeches from the Dock, 1887, pp. 110–37; Doheny's Felon's Track, 1867; Lecky's Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland, 1871, pp. 314–15; Webb's Compendium of Irish Biogr. 1878, pp. 368–71; Wills's Irish Nation, 1875, iv. 44–8; Read's Cabinet of Irish Lit. 1880, iii. 275–9; Hodges's Report of the Trial of William Smith O'Brien for High Treason, 1849; Times for 18, 20, 21, 24, 27 June 1864; Freeman's Journal for 20, 23, 24, 25 June 1864; Nation for 18 and 25 June 1864; Annual Reg. 1848, chron. pp. 93–6, 364–373, 389–445, 1864 pt. ii. pp. 199–201; Gent. Mag. 1864, pt. ii. pp. 250–2; Burke's Peerage, 1893, pp. 751–2; Foster's Peerage, 1883, pp. 385–6; Graduati Cantabr. 1884, p. 385; Welch's Harrow School Register, 1894, p. 41; Notes and Queries, 8th ser. iii. 368; Official Return of Lists of Members of Parliament, pt. ii. pp. 312, 325, 362, 377, 395, 411; Brit. Mus. Cat.]