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William Smith O'Brien Petition - Biographical Note

Family History
William Smith O'Brien was born into the O'Brien family of Dromoland Castle, Co. Clare. He was born on 3rd October 1803, in Newmarket-on-Fergus, to Sir Edward O'Brien and the heiress Charlotte, née Smith. Sir Edward O'Brien was reputed to be a direct descendant of Brian Boru (obit 1014) and the pre-Norman O'Brien kings of Munster. William was one of 13 children, and the second son. His elder brother was Sir Lucius O'Brien, later Conservative M.P. for Co. Clare who inherited the title Baron of Inchiquin in 1862 after a protracted case before the Committee for Privileges of the House of Lords. Another sibling, Harriet Monsell (née O'Brien) was an Anglican nun, and a saint of the Church of England.1 William inherited an estate in Cahirmoyle, Co. Limerick through his mother Charlotte, and would appear to have subsequently adopted her maiden name in recognition.

His mother was one of the founder members of the women's branch of the Church Missionary Society, and during the Famine worked among the starving and homeless of Co. Clare. She appears to have been a key influence in shaping his attitudes, in particular his awareness of the poverty endemic in 19th century Ireland. Her influence is obvious in a letter from William aged 15, writing from school in Harrow, to his mother.2.
I shall be glad if you shall tell how the poor are getting on about Dromoland, I hope to be able to give them out of my next ten pounds.
William completed his formal education with a B.A. in Classics at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1832 he married Lucy Gabbett daughter of the Mayor of Limerick City, and the couple had seven children. He entered politics in the 1820s, and sat in the House of Commons for Co. Clare, and later Co. Limerick. (His political career is dealt with in greater detail, below.) Lucy was pregnant with their last child when her husband was arrested for his part in the Rebellion in 1848. Following his arrest William Smith-O'Brien was tried and convicted of treason and sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to transportation to Tasmania by 28th June 1849.3. Although his conviction embarrassed his family, his brother Sir Lucius O'Brien appears to have intervened to ensure that William would at least survive transportation. He secured the Royal assent that the state prisoners would not be sent out on the ship Mountstewart Elphinstone, 'a deplorable prison-ship' that was set to sail immediately, but on the naval vessel Swift, which had previously been used by Queen Victoria.

On 22nd February 1854, William Smith O'Brien was granted a conditional pardon, on the basis that he not return to Ireland. He received a full pardon two years later, and briefly returned to Ireland. He died in Bangor, Caernarvonshire, Wales, on 18th June 1864.

Throughout his life William Smith O'Brien was a prolific writer, and his letters and papers are today spread far and wide; the Hayes catalogues are a good source of reference to the different repositories that they are held in. Letters to Charles Gavan Duffy, Thomas Meagher and his Young Ireland colleagues are to be found amongst these papers.

Political Career
William Smith O'Brien was a key figure in nineteenth century Ireland, and in many ways his political career illustrates the tensions in Irish politics and society of that time. He supported Catholic Emancipation in the late 1820s, and yet remained a firm supporter of the Act of Union of Britain and Ireland until 1843, relatively late in his own political career. In consequence he opposed Daniel O'Connell's candidacy to the House of Commons in 1828. In the course of a political career that spanned 20 years, Smith O'Brien gradually moved from opposition to the Repeal of the Act of Union, to leading a rebellion to assert the right of the Irish nation to achieve self-government.4. Probably his greatest legacy was his commitment to non-sectarian politics in Ireland.

In 1828 William, then aged 24, joined O'Connell's Catholic Association. Later that same year his father, Sir Edward O'Brien, nominated him to the pocket-borough of Ennis, to which he was duly elected. He sat in Parliament as a Tory M.P. for Ennis, between 1828 and 1831, ostensibly because of the party's support for Catholic Emancipation. William Smith O'Brien lost his seat between 1831 and 1835, but in this latter year, he was re-elected for county Limerick. Within the House of Commons, his politics were regarded by contemporaries as 'radical', and he frequently voted with the Whigs. During this second tenure, Smith O'Brien again campaigned for the reform of the Irish Poor Law. By so doing, he aligned himself with O'Connell's anti-Tory party in the 1830s and 40s.

The connection with O'Connell became closer after the latter's imprisonment for sedition in 1843. In October 1843 William Smith O'Brien joined the Repeal Association, although he remained opposed to certain key areas of the Association's policy, most notably tenant rights, but also interestingly to the necessity of gradual reform in Ireland rather than armed revolt.5. Between 1843 and 1846 William Smith O'Brien was regarded as O'Connell's 'lieutenant' within the Repeal movement, and his probable political successor. However, in July 1846, Smith O'Brien broke with the Repeal Association to form a splinter group that included Thomas Francis Meagher, Terence Bellew McManus, Patrick O'Donohoe and Kevin Izod O'Doherty, the Young Irelanders. As the crisis of the Famine in Ireland worsened, the Young Irelanders refused to adhere to the Repeal Association's basic rule that physical force in politics must be avoided under all circumstances. In January 1847 the Young Irelanders formed the Irish Confederation Club, to press for effective famine relief.

In 1848 William Smith O'Brien was arrested in Ireland, on the grounds that he had traveled to Paris earlier that year in support of the leaders of the new French Republic. He was tried, but released when the jury failed to agree on a verdict. On 26th July 1848 the Irish Confederation Club was proclaimed illegal and warrants were issued for the arrest of the leaders of the Young Irelanders. On 29th July William Smith O'Brien led an abortive rising in Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary, otherwise known as 'the battle of Widow McCormack's cabbage patch'. He was arrested on 6th August 1848 and tried for treason in a special sitting of the district court at Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, found guilty and sentenced to death.

The sentence caused great consternation among all segments of the Irish community. Between the finish of the trial in October 1848 and May 1849 various petitions in favour of clemency for William Smith O'Brien were collected around Ireland. One newspaper reported, the number of signatures daily coming in from provincial towns almost exceeds belief.8.

On 5th June 1849 Smith O'Brien's death sentence was commuted to transportation for life.

William Smith O'Brien Transportation
The Freeman's Journal reported on the Thursday 28th June 1849 that the Transportation Act for transporting William Smith O'Brien and his associates was law of the land. Sir Lucius O'Brien had received the royal assent, and an assurance that the state prisoners would not be sent out on the Mountstewart Elphinstone, a deplorable prison ship that was to sail immediately. In the same paper it was stated that Smith O'Brien and the other state prisoners were to be sent to Van Dieman's Land in the Swift, ordered to the Pacific station.

Further information on William Smith O'Brien's career can be gleaned from the books of Richard Davis, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Tasmania.

  1. Church of England, Common Worship, (London, 2000).
  2. William Smith O'Brien to his mother Lady O'Brien, September 1819, Smith O'Brien Papers, NLI MS 8655 (2)
  3. Freeman's Journal, Thursday 28th June 1849. Reported that the Transportation Act in the transporting of William Smith O'Brien and his associates is now the law of the Land.
  4. Richard Davis, Revolutionary Imperialist, William Smith O'Brien (Lilliput, 1998), p. 366.
  5. Richard Davis, Revolutionary Imperialist: William Smith O'Brien, (Dublin, 1998) pp. 157-8.
  6. Cf. Tipperary Vindicator, 11 Oct. 1848, in Davis, Ibid., p. 287.
  7. NAI Ref T.R.8., P148
  8. Limerick Reporter, 25 May 1849, Cf. Davis, Ibid., pp. 290-91.
  9. National Archives of Ireland, CRF 1848 O 16/2/2, 3, 51 pt1, 51 pt2, 95, 100, 101, 102, 103, 105, 121, 148, 158, 160, 164, 165.