SMITH O'BRIEN, William (1803-1864).
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Family and Educationb. 17 Oct. 1803, 2nd s. of Sir Edward O’Brien*, 3rd bt. (d. 1837), and Charlotte, da. and coh. of William Smith of Cahermoyle, co. Limerick; bro. of Lucius O’Brien*. educ. Welling, Kent ?1809; Harrow 1813; by Rev. Percy Scott, Harborough Magna, Warws. ?1818; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1821; L. Inn 1825. m. 19 Sept. 1832, Lucy Caroline, da. of Joseph Gabbett of High Park, co. Limerick, 5s. 2da.; 1s. 1da. illegit. Took name of Smith before O’Brien 1809. d. 18 June 1864.
With soaring aspirations, engendered by his elevated sense of family station, and only middling aptitudes, fitfully developed and not always steadily applied, the young Smith O’Brien rather smarted than flourished under his parents’ kindly meant but misguided upbringing. Later, when he had ample to time to reflect on his self-inflicted misfortunes, he observed in his Tasmanian journal that
it was supposed that a boy who suffered hardships, vexations and tyranny in his youth was better qualified than one brought up amidst kindly associations to contend with the difficulties and disappointments which never fail to surround if not overwhelm us in later years.
His character as an able and bold child was defined early on by his father, Member for Clare, who commented in 1808 that he was ‘as quick and intelligent as any boy I ever saw of his age’, and in 1813 described him, in comparison with his mild tempered elder brother Lucius, as ‘a little more of a prickle’.1 His destiny must also have been swiftly instilled in him, for not only was he conscious of his royal ancestor, but even as a younger son he was aware that he would have a sizeable inheritance. His maternal grandfather William Smith, at whose death in 1809 his surname was added to his own, had made his wealth as a lawyer; subject only to his mother and her sister’s life interests, and notwithstanding the bogus claims of Smith’s illegitimate children, the estate of Cahermoyle, county Limerick, and a fortune of £120,000 were eventually to come to him.2
Smith O’Brien was educated at a prep school in Kent and then spent three years at Harrow with Lucius before being sent to a crammer in Warwickshire. Originally studying science in order to equip him for his chosen career in the navy, he quickly changed to a concentration on more palatable arts subjects with a view to training as a lawyer. He explained his change of heart in two letters in March 1819 to his mother, whose Evangelical sensibilities he was at pains to mimic: in September he informed her he had abandoned fishing and hunting as sinful occupations and in June 1820 he confessed his spiritual shortcomings to her.3 Some time that year he addressed his father, who found him ‘much improved, only anxious to leave Mr. Scott’s’, with a priggish affirmation of his intentions, writing that ‘while other young men look to the honours of an university or to the laurels of military glory, my ambition is to serve and do good to my country’.4 In 1821 he joined Lucius at Trinity College, where he belonged to the Apostles (though he is unlikely to have ever served as president of the Union) and it seems that he lost his excessive piety at this time.5 By 1825, when he lodged with his father in London and accompanied him on a brief visit to Paris, he was reported to be reading widely but craving more entertaining pastimes; Sir Edward, who persuaded him to begin attending his dinners at Lincoln’s Inn (and apparently also at the King’s Inns in Dublin) to qualify him for future professional advancement, noted that he was ‘an amiable man with good principles, but a little indolent and inclined to look to a higher class of society than I fear he will be able to keep’.6 Yet, most likely referring to Smith O’Brien’s failure to take his BA with honours, his father wrote to Lady O’Brien, 2 May 1826, that ‘his unfortunate Cambridge affair will drive all idea of his going to the bar out of his head, if he ever was suited to so laborious a profession, which I much doubt’.7
It was expected that Smith O’Brien would be brought in on his father’s interest for Ennis, where he had become popular locally as a member of the Mechanics’ Institute, at the general election of 1826, but a paying guest was returned instead. He was nevertheless present for the proceedings there and for the election of his brother Lucius for Clare, 23 June, when he noted in his rough diary that he was ‘toxicated’.8 In his lengthy ‘birthday reflections’ of 17 Oct. 1826 he gave an honest appraisal of his limited abilities, including as an ‘indifferent speaker’ and a ‘slow writer’, but naively recorded that ‘judgement predominates over imagination. Wit and invention I have none. Discrimination is the faculty in which I most excel’. Despite the self-exhortatory nature of such an exercise, over the following two years he largely neglected his legal studies and spent much of his time in riding and walking in the countryside, so developing a close identification with the Irish people.9 In 1828 he drew up a list of ‘grievances affecting the English Empire’, which began with the exclusion of Catholics from Parliament (and continued with slavery, naval impressment and the like), and in 1848 he recorded:
From my boyhood I have entertained a passionate affection for Ireland. A child of its most ancient race, I have never read the history of their past wrongs, I have never witnessed the miseries and indignities which its people still suffer without a deep sentiment of indignation. Though myself a Protestant I have felt as acutely as any Roman Catholic - more acutely than many - the injustice to which the Roman Catholics of this country have been habitually subjected. Under the influence of these impressions I became a member of the Catholic Association before I entered public life and have never ceased to vindicate their claims to be placed in all respects upon a perfect equality with Protestants in regard of political advantages and civil privileges.10
Smith O’Brien, whose £5 subscription was handed in by Daniel O’Connell* at the Catholic Association, 24 Feb., was returned unopposed, on his father’s nomination and at no little financial sacrifice, for the vacant seat at Ennis in April 1828.11
Relating to his wife that their son was intent on resuming his (in fact, never completed) legal studies, Sir Edward delighted in his prospects, noting that ‘to William it is of great importance to have an object to give his mind full occupation and if he does not succeed in exerting himself, he will have nobody to blame but himself’.12 He took his seat, 5 May, presented the Ennis pro-Catholic petition, 7 May, and, having been present during the several nights of debate on the question, voted for relief, 12 May 1828.13 In his maiden speech he opposed the suppression of small Irish and Scottish bank notes, 3 June, and on the 4th his father recounted to his wife that evidently ‘William does not intend to be a silent Member of the House and I have great satisfaction in hearing that he acquitted himself reasonably well. He is very attentive to the business of the House’.14 He divided against the introduction of a bill to restrain the circulation of such notes, 5 June, when he supported Brownlow’s Irish bogs bill, and its committal, 16 June. On the 12th, when he voted for the Irish assessment of lessors bill, he argued for the repeal of the Irish coal duties, which won him praise in his constituency’s newspaper and, when the prime minister, the duke of Wellington, announced the abandonment of the tax, he wrote to his sister Anne some time that month that ‘it is very satisfactory to be successful on these occasions, and though perhaps my speech had no great influence ... yet my name stands the first who mentioned the subject’.15 He later recalled that during this session, ‘I gave no regular support to the Tory ministry’, but he sided with it against reducing the salary of the lieutenant-general of the ordnance, 4 July 1828.16
On 19 June 1828 he was invited by Tom Steele, one of the Catholic Association’s leaders, to oppose William Vesey Fitzgerald, the newly appointed president of the board of trade, on his re-election for county Clare. But he declined to challenge his father’s ally, not least because he was encouraged by the accession of another pro-Catholic to the cabinet and horrified by the threatened disruption of the customary connection between landlords and their tenants.17 Although he had been praised by O’Connell in the Catholic Association, 5 June, and was so again by him from the hustings, 30 June, Smith O’Brien disapproved of his candidacy and the agitation which went with it.18 Deploring the chaotic state of Ireland, he appealed for the immediate emancipation of the Catholics in the House, 3 July, and he unsuccessfully attempted to bring up a Clare petition against O’Connell’s return, 16 July 1828. Like Lucius he signed the Irish Protestants’ pro-Catholic declaration that autumn, when he took charge of the Ennis memorial complaining about the way in which the Clare Brunswick Club had been established.19
Smith O’Brien, who was listed by Planta, the patronage secretary, as likely to be ‘with government’ on the issue, was present to hear the announcement of the granting of Catholic emancipation in the king’s speech, 5 Feb. 1829. It was because of this step that thereafter, in his more or less constant attendance over the next two years, he became an adherent of Wellington’s administration, although he once stated that he had voted against it ‘upon some questions which involved great constitutional principles’.20 He sent in his resignation to the Catholic Association, 6 Feb., and in the Commons agreed to its suppression, it having now fulfilled its purpose, 10 Feb.21 In the course of a ecstatic letter to Anne, 21 Feb., in which he gloried in the triumph of the Catholic cause and eulogized his father as one of its supporters, he declared that he felt ‘like a slave who has shaken off his chains’.22 He duly voted for emancipation, 6, 30 Mar. He spoke strongly for the related Irish franchise bill, 19 Mar., emphasizing that it would remove the influence of the priesthood from politics and improve proprietors’ management of their estates. Such sentiments and the fact that he, as well as Lucius, left the House before the division on whether O’Connell should be allowed to take his seat unimpeded, 18 May, threatened to lead to a breach between them.23 On O’Connell being required to have himself re-elected for Clare, Smith O’Brien issued a hostile address to the electors, 19 June 1829, in which he damned the Liberator for acting entirely from motives of self-interest. O’Connell forbore to reply to what he termed a ‘very foolish and somewhat ferocious’ production, but Steele, as a minor Clare landowner, resented his assertion that that it was ‘not surprising’ O’Connell ‘should not be an acceptable candidate to the gentry ... who see in him one who, in opposition to their unanimous wish, enticed the people, by false pretences, to displace the man of their choice’. A duel took place between him and Steele at Kilburn, 30 June, after which he almost had to fight Steele’s second, the O’Gorman Mahon*, but he then stated that he had only meant ‘unanimous’ in the common sense of ‘overwhelming’ and the affair ended.24 His father, who was forgiving about it, nevertheless pointed out that ‘unanimous has been rather an unfortunate word for you and one which as a Member of Parliament you ought not to have used’, and instructed him to ‘in future weigh well and reconsider your paragraphs before you go to press’.25 The sensation created by his intervention led to airy suggestions that he should himself stand for the county, which, at least in an undated letter to Anne, he was almost willing to countenance. But nothing came of this and by the time O’Connell, who threatened to attack his father’s interest in the borough, was re-elected for Clare, 30 July 1829, he had already embarked on a short tour of the Low Countries and Germany.26 By that summer, and possibly much earlier, he had begun an unfortunate liaison with Mary Anne Wilton, the sister of one of Lucius O’Brien’s servants or agents; their first child, William O’Brien (1830-74), was born the following April, when, on condition of absolute secrecy being maintained, Lucius settled an annuity of £50 on the her, while another, Mary Wilton O’Brien (1831-1922), later married a Frenchman and had a family of her own.27
In January 1830 Smith O’Brien published a pamphlet entitled Considerations relative to the renewal of the East India Company’s Charter, which advocated retaining the present system of governing India’s peoples but called for relaxation of the China monopoly. It was welcomed by Peel, the home secretary, who thanked him for his ‘approbation, confidence and support’, and it secured him his appointment to the select committee on the Company’s affairs, 8 Feb. (and again, 4 Feb. 1831).28 He put in an almost constant attendance at it and, according to his proud father, he found his interest in politics rekindled and was ‘delighted at coming almost daily in collision with men of superior mind’.29 He divided against transferring East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 11 Feb., and parliamentary reform, 18 Feb., and was highly critical of O’Connell’s radical reform proposals, 28 May. He voted for Jewish emancipation, 17 May. He divided against reducing the grant for South American missions and abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 7 June. Despite missing meetings of the Irish Members opposed to the increased Irish stamp and spirit duties, he insisted, in public letters dated 27 Apr. and 13 May, that he would resist ministers over this. He clashed with O’Connell about it, 30 June, and cast aspersions on his intentions, warning him to beware lest, ‘in endeavouring to assume the character of a patriot, he does not overturn the existing institutions of the country’.30 Unless it was his brother, he presented the county Clare petition against these tax rises, 2 July 1830, when he also brought up its one for alteration of the grand jury laws. Having canvassed and made hustings speeches in Lucius’s unsuccessful campaign to retain his Clare seat, he was again returned for Ennis at the general election, but only after the O’Gorman Mahon had challenged his right to be brought forward.31
Smith O’Brien devoted much of that autumn to researching and consulting about another pamphlet, his Plan for the relief of the poor of Ireland, which on its appearance in November 1830 was admired for its recommendation of a voluntary system of local provision, although one rival commentator considered it futile and based on insufficient evidence.32 He dismissed as worthless the previous session’s select committee report on the Irish poor, 11 Nov., when he spoke and voted for O’Connell’s motion for repeal of the Irish Subletting Act. Having been listed by ministers among their ‘friends’, he divided in their minority on the civil list, 15 Nov., and on the 20th, evidently in reply to a letter of commiseration, the out-going home secretary generously entreated him to ensure ‘that no consideration of personal confidence in me may prevent you from taking any part in political affairs or forming any political connection which may best suit your views of the public interest’.33 He gave notice for a bill founded on his ideas about Irish poor relief, 18 Nov., returning to this matter on 6, 9 Dec., and gave a cautious welcome to the Grey administration in relation to its intentions for Ireland, 23 Nov. 1830, when he ruled out appropriation of the revenues of the established church. Although he initially maintained contact with Peel, in January 1831 he began a supportive correspondence with the new Irish secretary Edward Smith Stanley about poor relief and other matters.34 He obtained leave for his Irish poor bill, 8 Feb., when he congratulated the Irish government on its suppression of the O’Connellite repeal agitation, and secured its first reading, 15 Feb., but it was lost at the dissolution. He gave evidence against the validity of the return of the O’Gorman Mahon to the Clare election committee, 28 Feb., and on 14 Mar., having objected to the grant to the Kildare Place Society, he took a fortnight’s leave in order to travel to Clare for the ensuing by-election. Supporting the unsuccessful candidacy of his father, a reluctant reformer, his quarrel on the hustings with the O’Gorman Mahon’s brother William Richard Mahon resulted in him fighting another, ultimately inconsequential, duel.35 Perhaps fortuitously, given his family’s ambivalent position, he missed the division on the second reading of the ministerial reform bill, 22 Mar., but he was in his place on the 30th to give a guarded endorsement to the programme of public works in Ireland.36 He initiated a debate on the state of lawlessness in county Clare, 13 Apr., blaming the disturbances not on the indifference of local landlords but on the underlying poverty of the populace and calling for swift legislative intervention; however, on 10 May he privately admitted to Smith Stanley that he had unwittingly exaggerated his case.37 He divided against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment to the reform bill, 19 Apr., but, as he had done on the 12th, on 20 Apr. 1831 he regretted that more additional seats had not been allotted to Ireland, if only because it strengthened the repeal cause, and denied that such an increase would give a greater than proportionate influence to the Catholic electorate.
Smith O’Brien had become a member of the Ennis Independent Club in March 1831 and was thought more than likely to continue as the borough’s Member because of his considerable personal standing and liberal credentials, despite the eclipse of his father’s electoral interests. However, he was forced to stand aside at the dissolution in April, perhaps owing to Sir Edward’s disapproval of his recent parliamentary conduct, although by June, when he canvassed again, he was almost certain that his popularity would secure his re-election once the reform bill had been passed.38 He provided most of the drive and initiative behind the abortive project to improve the navigation of the Fergus as far as Ennis, where he continued to maintain a high profile.39 He kept up his increasingly liberal-minded correspondence with Smith Stanley, expressing his approval of the ministerial plan for national education in Ireland in September, and he wrote him a public letter in favour of alteration of the grand jury laws in December 1831.40 The following month he issued a public address to O’Connell, condemning him as a mob orator and specifically criticizing him for failing to insist on a larger Irish representation at Westminster (he thought 125 Members a minimum) and for attacking rather than endeavouring to improve Irish legislation.41
Having raised suggestions about how to manage grand jury and other county assessments in August, on 9 Sept. 1832 Smith O’Brien announced that unforeseen personal circumstances had induced him to withdraw from Ennis. He claimed to have the support of five-sixths of the electorate and certainly incurred the displeasure of many of his political friends, but he may also have made enemies by his refusal to oppose the Union or to spend money.42 This about-turn was caused by his rapid courtship of and marriage to the daughter of a Limerick alderman and country gentleman, which, combined with his parents’ grudging decision to pass on part of the income from his grandfather’s estate, naturally drew him more into the society and politics of the neighbouring county, although he did not take up residence at Cahermoyle until 1834.43 There was at least one suggestion that he might try his hand in Clare and he was also invited to make a speculative attempt in county Limerick, but he did not stand for Parliament at the general election of 1832.44 However, he was elected for county Limerick in 1835 and in the chamber, where he was respected as an unassuming politician and a clear speaker, he adopted the active Liberal principles of the former Limerick borough Member Thomas Spring Rice*, whom he had once described as ‘my model’.45 Denying that he ever had any pretensions as a party man, he later recalled that ‘at each successive stage of my public career I enjoyed at least as much consideration in the House of Commons as my experience and abilities entitled me to expect’, and that he had declined office because ‘content with the moderate income which I possessed, I preferred independence to aggrandizement and held myself aloof alike from the obligations and from the rewards of party connection’.46
In this role he incurred the disdain of O’Connell, who believed him to be ‘an exceedingly weak man, proud and self-conceited and, like all weak men, utterly impenetrable to advice’. Yet when he joined the Repeal Association in 1843 O’Connell welcomed him effusively, writing the following year that
I really think your accession quite providential - nothing less. You are by your ‘antecedents’ and your popular talents and your rank and religion just the ‘beau ideal’ of the person wanted to make the cause of repeal keep its course against the stream of persecution on the one hand and of otherwise inevitable desertion on the other.47
Yet, a year after O’Connell’s death in mid-1847, Smith O’Brien was one of the Young Ireland leaders of the farcical ‘cabbage patch’ rebellion in Ballingarry, county Tipperary. He was convicted of high treason, 21 Sept. 1848, a judgment confirmed on appeal the following year, after which he was expelled from the Commons, 18 May 1849.48 The original sentence of execution was commuted to one of transportation and he was held in Van Diemen’s Land until 1854, when he was allowed to return to Europe; he was granted a full pardon in 1856 and quietly lived out his days as a political writer. He died in June 1864, when Cahermoyle, which like his other estates had been in trust since before his trial, was inherited by his eldest son Edward William (1837-1909).49 His statue by Thomas Farrell (1870), which stands very much overshadowed by O’Connell’s on O’Connell Street, Dublin, gives his death date as 16 (not 18) June, an error which may have accidentally misled James Joyce in his choice of ‘Bloomsday’. The struggles which Smith O’Brien endured, followed by his exile and homecoming, may bear superficial comparison with those of a latter-day Ulysses, but his life as a paradigm of lost opportunity was nonetheless a tragic metaphor for the shattered delusions of Ireland’s mid-nineteenth century nationalists.50
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: Stephen Farrell
Based on R. Davis, Revolutionary Imperialist: William Smith O’Brien, 1803-1864 (1998); R. Sloan, William Smith O’Brien and Young Ireland Rebellion of 1848 (2000), and C. Heaney, William Smith O’Brien, 1803-1864 (2004).
- 1. Davis, 11-13; Sloan, 12; Rebel in his Fam.: Selected Pprs. of William Smith O’Brien ed. R. and M. Davis, 4.
- 2. Davis, 10; Sloan, 12; I. O’Brien, O’Brien of Thomond, 196.
- 3. NLI, Smith O’Brien mss 426/1; 8655 (3), Smith O’Brien to mother, 10, 18 Mar., Sept. 1819, 5 June 1820; Rebel in his Fam. 4-6, 19-25.
- 4. Smith O’Brien mss 8655 (3), Smith O’Brien to fa. Sat. 18 [no month]; NLI, Inchiquin mss T23/2972, O’Brien to wife, 6 May 1820.
- 5. Sloan, 14-15, 29.
- 6. Inchiquin mss T24/3625, O’Brien to wife, 25 Feb.; 2979, same to same, 11, 30 Mar.; 3626, same to same, 18 Mar., 19 Apr. 1825; Davis, 18-19.
- 7. Inchiquin mss T24/3627; Rebel in his Fam. 25-26.
- 8. Freeman’s Jnl. 27 May, 7 June 1826; Smith O’Brien mss 32717; Sloan, 16-17.
- 9. Smith O’Brien mss 32717; Sloan, 15-16; Davis, 20-22.
- 10. Smith O’Brien mss 464, draft address, pp. 15, 17; 32717.
- 11. Ibid. 449/3399; Ennis Chron. 1 Mar., 26 Apr. 1828; Davis, 23-24.
- 12. Inchiquin mss T24/2983, O’Brien to wife, 28 Apr., 1, 2 May 1828.
- 13. Smith O’Brien mss 32717.
- 14. Inchiquin mss T24/2983.
- 15. Ennis Chron. 21 June 1828; Smith O’Brien mss 18310 (1).
- 16. Smith O’Brien mss 10515 (4), Smith O’Brien to unknown, 25 Sept. 1844.
- 17. Ibid. 426/9-11; Davis, 28-30.
- 18. Dublin Evening Post, 7 June, 3 July; Clare Jnl. 7 July 1828.
- 19. Dublin Evening Mail, 8 Oct.; Dublin Evening Post, 15 Nov. 1828.
- 20. Smith O’Brien mss 10515 (4), Smith O’Brien to unknown, 25 Sept. 1844; 32717.
- 21. Clare Jnl. 12 Feb. 1829.
- 22. Smith O’Brien mss 18310 (1); Sloan, 19.
- 23. NLI, Stacpoole Kenny mss 18889 (13), W. to J. Macnamara, 24 May 1829; Sloan, 19.
- 24. Clare Jnl. 22 June, 6, 9, 13 July; Dublin Evening Post, 30 June, 4, 9 July 1829; Smith O’Brien mss 426/12-39; D. Gwynn, O’Gorman Mahon, 85-94.
- 25. Smith O’Brien mss 426/29.
- 26. Ibid. 18310 (1); Davis, 35, 40-41.
- 27. Rebel in his Fam. 6-7, 26-27, 82-83; H.W.L. Weir, ‘William Smith O’Brien’s Secret Fam.’, Other Clare, xx (1996), 55-56.
- 28. Smith O’Brien mss 426/41.
- 29. Ibid. 32717; Inchiquin mss T26/3031, O’Brien to wife, 22, 25, 27 Feb. 1830.
- 30. Clare Jnl. 17, 20 May; Dublin Evening Post, 25 May 1830.
- 31. Smith O’Brien mss 32717; Clare Jnl. 22 July, 5, 12 Aug. 1830.
- 32. W.J. Fitzpatrick, Life of Dr. Doyle, ii. 232-4; The Times, 15 Nov. 1830; J. Connery, The Reformer (1831), 6-7, 22-30.
- 33. Smith O’Brien mss 426/45.
- 34. Ibid. 426/59, 62; Derby mss 920 Der (14) 122/5, Smith O’Brien to Smith Stanley, 2 Jan. 1831.
- 35. Smith O’Brien mss 32717; Clare Jnl. 14, 21, 24 Mar. 1831.
- 36. Sloan, 27.
- 37. Derby mss 122/5.
- 38. Ibid. Smith O’Brien to Smith Stanley, 15 June; Clare Jnl. 11 June 1831; Smith O’Brien mss 426/99, 100, 111, 112; 449/3398; 32717.
- 39. Smith O’Brien mss 427/140-74; Clare Jnl. 14 July, 3, 17, 20 Oct. 1831, 30 Jan., 2 Feb., 28 May, 23 July 1832.
- 40. Derby mss 122/5, Smith O’Brien to Smith Stanley, 18 Sept., 16 Dec.; Dublin Evening Post, 8 Dec. 1831; Sloan, 29-30.
- 41. Clare Jnl. 26 Jan. 1832.
- 42. Ibid. 30 Aug., 13 Sept. 1832; Smith O’Brien mss 427/170, 175, 181, 184; 449/3426-7; Sloan, 31-33; Davis, 61-62.
- 43. Sloan, 33-35; Davis, 62-65.
- 44. Smith O’Brien mss 426/135; 427/185.
- 45. Ibid. 18310 (1), Smith O’Brien to Anne O’Brien, n.d. [endorsed 1828]; [J. Grant], Random Recollections of Lords and Commons (1838), ii. 286-8.
- 46. Smith O’Brien mss 464, p. 13; 10515 (4), Smith O’Brien to unknown, 25 Sept. 1844.
- 47. O’Connell Corresp. vi. 2623; vii. 3061.
- 48. CJ, civ. 308-19.
- 49. Limerick Chron. 18 June; The Times, 20 June 1864.
- 50. Gent. Mag. (1864), ii. 252; Weekly News, 31 Dec. 1870; Sloan, 303; J. Joyce, Ulysses, ch. 6; Davis, p. vii; Oxford DNB.