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O'Brien, William Smith (1803–1864)

by G. Rudé

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

William Smith O'Brien (1803-1864), by Henry O'Neil

William Smith O'Brien (1803-1864), by Henry O'Neil

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9786932

William Smith O'Brien (1803-1864), Irish nationalist, was born on 17 October 1803 at Dromoland, County Clare, Ireland, the second son of Sir Edward O'Brien, baronet, and Charlotte, née Smith. A Protestant, he was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1826). He represented the Irish borough of Ennis in the unreformed British parliament from 1828 to 1831 and Limerick from 1835 until his exclusion from the Commons in 1849. For long an opponent of Daniel O'Connell, O'Brien joined his Repeal Association in 1843 and soon exercised an authority within it second only to 'the Liberator' himself. In the disputes dividing the Irish nationalist leaders in the 1840s O'Brien at first adopted a conciliatory role; and, although he walked out of the association with John Mitchel, Thomas Meagher and other militants in July 1846, he continued to preach reconciliation until O'Connell's death in May 1847 completed the breach between the advocates of 'moral' and 'physical' force.

From this time he appears as the oldest, most experienced and respected, though by no means the most resolute or consistent, of the leaders of the militant Young Ireland or 'confederate' groups which, after the February 1848 revolution in Paris, urged the formation of an Irish national guard modelled on the French and a council of three hundred as the nucleus of an Irish national parliament; eventually after John Mitchel's arrest and condemnation in May 1848 he organized an armed insurrection. It was poorly led, ill equipped and unsupported, and proved abortive. Though O'Brien had long hesitated to engage in armed rebellion and refused to lend his name to the committee of five that directed it, he was recognized as its foremost leader, was arrested in August on a charge of high treason and at Clonmel in October 1848 was sentenced with T. F. Meagher, T. B. McManus and Patrick O'Donohoe to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The sentence was commuted to transportation for life; O'Brien and his principal lieutenants sailed in the Swift to Hobart Town, where they arrived on 27 October 1849. Three of O'Brien's humbler and lesser-known comrades-in-arms, Thomas Donovan, Thomas Wall and John Walsh, were sentenced at Waterford in July 1850 to seven years transportation for attacking the city's police barracks under O'Brien's orders and reached Hobart in the Hyderabad on 13 December 1850; a fourth, Cornelius Keeffe, sentenced at Waterford for a similar offence in March 1849, followed in the Dalhousie on 14 August 1852.

On arrival in Hobart O'Brien at first refused to give his parole in return for a ticket-of-leave and was in consequence denied the privileged treatment afforded to the other Young Ireland leaders. He was sent to Darlington station in the penal settlement of Maria Island; nine months later, after an unsuccessful attempt to escape to the United States in an American whaler, he was transferred to Port Arthur, where he was allowed to live in his own cottage (now a youth hostel). In November 1850 he was persuaded to give his parole, was granted a ticket-of-leave and settled first at New Norfolk and later at Avoca, where he acted as tutor to the children of a local doctor. Returning to New Norfolk he received a conditional pardon in 1854; he sailed for Europe and in Brussels was joined by his wife Lucy, née Gabbett, five sons and two daughters. In May 1856, following the intercession of 140 British parliamentarians, he was granted a free pardon which allowed him to return to Ireland. In 1859 he paid a brief visit to New York and in 1863 to Poland. He died at Bangor, Wales, on 18 June 1864.

Select Bibliography

  • J. H. Cullen, Young Ireland in Exile (Dublin, 1928)
  • D. R. Gwynn, Young Ireland and 1848 (Cork, 1949)
  • T. J. Kiernan, The Irish Exiles in Australia (Melb, 1954)
  • D. R. Gwynn, Thomas Francis Meagher (Dublin, 1961)
  • Ac nos 2/306, 2/315, 2/363 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

G. Rudé, 'O'Brien, William Smith (1803–1864)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/obrien-william-smith-2516/text3403, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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