William Smith O'Brien

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For other people named William O'Brien, see William O'Brien (disambiguation).
William Smith O'Brien
Smith O'Brien, The Irish Patriot.jpg
William Smith O'Brien
Born 17 October 1803
Dromoland, Newmarket on Fergus, County Clare, Ireland
Died 18 June 1864(1864-06-18) (aged 60)
Bangor, Gwynedd, Wales
Education Trinity College, Cambridge
Known for Irish nationalist MP, leader of the Young Ireland movement

William Smith O'Brien (Irish: Liam Mac Gabhann Ó Briain; 17 October 1803 – 18 June 1864) was an Irish nationalist Member of Parliament (MP) and leader of the Young Ireland movement. He also encouraged the use of the Irish language. He was convicted of sedition for his part in the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848, but his sentence of death was commuted to deportation to Van Diemen's Land. In 1854, he was released on the condition of exile from Ireland, and he lived in Brussels for two years. In 1856 O'Brien was pardoned and returned to Ireland, but he was never active again in politics.

Early life[edit]

Born in Dromoland, Newmarket on Fergus, County Clare, he was the second son of Sir Edward O'Brien, 4th Baronet, of Dromoland Castle.[1] His mother was Charlotte Smith, whose father owned a property called Cahirmoyle in County Limerick. William took the additional surname Smith, his mother's maiden name upon inheriting the property. He lived at Cahermoyle House, a mile from Ardagh, County Limerick.[2] He was a descendant of the eleventh century Ard Rí (High King of Ireland), Brian Boru.[3] He received an upper-class English education at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge.[4]


"Young Ireland in Business for Himself", John Leech's satirical 1846 cartoon for Punch magazine showing O'Brien offering "pretty little pistols for pretty little children" after the withdrawal of the Young Irelanders from the Repeal Association

From April 1828 to 1831 he was Conservative MP for Ennis. He became MP for Limerick County in 1835, holding his seat in the House of Commons until 1849.[5]

Although a Protestant country-gentleman, he supported Catholic Emancipation while remaining a supporter of British-Irish union. In 1843, in protest against the imprisonment of Daniel O'Connell, he joined O'Connell's anti-union Repeal Association.[5]

Three years later, O'Brien withdrew the Young Irelanders from the association. With Thomas Francis Meagher, in January 1847 he founded the Irish Confederation, although he continued to preach reconciliation until O'Connell's death in May 1847.[5] He was active in seeking relief from the hardships of the famine. In March 1848, he spoke out in favour of a National Guard and tried to incite a national rebellion. He was tried for sedition on 15 May 1848 but was not convicted.[6]

In London he met Mary Ann Wilton and fathered two children born to her. In Autumn 1832 he married Lucy Caroline Gabbett of County Limerick. They had five boys and two girls.[7]

Rebellion and transportation[edit]

Removal of Smith O'Brien under sentence of death

On 29 July 1848, O'Brien and other Young Irelanders led landlords and tenants in a rising in three counties, with an almost bloodless battle against police at Ballingarry, County Tipperary.[1] In O'Brien's subsequent trial, the jury found him guilty of high treason. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Petitions for clemency were signed by 70,000 people in Ireland and 10,000 people in England.[8]

O'Brien's Cottage in Port Arthur, Tasmania.

In Dublin on 5 June 1849, the sentences of O'Brien and other members of the Irish Confederation were commuted to transportation for life to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania in present-day Australia).[7]

O'Brien attempted to escape from Maria Island off Tasmania, but was betrayed by Ellis, captain of the schooner hired for the escape. He was sent to Port Arthur where he met up with John Mitchel, who had been transported before the rebellion. The cottages which O'Brien lived in on Maria Island and Port Arthur have been preserved in their 19th century state as memorials.[9]

Having emigrated to the United States, Ellis was tried by another Young Irelanders leader, Terence MacManus, at a lynch court in San Francisco for the betrayal of O'Brien. He was freed for lack of evidence.[9]

Originally erected on the south quays, this 1870s statue was moved to Dublin's O'Connell Street in the 1920s

In 1854, after five years in Tasmania, O'Brien was released on the condition he never return to Ireland. He settled in Brussels.[10] In May 1856, he was granted an unconditional pardon and returned to Ireland that July. He contributed to the Nation newspaper, but played no further part in politics.[10]

In 1864 he visited England and Wales, with the view of rallying his failing health, but no improvement took place, and he died at Bangor, in Wales on the 16th of June, 1864.[7]

Irish language[edit]

O'Brien was a founding member of the Ossianic Society, whose aim was further the interests of the Irish language and to publish and translate literature relating to the Fianna.

He wrote to his son Edward from Van Diemen's Land, urging him to learn the Irish language. He himself studied the language and used an Irish-language Bible, and presented to the Royal Irish Academy Irish-language manuscripts he had collected. He enjoyed the respect of Clare poets (the county being largely Irish speaking at the time), and in 1863, on his advice, Irish was introduced into a number of schools there.[11]


There is a statue of him on O'Connell Street, Dublin.

His older brother Lucius O'Brien (1800–1872) was also a member of parliament for County Clare.

His sister was Harriet O'Brien who married an Anglican priest but was soon widowed. As Harriet Monsell, she founded the order of Anglican nuns, the Community of St John Baptist, in Clewer, Windsor, in 1851. The gold cross she wore, and which still belongs to the Community, was made with gold panned by her brother during his exile in Australia.

His granddaughter Lucy Gwynn was the first woman registrar of Trinity College, Dublin


  • "The new Irish flag would be Orange and Green, and would be known as the Irish tricolor."[12]
  • "To find a gaol in one of the lovliest spots formed by Nature in one of her lonliest solitudes creates a revulsion of feeling I cannot describe." November 1849, when first sighting Maria Island.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Davis, Marianne, ed. (1998). The Rebel in His Family: Selected Papers of William Smith O'Brien. Irish Narratives. Cork University Press. ISBN 1-85918-181-3. 
  2. ^ "Estate Record: O'Brien (Cahermoyle)". Landed Estates Database. 18 May 2011. Retrieved 1 November 2013. 
  3. ^ O'Donoghue, John (1860). Historical Memoir of the O'Briens. Dublin: Hodges, Smith & Co (reprinted 2002, Martin Breen). pp. 544–545. ISBN 0-9519551-2-8. 
  4. ^ "O'Brien, William [Smith] (OBRN821WS)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  5. ^ a b c Rudé, G., "O'Brien, William Smith (1803–1864)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University
  6. ^ Gwynn, Denis (1949). Young Ireland and 1848. Cork: Cork University Press. pp. 165–187. 
  7. ^ a b c "William Smith O'Brien (1803 - 1864)", Clare People', Clare County Library
  8. ^ Lawler, Ruth; from originals held by National Archives of Ireland (2001). CD ROM – The 1848 Petitions – The William Smith O'Brien Petition, Irish Records Index Vol. 2. Dublin: Eneclann Ltd. ISBN 0-9537557-2-X. 
  9. ^ a b Touhill, Blanche (1981). William Smith O'Brien and His Irish Revolutionary Companions in Penal Exile. Columbia & London: University of Missouri Press. p. 124. ISBN 0-8262-0339-6. 
  10. ^ a b Article by John Cussen
  11. ^ Noone, Val (2012). Hidden Ireland in Victoria. Ballarat: Ballarat Heritage Services. pp. 53–54. ISBN 978-1-876478-83-4. 
  12. ^ Macdonagh, Michael (1898). Irish Life and Character. London. p. 238. OCLC 810891780. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Smith O'Brien, William (1856). Principles of Government or Meditations in Exile. Dublin & Boston: James Duffy, Patrick Donahoe. Vol. I – 388pp., Vol. II – 380pp. US edition single vol. 480pp. 
  • Hough, John (1998). William Smith O'Brien: the unlikely revolutionary. [pamphlet]. 

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Thomas Frankland Lewis
Member of Parliament for Ennis
Succeeded by
William Vesey-FitzGerald
Preceded by
Standish Darby O'Grady
Member of Parliament for Limerick County
Succeeded by
Samuel Dickson