William Smith O’Brien, offspring of the great O’Brien family which traced its roots back to Brian Boru, first entered Parliament in April 1828, aged 24.  He represented the borough of Ennis, in Clare, until 1831.  In 1835, he won one of the two county seats for Limerick and he retained it until his conviction for treason was confirmed in 1849.  Before 1843 and his decision to join the ranks of the repealers, O’Brien was an active but obscure backbench MP who attracted wider attention only occasionally, when he dared to stand up to Daniel O’Connell.  O’Brien was intent on maintaining his independence of the Liberator, whose success in achieving Emancipation had given him an extraordinary hold on the allegiance of Irish Catholics (including most of the Limerick electors).  He was by no means alone in this determination – this, after all, was the age of the independent Member – but the character traits he frequently demonstrated, when he was proud and principled but also irascible and intractable, were those which later made him an uncompromising nationalist and, in due course, a desperate revolutionary.

A liberal (pro-Emancipation) Tory, O’Brien was ‘brought into parliament by my father as member for the borough of Ennis, a close borough’ – elder brother Lucius already represented the county – to provide the young man with ‘an object to give his mind full occupation’.[1]  He was soon in opposition to Daniel O’Connell in the famous Clare by-election of 1828, contending that ‘the kindly relations subsisting between landlord and tenant ought not upon light grounds to be torn asunder’.  In 1829 and 1831, he fought duels with Tom Steele and William Mahon, O’Connell’s supporters in Clare, when, fortunately, everyone turned out to be a bad shot.  In 1830 he accused the Great Dan of ‘impeaching all Irish members who did not choose to enlist under his incendiary banner’ and opposed O’Connell on the next great question, Parliamentary Reform (‘The multitudes have always been the dupes of the wicked and designing, the instruments of tyranny, the enemies of freedom’).  And he openly defied O’Connell and the ‘revolutionary spirit’ which sought Repeal of the Union from 1830.  But, despite all this history of running against the dominant force in Irish politics, it was the system of ‘alternating nomination’ – the time came for the Fitzgerald family’s turn to represent Ennis – that saw O’Brien’s leaving Parliament in May 1831.

In this first spell in Parliament, O’Brien indicated his growing disillusionment with the Tories’ ‘blind and obstinate resistance to all reform’ and over the following years he expressed Whig or liberal ideas in relation to education, the poor law and, above all, reform and reduction of the (Protestant) Church of Ireland.  At the same time, he opposed Repeal when the agitation caught the popular imagination in 1832 and refused to take the ‘repeal pledge’, which meant that he could not stand for Ennis (which now, after Reform, had a mostly Catholic electorate) in the general election of December 1832.  In addition, his marriage in September 1832 saw his migration to Limerick and taking possession of his mother’s former home at Cahirmoyle.[2]  So it was that in January 1835 O’Brien was returned as a fully-fledged liberal, in defiance of his ‘much annoyed father’, representing the County of Limerick.

Member for Limerick

O’Brien was independent-minded (‘conscientious & disinterested’ was how Lord Melbourne described his support in 1836) in relation to the Whig government between 1835 and 1841, not seeking favours for his family and friends, criticising the failure to appoint an Irishman to any top job, and declaring that he would not give any pledge of future support, which would be ‘entirely governed by my sense of the merit or demerit of the course of policy which they pursue’.  O’Connell’s support for Melbourne’s Whig Administration brought better relations between the Liberator and the liberal-unionists (in 1835, O’Brien was one of 33 liberal-unionist MPs, while O’Connell’s notorious ‘tail’ of repealers numbered 32).  They generally united behind the measures with which the Whigs sought to conciliate the Catholic majority in Ireland.  But many liberals were as averse to O’Connell’s embrace as, in the past, they had been alienated by his hostility.  In December 1834, James Grattan of Wicklow (son of Henry Grattan) did not join O’Connell’s Anti-Tory Association because he ‘could not act with O’Connell’; Louis Perrin (about to enter Parliament for Cashel) refused to join because he feared being considered ‘an O’Connellite’; and when O’Connell endorsed his candidature in Waterford City, Thomas Wyse almost withdrew rather than give the impression that he came in as O’Connell’s ‘nominee or protégé’.

It was O’Brien, the proud and prickly Member for Limerick, who defied O’Connell more than any other Irish politician between 1835 and 1843.  He advocated an Irish poor law (with outdoor relief) and state payment of the Catholic clergy (‘you will never have any guarantee for the security of British connexion as long as so influential a body remain wholly unattached to the state’), both measures opposed by O’Connell, and he refused to attend a public dinner for O’Connell in Limerick in October 1835.  At the beginning of 1837, his proposal to pay the priests caused a challenge to his position as Member for Limerick and a response from O’Brien that was almost ostentatious in its display of principled courage.  Father Costelloe, the O’Connellite secretary of the County Club of Limerick, initiated an attempt to unseat O’Brien and O’Connell sent a public letter to the Limerick electors criticising their MP’s ‘mischievous scheme of pensioning the Catholic Clergy’ and opposition to voting by secret ballot, and questioning ‘whether the man can be fit to be entrusted with the duties of a Representative in the House of Commons’.  O’Brien proclaimed that he would ‘never consent to be the slave or the tool of Mr O’Connell’ and condemned the latter’s ‘arrogant dictation between me and my Constituents’.  O’Connell then filled two newspaper columns with scathing denunciation of O’Brien’s ‘overweening vanity’, ‘bull-frog inflation of self-importance’, ‘rancour and malignity’ and so on, and predicted his ‘relapse into his original and, I now dread, congenital Toryism’.  It was an extraordinary attack, but O’Brien, undaunted, issued a vehement (if less colourful) response in which O’Connell’s ‘capricious dictatorship’ was repudiated.

What another liberal, Denham Jephson of Mallow, called O’Brien’s ‘temperate & manly rebuke for [O’Connell’s] impertinent interference’ won the respect of ‘the reasonable Catholics & liberals’ (O’Brien’s expression) and the storm quickly subsided.  In April 1837, The Pilot, the newspaper closest to O’Connell, called on the Limerick constituency to rid itself of its ‘insolent representative’, but O’Brien’s position as one of the two liberal candidates for the county in the general election of July-August 1837 was never in doubt, given the desire for a united front against the Tories.  O’Connell endorsed the ‘efficient, useful member’ and ‘thorough anti-Tory’.  In response, O’Brien objected as much to O’Connell’s interference in his favour as he had to the hostile intrusion of six months earlier.  His letter contending that O’Connell’s declaration compromised his independence (as it ‘would make it appear that I am acceptable to the county only because it pleases him to tender his support’) was not published, despite his urgings, and he and the other liberal-unionist candidate were re-elected.  In 1838, he voted for the third reading of the Irish Poor Law Bill and again opposed the secret ballot, but he and O’Connell joined in supporting the Whigs’ compromise measures on Irish tithes (which, without ‘appropriation’ of the Church’s surplus income, finally passed) and municipal corporations (which failed in the Lords).


The relative harmony of 1838 proved shortlived, for the following year brought the crisis that came close to ending O’Brien’s political career.  In April 1839, his registration of voters bill, involving yearly revision, prompted O’Connell’s first-ever letter to O’Brien, in which he warned that annual contests between landlords and tenants would ‘annihilate the liberal interest in Ireland – and you will become unconsciously the worker out of the greatest mischief that could possibly be done in this country…  [T]he most virulent of the Orange Tories could not desire a more fatal measure…’  This was not a public letter and O’Connell was not personally abusive.  O’Brien, denied government support, gave up the bill.  May 1839 brought the climactic event of the session, the government’s resignation, after O’Brien was one of ten liberals (or radicals, as most of them were) who voted against the Jamaica bill on 6 May.  This bill was designed to suspend the constitution of Jamaica after the island’s planter-elected assembly had refused to adopt the Prisons Act passed at Westminster and obstructed the abolition of ‘negro apprenticeship’ (forced labour).  O’Brien felt ‘unable to support an attempt to substitute arbitrary power for an elected assembly’.  The MPs’ rebellion reduced the government majority to only five, which meant that it would be difficult if not impossible to carry the measure through committee.  On 7 May, to O’Brien’s considerable surprise, Melbourne offered his resignation and advised the Queen to send for Peel.

O’Connell, by this stage fully committed to the Whigs, was devastated when they went out.  His anger was directed mainly against Joseph Hume, the English radical he had put into Kilkenny – ‘O’Brien, though very ill-conditioned, would not have had the courage to behave so badly as he did if he had not been countenanced by Hume’ – but he proceeded to move against O’Brien, sending Father Costelloe a letter which included an interesting analysis of the man’s character:

What are you to do with Smith O’Brien?  In asking the question I have no personal feeling to gratify.  All I want to know is what do you think best for the county in particular and the country in general?  I easily forgive his foolish imprudence towards myself.  The question remains, what is best done with him?  He is an exceedingly weak man, proud and self-conceited and, like almost all weak men, utterly impenetrable to advice.  You cannot be sure of him for half an hour.  But are you in a condition to get rid of him, and have you a candidate to supply his place?  The answer to these two questions ought to be decisive as to the mode of proceeding…[3]

If pride is a weakness, this judgement is not entirely unfair.  O’Brien, of course, had no wish to be a man O’Connell could ‘be sure of’, part of the ‘tail’.  Costelloe acted immediately, ‘leaving no stone unturned,’ an O’Brien ally reported from Limerick, ‘to accomplish what he has long been aiming at’.  O’Brien, perhaps unwisely, opened the door by writing a public letter to his constituents in which he offered to resign if a majority of them ‘pronounced against me … as I wish to represent you only so long as I possess your confidence’.  Costelloe called a meeting of the County Club for 21 May, when one member described O’Brien as ‘a dangerous politician’ who would turn against his own side ‘at any moment he got a crotchet in his head’.  The meeting called on O’Brien to resign as he ‘no longer possesses’ its confidence.  O’Brien publicly declared that he would resign (by applying for the Chiltern Hundreds) on 7 June unless those electors not present at the club meeting gave evidence of their backing.  It is likely that he fully expected that he would be resigning; his diary entry reads simply, ‘Wrote stating intention to resign’.

O’Brien was rescued by his loyal supporters in Limerick, with the likes of Caleb Powell, William Griffin and ‘respectable’ (middle class) men backing him against ‘Father Costelloe & the priests’.  At the end of May, an address to O’Brien, issued in Limerick, advocated the ‘principle of honest and independent representation’ and opposed his resignation.  At the club meeting on 1 June, Costelloe avowed his long-standing opposition to O’Brien (‘from the commencement of his parliamentary career’), but a series of speakers argued that their confidence in O’Brien was not negated by a single vote, a decision was postponed and he was asked ‘to retain his seat in the interim’.  O’Brien now counterattacked rather cleverly, telling Powell (club chairman) that he was unwilling ‘to appear in the House of Commons in the ridiculous and contemptible character of an “ad interim” member’ and travelling to Limerick to confront his enemies at a public meeting (which he invited friends to attend).  The meeting on 11 June saw him performing powerfully in defence of the Member’s right to act according to principle and conscience, his supporters (including priests) rallying, the opposition remaining silent, and the passing of a unanimous vote of confidence – and it broke up after giving three cheers ‘for O’Brien, the County Club and Daniel O’Connell’.

It was a close run thing, and had O’Brien not proved a skilful and determined fighter as well as a redoubtable man of principle the outcome would probably have been less favourable.  He voted for the re-drafted Jamaica bill on 19 June and rebuilt his bridges with the Whigs.

Orange Peel

The Whigs limped on for another two years, achieving little and increasingly demoralised as defeat in the next elections looked certain.  With O’Brien’s and O’Connell’s support, they carried a municipal reform bill in 1840 that was sufficiently mutilated (limited to 10 towns and with a high, £10 franchise) to pass through the Lords, at last.  Anticipating the Tories’ return to government, O’Connell relaunched his campaign for Repeal of the Union, forming the Repeal Association in April 1840, but it made little headway and O’Brien had no concerns about refusing to attend a Repeal dinner in Limerick in May.  In the following year, he supported the ministers on the confidence motion – lost by a single vote – which brought the dissolution of Parliament in June 1841.  He was returned unopposed in the general election; despite Tory gains, this was a good election for the liberal-unionists, 45 of whom were successful, as O’Connell again stressed the need for unity against the Tories and did not press the Repeal question.  On 27 August, every Irish liberal Member, including O’Brien and O’Connell, stood by the government in the division on the Address, but the Whigs lost by almost 100 votes and gave up the reins of power to Peel and the Tories.

Political life in Ireland was transformed by the advent of a Tory government.  The Whigs had given Irish Catholics a full share in Crown patronage.  Now, under Peel, for two years not a single Catholic was appointed to an important position.  Patronage went instead to Irish Tories, some of them notorious anti-Catholics (or, as O’Brien put it, men ‘conspicuous for their vilification of the people of Ireland’).  Peel showed every sign of wishing to rule Ireland again through its Protestant garrison.  The legislative picture was equally dismal, with no prospect of extinction of tithes or Ireland’s receiving anything like the municipal reform that had been given to England.  O’Brien, tired and disillusioned, proposed in April 1842 to resign from Parliament but was dissuaded – ‘your vocation is Parliament’ – by his old adversary, Father Costelloe.  He showed no interest in Repeal.  Few did, as O’Connell’s renewed campaign met with little enthusiasm; Tories celebrated his ‘decline and fall’ and Thomas Wyse, a liberal-unionist, wrote from London that, ‘Everyone of any thought here looks with pity and pain on the manner O’Connell is squandering himself.’

This state of affairs did not continue.  In 1843, asserting the futility of attendance in a British Parliament that was deaf to Irish demands, O’Connell instructed the Repeal MPs to remain in Ireland to agitate against the Union.  In an astonishing political recovery, O’Connell and Repeal went on to win the support of millions of Irish Catholics in the course of what he called ‘the great Repeal Year’.  Grievances about appointments, tithes, the poor law and, prominent for the first time, landlord-tenant relations were used to argue that a Dublin parliament was needed to remedy Ireland’s problems.  Thousands flocked to the ‘monster meetings’ at which O’Connell demanded Repeal.  It was the first great crisis of the Union.  The liberal-unionist Members played a significant part in the story.  The absence of the repealers left them as the sole spokesmen of Irish liberalism at Westminster.  They were able to fill the role of interpreters of Irish discontent in what became a remarkable Parliamentary campaign.

Far from giving up on Parliament and joining O’Connell, O’Brien’s first response to the Repeal tide was to try to make Parliament work for Ireland.  The Parliamentary campaign of 1843, which is described below, failed in the end because Peel and the Tories came round so slowly to seeing that coercion could not be the answer to discontent.


[1] The references for all sources may be found in Sloan, William Smith O’Brien and the Young Ireland Rebellion of 1848.

[2] His mother was Charlotte Smith, hence his middle name, which was formally adopted by the six-year-old O’Brien in 1809.

[3] O’Connell’s move against O’Brien came despite the fact that the Bedchamber Crisis, when Queen Victoria refused Peel’s request for removal of two of her (Whig) Household ladies, meant that Melbourne was restored on 9 May 1839.