On 30 July 1998, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern visited a derelict house near Ballingarry in Tipperary to commemorate a failed revolution. The revolution of 1848 has no proud place in the history of Irish nationalism, and the leader of the doomed enterprise, William Smith O’Brien, is not a celebrated hero of Ireland’s struggle for independence. He stands very much in the shadow of Tone, Emmet, O’Connell and Davis. In many respects, the court of history has judged well, for O’Brien’s revolt was a sorry affair with barely a redeeming feature. Nevertheless, the O’Brien story is an important one. As a young man, he conformed to the Tory principles of his family. Then, from 1835, he was the liberal Member of Parliament for Limerick. The epitome of the independent Member, his courageous opposition to Daniel O’Connell marked him out as a man of principle and resolve. At this time, O’Brien believed in the British Parliament’s capacity to give good government in Ireland. Attempts to secure liberal reform were largely unsuccessful, however, and he entered the 1840s with a growing conviction that he and the other Irish Members were wasting their time at Westminster.
In 1843, O’Brien’s extraordinary Commons campaign for ‘justice’ for Ireland prefigured the tactics of Parnell, but the effort ended in disappointment and O’Brien joined the Repeal Association in October 1843. He sought repeal of the Act of Union of 1800 and the restoration of an Irish Parliament in Dublin. For the next five years he was a major political figure, first as O’Connell’s loyal deputy, then as his critic and rival, and finally, in 1848, as the leader of the revolt in Tipperary. O’Brien was an exceptionally brave politician whose sense of honour and duty sent him into the lion’s den time and time again. However, there is no disputing the incompetence of his management of affairs in 1848. His ignominious failure meant that he could be despised by men who were not his betters – by British leaders who failed to govern Ireland well, and by Irish politicians, including many who called themselves nationalists, who did not share his attachment to the idea that they should govern themselves.
Historyhamper features three main aspects of the political career of William Smith O’Brien. The material is drawn mainly from Robert Sloan, William Smith O’Brien and the Young Ireland Rebellion of 1848 (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2000). Researchers might also visit the mother ship, R.C. Sloan, ‘Irish issues and Unionist MPs, 1832-1946’ (Ph.D., University of Glasgow, 1982). The three topics are:
- Independent – O’Brien’s role as a liberal Member in the 1830s.
- Repealer – O’Brien’s conversion to Repeal in 1843.
- Rebel – the story of the Irish revolution of 1848.