O’Brien’s accession was warmly welcomed by repealers. The endorsement of their cause by a man of such stature – ‘a more independent man I never witnessed in Parliament’ (O’Connell) – was a great political boon to the now-faltering campaign for Repeal. O’Brien became a politician of first-rank importance (in Irish terms) for the first time and was the leader of the Repeal Association during O’Connell’s imprisonment in May-September 1844.
In due course, however, disharmony within the Association, as Young Ireland opposed O’Connell on numerous issues (notably on the charitable bequests bill in 1844 and the colleges bill of 1845) and questioned the commitment to Repeal of a man who seemed chastened by his prosecution and imprisonment, put O’Brien, often the mediator between the two sides, in an impossible position. The dam broke soon after Peel fell at the end of June 1846 and O’Connell (‘I will get all I can for Ireland’) resolved to back the incoming Whigs. The Young Irelanders saw this as a shelving of Repeal and return to the politics of the 1830s (restoring ‘the debasing influence of Whiggery … the mire of corruption’ – The Nation).
Seeking to drive his opponents out of the Association, O’Connell condemned their less-than-absolute repudiation of physical force, while Young Ireland rejected ‘the abstract and universal principle’ that the use of force was wrong in every circumstance. The young men refused to subscribe to O’Connell’s so-called Peace Resolutions and were forced out of the Association on 28 July 1846. O’Brien, who argued against the idea ‘that no phase of circumstance, no contingency could occur in a national history or in a nation’s struggle for liberty in which a resort to physical force was justifiable’, and was determined to stand with ‘the honest supporters of Repeal’ who were ‘unjustly assailed’, went with them (in fact, he led the withdrawal).
Those who seceded believed that the physical force question was pressed by once and future adherents of ‘Whiggery’ (so-called ‘Whig-Repealers’, or ‘jobbers’) in order to defeat the genuine adherents of Repeal. Despite what later happened, they had no intention of turning to physical force, the use of which O’Brien said would be ‘madness and folly and wickedness’ (in ‘present circumstances’). No-one, at this stage, envisaged the insurrection that was attempted two years later, in July 1848.
The Irish Confederation, which the seceders formed in January 1847, was committed to Repeal, but, after two years of famine, O’Brien concentrated mainly on urging the need for relief measures for the starving people of Ireland. They had been ‘allowed to perish like vermin’. There was some unity of action on this issue, but, if anything, the differences between repealers widened during 1847. After O’Connell’s death in May, Young Ireland was accused of driving him to an early grave; their ‘treason’ had ‘BURST HIS MIGHTY HEART’. Son and successor John O’Connell, a mean-spirited individual and ‘a time-serving dependent – a fawning sycophant – of an English Minister,’ as O’Brien put it, was ‘the sneering enemy’ of Young Ireland who opposed it at every turn. The Confederation, denounced as ‘murderers’, struggled to make any impact among the mass of ordinary Catholics.
Springtime of Nations
Towards the end of 1847, some Young Irelanders, led by John Mitchel, began to contemplate the use of physical force, but this meant asserting the ‘right to bear arms’ (men should resist being disarmed under the Whigs’ new coercion act against agrarian crime) and, despite Mitchel’s talk of ‘guerrilla warfare’, there was no strategy for revolution. O’Brien, horrified by some of the language used, insisted that there were ‘few men who have a greater horror of bloodshed than I have [and] none who would more anxiously deprecate a rash appeal to arms’. He effectively forced Mitchel out of the Confederation at the beginning of February 1848. Men who six months later would be in a state of rebellion – O’Brien, Meagher, O’Gorman, Doheny, Dillon – argued that to contemplate force was madness; it would bring only ‘confusion, anarchy, and bloodshed’ and invite repression and possibly ‘a massacre’ (O’Brien).
The dismal outlook for Irish nationalism was transformed by the news of revolution in Paris, where King Louis Philippe was forced to flee and the Second French Republic was proclaimed on 24 February 1848. The home of revolution had sneezed and the rest of Europe quickly caught cold as, in Vienna, Berlin, Milan and almost all the great cities, excited revolutionaries took to the streets and forced the surrender of their panicked rulers. ‘All Europe took up its bed and walked’ (Herzen). O’Brien and the Young Irelanders were ecstatic:
All Europe felt the electric sensation… It is not surprising that Ireland should have felt & acknowledged the impulse. Why should this nation which has suffered more than any other in Europe be among the last to follow the example of those who have proved that the Power of the Tyrant lives only by the submission of the people whom he oppresses? (O’Brien)
The shock awakened mankind. Those who had believed themselves to be weak now felt themselves to be strong. Everywhere the oppressor trembled before his victim. (O’Brien)
Ireland’s opportunity – thank God, and France – has come at last! If needs be, we must die, rather than let this providential hour pass over us unliberated. (Duffy).
Shall Ireland alone remain buried in darkness, while her sisters are emerging into liberty and light? (Dillon).
We must have it – bold strokes, and nothing else! With events, that speak like thunder-peals, breaking forth around us – every one of them a blow to England – I, for one, do think that the time for talk, &c is gone bye [sic], and the time for new and decisive action has arrived. (Meagher)
Our time, I firmly believe, has at last come, and we should grasp it with a greedy and a wicked hand. Let us bring matters to a crisis… I’m ready for anything and everything. (Meagher)
All knew that the French had gone on the march in 1792, exporting their revolution. Lamartine, the new Foreign Minister, now declared that, ‘If the hour of the reconstruction of some nationalities oppressed in Europe or elsewhere should appear to us to have sounded in the decrees of providence…, the French Republic would believe itself entitled to arm itself in order to protect these legitimate movements.’
On 9 March, the Confederation resolved that the people should proceed with ‘organising and arming themselves’ and on 15 March O’Brien declared that they must ‘be prepared to fraternise with the soldiery of the British army’ and with the police (words which saw him prosecuted for sedition). But this did not mean that O’Brien and most of the Young Irelanders wanted revolution. Indeed, he expressed his fear that the events in France might ‘inflame the minds of all who are inclined to have recourse at once to extreme measures. If they should attempt any outbreak at present they will be put down…’ He deprecated ‘the precipitate rashness not so say criminal folly’ of men like Mitchel. It was hoped that Britain’s fear of an explosion would yield success, as in 1782 and 1829. Repeal could be achieved without violence if the Irish armed themselves and showed that they had enough ‘manly spirit’ to fight for their ‘national rights’. The mere blowing of trumpets would bring down the walls of the citadel.
O’Brien’s infamous visit to Paris, where he arrived on 28 March, was intended to express solidarity with the French, not to seek armed assistance – he was no Wolfe Tone – and, indeed, Lamartine had no intention of risking confrontation with Britain: he repudiated any idea of intervention in the internal affairs of other countries.
As the weeks and months passed, and the British government showed no sign of weakening, the Confederates began to lose hope ‘that the question at issue between England and Ireland will be settled by amicable adjustment… [T]hese indignities and wrongs are rapidly bringing us to that period when armed resistance to the oppressors of our country will become a sacred obligation,’ as O’Brien’s ‘abominable manifesto’ (Lord Lieutenant Clarendon) stated at the end of May. However, beyond telling the people ‘to prepare at once for the protection of your invaded liberties’ – in other words, to arm themselves – O’Brien did not involve himself in military preparations.
The clubs (in which Confederation members gathered) proliferated; they were ‘springing up like mushrooms’ in June and July 1848 and many readied themselves for action, acquiring arms and drilling. Then, on 23 June, the workers of Paris rose up in the revolt that came to be known as the June Days and Europe had to observe a lesson in the horrors of popular insurrection. Among the victims, shot dead on 25 June, was the Archbishop of Paris, Denys-Auguste Affre, and the Lord Lieutenant in Ireland wrote gleefully of ‘the salutary murder of the Archbishop’, who, ‘poor man, never did a better thing in his life than getting himself murdered… [E]very Irish Priest must expect the fate of the Archbishop of Paris if the Irish leaders get the upper hand. The clergy are getting really frightened not for the state but for themselves and we may therefore with some degree of certainty reckon upon their support.’ Time would prove him right. A month before the rising, the French, the original creators of all the excitement, had struck the first blow in the defeat of Ireland’s revolution.
Charles Gavan Duffy, editor of The Nation and by nature a moral-force moderate, became so exasperated by the rapid passing of ‘Ireland’s opportunity’ that he began in June 1848 to urge O’Brien to place himself at the head of ‘the revolution’. Under O’Brien, it would be ‘conducted with order and clemency’, without him the ‘mere anarchists’ would prevail and the result would be ‘a bloody chaos’. O’Brien’s fear and expectation of failure (an ‘abortive effort’) ensured that he held back; although some of his language was warlike, in essence he clung to the idea that a united, mobilised people would be ‘perfectly irresistible’ and ‘they will obtain all they want without striking a blow’. Nursing an injury incurred when he was attacked by an ‘O’Connellite mob’ at Limerick in April, he remained at Cahirmoyle from early until late June and then, instead of going to Dublin, he began a holiday in Kerry and west Cork, to indulge his ‘love of nature in her wildest & most picturesque forms’. It was with ‘a party of pleasure’ that O’Brien began the month, July 1848, he would end as a fugitive rebel.
The British government now took the initiative, commencing the struggle that showed which side was ready for war and which was not. The owners and editors of three newspapers, including Duffy, were arrested on 8-9 July and charged with treason-felony or sedition. Treason-felony, under a new law, carried the punishment of transportation (John Mitchel had been transported for 14 years in May). O’Brien felt that he could not allow Duffy, a close ally, to be ‘sacrificed’ without ‘an appeal to the manhood of Irishmen’ and he resolved to spend the time before Duffy’s trial ‘in efforts to rouse the Country’:
Though still hoping that circumstances would render it unnecessary for me to call upon the Country to take up arms I yet felt that each new aggression on the part of the Government made it imperative upon me to place the Country in a condition to protect itself and its most valued and gifted children.
O’Brien returned to Dublin, where the clubmen wanted to rescue Duffy and the others, but O’Brien counselled restraint, still fearing ‘a premature step’. He travelled out to Louth and Meath on 17-19 July and found the crowds and clubmen enthusiastic for ‘instant action’ and in Dublin on 19 July his supporters showed their willingness ‘to follow me wherever I was disposed to lead them against the common enemy… [E]very allusion to the possibility of a collision was received with rapturous excitement.’ Duffy, from prison, called on men, ‘Uplift your battle flag [for] a holy war… Strike! Strike!’ – and O’Brien privately thought that, ‘If an attempt be made to transport them [the journalists] nothing can prevent an insurrection.’
The next move proved fatal: the government’s decision to suspend habeas corpus, pushing it hastily through the Commons (22 July) and Lords (24 July), reflected its fear of a violent rising (‘at any moment now there may be an outbreak’ – Clarendon), but it also prompted an insurrection.
The new measure brought the likelihood that all the leaders would be arrested. Thomas Meagher and John Blake Dillon dashed off to find O’Brien, who was in Wexford. O’Brien claimed later that, when these men proposed ‘to raise the standard of revolt’, he ‘remonstrated with them on the hopelessness of such a struggle but they were satisfied the country was ready to fight’ and if he did not ‘place himself at their head all the blame would rest on his head’. After ‘some hesitation’ he said that ‘if they were prepared to fight it shall never be said’ that he was ‘the cause of their failure’. He felt that, after all that had been said about ‘the necessity of preparation for conflict’, and resisting ‘aggression upon the liberties of Ireland’, they would have been ‘exposed to ridicule and reproach’ if they had simply fled the country to avoid arrest. The suggestion that O’Brien’s sense of honour was involved (exploited, even) rings true, although the idea that this most wilful of men capitulated so weakly to the young men’s urgings comes as a surprise.
Meagher privately believed they would be defeated but had no choice: ‘we were aiming far beyond our strength… I entertained no hope of success.’ O’Brien did not foresee ‘certain failure’, there was a chance of success. He did not intend a hopeless and suicidal gesture.
Britain had built up its military strength in Ireland to some 40,000 men, not that they, with almost all the police and one-third of the soldiers Irishmen, would have remained fully loyal if the revolt achieved any degree of initial success. It didn’t, of course. Dublin was garrisoned with 11,000 men, ‘too formidable a body to contend with’, so Meagher and Dillon persuaded O’Brien to raise the standard of revolt in Kilkenny, which was thinly garrisoned, too far inland for the Navy to play a part, and thought to hold thousands of armed clubmen. Around it lay Waterford (Meagher’s county), Cork and Tipperary, from which assistance could be expected.
On 23 and 24 July, O’Brien told large meetings in Wexford and Kilkenny ‘that the time for action had arrived’ and was encouraged by their responses: ‘We’ll stand to you; we’ll die for you!’ But others understood that the ‘more respectable people’ and, crucially, the priests abstained, and the Kilkenny clubmen were found to be ‘insufficiently armed, miserably so indeed’. Six months of talk about arming had been accompanied by almost no effective action.
O’Brien and his lieutenants passed into Tipperary, which had thousands of clubmen who, they were assured, were ‘thoroughly alive and ready to take the field at once’. ‘Now is the time,’ Meagher told them in Carrick, ‘to strike the blow to make Ireland for her lovely sons.’ Beneath the surface, however, there was ‘doubt and dismay’ and ‘confusion and uproar of tongues’. Carrick’s clubs lacked the coherent organisation and leadership needed to launch a military campaign. Father Patrick Byrne, previously a noted firebrand, and the other priests thought the rising ‘rash, ill-designed, and fraught with ruin to the town’ (Byrne). And many of the men seemed ‘confounded at the magnitude of the step they were called on to take… Was Carrick able to fight the British Empire?’
The leaders moved on to Cashel on 25 July, where the clubmen ‘shrunk from an encounter’, and the party headed for the hills, which the military would find less accessible but where there was virtually no club organisation. They went through Killenaule to Mullinahone, where many ‘poor fellows’ rallied and marched before O’Brien – the Attorney General claimed that this ‘amounted to an actual commencement of levying war’ as the men were drawn up in ‘military array’ – but the priests sowed ‘discussion and disunion’ (the rebellion was ‘completely paralysed by the operation of spiritual influences’ – O’Brien) and, ill-fed, most ‘returned home late in the evening faint with hunger, resolved not to expose themselves a second time to the same privations’.
The leaders were ‘expectant and elated’ as they went to bed, ‘but when morning came, and hour after hour slipped by, we fell into a despondent mood, for not a man, I believe, of those who pledged their words to come, did come,’ recalled James Stephens, who had joined O’Brien at Cashel. O’Brien, carrying two or three pistols, Stephens and Patrick O’Donohoe marched to Mullinahone police station and called on the seven constables to surrender – ‘You are our prisoners’ – but they were allowed to sneak out of town, with their weapons. Stephens’s verdict that the ‘capture of the enemy’s citadel’ proved to the people ‘that we meant real work’ was overstating the achievement. It was significant in another way, however, for the action constituted ‘openly levying war and treason’ (Clarendon) and O’Brien was proclaimed a traitor; O’Brien’s Rubicon was the threshold of Mullinahone’s police station.
Despite the best efforts of the priests, O’Brien left Mullinahone with several hundred would-be fighters. They walked towards the nearby village of Ballingarry, which was said to have 500 men in arms, but the short journey saw many drop out. They were ‘famished and thirsting for food’ because O’Brien told them ‘that they must not take a cow, a horse, or a sack of corn, or potatoes, without paying for them on the spot’ (Stephens). He hoped to raise ‘bodies of men sufficiently independent in their circumstances to be able to maintain themselves for a short time upon their own resources’ (O’Brien). Unfortunately, the men who rallied in Tipperary were impoverished peasants and colliers (from Tipperary’s extensive coalfields) who responded to his idealistic strictures (what Stephens called his ‘over scrupulous’ adherence to ‘strictly honourable’ conduct) with ‘despair and dismay’.
When Michael Doheny suggested that they might take the money from the bank in Carrick if they captured that town, O’Brien was ‘quite horrified’ and asked if he ‘wanted to uproot social order and destroy the character of the movement’. The aristocratic landowner in O’Brien had no wish to unleash a band of plunderers. In Ballingarry, he ‘enjoined respect for property and cautioned all persons against joining him who would not preserve the rights of property inviolate. He desired all married men with families to remain at home, and all poor labouring men to continue at their labour’ (O’Donoghue). Some of this is barely believable – John O’Mahony called it ‘absolute imbecility’ – as if all of O’Brien’s merits, his adherence to principle, honour, morality, conspired to make him the worst possible leader of an insurrection.
After hearing O’Brien’s words, ‘The people [at Ballingarry] dispersed downcast and dispirited, and from this day forward never came again in such numbers.’ Some feared it was ‘a mock O’Brien’ sent to ‘entrap’ them. He might have had no more than 100 followers on the morning of 27 July, apart from an assortment of ‘ragamuffins of the town’ armed only with farm implements and knives. Others came in during the day, but they had hardly any pikes. ‘O’Brien had come to the wrong place,’ both O’Mahony and Terence Bellew MacManus concluded.
Still bearing his pistols, O’Brien, who had no military experience of any sort, ‘drilled the gunmen in hedge and street firing and the pikemen in charging’. He led over 100 men out of Ballingarry that afternoon, to join Meagher at Slievenamon in southern Tipperary, but the priests (‘the British allies’ – MacManus) went to work as they passed through Mullinahone again, invoking hell’s fires, causing most of the men to desert. Soon only a score remained and they were dismissed (or they fled, accounts differ), leaving O’Brien, Dillon, MacManus, Stephens and O’Donohoe ‘alone on the high road’. O’Brien felt that ‘all hope was over’. Stephens recalled,
What Smith O’Brien felt, and suffered, that day the great God Himself only knows. We were all seated on a grassy slope by the roadside… He threw himself on his back, drawing his hat over those proud eyes of his from which I saw the hot tears trickling rapidly down. Ah! How my soul was stirred to its very depths by this harrowing spectacle… That noble, pure, undaunted man, brave as a lion and as bold, had imagined a few days previously that he had only to unfurl the standard of revolt and he would be joined by thousands and tens of thousands of his compatriots. But now he knew what a dire apathy paralysed a race that would make no effort to save itself, but preferred the doom of a starved dog to the glorious death of freedom-worshippers.
Widow McCormack’s cabbage patch
The news from Dublin and Waterford was bad, for almost nobody was prepared to fight. In Tipperary, ‘O’Brien’s personal prestige was gone. Ballingarry and Mullinahone killed him, and men believed the priests when they said he was mad’ (O’Mahony). The party passed through Killenaule, where, aided by a ‘motley crowd’ of badly armed peasants, they scored a ‘victory’ when they sent a troop of Irish Hussars on its way. Travelling through the countryside, they were greeted with displays of enthusiasm by the colliers, but few recruits stepped up.
In the leaders’ ‘council of war’ on 28 July, ‘dejection reigned’ as each man struggled against ‘an overwhelming despair’. But O’Brien, ‘stern and resolute’, was determined to hold out for a fortnight, after which the harvest would be in and men, no longer dependent on government food stocks, would be more willing and able to fight (and ‘stones were very good weapons if they had no other arms’ – O’Brien). The leaders dispersed, leaving O’Brien, Stephens and MacManus with a guard of 30 men.
On 29 July, as they were ‘just getting the men in motion’, word came that ‘a large body of police were advancing on us from Ballingarry’. The insurgents (‘a few hundred colliers of whom not more than sixty or seventy were armed’ – O’Brien) erected a barricade and prepared to resist the 47-strong troop of police of the Royal Irish Constabulary. The police turned off into a side-road and holed up in the house of a Mrs McCormack. The widow was not present, but five of her young children were, and these Sub-Inspector Thomas Trent, with more care for self-preservation than the rule of law, decided to use as ‘hostages’.
Widow McCormack’s house was typical of the better sort of Irish farm-house: a large, stone, almost ‘square’ building, two stories high. A stone garden wall, about five feet high, ran around the whole, joining up with a set of outhouses at the back to create a yard. MacManus told O’Brien that the building ‘could not be taken without a piece of artillery, but O’B. was certain that they [the police] would surrender and that we must attack’. Hay was piled against the back door to start a fire, but, perhaps because of the children inside, O’Brien ordered his men to desist. Shooting began (which side started this was later disputed), the firepower of the police was far superior, and the crowd, with women to the fore, relied largely on stones. The rebels took a pasting, suffering two deaths and several injured, while not a single casualty was inflicted on the defenders.
The serious fighting lasted about 15 minutes, there were occasional shots for another half-hour, and, towards the end, the police were firing without reply. O’Brien became desperately determined, standing ‘at his post of danger alone and unprotected’ – ‘I shall never retreat, sir, from the fields where my forefathers reigned as kings,’ he told Stephens, but the latter and MacManus ‘drove him before us, all the men but six having retired’, forcing him to withdraw; he ‘was the last man who left’. MacManus, who wrote this, was later infuriated by newspaper reports that O’Brien ‘crept out of the garden on all fours. This is, simply, a falsehood… On the contrary all thro’ he exposed himself almost unnecessarily to danger and, I may add, for the week previous he endured more hardships, more fatigue and showed more self denial than any man with him…’
The crowd, perhaps influenced by another priest (‘the spell was on them’), melted away. O’Brien was put on a horse, and MacManus ‘turned his horse’s head, & putting a man at each side of the bridle moved towards the village’ of Ballingarry. News came of the imminent arrival of police reinforcements and Stephens urged O’Brien to ride off ‘or else you’ll be taken… This was accordingly done.’
Clarendon declared, ‘The Rebellion is over’ and that ‘Smith O’Brien within a day or two will be a prisoner or a corpse or a wandering outcast’. He ‘remained in concealment for a few days amongst the peasantry’, possibly in the mountains of western Tipperary, and on 5 August, after buying a second-class ticket to Limerick, he was arrested at Thurles railway station. He was carrying a loaded pistol but made no attempt to resist arrest, and that night he was whisked off to Kilmainham gaol in Dublin, where he was soon joined by Meagher, O’Donohoe and MacManus.
Punishment would come in due course, but the would-be ‘King of Ireland’ had first to weather the mountain of ridicule poured on the ‘good-for-nothing, conceited, contemptible fellow’ who had been reduced to ‘crouching amidst Widow Cormack’s cabbages’.