On the trail of William Smith O’Brien

An Irishman’s Diary: Journals reflect the earnest, inquiring mind of a humanitarian

William Smith O’Brien was a good, brave man but no Nelson Mandela. Protestant landlord and nominal leader of the 1848 rising, he risked his life and sacrificed personal happiness, as a result of which he endured the ignominy of transportation. He spent four and a half years in Van Diemen’s Land/Tasmania, but on agreeing to give his parole was allowed to live for more than half that time at a comfortable inn, visiting and entertaining local settlers and Young Ireland colleagues. In June 1854 he and two fellow convicts received pardons, conditional on not returning to Ireland or Britain.

Moving to Melbourne he was presented with an illuminated address and the design of a gold cup to be created in his honour from nuggets donated by Irish miners. (It is now in the National Museum.) He proceeded to Brussels via Madras and Egypt (evidently not in a hurry to rejoin his long-suffering wife, Lucy, and family). He travelled extensively during his European exile. While touring Greece with a son in May 1856, he learned of his unconditional pardon. Perhaps this was when he abandoned an 1844 pledge to abstain from alcohol until the Union had been repealed.

O’Brien was born in Dromoland Castle (today’s luxury hotel), Co Clare, in 1803. Although descended from the ancient line of the O’Briens of Thomond, he was educated as an anglicised aristocrat (becoming conscious later of his Gaelic roots). He was an MP for 17 years. He joined the Catholic Association, yet with his family opposed Daniel O’Connell’s election for Clare in 1828. Two duels with O’Connell’s supporters followed. Honour was satisfied without anyone being wounded. In the second contest O’Brien’s pistol jammed – a metaphor for his brief revolutionary career when he proved incapable of striking the first blow.

During the Famine he engaged in relief measures on his 5,000-acre estate in Cahirmoyle, Co Limerick. In the year of revolutions he was persuaded to accept leadership of the insurrection which ended with an affray in Co Tipperary. He and three other prominent rebels were arrested and convicted of high treason. The British government, preferring transportation to execution, introduced special legislation when O’Brien refused to petition for commutation.


He was an inveterate traveller and prolix writer before and after his penal exile. Journals acquired recently by the National Library form the basis of a new book by Richard Davis, Travels of William Smith O'Brien in Europe and the Wider World (Geography Publications). Davis's summary (with a foreword by Thomas Keneally) forms a kaleidoscope of the wanderings of a restless patriot up to his death in 1864.

O’Brien’s journals reflect the earnest, inquiring mind of a humanitarian. He travelled for instruction and not simply pleasure, inspecting schools, prisons and poorhouses. Only in India did he witness worse poverty than in Ireland. Visiting Mayo in 1858, he was shocked “at the frightful desolation to which the inhabitants of this district have been subjected either in consequence of the Famine or by extermination”. He saw thousands of roofless houses.

With his horror of “fanatical bigots”, he considered the Achill mission of the Rev Edward Nangle – a name misspelt by Prof Davis – “a gigantic humbug. Countless sums of money have been expended in attempts to proselytise the Gaelic population of this country, but so far as I have been able to judge the only result has been to demoralise them. A few hypocrites (God forgive me if I misapply the word) still linger about the stations.”

A fastidious tourist, O’Brien tired quickly of crowds of beggars and sightseers, opting for “the mountain height where the lone eagle wings its flight”. While appreciating the advent of steam locomotion, the spitting on American trains disgusted him; he was thankful that in Ireland there were “first-class carriages in which persons of refined habits can be shielded from such revolting practices”.

Davis, a Tasmanian-based biographer of O'Brien, asserts that "few Irishmen have recounted so great a range of world experience"; far more than the "outrageously racist Jail Journal of his friend John Mitchel, O'Brien's writings have a resonance appropriate to the Ireland of the 21st century". Be that as it may, they lack the vigour of the Jail Journal (which is, incidentally, more Anglophobic than racist); Mitchel's personal contradictions retreat to the background before the beauty of its prose.

Richard Davis claims that O’Brien’s prestige “resembled that of Nelson Mandela in South Africa today”. He made the transition from MP for Ennis pocket borough to reluctant revolutionary. He did not re-enter politics after his return to Ireland, yet retained considerable influence in constitutional nationalist circles. He was a quixotic rather than a charismatic figure, however, who took a significant step but not the long walk to freedom.