Before the Insurrection of 1848
Although William Smith O’Brien was very proud of his descent from the great Irish High-King, Brian Boru, he was critical of his ancestors who had traded independence for English titles. William was born in 1803, the son of Sir Edward O’Brien, (Baronet) of Dromoland Castle, in Co. Clare. William’s mother, Lady Charlotte, was the daughter of William Smith, and inherited his Cahirmoyle estate in County Limerick. Sir Edward’s eldest son, Lucius, was the natural heir to Dromoland Castle and his father’s title, but Cahirmoyle was given to William, the second son, who unofficially added ‘Smith’ to his name. While Sir Edward strongly believed that William, as his second son, should earn his own living, the young man wanted an allowance paid to him until he came of age to take over Cahirmoyle.
Strangely, Sir Edward opposed the 1800 Act of Union and consistently supported Catholic claims in parliament, but his wife, Lady O’Brien, was a strong evangelical and proselytising Protestant. During William’s early years she taught her son that the Pope was Antichrist and that the Catholic population must be converted to Protestantism. As a result, William went through an intense evangelical phase of life before he discovered that many Catholics were often more devout and good-living than those extreme Protestants who constantly condemned them.
When William attained the age of eight years he was sent by his parents to school in England. From that time, until he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1821, he returned home to Clare only for the Christmas holidays. From his ‘private school’ at Willing, in Sussex, William moved on to Harrow. Although he quickly proved that he was above average in ability, he became disgusted by the ‘fagging’ system employed at the school, which made young boys the virtual slaves of their elders. The demands of the older boys constantly interfered with a pupil’s schoolwork and could earn the unfortunate ‘fag’ a thrashing from his teacher for his bad school work. Not surprisingly, William failed to develop any personal interest in learning. Thankfully, William was saved from Harrow by his father moving to Orleans with his family as an economy measure. Although he found his French tutors more stimulating than those at Harrow, William soon found himself back at private schools in England. Among these he attended the evangelical establishments of the Reverends Scott and Bradley, which caused William to reach a high pitch of religious enthusiasm. This enthusiasm would, however, completely disappear by the time he reached the age of seventeen and entered Trinity College.
William had a flair for the classics, but he still had to work hard for his first examination at Trinity and achieved a first-class pass. In his second year of his course, however, he allowed himself to be seduced by social side of university life. He spent his evenings playing cards and drinking port wine, before he would stagger back to his rooms in the early morning hours. At this time, William also refused to attend chapel and incurred upon himself a series of punishments. But, he enjoyed the penalty of memorising Greek poetry and transcribing Euclid’s theorems, which only encouraged him to continue his boycott of the chapel. It was just good luck and the good offices of his tutor, a brilliant mathematician, that prevented him from being ‘sent down’ by the end of term.
Because he was unable to gain a first-class-honours in his next examination, William deliberately failed his second test in an effort to avoid appearing to be second-rate. He refused to answer easy questions, and this caused him to drop to seventh grade. Naturally, his parents were not amused at this failure and they kept him at Dromoland for the next year. At home, William read more generally in Sir Edward’s well-stocked library and diverted himself by visiting local landowners, whose regular habit of imbibing quantities of port wine reminded him of his time among the undergraduates of Trinity College. Despite his fervent claim that he was always an Irish nationalist, it was probably during this period of his life that he had more opportunity than he ever had, at school or university in England, to study Ireland and its culture. Nevertheless, although achieving high honours was now impossible, William returned to Cambridge and idly came to grips with the great questions of existence without giving up his social pleasures. It appears that he eventually reached the conclusion that because religion could not be proven by reason alone he should adhere to simple, traditional belief. Therefore, for the rest of his life, O’Brien maintained a middle-of-the-road tolerant Anglicanism.
Sir Edward had hoped that his youngest son would earn a handsome living as a barrister, in London or Dublin and, for a time, William obediently attended Lincoln’s Inn, London, where he tenaciously studied his legal texts. Then Sir Edward decided that it might be advantageous considered returning William for the ‘pocket borough’ of Ennis, which before the 1832 Reform Bill was shared by the local O’Brien and Fitzgerald families. Although Sir Edward was of the opinion that the law and politics were a good combination, William quickly lost any interest in the law and prepared for parliament by reading politics and political economy. In which he duly graduated in 1826.
After graduating, William took an active part in the wild celebrations that spread through the town of Cambridge. When the student revellers erupted into the town itself, O’Brien, too drunk to know what he was doing, assaulted a university proctor who was attempting to restrain him. He was very fortunate to avoid serious punishment from the academic authorities, but William was now ordered home for the second time by his outraged parents. Sir Edward was now completely convinced that his youngest son lacked both the temperament and the industry to succeed at the ‘bar’.
Left with nothing to do, William became frustrated and miserable. To pile further hurt upon his son, Sir Edward refused to pay a marriage settlement to the wealthy Earl of Kingston caused William’s engagement to the earl’s daughter to fall through. Furthermore, his father also refused to finance a grand European tour for a son who had strayed from the course and standards that had been laid down for him. William was, however, permitted to visit Dublin and, in that city, he was to find his life changed. It was there that he joined Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association. Although his father, Sir Edward, and other leading Protestants had long supported the right of Catholics to sit in parliament, but it was rare for a Protestant to actually become a member of the Association. Although William did not attend any meetings, his membership of the Association did him immense good in Ireland, and especially in his home county of Clare.
When a general election was called in 1828, despite his misgivings Sir Edward placed William in the borough of Ennis, while his elder brother Lucius was elected for County Clare. Now, with a definite purpose in his life, William threw himself wholeheartedly into parliamentary work. His maiden speech on the complex subject of paper money was made soon after his arrival at Westminster and, although badly delivered, according to his own account, the speech earned William widespread respect. In his autobiography he insisted that, though confident in many ways, he found public speaking to be very painful. But, eventually, through sheer will-power he learned to address large audiences, while he always kept notes close to avoid any lapses of memory.
When ‘The East India Company’ charter came up for renewal, William carefully researched the issue and produced a pamphlet on the subject, which impressed the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel. As a result, William was appointed to the committee on the ‘East India Company’, which was a great honour for such an inexperienced politician. Finally, Sir Edward had something to make him proud of his son. William, however, spoiled this new relationship with his father by not always voting for the Tories, as Sir Edward wanted him to. It was made plain to William, therefore, that he must vote for the government or resign his seat.
The political issue of ‘Catholic Emancipation’ had now reached its peak and Sir Edward’s friend, Vesey Fitzgerald, because he had taken up a post in the Tory government of Peel and Wellington, was forced to recontest his parliamentary seat for County Clare. Although Fitzgerald was a supporter of Catholic Emancipation, he had now joined a government that was opposed to such a measure, and ‘The Catholic Association’ sought an opponent to run against him. William was, of course, invited to stand but he, naturally, refused. Finally, Daniel O’Connell himself took up the challenge and defeated the combined forces of the O’Briens and Fitzgeralds in this constituency. William, now in parliament, took no part in the campaign but quickly claimed to have been one of the first parliamentarians to recognise that O’Connell’s election must be followed by ‘Catholic Emancipation’. At the same time, however, William wrote scathing article concerning O’Connell’s intervention in County Clare. When a passionate supporter of O’Connell, Thomas Steele, replied venomously to the article, O’Brien challenged him to a duel. Neither man, however, was injured in the resulting fight.
When the Tory government led Peel and Wellington passes the ‘An Act for the Relief of His Majesty’s Roman Catholic Subjects’ in 1829, it allowed William in good conscience to support, as his father had demanded, the now-embattled Prime Minister. Now, with O’Connell finally in parliament, William kept his distance from the great man. In his opinion, after achieving Emancipation, O’Connell should have concentrated his efforts on ‘Irish Reform’ and not the repeal of the union. Therefore, in an effort to politically outflank O’Connell, William sought an Irish ‘Poor Law’, demanding outdoor relief for the weak and helpless. O’Brien’s bill on the subject, however, lapsed when he conceded his parliamentary seat in 1831.
The bitter quarrel between the Dromoland O’Briens and O’Connell’s supporters continued to fester. William’s brother Lucius was defeated in the 1830 general election by O’Connell’s supporter The O’Gorman Mahon. It was William, however, who organised the subsequent evidence that had Mahon removed from his seat for electoral corruption. In the resultant by-election, Sir Edward himself stood for Parliament but was no more successful than his son Lucius. The grave insults to Sir Edward made by O’Gorman Mahon’s brother provoked William to fight another duel. Although William escaped his opponent’s pistol, he could not avoid his mother’s fury at what she saw was his unchristian conduct. Henceforth, William made every effort to moderate his future rhetoric.
By the 1830s parliamentary reform had become the leading issue at Westminster and sitting for a ‘pocket borough’, William found himself to be in a weak position. While campaigning in Ireland, he missed one of the vital votes on the issue. While he favoured reform in general, William thought the Whig bill was inconsistent and too radical. He believed that some seats for good candidates who were unlikely to obtain sufficient votes should be retained. But, O’Brien deplored the Whig acceptance of the Tory refusal to allow an increase of Irish electorates according to existing population. With Vesey Fitzgerald assuming the Ennis seat at the 1831 election, William, after a promising parliamentary start, now found himself once again without an occupation. He was, however, saved from his frustration by the ‘Terry Alt’ outbreak of violence in County Clare, which was caused by increased rents and anti-Catholic proselytisers. The ‘Terry Alt Movement’ of 1828-31 has been one of the least studied of the pre-Famine rural revolts, partly because it was dwarfed by the great anti-tithe agitation with which it temporarily shared the limelight at the outset of the 1830s.
The name, “Terry Alt” itself is obscure. According to some the name arose from the marauders, perhaps more out of sport than malice, being in the habit of crying out- “Well done, Terry! Well done, Terry Alt!’” At its peak the outbreak was similar to a volcanic eruption, with a gradual accumulation of pressure before a great explosion in the late winter and spring of 1830-31, followed by a rapid subsidence into an orderly peace. But, during its explosive phase, in its heartland of County Clare, the movement was marked by a level of activity and a degree of popular mobilisation that were unprecedented.
What caused the rise of this movement appears to have been a rich and complex mixture of economic distress, sectarian hostilities, and political antagonisms. Formal parliamentary politics had a very unusual impact on the outbreak which, in its characteristic form of protest was both open and communal to an extraordinary extent. Although secret-nocturnal activity remained important throughout the outbreak, there were great daytime gatherings of diggers and sod-breakers, who were cheered on by large, enthusiastic crowds.
In his autobiography, O’Brien shows that he sympathised with ‘Terry’ objectives, but also saw the need for law and order. While other landlords fled to the cities and towns seeking refuge, William took the lead in fortifying Dromoland Castle and organising a defensive posse that consisted of his brothers and loyal tenants. He successfully persuaded his father to address the people in one of the ‘Terry’ strongholds, and on one occasion he personally led a party of dragoons in pursuit of a group of insurgents. Outpacing his allies, with only a small pistol he confronted the ‘Terries’ and caused them all to run away. Subsequently, when some of the ringleaders were captured and faced court, O’Brien did his duty as a fearless juryman, and ensured several transportation sentences were enforced. For a period of time he lived alone, unprotected and unmolested, in a cottage at Inchiquin, which lay at the centre of ‘Terry Alt’ power. He proved that although the ‘Terries’ were ruthless against traitors and informers of their own class, they accepted the gentry upholding the existing law of the land.
Eventually he moved to his grandfather’s estates in Limerick, and he was triumphantly elected to parliament for that county. It was a seat he was to retain until he was expelled from the Houses of Parliament after his insurrection in 1848.