William Smith O’Brien Part I

Before the Insurrection of 1848

Dromoland CastleAlthough 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.

Daniel O'ConnellThe 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.

An Interesting Trial

This is the story of an extraordinary trial that took place in Ireland just before the turn of the 20th Century and was revealed to me through the records of a provincial newspaper, printed in 1899. I think for many of my readers this will be their first introduction to the story.

The case in question began in the northern province of Ireland and is being reported here for the first time since its original publication, over one hundred and eighteen years ago. It was at a time of political upheaval and much talk about ‘Home Rule’, supporters and opponents of which marched regularly through the streets. It is my intention that the story of this trial is told exactly the way it happened and the manner it was reported. The report of the trial states the evidence that was given at the time, and I am writing it down exactly according to what was deposed at the trial.

In the criminal court it was said that Joan O’Rourke, wife of Andy O’Rourke, had been murdered, but the only question left to answer was, “How did Joan come by her death?” From the evidence of the coroner’s inquest on the body, and from the depositions made by Mary O’Rourke, John Croke and his wife, Agnes, it appeared that Joan O’Rourke had committed suicide. Witnesses stated that they had found the unfortunate woman lying dead in her bed, with the knife sticking in the floor, and her throat cut from ear to ear. They also stated that the night before they found her body Joan had went to bed with her child, and her husband was not in the house. They swore that no other person came into the house at any time after Joan had gone to bed. The witnesses said that the truth of their statements lay in the fact that they had been lying in the outer room, and they would have undoubtedly seen or heard any strangers who might have tried to enter the house.

With this evidence established in the court, the jury finally submitted their verdict that in their opinion Joan O’Rourke had indeed committed suicide. This verdict, however, came under some pressure afterwards, when rumour arose within the neighbourhood that suicide was not the cause of Joan’s death. Further investigation and discovery of some diverse circumstances began to suggest that Joan did not, nor, according to those circumstances, could she possibly have murdered herself. The jury, whose verdict had not yet been made official by the coroner’s office, was summoned again and requested that the coroner’s office exhume the body. The request to remove the body from the grave, in which she had already been buried, was granted. Thus, almost thirty days after she had died, Joan’s corpse was taken up in the presence of the jury members, and a substantial number of other witnesses, and the sight that greeted them caused the jury to change their verdict.

Those persons who had been brought before the court to be tried were all acquitted. But, there was now so much the evidence, against the previous verdict, that the trial Judge was of the opinion that an appeal should be made, rather than allow such a gruesome murder to go unpunished by the law.  As a result, the four most likely suspects were brought to trial on an appeal, which was brought by the young child, against his father, grandmother, and aunt, and her husband John Croke. The evidence that was now brought against them was so strange, that one would need to read through it very carefully to ensure a good understanding of it. The paper recorded the evidence as follows –

At the subsequent trial the prosecution called forward a person of unimpeachable character to give evidence. The Parish Priest of the town where the act was committed was deposed and began to speak. He confirmed that the body, which had been taken up out of the grave, had lain there for thirty days after the woman’s death. The priest stated that the corpse was laid out on the grass in her cheap pine coffin, and the four defendants in the dock were also present at the exhumation. Each of the defendants where then requested to place a hand upon the Joan’s long dead body. Agnes Croke, the priest said, immediately fell upon her knees, and she prayed aloud to God that he would do something to show that she was innocent of doing any harm to Joan. She mumbled out some other words in her grief, but the priest was unsure about what she said.

None of those who were standing trial refused to touch Joan’s dead body. But, after they had done this, the dead woman’s brow which, beforehand had been a dark bluish grey in colour, like that of carrion, began to have a dew or gentle sweat come out upon it. This perspiration now began to increase so much that the sweat began to run down in droplets over the face. Almost like magic the brow began to turn, and it quickly changed to a more lively and fresh colour. Unbelievably, as we watched, the dead woman opened one of her eyes and shut it again. This action of opening the eye and then closing it was carried out by the corpse three times. In addition to this, the dead woman thrust out her marriage finger three times, and swiftly pulled it in again, and, as she did so, drops of blood dripped from the finger down onto the grass,” explained the priest.

The Judge who was hearing the case, not surprisingly, had some doubts about the evidence that was being given and he asked the Parish Priest, “Who else saw these things besides yourself?”

The priest felt that his veracity was being questioned and was quite annoyed by the question that had been posed. But, he chose not to react angrily and simply answered, “Your Honour, I could not swear to what others may have seen or not. But, your Honour, I firmly believe that the entire company saw these things for themselves. In fact, if any of my testimony had been considered to be in doubt, some proof of that doubt would have been presented and many would have spoke out against this statement.

As he stood in the witness stand, the priest was able to observe that many of those listening to him were showing some admiration for him, and he was encouraged to speak further. “Your Honour,” he began, “I am Priest of the parish, and I have known all the parties involved for a very long time. I have never had any occasion to be displeased with any of them, nor have I ever had much to do with any of them, or they with me, outside of my pastoral duties as a minister of the Church. The things that happened amazed me and filled my mind with wonder. However, the only interest that I have in these matters is to do what I have been asked to do and that is to testify to the truth. This, I assure you, I have done.”

This witness was aged about seventy years and highly respected in the district. When he spoke his testimony, he did so in a clear voice, slowly and elegantly, which won the admiration of all who heard him. Clearing his throat, he again began to speak to the Judge in the case, saying, “May I point out, at this time, your Honour, that my brother priest, who is present in the court, is the minister of the parish adjacent to my own, and I am assured that he saw everything to which I have testified.”

This other priest, who was just a little younger than the first, was invited into the witness box, where he was sworn in and invited to give his evidence. His testimony supported every point that had been previously made. He confirmed the sweating of the brow, the changing of its colour, the mystical opening of the eye, and the three times that the corpse’s finger thrust itself out and drew in again. The only area in which he differed from the first witness was in declaring that he had, himself, dipped his finger into the blood which had exuded from the dead body. He said that he had examined it and was certain in his own mind that it was blood.

I can understand the difficulty of believing such testimony. Modern ideas on the paranormal often leave us doubting our own eyes and senses. But, there were others who had observed these things and agreed with the testimony given by the priests. There is no reason to doubt the testimony of the clerics, for why would they be persuaded to lie about such things. At the same time, allow me to assure you that the reports from the trial have been recorded here accurately. Evidence was also given against the prisoners in the dock, namely, the grandmother of the plaintiff, and against Croke and his wife, Agnes. It was stated that all four confessed that they had lain in the next room to the dead person that entire night, and that no other person had entered the house until they found her dead the next morning. The only conclusion to be drawn, therefore, was that if this woman did not murder herself, then they must be the murderers.

To prove such a charge, however, further evidence was needed and to this end the medical examiner was called forward. Looking at his notes on the examination he had made of the crime scene and the body of the dead woman. Then, point by point he explained his findings to the court. Firstly, he described the scene that he had found when he arrived at the house, and told the jury, “I found the dead woman lying in her bed, in a quite composed way. The bed clothes and other things in the room had not been disturbed in any way, and her child lay by her side in the bed. Immediately, I could see that the deceased woman’s throat was cut from ear to ear, and her neck was broken. It is completely impossible for the deceased person to first cut her throat, and then break her own neck in the bed; or vice-versa.

The examiner continued to explain that he had found no blood in the bed, except for a small spot of blood on the pillow where she had laid her head. “But, there was no evidence of major blood loss on the bed, which there should have been if the death had occurred in the place that she was found. On further investigation, however, we found a stream of blood on the floor of the bedroom, which ran along the wooden floorboards until it found obstructions that caused it to spread in pools. There was, at the same time, another stream of blood found on the floor at the bed’s feet. This stream had caused small ponds of blood to form, but there was no sign of both blood streams being connected. This suggests that the woman bled severely in two places. Furthermore, when I turned up the mattress of the bed, I found clots of congealed blood in the underneath of the straw-filled mattress.

The court was informed that the blood-stained knife was found that morning after the murder, sticking in the wooden floor a good distance from the bed. “The point of the knife, as it stuck in the floor was pointing towards the bed, while the handle pointed away from the bed,” he explained. “On the knife itself I discovered the print of the thumb and four fingers of the left hand.

At this point the judge interrupted the testimony of the Examiner and asked him, “But, how can you know the print of a left hand from the print of a right hand in such a case as this?

Your Honour,” he began to reply, “it is hard to describe, but easier to demonstrate. If it would please your Honour, could you put your clerk’s left hand upon your left hand. You will see that it is impossible to place your right hand in the same posture.

The Judge did as he was asked and was satisfied by the demonstration. The defendants, however, were given an opportunity to put forward a defence against all these claims. But, they decided to maintain their silence and gave no evidence at any stage of the trial. The Jury, therefore, was directed to retire and deliberate their verdict. It took them only an hour to return to the court and announce their findings. John Croke was acquitted of all charges, but the other three defendants were found guilty as charged. The judge turned to the three guilty persons and asked if they had anything to say about why judgement should not be produced. Their reply was simply, “I have nothing to say except that I am not guilty. I did not do this.

Judgement was passed upon all three. The grandmother and the husband were executed by hanging, while the aunt was spared execution because she was pregnant. None of them confessed anything before their execution and the aunt never spoke as to any possible motivation for the murder. In fact, the aunt never spoke about the incident ever again. She moved away from the district with her husband, where she died some fifteen years after her niece had been brutally killed.