William Smith O’Brien PtII

William Smith O’Brien’s half-cocked rebellion of July 1848 ended in dismal failure, and the leaders were quickly rounded up. He was found guilty of sedition, convicted and sentenced to death despite the absolute fiasco into which that rising in Tipperary fell. Nevertheless, he had committed high treason and was rather fortunate that his death sentence was later commuted to one of transportation to the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). The Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey, had decided that the best policy in regard to the “Young Irelanders” was not to make them martyrs for the cause of Irish freedom. It was much better, he felt, to send the prisoners into gentlemanly oblivion. While the Governor of Van-Diemen’s Land, Sir William Denison, preferred that the prisoners should be treated as normal convicts, he was obliged to offer O’Brien a ‘ticket-of-leave’. William, however, initially refused the offer because it had a condition attached to it, which would prevent him making any attempt to escape. Thus, while his fellow-revolutionaries, Patrick O’Donohoe, Thomas Meagher and Terence MacManus, set free immediately, William was moved to Maria Island, which represented the penal settlement’s remotest outpost. So, one year after the failure of his rebellion, William Smith O’Brien was sitting in a small cottage, isolated from the other convicts. He now found himself with enough leisure time to write a long-postponed autobiography. There were not many leaders of armed rebellions in Ireland, during the centuries of English domination, that had the opportunity to look back on their actions in the years that followed. But, an attempt by O’Brien to escape his confinement was badly bungled and, in August 1850, he was transferred to Port Arthur.

O'Brien Cottage

William now found himself housed in a cottage in Port Arthur, which has been preserved by the city authorities as a historic site. The cottage itself remains a pleasant enough building painted in a bright pumpkin-colour. The front rooms are set back from a pillared porch and the house has a garden at the rear. From its position on a ridge the cottage occupies a commanding site above the main penitentiary buildings and parade ground. Just off shore in Carnarvon Bay, O’Brien could see the ‘Isle of the Dead’, which was a burial ground for the convicts, as well as the penal colony’s officials, soldiers and their wives.

O’Brien was fortunate to be spared the worst horrors of convict life in Van Diemen’s Land, and the greatest hardship he had to endure at Port Arthur was his isolation. But he had books to occupy himself and he tended to the garden, as well as starting a journal for Lucy. William also took advantage of the time he had to correspond with his family and friends. These letters and O’Brien’s journal show the man to have had integrity, sensitivity and an unswerving patriotism for his country. His sense of patriotism combined a ‘gentleman’s’ sense of honour with an unshakeable conviction that his country’s cause was sacred. He wrote to his wife at this time, saying “No holier cause than that in which I was engaged ever led a patriot into the field or conducted him to the scaffold.” She, however, was less enthusiastic than her husband about the cause of Ireland’s freedom.

After spending three months in Port Arthur, William was urged by his sympathisers in Hobart to apply for a ‘ticket-of-leave’, which he did, successfully. ‘The Young Irelanders’ in general began, at this time, to benefit from the local distaste for England’s policy of transportation and they themselves had formed movements that sought representation for the people. In popular newspapers like the ‘Hobart Town Courier’ and the ‘Launceston Examiner’, the ‘Young Irelanders were described as patriotic heroes, who may have lacked good judgement in their actions. Nevertheless, this was a marked contrast to the vitriolic outpourings against ‘The Young Irelanders’ published in the ‘The Times of London’. Such was O’Brien’s standing in Hobart that he received a popular ovation when he arrived there, but nervous authorities would not allow him to settle in Hobart and moved him on to New Norfolk. William took lodgings in ‘Elwin’s Hotel’, (now the ‘Glen Derwent’) a pleasant rural inn on the river Derwent, and remained there for two and a half years, until he moved to Richmond. It was a matter of government policy that the ‘Young Ireland’ prisoners were required to live in separate districts, and Thomas Francis Meagher resided in Campbell Town and Ross, while John Mitchel lived at Nant Cottage, Bothwell.

On a regular basis, funds were sent to Smith O’Brien from his Cahirmoyle estate in Ireland. As it was with most of the other ‘Young Irelanders’ who had been transported, private means greatly alleviated the hardships brought on by their exile. Fortuitously, during the Crown’s proceedings against him, O’Brien had placed his estate in trust to forestall any possible confiscation of his assets. But, William’s correspondence from New Norfolk demonstrates that he punctiliously attended to his day-to-day business.

The ‘Young Irelanders’ had been heartened and inspired by the French Revolution in 1848, because the revolutionaries were able to rid the land of King Louis Philippe, and to keep existing property intact. The Irish leaders wanted the same result through their middle-class revolution, which would act as a strong barrier against a possible peasant uprising. But, this was a subtlety which the British government, unfortunately failed to grasp at the time. They did not quite accept that Smith O’Brien was not another leader simply speaking republican doctrine. On 20th August 1850, Smith wrote to an English supporter of Young Ireland, T. Chisholm Anstey, saying – “As for personal loyalty to the sovereign, I am not aware that I have ever during the course of my life uttered a word disrespectful to the queen and though in the event of a national war between Great Britain and Ireland I should have acquiesced in the establishment of a republic as the only form of government which circumstances have permitted. Yet my political principles have never been republican and I should have much preferred to any novel experiment a restoration of the ancient constitution of Ireland: the Queen, Lords and Commons of Ireland.”

Smith O’Brien had been badly disillusioned by the sheer inadequacy of the British Government’s policies towards Ireland during the Famine years, and that to prevent further disasters he wanted Ireland to be self-governed under the Crown. He had many harsh things to say about the government’s policies during the Famine and suggested that if the British Government had not caused it, they at least encouraged its effects on the Irish people. He claimed that Ireland’s people were now undergoing greater loss of life from British mismanagement of the famine than might result from the outbreak of revolution. But, Smith O’Brien’s had his critics, and they accused him of having a total disregard for the people by expecting them to take part in an uprising after suffering years of starvation. It appears that he had forgotten that history has taught us that successful revolutions take place, not when things are at their worst for the oppressed but, when they are getting better. It would, however, be a long time after 1848 that things really began to improve for the Irish people.

Naturally, on reaching ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, O’Brien’s first impressions of the Tasmanian countryside were not favourable, especially when suffering from serious homesickness. This new land may have had its beauty spots, mountains and flowing streams, but none as beautiful as the valleys, loughs, hills and forests of Ireland, many of which had been immortalised in song. Anyone who has read his correspondence from exile can see how much he was influenced by romance of his homeland, rather than attempt a totally objective observation of the magnificence of the semi-wilderness that was the Tasmanian bush. At the same time, he preferred to remain oblivious to the spiritual significance with which the aboriginal people of that land had invested their environment. But, because he was a landowner himself, William was extremely interested in farming conditions of his new home and local animal husbandry. At one point, he even considered following John Mitchel’s example by investing in a farm and bringing out his family to live there. Ultimately, he decided against taking his wife and several children out to this far-off land. He wrote bitterly, “Nothing has yet shaken my determination to abstain in whatever sacrifice to myself from placing my wife and children under the control of the brutes who govern the prisoner population of this colony.”

There is little doubt that O’Brien did suffer because of his separation from his family and friends in Ireland, but he was not short of good company and a lively social life in Tasmania. The journal that he kept and the many letters he wrote record the routine life that a country gentleman expects to live. He spent his time studying classical authors and wrote of his impressions. William also rode and walked about the countryside, and went to St Matthew’s Anglican church, where he struck up a good friendship with the Revd. Seaman. For a short time, he moved to the Avoca region in Tasmania and became tutor to the young sons of Dr. Brock, an Irish naval surgeon.

Although, at first, William felt cold-shouldered by the local gentry, by November 1852 he was able to write to his wife of “visits to the settlers in whose houses I feel that I am not only welcome but a cherished guest!” The home of the Fenton family, especially, became almost a second home for O’Brien. Captain Fenton had served in the Indian army but, like O’Brien himself, he was Irish and Protestant. His wife, Elizabeth, and their daughters found that they had much in common with William, including a shared taste for literature and music. ‘The Young Ireland’ movement had stimulated Irish balladeers to produce a prolific crop of patriotic verses and song, to which Smith O’Brien no doubt introduced his hostess and her daughters. In September 1852 wrote to his own wife, Lucy, and asked her to send “a copy of Bunting’s Irish melodies and the quarto edition of the Songs of the Nation which I have promised to Mrs. Fenton.”

Captain Fenton, however, had a more substantial reason for cultivating the company of William O’Brien. He was a member of the Tasmanian Legislative Council and he was a leading advocate for Tasmanian self-government. Knowing that O’Brien had represented his native Limerick in the House of Commons in London for seventeen years, Fenton realised he would have invaluable expertise to give him. In later years Fenton would become Speaker of the Tasmanian Legislature and was a member of the committee that drafted a constitution for Tasmania. O’Brien for his part drafted a model constitution and worked on his ‘Reflections in Exile’, published after his release as ‘Principles of Government’.

Supporters and well-wishers in Ireland, England and America, campaigned ceaselessly for O’Brien to be pardoned. He was a celebrated figure in many countries and, eventually, the British Government granted him a conditional pardon in the summer of 1854. He wrote to his wife at this time, rejoicing in the fact that he had been pardoned and that he had not been asked to retract or apologise for his past actions. “I had firmly resolved”, he wrote, “not to say or write or do anything which could be interpreted as a confession on my part that I consider myself a “criminal” in regard to the transactions of 1848.”

Before Smith O’Brien left Tasmania after spending five-years there, he was honorary guest at a series of functions and he was presented with congratulatory speeches in both Hobart and Launceston. In Melbourne ‘Long John’ O’Shaunessy, who would later be Sir John and Premier of the State of Victoria, organised a testimonial dinner for O’Brien and his friends. At the same time there were various local communities who honoured him, including those people who lived in the Bendigo goldfields.

In 1856, William’s final pardon came through, expedited because so many of those serving with distinction in the Crimean campaign were Irish. He was now free to return to Ireland, after having spent the intervening years in Brussels. When he came home at last, he found himself once again honoured and feted, receiving a hero’s welcome from Irish Americans when he went to the United States, where he met President James Buchanan. But, sadly, O’Brien’s final years were less happy. His health failed him and in 1861 his beloved wife died. Three years after this tragedy, in 1864, he himself died at the age of sixty. He was subsequently buried in Rathronan churchyard in County Limerick.

O'Brien StatueSix years after his death, a statue which stands in O’Connell Street, Dublin, just north of the O’Connell monument, was unveiled. John Martin, MP for Meath, another veteran ‘Young Irelander’ and former Tasmanian exile, performed the ceremony. Neither O’Brien’s son and heir, Edward, nor Lord Inchiquin, who was head of the family, was present for the ceremony. While in exile, Smith O’Brien had insisted that his children should be educated in such a manner that they would take pride in their Irish heritage and serve their country, and yet, he had written to Lucy, “I have never endeavoured to force patriotic feeling upon the minds of our children”. Although his son, Edward, appears to have disagreed with his father’s politics, William’s spirit of service was nobly carried on by his daughter, Charlotte Grace. She devoted her life to improving conditions of travel and settlement for thousands of young Irish women emigrating to the United States, at a time when social services were either minimal or completely non-existent.

Further reading:

  1. R. Davis, The Young Ireland Movement (Dublin 1987).
  2. B. Touhill, William Smith O’Brien and his Irish Revolutionary Companions in Penal Exile (Missouri 1981).

MONUMENT BUSHES

Writers on Irish folklore and superstitions occasionally represent unbaptised children as being blindfolded and sitting within fairy moats, the peasantry believing that the souls of these children simply go into a void. But, not all peasants thought this way, especially the most enlightened. All of those who were influenced by the teachings of Catholic Theologians believed that the unbaptised infants suffer the pain of losing the presence of God, because of ‘Original Sin.’ They follow the teachings of sacred Scripture that tell us, “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5) In simple terms it was believed that unbaptised persons are deprived of the beatific vision of God, although they are not subject to the sufferings of those, who have lost the grace of baptismal innocence. ‘Limbo’ was the name given to this void, but modern theologians say that there is no such place since God would not be cruel enough to damn innocent children to an eternal void.

In Ireland, until thirty or forty years ago, unbaptised children and abortions were generally buried under certain trees and bushes, is why they were given the name, ‘monument bushes’. Remarkably, when these types of interments took place in consecrated churchyards in Ireland, the graves were always dug on the north side of the cemetery and apart from those deceased persons who had been baptised. For the most part, however, ‘monument bushes’ were found in the centre of cross-roads. Occasionally, they are seen by a roadside, but detached from adjoining fences. Often grouped together in gnarled and fantastic shapes, these bushes present a picturesque and beautiful view to anyone passing-by, especially when flowered over with hawthorn blossoms. Ghosts or monsters were occasionally conjured up, before the excited imaginations pf credulous and timid people, when they passed these objects at night.
monument bush
Ancient and solitary hawthorns, generally called ‘Monument Bushes’, are held in great veneration by local communities.  To destroy these bushes, or even to remove any of their branches would regarded as being a disrespectful desecration. The faeries and the ‘Pookas’ are supposed to frequent the sites where these bushes grow. Elves are often seen hanging from and flitting amongst the branches. But, ghosts are more generally found about those haunts and, therefore, few persons want to pass by them alone, or at a late hour. Sadly, such fears are gradually losing their force, because there are few of the old traditions that are known to the new generations of Irishmen and women.

In an older time, whenever a funeral cortège passed by ‘monument bushes’, it was customary for all those in attendance to uncover their heads, while the “De Profundis” had been recited. Then the funeral procession would continue towards the graveyard that had been chosen for interment.

A lady, dressed in a long, flowing, white robe, is often supposed to issue from beneath those ‘monument bushes’ and to seat herself on the haunches of the horse, when a solitary horseman rides along the road. She usually clasps her arms around his waist, and her hands are often found to be deadly cold. She speaks not a word, and suddenly glides off, after riding a considerable distance with them. This apparition is supposed to mandate a near approach of the horseman’s death, and, as he moves forward, he begins to droop or fall into a lingering deadline.

The following customs, regarding to the dead, appear to have come from a distant time in Ireland’s history. When a person had been murdered, or had died by some sudden cause, at a certain spot or on a roadside, the common folk, when they went to that place, carried a stone with them that they would throw on the site where the dead body was found. An accumulation of stones thus heaped together soon forms a considerably sizeable pile. The hat is also removed by those passing by, and a prayer is usually offered for the eternal repose of the departed soul. “I would not even throw a stone on your grave,” is an expression that was used by local peasantry to denote their bitterness towards any person thus addressed. But, it very certain, that few of our generous people would carry their resentments so far, as to refuse the ‘Requiem’ prayer after death, on behalf of those less liked and least respected while they were alive.

Biddy Early – The Wise Woman of Clare

Biddy Early

On the afternoon of 22nd April, 1874 a lady called Biddy Early died in her small, two-roomed, mud-walled cottage that overlooked Lake Kilbarron, in Feakle, County Clare. Outside of Ireland she remains a virtual unknown, but in Ireland she was famous in her own lifetime, especially since her life story was first published in 1903. Since that time her reputation has grown, embellished with dark tales of witchcraft that continue to be associated with her. Such was the woman’s fame that in the 1970s attempts were made to secure funding for a newly renovated cottage on the site. These efforts, however, failed because no government agency would undertake its financial upkeep. Unfortunately, the old cottage fell into a state of ruin, in which it remains, while its former owner was buried in an unmarked grave.

Biddy-Early cottageBiddy’s fame for cures made the woman a household name throughout her long-life and, at some point in that long-life, she acquired a bottle made with dark glass, which contained an even darker, healing liquid. There are numerous tales from a wide variety of sources that attempt to tell the story of how she came into possession of that ‘magic bottle. They all agree, however, that its origin was with the ‘Good People’, for it was frequently used for the purposes of divining future events (Scrying). At the same time Biddy was famed for her mixing of herbal cures in this and other bottles that appeared to cure illness in animals as well as in people.

She would gather herbs and plants before sunrise, with the morning dew still shining upon them. It was widely believed by such curing women that the dew was a secretin of the light of dawn, which was a key element in the idea of eternal life. As she progressed through her latter years of life it is claimed that Biddy became a cranky and absent-minded old woman. This attitude and the success of her potions led many to believe that she was practicing witchcraft from her small cottage. In fact, Biddy was a relatively generous woman who rarely accepted payment for her services, unless it was a gift of food. She did not, however, accept those who scorned her craft and did not believe in the ‘Good People.’

Biddy’s home became known as a place of great merriment and neighbours would frequently come to the house for a drink, in the knowledge that she always had a plentiful supply of donated poteen and other spirits. But, these merry social gatherings also fell foul of the local quality folk, including the Catholic clergy, the medical profession, landlords, the police and the judiciary. They were already annoyed by the fact that Feakle already had a reputation for being the most superstitious places in Ireland, which was being strengthened every day by Biddy’s presence. At this time too, ‘Pishogues’ (Sorcerers) of various types were often employed to bring bad luck to a rival or enemy, and even today the practice still exists in parts of this island. In fact, ‘wise-women’ (Spéirbhean) such as Biddy, were often sought to help lift curses and bad-luck from the poor. These women would also be employed as special mediators to act in any disagreements that may arise with the fairies over the violation of their ancient land rights. It was a task for which Biddy was well qualified for it was said that she had spent some of her youth living among the fairies, or good people (Sidhe). In fact, there were some neighbours who insisted that Biddy, her brother and her only son, Paddy, were actually ‘Changelings’ or ‘Away with the Fairies.’

Biddy and her practices also came in to conflict with the Catholic Church and the members of the medical profession. The powerful Catholic Church in Ireland was totally and vehemently opposed to many of the traditional arts, because they believed them to be dangerous remnants of a pagan Ireland. The ability of the Church to oppose wise-women like Biddy Early were severely restricted during the Penal times. But, after the introduction of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the church slowly began to re-emerge as a political power in the land. In many of the folktales that surround the person of Biddy Early there are many examples of confrontations with various clergymen. One story tells of a fiery young curate from County Tipperary who made his way to Biddy’s cottage to chastise her, only to find himself frozen in his saddle near Annasala Bridge. Only after he had taken back all the oaths that he had sworn to her and apologised the curate was released by using three blades of dry grass to strike the right shoulder of the curate’s horse with the trinitarian blessing – “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” In fact, it was said that Biddy always invoked the ‘Holy Trinity’ before handing over her remedies to the sick people. Furthermore, despite her difficulties with the clergy, she always advised those who visited her to listen to the advice of the priests and clergy.

One famous visitor to Biddy’s cottage was the ‘Great Emancipator’, Daniel O’Connell, who was the Member of Parliament for Clare. But, despite her popularity among the people, she found herself in conflict with medical people, which formed the basis for several stories associated with Biddy Early. It was said, for example, that she rented a cottage from a certain Doctor Murphy from Limerick, who wanted to evict her for non-payment of rent though it seems more likely that professional jealousy was the real reason. The policemen and Sheriff that were sent to evict her from the small cottage near Kilbarron Lake, were ordered by her to ‘Stay where you are.’ Rumour had it that the words were given to her in an apparition by her dead husband Pat. The men were rooted to the spot and it was two hours before she released them. But, another version of the same story says that Biddy warned the men sent to evict her with the words, “Whoever is the first to put a bar to this house, he will remember it.” When one of the men put a crowbar between two stones in the wall he fell awkwardly and broke his thigh. Taking hold of their wounded colleague the men ran off in terror.

Doctor Murphy, however, would not be denied and he ensured that Biddy was forced into the Ennis Workhouse. Soon after this, Murphy’s own house in Limerick mysteriously caught fire and only a charred foot was recovered from the ruins in which the Doctor himself was trapped. It is said that Biddy warned him beforehand what his fate would be, and he refused to listen. But, this was not Biddy’s last encounter with the medical profession. There was a Doctor Folan from Ennis who came to argue with Biddy but found that he could not find his way home although he knew that road well. Yet, in fairness to Biddy Early, she did not seek conflict and neither did she guarantee anyone a cure. In fact, it was not unknown for Biddy to refuse to see some patients if she felt that they were destined to die. In some cases, Biddy would give a potion to calm an anxious relative that, it is said, would break if death was inevitable. The whole idea of looking into the future was an integral part of the legend surrounding Biddy, and it wasn’t unknown for her to advise the local farmers about those stealing their or sheep and resolving family disputes.

From the historical record we know that the nineteenth century was a period of bitter agrarian violence in the County Clare. It was a time when gangs of desperate men roamed the land under the names of ‘White Boys’, ‘Ribbonmen’ and ‘Moonlighters’, seeking brutal revenge against the landlords for the large number of evictions that were happening. In 1816, Biddy was in service on the Carheen Estate, which belonged to a landlord called Sheehy. It appears that she was a participant in the raising of a petition against the raising of rents and she was given a court order to prepare for eviction from her home. In response, Biddy warned Sheehy that his bones would never lie in hallowed ground. Later, three of Sheehy’s tenants led by a man called Touhy killed the landlord and burned his house to the ground. Biddy, however, was able to advise the men that a potential witness for the Crown, a woman called Nell Canny, should not be harmed, as she might prove herself useful to them. Subsequently, Nell, who was a maid on the estate, spoke in court and told them it was her and not the accused men who had dropped hot coals on the grass the cottage. Later, in a case that involved the shooting to death of Alderman William Sheehy, brother of the same man killed by the Touhy gang, Biddy was able to advise the assassin to take a suitable escape route to America through Liscannor and Kilrush, which would avoid the ‘Peelers’ (Police). Biddy’s current husband at the time, Tom Flannery, was before the courts in 1860 for conspiracy in the same murder and lodged in Ennis gaol. The local press of the day named him and described him as being the husband of ‘The Witch’, Biddy Early. Because the chief culprits in the case had vanished the case against Tom Flannery was dropped.

There are rumours that in 1865 Biddy was tried for witchcraft, under an old law enacted in 1586. But, this story has never been proved and Betty was certainly not convicted of any offence. Another surprise that she would play upon her neighbours was that before she died, in April 1874, she asked a neighbour man, Patrick Loughnane, to fetch a priest to her bedside who would give her the last rites. It is said that she asked the priest who attended her, Father Andrew Connellan, to throw her ‘magic bottle’ into a body of water that would later become known as ‘Biddy’s lake’.

Rumour has it that when this larger-than-life character died, twenty-seven priests attended her funeral. Furthermore, the next Sunday, the parish priest asked that all his parishioners should pray for the happy repose of the soul of Biddy Early and described her as a saintly woman. We wonder just what Biddy would have said if she had heard such a tribute.

For Further information you could consult the following:

  1. E. Lenihan, “In search of Biddy Early”; Cork, 1987.
  2. M. Ryan, “Biddy Early—wise woman of Clare”; Cork, 1978.
  3. D. Stewart, “Biddy Early—famous ‘witch’ of Clare”, Parts I & II; Limerick Chronicle, 3rd and 10th October 1953.