William O'Brien (1852 - 1928)

Irish nationalist, social revolutionary & politician
This biographical article was originally published in the North Mayo Historical Journal Vol. 2,
No. 2, 1988/9 as an addendum to "Two Wild Nights in Ballinglen., by Tom Langan Ex-N.T."

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Editor's note: In a letter accompanying this contribution Mr Langan says: "... I became interested in O'Brien because of his strong connection with Mayo. He and his wife lived 13 years in "Mallow" at the foot of Croagh Patrick.....it would not have been possible for him to carry on the prolonged struggle for the tenants without his wife's financial support.  However, she lost her fortune in the Russian Revolution, 1917, and from then on they lived in rather straightened circumstances..."

In this Dublin's Millenium year one may ask who, if any, received the freedom of Dublin one hundred years ago in 1888; and not only the freedom of Dublin but of Cork also. It was a Corkman, William O'Brien, who at the age of 36, on the occasion of his release from prison, had these honours conferred on him.

While still little more than a boy he had helped in smuggling in the Fenian guns for the purchase of which Michael Davitt had gone to prison. This was rather surprising in one who had been reared an ardent admirer of O'Connell but the pitiable inadequacy of the Fenian effort caused William to base all his efforts on Conference, Conciliation, Consent using just one weapon - violent language.

He started to earn his living as a journalist in Cork but very soon his obvious talent caused him promotion to the Freemans Journal in Dublin. A series of articles "Christmas on the Galtees" brought the plight of Irish tenant farmers very vividly before the public and established William O'Brien as the unflinching champion of the tenants, which he remained to the end. He soon resigned his 600 a year job on the Freemans Journal to become editor of United Ireland at 400 a year on the invitation of Charles S. Parnell. He quickly became the Chiefs confidante and at the split, he was the only member of the Party to whom Parnell was willing to hand over the leadership which O'Brien declined.

All through the 1880's O'Brien and John Dillon the two "stormy petrels" of the Land League both with weak, tubercular lungs fought the Plan of Campaign, being frequently arrested and sentenced to terms of imprisonment with hard labour. But O'Brien had a feeling for propaganda which enabled him to turn such sentences into occasions for the utmost publicity for the cause of the tenants.

After the Parnellite split in 1891 O'Brien retired to live in a cottage he called "Mallow" on a twenty acre farm near Westport. He had already while in prison in Galway written a novel "When we were boys". In "Mallow" he wrote "A Queen of Men" a novel based on the life of Grainne Uaile and his Russian Jewish wife wrote "Beneath Croagh Patrick".

None of the Land Acts passed up to that time had been of much benefit to the poor tenants along the western seaboard and very soon William O'Brien's sympathy went out to the tenants of Clare Island who were under threat of eviction. Then he and Dr. McEvilly, Archbishop of Tuam guaranteed repayments of Annuities for the first seven years. This enabled the tenants of Clare Island to purchase their holdings and O'Brien went on record stating "To their eternal credit" it never cost either of us a farthing".

Since the fall of Parnell the Home Rule movement had been hopelessly split into a number of parties or factions the two principals of which John Redmond and John Dillon were the respective leaders. Attempts by O'Brien to heal the split, as similar attempts by Irish Americans failed utterly. But O'Brien was not one to drop a good idea without a fight. So at Westport in January l898 - the century of the "Men of the west" he founded the united Irish League supported by Davitt alone of elected representatives. The warring factions ignored him. But in a short time U.I. League had hundreds of branches in Connacht and was spreading across the Shannon. So Redmond, Dillon and their followers had little option but to jump on the bandwagon. At Claremorris on February 1st 1899 the United Irish League became the national organisation under the chairmanship of John Redmond and O'Brien returned to parliament as member for Cork City.

But the land question was still very far from settled. For the great majority of small tenants things were only marginally better than in 1881. Then, suddenly and totally unexpected, something happened which led to what many regard as O'Brien's greatest success. An unknown landlord from Ardrahan, Mr. Shane Taylor who has taken part in the Boer war, wrote to the Dublin newspapers suggesting a conference and naming a number of well known men to represent both landlords and tenants to draw up proposals for the settlement of land question. No doubt it would have followed millions of other "letters to the Editor" if it hadn't been endorsed by the Chief Secretary for Ireland - George Wyndham, a descendant of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and by William O'Brien.

After much "Jockeying" the conference met in December 1902. Lord Mayo a landlords' representative told O'Brien he had never seen him before.

"All the bad landlords have seen too much of me", replied O'Brien who had even gone to Canada in pursuit of Lord Landsdown, the Viceroy, an evicting Irish Landlord.

Working on a draft submitted by O'Brien the conference submitted a set of recommendations which formed the basis of the Wyndham Land Act under which hundreds of thousands of tenants had succeeded in purchasing their buildings before 1921. This led Dr. O'Dwyer Bishop of Limerick, but no admirer, to exclaim "who'd have thought that madman O'Brien would be the one to settle the Land Question?".

But what about Davitt and Dillon? Very briefly Davitt wanted to get rid of the landlords and nationalise the land, while Dillion wanted to keep the land question "on the boil" until Home Rule had been achieved.

In "William O'Brien and the course of Irish politics" 1881 - 1918 Joseph V. O'Brien tells us "A meeting of the All For Ireland League" at Crossmolina (in Co. Mayo) in 1910 almost had fatal results when revolver shots were fired and (William) O'Briens audience routed by toughs and priests.

How could this have happened and what was the All for Ireland League? O'Brien had become convinced that Home Rule as advocated by Dillon would lead inevitably to Partition and this he totally rejected. Encouraged by the success of the Land Conference he felt the National Question could be settled in a similar manner and was willing to make almost any concession to the Unionists. So he was branded Concessionist, he and his supporters in Cork whose motto was All For Ireland, Ireland for All.

He and Tim Healy withdrew in 1918 and were not among the list of routed members.

In 1927 he was offered nomination for a Cork constituency by the newly formed Fianna Fail party but declined on grounds of age. He died the following year.
This postcard photograph by the late J.J. Leonard of Bofeenaun, would appear to refer to the meeting in question. It had been posted to Buffalo, U.S.A. and brought home by a returning emigrant. It shows a meeting in progress in Chapel St., Crossmolina with a line of policemen separating a large crowd (probably on a fair day) from the handful of supporters around William O'Brien's platform. It shows one priest towards the right-hand edge of the crowd, but everything else looks peaceful enough! The writing at the bottom is now rather faded but reads: 'Wm. O'Brien at Crossmolina indicated by an X. In the foreground are the Irish Partyites.(J. J. L. Co. M.).


McDonagh: Life of William O'Brien.
Joseph O'Brien: William O'Brien and the Course of Irish Politics.

Further Information on William O'Brien.

The Modernisation of lrish Society, 1848 - 1918, by Joseph Lee.

p. 1O8. Within the party (Home Rule) the self-made men played a disproportionately prominent role. William O'Brien was the son of a respectable, but by no means affluent, clerk. Tim Healy, the son of a poor law union clerk and Thomas Sexton, son of a police constable, both began their careers as junior railway clerks ......

p. 122 O'Brien disgusted with his failure to profit from the internal squabbling, seized the opportunity offered by the potato failure of 1897, which, yet again, caused distress in Connaught, to establish the United Irish League in 1898 to concentrate agitation on the land issue once more. ....... Henceforth (after 1902) the increasingly widespread use of spray ..... took the potato out of politics.

p. 16O. (1918 Election) .... So did (i. e. withdrew) Captain Donnellan, conqueror of the redoubtable William O'Brin in a hard-foughtT6Vo poll in 1910, ...... William Doris, who secured 80Vo of the vote in North Mayo in 1910, could win only I4Vo n 1918.

p. 162. The main objection most home rulers had to physical force was that it was doomed to defeat. Their objection to the "impossibilists" was a strictly practical, not a moral or aesthetic one. William O'Brien summed up the popular attitude.

Archivium Hibernicum. Vol. XXVI1 (1964).

Appendix: Catholics and Catholicism in the Eighteenth-Century Press.

Rev. John Brady.

3/11/1798. A Mr. Dease, a clergyman of Killala, has been brought a prisoner to this city on charges of a treasonable nature. (H. M.).

29/11/1798. (Advertisement). Whereas I have received information upon oath that the persons undernamed have been guilty of high treason, in aiding and assisting the French in their late invasion of this country, I do hereby offer a reward of ...... fifty pounds for the apprehension, or for such private information as may cause to be apprehended..... Rev. Myles Prendergast, friar of Westport, Rev. Michael Gannon of Lowsburgh, priest, Rev. Myles Sweeney of Newport, priest. (Recte Rev. Manus Sweeney). Castlebar, 5/11/1798. Eyre Power Trench. Major General. (D.E.P.)

13/6/1799. By accounts from Castlebar, we learn the the court martial there is beginning to resume the trial of rebellious offenders and active traitors. A Popish priest, by name Swiney, was lately, we understand, capitally convinced of treason and rebellion, in aiding and assisting the invading enemy, that lately so much disturbed that once peaceable part of the kingdom. (F.J.)

21/11/1799. Waterford, Nov. 16. Yesterday Counsellor Moore, two Roman Catholic clergymen of the names of Cannon and Munnelly, a ffiar named Killeen, Valentine Jordan, a respectable farmer, all from the vicinity of Castlebar, and ..... Fargus, an inn-keeper from Westport, were brought in here, together with eight others, by a party of Hompesch's cavalry ...... They have entered into recognizance to transport themselves from his majesty's dominions, which measure they preferred to risking a trial ..... (F.J.).

(Note:- Father Thomas Munnelly served in Backs parish, and was the last priest to say Mass in Shanclough old church. He afterwards became a pastor in Maryland, U.S.A.).

Wikipedia article on William O'Brien  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_O'Brien