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19th Century Ireland - William Smith O'Brien (1803-1864)



William Smith O'Brien
William Smith O'Brien (1803-1864)


William Smith O'Brien was born in County Clare. He was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge where he studied law before becoming a Tory MP for Ennis, County Clare in 1828. Smith O'Brien held his seat in Parliament until 1831 and was re-elected for Limerick in 1835.
In 1843 Smith O'Brien joined the Repeal Association and in 1847 he joined the Irish Confederation which advocated physical force to repeal the Act of Union. Smith O'Brien partook in the Young Ireland Rising at Ballingarry, County Tipperary in July, 1848 but evaded arrest until mid-August when he was imprisoned in Clonmel Gaol. Smith O'Brien was tried for High Treason and sentenced to hanging, drawing and quartering but this sentence was commuted to transportation to Tasmania (Van Diemen's Land).
Smith O'Brien was pardoned in 1854 and travelled to Belgium and America before returning to Ireland where he published Principles of Government (1856). This extract is from Smith O'Brien's unpublished diary and recounts the second day of his voyage aboard The Swift in which he was transported to Tasmania.©

July 10th, 1849 - Today I made my bed for the first time in my life - and am resolved except when persecuted by sea sickness to continue the practise throughout the voyage - Self-reliance is a principle which I have laboured to instill in others, let me now practise it myself - I fear that I have acted too much after the maxim that a wise man will never do for himself what he can get another to do for him - having long abandoned the correlative principle that a wise man will never do today what can be postponed till tomorrow I will now at length endeavour to wean myself from my former habits and learn also never to ask another to do for me what I can do for myself.
The whole of this day was singularly calm. The Indent towed us down channel - we kept the Irish coast in view during our course. Late in the afternoon we perceived a steamer following in our track - after satisfying ourselves that it was not a merchant steamer pursuing her regular coarse we began to conjecture that she had been sent from Cove either by the Admiral or by our friends to communicate with us. As she did not answer our signals the Captain expoused his belief that she was not a government steamer - after following us until the approach of sunset at which time she was about four miles distant she gave up the chase and turned back.
This incident whilst it accompanied some disappointment awakened interesting resolutions - was there on board a party of our Cork friends desirous to bid us a last farewell? Amongst them would surely be some of them whom I had met on the anniversary of this day [10th of July 1848] at the soiree given to me at Cork - How different my present feelings! Then all was hope and exultation. Then in the full triumph of popularity - I endeavoured to impress after with the English and Irish people a consciousness of the internal power of the Irish nation - Then I earnestly hoped that I should be enabled to assist in weilding that power in such a manner as to secure the future happiness of Ireland under democratic legislation without a recurrence to the arbitratment of animus - All is changed now. Hope and exultation are converted into despondency and humiliation - so converted I fear through the precipitation of myself and my friends. Had we been contented still a longer to brave the aminadvertions of those who imputed to us sluggishness and timidity - Had we been contented to allow ourselves to be carried to prison under the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act instead of making an appeal to the country for which it was not prepared we should probably have been at this meridional masters of the public officers of Ireland instead of being exiles whose expedience is condemned even by many who are attached to us and our cause - Yet the goal ought not to be judged solely by the events which time develops - we did that which the nation at large ought to have done or at all suggests what those who had professed our principles and goaded us forwarded ought to have sustained us in doing. We did that which a cause of duty to our country enforced. If therefore we failed in our attempt we have less reason to complain of indiscretion in ourselves than of excess of discretion in others. Had we not made an attempt such as that made by us, those who are now louded in upbraiding us for failure would have been the first to charge us with pusillanimity. On the other hand many who never moved an arm to help us and now join in the chorus against us would have been profuse in their congratulations if we had succeeded and would have claimed to themselves no small share in the merit of such success not therefore in the praise or sympathy of man but in the consciousness that we endeavoured to save our country to the best of our ability do we find consolation and since it was the will of God that we should fail we humbly bow to that will.
In the evening of this day we lost sight of Ireland - Shall I ever see it again? Never I cried if I cannot revisit it without again seeing such scenes of misery as those which it has been my lot to witness - Never if it be to suffer such pain and humiliation as I have suffered whilst bewailing its prostrate condition - Never if it be to feel pity and shame for my fellow countrymen or account of their want of honour, energy and truth - their hatred and distrust of each other, their obstinacy to a power which inflicts upon them wrongs and insults innumerable - a power upon which they fawn but may neither love or venerate - For myself I have struggled to perform my duty to my country but the attempt has seldom been cheered by the feeling that the means at my command will commensurate with the object desired. Consequently the struggle in which I have been engaged has been one of incessant pain. I have felt like one rolling a stone up a hill which is too weighty for his strength and which constantly rebounds so that the work must be recommenced after each successive effort. Why should I not consider as a release my future exemption from such toils. Why should I wish the punishment of discipline? Such might naturally be my reflections at this moment yet I cannot present such reflections as those now mirrored by my thoughts - No, not to speak of the domestic affections - the thousand tendrils which cling round the stem and branches of the tree - not to speak of the old associations hereditary unborn, nursed by the side of the lakes, of the rivers, of the castles, of the mountains, of the cliffs of my native isle cherished also by the wild strains of its old songs and by the traditions of its historic tales. Not to speak of these roots and fibres which have embedded the tree so firmly in its native soil. Searc's Web Guide 1997-2008

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