A Forgotten Son of Mallow (and Ireland)? William O’Brien (1852–1928) and his world
A few weeks ago I spoke to a local history group in the town of Mallow in north County Cork in January 2018. The subject of my talk was the journalist, politician and agitator William O’Brien, a native of the town, and whose death occurred 90 years ago in February 1928.
Having spent the last decade or so researching the milieu of early twentieth century Ireland — a so-called “featureless valley” which has been illuminated by eclectic studies over the last quarter of a century — O’Brien stands out as one of a handful of powerful dramatis personae of the period. His reputation was made during the heyday of Charles Stewart Parnell and his Irish Parliamentary Party. This reputation preceded him not just in Ireland, but in the wider UK, France, Italy, and America.
William O’Brien was a gifted propagandist, able to solicit support for a campaign and equally able to turn people against objects of power, discrimination and tyranny. His published volumes of memoirs (four in total, all written after 1900), though not reliable as a primary source for the study of the period which he lived through, nevertheless are fascinating for the windows they offer into his world.
O’Brien’s world of his youth was a world of the dreamer interspersed with the intrusions of strong characters which populate the pages of his first volume of memoirs, Recollections, published in 1905. Of these, the standouts are his elder brother James and Parnell. James was one of a band of local Fenians that took part in gun-running and other subversive activity in the mid-1860s in the Cork area, and in 1867 took part in skirmishes between police and Fenians south of Mallow town led by JFX O’Brien. This litany of escapades fired the fertile imagination of William, and he returned to the subject on a number of occasions over the next 50 years.
Parnell came to rival James O’Brien as the subject of O’Brien’s admiration and loyalty. Their relationship was close, perhaps the closest of all of the ‘lieutenants’ within the Parnellite Irish Parliamentary Party which grew in strength and influence from the early 1880s. It was a mutually beneficial partnership: Parnell gained O’Brien’s talents as a journalist and propagandist by appointing him editor of a new newspaper, United Ireland, in 1881; in turn O’Brien found support that his family could not provide — by the mid-1880s he had lost not only both parents but also all his siblings to tuberculosis or variants thereof. That did not, mean, however, that the two saw eye-to-eye on all occasions. When O’Brien and John Dillon launched the agrarian agitation known as the Plan of Campaign in 1886, Parnell held aloof from wholeheartedly backing them. A few years later, O’Brien and Parnell had a feisty meeting at a fog-bound Greenwich Observatory where the latter expressed his displeasure at the former’s conduct. O’Brien defended himself stoutly, but that meeting strained relations between the two men.
The Plan also brought O’Brien into fiery conflict with the government, led in Ireland from 1887 by Arthur James Balfour, whose uncle Lord Salisbury appointed Irish Chief Secretary (the phrase “Bob’s your uncle!” is thought to date from around this time). In September 1887 O’Brien and John Mandeville were due to be brought before magistrates at Mitchelstown charged with incitement of the tenants of the nearby Kingston Estate. Police fired into the crowd in an effort to gain control, killing a number of people. O’Brien made full use of this outrage, and launched attack after attack on Balfour in United Ireland, christening the Chief Secretary “Bloody Balfour”.
For the next few years O’Brien was a frequent visitor to jails in Tullamore and Galway; on one memorable occasion in the former he refused to change from his civilian clothes into prison clothes, and slept naked for a few nights to make his point. This incident brought him huge popularity among nationalists and tenants, and opprobrium from defenders of law and order among unionists and landlords. It was also while in jail that he began receiving letters from a Madame Raffalovich in Paris, who had been following his career through the French press. She invited him to meet her when next in the French capital.
It was two years before O’Brien was able to avail of the invitation, given his work with the Plan (which was on the wane) and the necessity of his presence at the Parnell Commission in London for much of 1889. When the Commission concluded its work, O’Brien left for Italy and a villa placed at his disposal by a woman who was a constant attendee at the Commission. He stopped off in Paris with his companions Dr JE Kenny and TP Gill. Having located Madame Raffalovich’s mansion on the Avenue du Trocadero, O’Brien was informed she was out. He was reluctant to return the following day, but was prevailed upon to do so by his companions. When O’Brien met Madame Raffalovich, he was enchanted by her beauty and intelligence, but fell deeply in love with her daughter Sophie. The two kept up a string of correspondence, and eventually married in London in June 1890. Parnell and the IPP were present; it was to be their final time together as a united group.
O’Brien and John Dillon led a fund-raising delegation to America shortly after his return from honeymoon. While there the news of Parnell’s lengthy affair with Katharine O’Shea broke after a court granted her husband a decree nisi of divorce from her, citing the Irish leader as co-respondent. The scandal enveloped the Party, and a split between supporters and opponents of his obdurate insistence to remain as Party leader sent paroxysms through Irish nationalism. The political structure of an Irish state in embryo was torn from top to bottom. O’Brien and Dillon, along with their companions in America, followed proceedings from a distance.
As the crisis deepened O’Brien travelled back from America to France (he could not set foot in Ireland owing to a warrant for his arrest) and met with Parnell at Boulogne. Following intense discussions (Dillon joined him a week later) no solution was found, and, disillusioned, both men crossed the Channel to London and surrendered to authorities, whereupon they were transferred to Galway Jail to serve their 6 month sentences. After their release, O’Brien reluctantly joined Dillon on the Anti-Parnell side of the new divide.
Parnell’s sudden death on 6 October 1891 hit O’Brien hard. Contemporaries in the House of Commons noted that his firebrand oratory had washed away, and that he was a “ghost of his former self.” One Conservative politician remarked in 1894 that he seemed “as one sat on top of a monument, lamenting.” In 1896 he resigned as an MP after being declared bankrupt, and he and Sophie departed for the west of Ireland and their new home at Mallow Cottage on the shores of Clew Bay near Westport, Co Mayo.
Although portrayed as a rabid fervent nationalist firebrand during the late 1870s and 1880s, O’Brien’s nationalism was quite more complex than many of his contemporaries. His vision for Ireland was shaped by his youth in Mallow and by his strong Fenian connections. While he could not envisage a fully independent Ireland in his lifetime, he joined in the Home Rule movement as a gradual process towards the ultimate goal of a self-governing Irish nation. His Irish nation comprised a wider composition than most. In 1886 and again in 1891 O’Brien delivered speeches where he seemed to advocate cooperation amongst all classes and sects living in Ireland. Conciliation was not a philosophy then in vogue, however.
Living at Mallow Cottage gave O’Brien a new perspective on daily life in the west of Ireland. It seemed little had changed in the twenty or so years since he had covered the near-famines of the late 1870s for the Freeman’s Journal. In his memoirs he wrote:
“Every other year the turf harvest was ruined in June or the potato harvest in August, and wan faces presented themselves at the windows [of Mallow Cottage], and humiliating begging appeals had to be set going to prevent semi-starvation from going the whole length of its ravages amidst the swarming villages.”
He and Sophie attempted to support the Congested Districts Board (founded by Balfour in 1891) in local projects, such as the purchase of Clare Island in Clew Bay and the creation of a fishing industry in the locality. Yet the major cause of hardship for the local rural population remained: the large tracts of grassland owned by landlords and leased on an “eleven-month system” to large farmers or graziers (so called as they usually used the land to graze dry cattle or sheep for export). To complicate matters these graziers were predominantly Catholic and nationalist, supporting the political establishment created by Parnell.
On 23 January 1898 O’Brien founded the West Mayo United Irish League at a public meeting in the Octagon in Westport. John Dillon and Timothy Harrington attended; the former came to Mayo reluctantly, unwilling to surrender the position he had so carefully built in the post-split IPP. Within weeks of the League’s foundation, its actions caused the government to send extra police to west Mayo to quell disturbances. O’Brien claimed the League was aiding the CDB in attempting to break up the grass ranches in the west Mayo region.
Throughout 1898 and into 1899 the UIL (it dropped the ‘West Mayo’ part of its title shortly after its foundation) grew quickly on the back of police hostility and Catholic clergy support. Archbishop John McEvilly of Tuam supported the League’s policy of forcing the breakup of ranches, but did not approve of the methods used to carry out the policy. By drawing the Catholic clergy and hierarchy closer to the grassroots agitators, the UIL went a long way to suturing the divisions of the Parnell Split. The work of O’Brien, Harrington and others brought Parnellites and anti-Parnellites at local level together in many areas of Connacht. Fenians and former Fenians were attracted through the influence of Michael Davitt. Even the name ‘United Irish League’ linked the events of 1798 to contemporary struggles: it evoked memories of the United Irishmen, thus subtly arguing for a union of all Irishmen in pursuit of their goals.
The growing power and influence of the UIL at a local and regional level constituted a threat to the nationalist status quo ante. Many within the UIL leadership were antipathetic to the politicians at Westminster. From the perspective of the IPP, its factions were hugely concerned at the rise of radicalism in Ireland — along with the UIL, popular ferment was also rising as a result of the outbreak of the Boer War in South Africa. In the complicated machinations after the reunion of the parliamentary IPP under the chairmanship of John Redmond in February 1900, O’Brien threw the weight of the UIL behind the new party. He hoped to suffuse the IPP with new, radical, energetic personalities which would support him over the existing leadership. However the existing IPP were not prepared to throw over control of their party to a maverick, and by June 1900 had effectively neutralised the UIL.
A National Convention that month endorsed (after much debate) a concordat between the UIL and the IPP. The latter would become the former’s grassroots organisation in a rejuvenated Irish Party structure. Selection of prospective members of the IPP would become the UILs prerogative, and to this end a slew of IPP members joined the executive of the League. This had the effect of diluting O’Brien’s personal power within the League, despite him not occupying an official position. Therefore his position within the overall constitutional nationalist firmament had changed little since the Plan of Campaign.
In the ‘Khaki Election’ of 1900 O’Brien won a seat in Cork City, with former Fenian JFX O’Brien taking the second seat. The UIL attacked Tim Healy and his colleagues, so-called ‘factionists’, literally in most cases. O’Brien used the resources of the League, and its newspaper The Irish People, to castigate the ‘enemies’ of the League, even if they professed themselves nationalists.
Over the winters of 1900–1 and 1901–2 O’Brien and the UIL carried out “virile” campaigns targeting graziers, landlords and other League ‘enemies’. While the League leadership promulgated a plan of action designed to pressure the Conservative government into bringing in compulsory land purchase, the semi-autonomous nature of the structure of the organisation allowed branches the freedom to carry out their own programmes. Therefore there was a lack of uniformity in the UIL operation; politics showed many faces. In Connacht it was anti-graziers, in Munster and parts of Leinster evicted tenants featured prominently, and in Ulster the UIL grew into the primary anti-Orange Order movement.
O’Brien’s fiery speeches in furtherance of the UILs broad aims and objectives led the government, under the new Irish Chief Secretary George Wyndham, to reach for the time-honoured remedy of coercion and proclamation. This provoked a new ‘land war’: less widespread than its predecessors, but perhaps more intense. Behind the edifices of hostility, however, Wyndham let it be known he was prepared to work towards a different solution to the land question. This private volte face resulted in the IPP leadership putting the brakes on O’Brien’s fiery campaign. Wyndham’s first attempt at legislating for a widespread solution to the land purchase situation was a total failure. It was clear to the government and the Irish Party that an outside catalyst was needed to bring about such a solution.
Such a catalyst came in the autumn of 1902, when a Galway landlord John Shawe-Taylor proposed in a letter to The Times that a conference of representatives of landlords and tenants meet to agree a solution to the land purchase question. Among the names listed in his letter was O’Brien’s. At first O’Brien dismissed the suggestion out of hand (as indeed did Redmond, who was also named). However after some lobbying by Shawe-Taylor he agreed to participate in the conference. On the landlord side most of the most prominent landlords rejected the initiative, so a small group of landowners named four representatives, among whom was Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin, Fourth Earl of Dunraven, a landlord in Co Limerick. Dunraven appeared a mirror image of O’Brien, having moved the rejection of Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill in the House of Lords in 1886. A former irascible unionist and a previously febrile nationalist were about to embark on a stormy voyage aboard the conciliation ship.
The Land Conference met at Dublin’s Mansion House in late December 1902 and early January 1903. O’Brien and Dunraven (who chaired the conference) did most of the behind-the-scenes work, aided (from a distance) by Wyndham. The report of the conference published in late January 1903 called for “the substitution of an occupying proprietary in lieu of the existing system of dual ownership.” Any new legislation arising from the conference should be promptly enacted. Wyndham digested the report, and drafted a bill which he brought before the House of Commons in March. By August the bill had passed all stages in Parliament, and received royal assent. It would come into effect in November.
O’Brien, through personal speeches and Irish People editorials and commentaries, sought to push the point that hitherto mortal enemies were able to sit across a table and talk through their differences. In much the same way as he had championed the plight of tenants during the Land Wars so he sought to champion this new method of political interaction. Throughout the first seven months of 1903 he worked at not only promoting this method — which he later termed “conference plus business” — but also scrutinising Wyndham’s legislative proposals which were introduced as a land bill in March. Some powerful forces were, however, marshalling against the bill; in particular Davitt, Dillon and Thomas Sexton (managing director of the Freeman’s Journal) began to utter criticisms of not only any legislation but also the methods by which it came about.
The months August to November 1903 were a watershed in the history of the IPP and the UIL. Dillon inaugurated a campaign against the act shortly after its passage; in his opinion, the Irish people did not need the help of the British government to overthrow landlordism. The new land act would open up the spectre of “land hunger” as rich and poor tenants alike sought to gain the most amount of land for their own ends. For their part, O’Brien and Redmond succeeded in passing a number of resolutions at a meeting of the League’s National Directory in September framing conciliation as an official policy. Further to this O’Brien stated that each county’s UIL branches should establish an advisory committee to test the act in that county using the framework of conciliation.
Increasingly O’Brien came to the view that the time was ripe for conciliation to supplant nationalism and unionism as the dominant political creed in Ireland. At two speeches in Cork on 20 and 21 September 1903 he dwelt on the national question and the land act. The latter, he argued, had shown how successful conciliation could be when applied in a practical manner. There was little, he concluded, to suggest that such an approach would not bear fruit in bringing about a solution to the Home Rule question.
The toll of battling in and out of parliament was quite heavy on O’Brien’s physical and mental health. He had undergone a minor throat operation in the summer of 1903, and the effect of this on his fifty-one-year old body can only be suspected. To add to his stresses was the parlous financial situation facing The Irish People. Dillon’s incessant attacks on the land act and conciliation, O’Brien admitted to Redmond in October 1903, were eroding his will to fight on. He should have, but did not, realise that Dillon was addressing a different constituency to his: the nationalists of north-east Ulster. Nationalism there was less likely to appreciate the subtleties of O’Brien’s conciliationist position.
O’Brien’s swift departure from the UIL and the IPP came on 6 November 1903. In a published letter to Fr Denis O’Flynn of the Cork City UIL, he admitted defeat in his efforts to try and swing the IPP leadership as a whole to the logic of conciliation. Therefore he felt no option but to leave the field open to Dillon and his brand of neo-Catholic nationalism, personified to a degree by Dillon’s protege and rising star in the UIL and IPP, Joseph Devlin. This decision precipitated a breach in the UIL between O’Brien supporters and supporters of Dillon. Redmond, who had attempted to chart a middle course, was left somewhat in limbo.
For the next 6 years O’Brien and his cohort of followers, mostly if not wholly based in Cork and organised through the Cork UIL Advisory Committee founded in 1904, engaged in a struggle for control of the movement. While keeping an arm-length distance from the activities of his acolytes, O’Brien did consult with Dunraven on a regular basis, particularly after the latter co-founded the Irish Reform Association in the summer of 1904. Both men sought to influence both Wyndham and his under-secretary Sir Antony MacDonnell into producing a scheme of devolution for Ireland. Over the next six to nine months controversy erupted when unionists got wind of the proposals, and a hardening of attitudes (which led incidentally to the foundation of the Ulster Unionist Council in 1905) led to Wyndham resigning as Chief Secretary in March 1905. This brief flowering of a conciliationist approach to Irish self-government was blown out by the cold winds of fundamentalist nationalism and unionism.
The propagandist of the days of United Ireland resurfaced when O’Brien re-launched the Irish People in the autumn of 1905. He now joined men such as Arthur Griffith and DP Moran in launching stinging attacks on the Party. His platform, though, was built on conciliation: he warned against the growing sectarianism exhibited by Devlin and his political machine, the Ancient Order of Hibernians; he condemned on a regular basis the failure of the Party leaders to countenance cooperation with their fellow dwellers on the island of Ireland; and he forewarned on a number of occasions of the rise of a new militant nationalism.
A complete failure of an attempt at devolution by the Liberal Chief Secretary Augustine Birrell in 1907 precipitated a crisis of Irish constitutional nationalism. While attempting to snare a number of dissidents to his personal political orbit, O’Brien watched the fulminations of the Ranch War and Redmond’s struggles to keep control of the radical wing of the IPP with keen interest. In the autumn of that year Redmond sought to negotiate with O’Brien in an effort to bring equilibrium to the Party. After some months, O’Brien and his colleagues rejoined the IPP in January 1908.
This reunion was as cosmetic as the one in 1900, in that a number of key underlying issues went unresolved. Changes in the operation of the Wyndham Land Act saw O’Brien lose a key Party policy vote in April 1908, thus to his mind voiding the terms of his re-entry. The most graphic illustration of the hostility exhibited by many UIL and IPP members toward O’Brien came at the infamous ‘Baton Convention’ in Dublin’s Mansion House in early February 1909, when he and his supporters were shouted down during their speeches and physically intimidated.
The convention and its aftermath confirmed O’Brien’s conviction that Devlin and his organisation, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, had assumed primacy within the Party umbrella. He could not be a part of a party that, he argued, was now effectively run by a sectarian movement which would have excluded the likes of Parnell and Wolfe Tone from the pantheon of Irish nationalism by dint of their religion.
O’Brien had been lobbied by Dunraven since 1907 to start up a new organisation that would bring his followers and like-minded members of the unionist community together under the programme of a continuation of the 1903 policies of conciliation. There had been a semi-serious effort at making this happen in 1908 before O’Brien rejoined the IPP, but in March 1909 the organisation, named the All-for-Ireland League (AFIL) was founded at a rally in Kanturk in north-western county Cork. Redmond denounced the foundation of this movement, warning it would “break up and destroy Ireland’s pledge-bound Party and kill the United Irish League”.
The AFIL was placed in stasis shortly after this meeting. O’Brien’s physical health had not been good during and after the Convention, and he suffered a collapse shortly after the Kanturk meeting. After medical consultation he resigned as MP, closed the Irish People newspaper (for the second time), and departed with Sophie to Italy, where he underwent delicate throat surgery near Venice. While recuperating there and later on the slopes of Fiesole near Florence, he dictated another volume of memoirs — An Olive Branch in Ireland and its history — where he again placed himself at the centre of the narrative of Irish political from the Parnell Split to the ‘Baton Convention’.
Meanwhile, his supporters in Cork had contested the by-election with Maurice Healy and had defeated the Party candidate, George Crosbie (proprietor of the Cork Examiner).
As 1909 progressed O’Brien’s cadre of followers came under increasing pressure as the Party, rejuvenated by Devlin and the AOH, made serious reorganisation efforts in Cork city and county. O’Brien told one of his key organisers in Cork that he would not be fighting any upcoming election, nor would he play any role in organising the new AFIL. He would support the AFIL financially and morally, but his physical condition precluded him taking practical part in the new movement on the ground. After hurried consultations and exchanges of letters back and forth from Ireland to Italy, O’Brien eventually and reluctantly agreed to return and stand for election in his old stomping ground.
John Herlihy, the former editor of the Irish People, was re-hired to edit a campaign newspaper, the Cork Accent. Attempts at forging an alliance between the AFIL and Sinn Fein through a Dublin O’Brienite, James Brady, foundered on several occasions. Undeterred, O’Brien arrived in Cork in late December 1909 to contest the upcoming general election. He and his followers fought the election with gusto, securing five of the eight parliamentary seats in Cork city and county in violent contests beset by outbreaks of traditional electoral violence for the time. Seats in Mayo, Kerry and Monaghan were also claimed by O’Brien as victories for the AFIL.
The AFIL was formally launched in Cork city on 31 March 1910. Membership cards were distributed containing lines from Thomas Davis, Parnell and TD Sullivan, who wrote the League’s motto:
“All for Ireland here are we,
All for Ireland’s liberty;
To right, to raise, to set her free,
Our native land forever.”
Reaction to the new movement was mixed. Redmond called it a renewal of the post-Land Conference Irish Reform Association “decked out with a few pale spring flowers in the vain effort to hide the pallor of death”; UIL members in west Cork attacked it for attracting support from every “Unionist, factionist, crank or sorehead”. Others were more admiring however. A private report on Irish political movements prepared for Chancellor David Lloyd George and the Liberal Chief Whip AM Murray, the Master of Elibank, contained the following passage:
“No one but William O’Brien could have created such a Movement … His unselfishness and his sacrifice, his honesty and his inconsistencies appeal to the Irish imagination and obtain [for] him a hold on Irish hearts immeasurably beyond any other living politician. Perhaps the most striking circumstance is that he can consort and confer with the Irish Tories without anyone daring to doubt his fidelity to the Cause of the Irish people … Support is accorded to O’Brien for various reasons. The great majority support him because of the part he played in passing the too-successful Wyndham Land Purchase Act, and because of his unsparing and wholesale condemnation of the Budget. Others believe in him because he aims at a conciliatory settlement of the Home Rule Question and had shown himself ready to chivalrously forget differences with old and bitter foes like Lord Barrymore, in order that all may united to ‘hammer out’ a National Policy that will bring a greater measure of prosperity to Ireland. ”
In June 1910 the Cork Accent was replaced as the AFIL newspaper by the Cork Free Press; Herlihy continued in the editor’s chair. Canon PA Sheehan wrote two unsigned editorials for the first few issues of the paper, coruscating the contemporary Ireland he saw before him. Shareholders in the paper came from across the political spectrum, from Lords Dunraven and Castletown to Lady Fizgerald-Arnott (whose husband was proprietor of The Irish Times), to Mrs H Mitchel Martin (sister of the celebrated Fenian John Mitchel). Moreton Frewen, an eccentric Anglo-American landlord and cousin of Winston Churchill, also contributed money to the AFIL through an American organisation, the League of Federals.
The AFIL at Westminster (in a second election in December 1910 it increased its representation to 7 MPs) were not bound by a whip system, and were theoretically free to vote whichever way they saw fit on many issues. In practice they voted as one on land issues, they continued to oppose the budgets introduced by David Lloyd George, and they maintained a critical opposition to the Home Rule Bill introduced in April 1912.
On the Home Rule question, O’Brien tried to maintain a balancing act between Dunraven’s championing of a federal solution to the question of Irish self-government and a dominion status for Ireland along the lines granted to Canada in 1867. He also drew frequent attention to the opposition by unionists in Ulster to home rule. Edward Carson, the leader of the Irish Unionists from 1911, mentioned during one debate on the Home Rule Bill that:
“Had the offer [of conciliation] … been made to the men of the north by the majority of the Irish party, we might consider it, but when we see how the Hon. Member [i.e. O’Brien] is persecuted for offering conciliatory terms to the north …”
During 1913 the prospect of some sort of exclusion for Ulster from the Home Rule Bill loomed large. For O’Brien the proposal filled him with horror; that Ireland would be divided was an anathema to him. An AFIL conference in Cork was told:
“There is one thing, and one thing only, as far as Ireland is concerned which can’t be compromised under any possible conditions, and that is that Ulster must not be amputated from the fair body of Ireland (Loud applause). That is impossible and unthinkable.”
By the dawn of 1914, however, John Redmond and the IPP were being coerced by Prime Minister Asquith and Lloyd George into agreeing to some sort of exclusion for Ulster (though the precise definition of ‘Ulster’ was to be clarified). When this eventually came to light O’Brien turned his venomous jets fully on the Party, who he thundered had “sold and betrayed … the Catholics of the Excluded Counties”; an AFIL conference in Cork on 14 March 1914 called on “all genuine Irish Nationalists” to put pressure on their MPs to reject the exclusion measures. On 1 April O’Brien made a powerful speech against Ulster exclusion in the House of Commons. Tim Healy later recalled it one of his “most eloquent declarations”, and that “something of the spirit of the old Hebrew prophets had inspired” him.
Yet this did not sustain the campaign of opposition to the Bill, and when the final vote was taken on 25 May O’Brien made an incoherent speech, denouncing it as a “ghastly farce”. AFIL MPs abstained on the final vote, which passed “with a certain element of tragic farce” by 77 votes. Sophie later recalled an “important foe of the Conciliation policy once declared that O’Brien’s policy was common-sense and commonsense has little chance in Ireland.”
A looming civil war in Ireland over the question of Home Rule was averted with the outbreak of war in Europe in the late summer of 1914. O’Brien wrote in his memoirs:
“three courses were open to Ireland … She might have held sternly aloof, in view of the unsettled condition in which her own affairs had been left, or she might have cordially joined the Allies in consideration of sufficient guarantees for the future of Home Rule, or she might follow the course which unfortunately Mr Redmond did follow, of doing neither the one thing nor the other with firmness.”
The first option was never realistically viable: once unionists had pledged their support to the war effort, Redmond felt compelled to do likewise. On the second point, the fact that the Home Rule Bill was placed in abeyance in September 1914 was interpreted by Redmond and his followers that the government would adhere to the pledge of enacting Home Rule at the war’s end. Thirdly, Redmond’s position mirrored that of Asquith during the Home Rule Crisis, when the Prime Minister conducted a policy of constructive ambiguity in relation to the controversial questions of Ulster.
O’Brien’s fiery denunciation of the war in his memoirs jars with the public statements he made at the outset of hostilities. In her memoirs of the period Sophie recalls that O’Brien had a “long and cordial” meeting with Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, about the question of recruiting for a purely Irish division within the British Army. O’Brien pledged to do this as a sign of support for Sophie and her mother, still domiciled in Paris. Frank Gallagher, by now the editor of the Cork Free Press, urged O’Brien not to publicly commit to recruiting for the army:
“His All for Ireland league was, I told him, capable of becoming an important section of the freedom movement … if he made a recruiting speech, the life of his paper would be over; its circulation would fall at least half; [and] his All for Ireland clubs would swing away and become branches of Sinn Fein.”
O’Brien rebuffed Gallagher’s entreaties: “I don’t believe a word of it”.
O’Brien’s support for the war alienated the sections of the AFIL closely aligned with what may be called ‘advanced nationalism’. Gallagher and himself had what could be called a tempestuous relationship, with the former holding as firm to his convictions as the latter. The AFIL effectively drifted away from its founder, partly due to recruiting, but also partly due to growing militancy among a small cadre within the Volunteer movement which many AFIL members also joined from 1913. This militancy found violent expression in central Dublin in Easter week 1916 (also in sporadic places such as Galway and Wexford — Cork’s role was stymied by the sinking of the Aud off Kerry a few days before the rising). O’Brien condemned the actions of Patrick Pearse and his colleagues strongly in the immediate aftermath, but as the arrests of the rebels grew and the leaders were executed at Kilmainham the mood changed. Relatives of imprisoned men petitioned him to intervene with the government on their behalf, and in one memorable exchange with Lloyd George who bemoaned that there were no young men of ability in Ireland O’Brien retorted: “You shot them all”.
The continuation of the war and the restrictions placed on all activities by the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) hindered O’Brien and the AFIL. The League waned in support due to its championing of recruiting and its reluctance to engage with the growing militant movements. A disconnect between the leadership and the grassroots was brought into focus after the death of AFIL MP James Gilhooly in October 1916. O’Brien courted support of separatists by persuading a prisoner, Frank Healy of Queenstown, to stand in the by-election. Local AFIL branches rebelled, and nominated Dr Michael Shipsey. The squabbling which ensued, allied to the reluctance of Healy to stand, split the AFIL and allowed Daniel O’Leary, the Party candidate, to take the seat. Sinn Fein also felt the effects of the by-election: Herbert Pim, a Belfast Quaker who had gathered support within enough circles of the movement to launch a challenge to the imprisoned leadership of the movement, supported O’Brien and Healy, and was thus sidelined by the hardliners still in prison in Britain.
The Cork Free Press fell afoul of the DORA regulations on a number of occasions after the Easter Rising, as Gallagher attempted to portray the conditions faced by Irish nationalist prisoners in British jails; this was done presumably in the hope of rallying support to the paper, whose readership had almost completely collapsed. In June 1916 the paper was suppressed and, despite appearing again in fitful spasms, ceased publication in December. By the end debts had totalled over £10,000, and the paper was losing £25 per week. Attempts by O’Brien to sell the paper to firstly William Martin Murphy of the Irish Independent and George Crosbie of the Cork Examiner were a failure. Sophie’s fortune, which was built upon investments in Germany and Russia, had been eroded heavily due to the war. Therefore, with support and finance in terminal decline, O’Brien took the decision to close the Cork Free Press and effectively end the AFIL.
Shorn of a party and with his policy of conciliation almost totally eclipsed, O’Brien cut a disenchanted figure, reduced to catcalling from the sidelines. During the attempts by Lloyd George to cut a deal that would see Home Rule implemented in the autumn of 1916 O’Brien attempted to organise a rally in Cork against the partition proposals that would form part of the scheme. The rally was a disaster, and spelt the end of his career as a popular politician. In an echo of the ‘Baton Convention’, O’Brien was drowned out by catcalls and regular interruptions from separatists in the audience at Cork City Hall, orchestrated by labour activist Tadhg Barry (who wrote for the Cork Free Press). Sophie later wrote in her memoirs that later in the evening after the meeting broke up:
“some of the leading young fellows called at the office of the Cork Free Press and assured our manager that they were in no way hostile to William O’Brien, but he was the only man who could get Irishmen to accept a constitutional policy and they were against it.”
Any concordat between O’Brien and Sinn Fein was going to be on the latter’s terms, which meant abstention from Westminster. Yet this did not stop him from supporting Sinn Fein against the Party, and turning his propagandistic talents upon his former colleagues. On the same day as the ill-fated Cork meeting, a meeting of nationalists in Belfast voted to accept the de facto partition of the island i.e. exclusion of six Ulster counties from the Home Rule scheme. For approximately a fortnight Lloyd George looked as if he had achieved a breakthrough in the impasse of 1914. However diehard Unionists and Conservatives scuppered the scheme, viewing it as rewarding the violence of the Rising. By the end of July Redmond, in spite of the Party having voted to accept exclusion, announced that he would oppose whatever bill Lloyd George brought before the House. Lloyd George wrote to John Dillon that the opportunity had passed to settle the question of Irish self-government by consent:
“I shudder at what may happen … in Ireland. The country must be governed and if it cannot be ruled through and with the assent of the Irish people, there is no doubt it will have to be governed by force. In the middle of a great war you could not tolerate a rebellious or seditious Ireland.”
Essentially freelance from this point on, O’Brien maintained his links with Lord Dunraven and Moreton Frewen, as well as with Tim Healy. His usefulness to Dunraven and Frewen and their cadre of federalists among the Conservative party was long past, yet they maintained contact. In the autumn of 1916, as the West Cork by-election sounded the death knell of the AFIL, O’Brien called for an ad hoc conference not sponsored by government ministers to settle the Home Rule question. This call, unrealistic as it may have sounded, drew the attention of the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Wimborne, who suggested to Lloyd George that a conference chaired by an outside person (he suggested Louis Botha, the South African Prime Minister) would offer the best route to a settlement. Nothing immediately came of this suggestion. However a number of events towards the end of 1916 — Lloyd George becoming Prime Minister, the release of many of those arrested after the Rising, the threat of conscription in Ireland due to mounting losses on the Western Front, and growing interest in official circles in America in the Irish question — brought the prospect of some sort of round table conference on Home Rule more likely, if somewhat ephemeral.
The Party came under pressure at grassroots level: farmers (the bedrock of their support) were disappearing due to recruiting and bad harvests led to disenchantment, some of which found expression with the victory of Count George Noble Plunkett at a by-election in North Roscommon in February 1917. This was followed swiftly by the victory of a prisoner, Joseph McGuinness, at a by-election in South Longford. While these defeats for the Party were not fatal, they did change somewhat the tenor of debate in London. With the necessity to concentrate on the war effort becoming uppermost in the minds of Lloyd George and his Cabinet, the idea of a conference of all shades of Irish opinion on the Home Rule issue was hugely attractive. Yet the model eventually adopted was not remotely like the one suggested by O’Brien almost twelve months previously.
On 25 July the Irish Convention met at Trinity College Dublin. O’Brien was invited to participate, but declined, deriding the gathering as “packed”; there was very little chance of reaching “a prompt, succinct, consistent and practicable agreement” in a short space of time. Partition was not on the agenda, and the result of the Convention could have been well flagged in advance. As the Convention dragged interminably on, so did the war. He did not attend the House of Commons very often, only to attack the Party. When female suffrage was introduced, he did not attend the vote, considering it too trivial a matter, even though he supported it. Redmond’s death on 6 March 1918 was greeted by O’Brien with genuine sorrow; Sophie echoed his belief that the now departed chairman of the Party had been overcome by Hibernianism.
By this time, however, the spectre of conscription had growing ever larger. Shortly after Redmond’s death the German army in the Western Front launched a massive offensive which broke through many Allied lines and threatened to end the war. A fortnight after this the Cabinet decided to extend conscription to Ireland, while also rising the maximum age from 40 to 51. O’Brien and Sophie had gone to France in the summer of 1917 to visit Madame Raffalovich in the south of the country (and were caught up in the last air-raid on Paris during their return journey). On their return to Ireland they found people “excited by Mr Lloyd George’s plan for conscription.” O’Brien called the potential introduction of conscription to Ireland “the final bankruptcy of parliamentary methods”; this crisis, like every one of the past fifty years, would be resolved in Ireland. It was “a declaration of war against Ireland!”
The anti-conscription movement brought O’Brien together with Dillon and Devlin, and with the personalities of a new Irish political landscape: Thomas Johnson and William O’Brien of the Labour Party, and Arthur Griffith and Eamonn de Valera representing the recently renewed Sinn Fein. O’Brien was impressed with de Valera, admiring his “subtle blend of virility and emotion”. Although squabbles did inevitably arise during the meetings of the movement, a united declaration eventually emanated from the gathering. A de facto “National Cabinet” came about as a result of the gathering, and O’Brien and Tim Healy continued to work as part of the cabinet even after the immediate threat of conscription had receded.
The movement was wound up early in the autumn of 1918, and immediately after the German surrender on 11 November a UK-wide general election was called. O’Brien and his colleagues in the nominal AFIL had agreed after the West Cork by-election “not to allow ourselves to be nominated for re-election to the English Parliament.” This was in spite of O’Brien receiving personal entreaties via Moreton Frewen to stand on a federal Home Rule platform as part of a “centre party of notables”. Healy also urged him to run, suggesting a marginal seat in Ulster; O’Brien replied that, even if successful (unlikely), he could achieve nothing in isolation at Westminster. His support for a war which had cost hundreds of thousands of Irish nationalist lives, in pursuit of a chimerical dream, from 1916 on, of Home Rule (in whatever form), meant that his electoral chances against a rapidly rising Sinn Fein tide were close to nil.
In his final address as MP to the electors of Cork City, he acknowledged the fruitless nature of his struggle — “my position has long been that of a man buried alive and striving in vain to make his voice reach the ears of his countrymen” — and therefore Sinn Fein, who “have saved … the country from Partition, from Conscription and from political corruption ought now to have a full and sympathetic trial for their own plans for enforcing the Irish nation’s right of Self-determination.” While the methods of achieving self-government had changed, he concluded:
“Nothing can ever shake my faith in the indestructibility of Ireland’s sovereign right to independence as a nation, and in her ultimate triumph by whatever means and by whatever more fortunate men it may come about.”
For the campaign, he had written a pamphlet entitled The Downfall of Parliamentarianism. This was his final diatribe against the Party, which was on the threshold of being “whirled off to hell in a fiery chariot of their own construction.” Sinn Fein held for him the same promise as that of Parnell’s new party had in the 1880s. But it was no for him or his colleagues to shape the new future. It was for “the young battalions of the future” to fight “the immemorial wars for Ireland’s freedom”. Words not a little prophetic!
O’Brien and Sophie retired to their new house at Bellevue, overlooking the Blackwater and not far from his childhood home at Ballydaheen. There, he followed the developments following the eclipse of the Irish Party by Sinn Fein at the December 1918 general election. Sophie recounted with horror in her memoirs the burning of Mallow by the Black and Tans in September 1920. O’Brien viewed with equal horror the passage of the Government of Ireland Act at Westminster, which brought into being two Home Rule Parliaments in Ireland: one in Dublin, the other in Belfast, thus formally partitioning the island. He viewed the arrangement as a temporary expedient, a legacy of “the Hibernian Party” who “have been condemned by their countrymen in a manner which ought to make any man of sensitive honour among them for ever hide his head.” For that reason alone, he supported the anti-Treatyites after the negotiation of the Treaty in December 1921. The Irish Free State, he claimed, was “compulsorily obedient to England”; after the deaths of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, the government of the new state changed from “preponderantly Nationalist” to “more frankly British and Imperialist.”
During the Civil War O’Brien was active locally in trying to prevent further damage to the town after the railway bridge was blown up. Sophie recounted anti-Treatyite soldiers calling to the house for food while retreating through Mallow to Kerry; they “were decent people, but the determination to fight on was heartbreaking.” De Valera called on O’Brien soon after. The two men spoke at length about the political situation, and O’Brien asked him why he had not gone to London as one of the plenipotentiaries negotiating the Treaty. O’Brien also had contact with Michael Collins, who sought his counsel during the ‘pact’ election of 1922; Sophie recalled that O’Brien “thought Collins had the very qualities of his own eldest brother.”
The years surrounding the War of Independence and Civil War also saw many of O’Brien’s friends and colleagues pass away, including Alderman JC Forde, Maurice Healy (brother of Tim) and Lord Dunraven. The post-Civil War political landscape failed to blunt O’Brien’s spleen. Although he did not take to the platform, he sent a lengthy telegram of support to an anti-Boundary Commission rally in Dublin in 1925. Though his health was failing, he persevered in writing, and published a biography of Edmund Burke in 1924, emphasising the Irish aspect to the life and career of the father of modern conservative political thought. His final major work was a portrait of Parnell, his mentor, his chief, his inspiration, which was published in 1926.
At the age of seventy-five, O’Brien was offered the chance to stand for election to Dail Eireann for Cork City in 1927. He gently turned down the offer, but wrote a manifesto in support of De Valera’s new Fianna Fail party, which was published as a pamphlet during the election campaign. His support for the new party was not, he stressed, because they stood for an Irish Republic; rather, it was because they stood for a repudiation of the treaties of 1921 and 1925 that copper-fastened the partition of the island. Solving the “Ulster Difficulty” would involve the assimilation of the creeds into a “generous Irish Nation”; a “poor Parliament in Belfast” was not the answer. In an interview with his biographer Michael MacDonagh a few days before his death O’Brien spoke of his firm conviction that the policy of the “three Cs” would eventually lead to the end of partition:
“[The] search for the revised agreement must be pursued without the use of or threats of militarist force on either side, and must be based upon honest friendliness for the people of Britain and regard for their sensibilities and rational interests, and upon the most delicate and generous respect for the rights and even prejudices of our own non-Catholic countrymen, remembering what the Protestants and Presbyterians of Ulster were less than a century ago. But national self-determination of the entire country it is bound to be, and the decision must be final.”
O’Brien died suddenly yet peacefully in his suite at London’s Belgravia Hotel on the evening of Saturday 25 February 1928. A private funeral was held in Westminster Cathedral’s Chapel of the Holy Souls on the Monday. By sheer coincidence the body of O’Brien’s former comrade and later bitter political foe John Dillon had lain in the same chapel a few months earlier. From there the body was taken to Euston Station to be borne back to Ireland on the mail-train, a frequent and favourite journey O’Brien would make. On Tuesday 28 February the body of “the poor man’s Parnell” was received into Mallow church for a private service. Former colleagues and close friends joined Sophie; the only outside mourners were a deputation from the former tenants of Nathaniel Buckley. O’Brien was buried in the adjoining churchyard, not far from his boyhood home.
William O’Brien lived several lives all rolled into seventy-five years of turbulence. Michael MacDonagh in his biography published shortly after O’Brien’s death posed the question: did O’Brien the writer inspire O’Brien the politician, or vice versa? I would add only this further element of complexity: did O’Brien the man of action hinder O’Brien the politician? Much of his fame, as we have seen tonight, was rightly based on his work as a champion of the tenants of Ireland, and his struggles with landlordism. A propagandist par excellence, it could be argued that O’Brien hindered himself by the strident and virulent nature of his writings during the heyday of Parnell. He did not have Parnell’s gift of duality of expression, nor his ability to ambiguously negotiate. What he did have, though, was an honesty of purpose, even to the point of assuming total control of a movement. Colleagues in the nationalist movement marvelled at his work ethic, but also grumbled about his querulous nature. Davitt nicknamed him the “Tsar” for his autocratic tendencies; DP Moran of The Leader called him “Screeching William” (a sarcastic commentary on his public speaking tactics; Moran’s often virulent and personal attacks on O’Brien may also have been rejection of his earlier hero-worship of him).
O’Brien was not a politician in the meaning understood by his contemporaries. For all his erudition, he felt ill-at-ease in the halls of Westminster, and lacked the rapier thrust in debate exhibited by colleagues such as Tim Healy — although it can also be argued that Healy lacked self-control in this department! His politicking was best done on the platform and in print, less so in secret meetings and at dinner parties. He lacked the even temperament that marked his mentor Parnell and his contemporaries John Redmond and John Dillon.
O’Brien’s political world was in a sense binary: if you were not with him, you were against him. Members of the former testified to his loyalty and steadfast support; those in the latter camp echoed the words of WE Forster uttered in 1881. This, ironically, served him ill after 1903 when he attempted to forge a path of moderation between two increasingly polarised camps. Studying his career closely after 1903 — which is an extremely challenging undertaking — illuminates the extent to which the militant Catholicism that emerged from the devotional revolution at the end of the nineteenth century shrouded the nationalist movement. Although O’Brien was personally a devout Catholic, his political outlook was less sectarian than many of his contemporaries, perhaps a legacy of his schooling.
As a campaigner and agitator, O’Brien was gifted. His private papers, especially in University College Cork, are a testament to the work he put in building up the United Irish League from 1898 on. The pages of United Ireland, the Irish People, the Cork Accent and the Cork Free Press are a trove of insight into his talent for propagandising. His knowledge of contemporary English political life is astonishing and challenging for the historian to unravel. One thing above all else stands out in his writing and that is the denseness of his prose; along with his personal writing, it is perhaps the hardest thing to understand at times, and his later memoirs suffer from over-zealous rancour which clouds the narrative, self-aggrandising though much of it may be.
William O’Brien was, above all else, a man of contradictions: a dreamer, an idealist, a zealot, a dictator, and a patriot. His words and actions resonate to this day in this county and this country. Yet he is ill-served, to my mind, by history. Two biographical studies and a number of journal articles are the sum total of writing on O’Brien in the ninety years since his death. A radical agrarian agitator who changed the face of land tenure in this country, and a politician unafraid to trod middle ground when all bar a handful of his contemporaries were occupying polarising ramparts — that is the William O’Brien that deserves to be commemorated.