O'Brien, William Smith

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

O'Brien, William Smith

William Smith O'Brien, 1803–64, Irish revolutionary. He entered Parliament from Ireland in 1828 and worked for Catholic Emancipation, Irish poor relief, and state support of the Irish Catholic clergy. O'Brien's political opinions moved steadily to the left. At first he opposed the agitation of Daniel O'Connell to repeal the parliamentary union of Great Britain and Ireland, believing that the British Parliament would grant some relief to Ireland, but in 1843 he joined the Repeal Association and rapidly became O'Connell's second in the Irish nationalist struggle. O'Brien's group, called Young Ireland, became convinced that only direct action would free Ireland, and in 1846, with John Mitchel, Thomas Francis Meagher, and Charles Gavan Duffy, O'Brien seceded from O'Connell's association to form the Irish Confederation. The aggravation of the famine and Mitchel's arrest and conviction in 1848 determined them to rise against the government. The revolt was abortive, and the only engagement was an attempt to attack a police detachment in Co. Tipperary. O'Brien was arrested and sentenced to death for treason, but the sentence was commuted to transportation to Tasmania. He received a full pardon in 1856. Afterward he returned to Ireland and traveled on the Continent and in America, but he was no longer politically active.

See D. Gwynn, Young Ireland and 1848 (1949); biography by B. Touhill (1981).

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