Riches of Clare: William Smith O'Brien

Clare Champion, Friday, October 25, 2002

The Riches of Clare exhibition at the Clare Museum charts the county's history of 6,000 years using authentic artifacts. In the latest article examining the historical artifacts, museum curator John Rattigan writes about the blood pact signed by Dromoland's William Smith O'Brien.

In 1848, the people of Italy, France, Germany rebelled for a variety of complex reasons, in what became known as the Year of Revolutions in Europe. Equally in Ireland, in October 1848, Munster men William Smith O'Brien and Thomas Francis Meagher wrote their names in blood while imprisoned in Clonmel Gaol after a failed rebellion in County Tipperary. These two educated men were prominent political leaders of their time, and the skirmish at "Widow Mc Cormacks Cabbage Garden" was to prove a watershed in their lives.

William Smith O'Brien was born in Dromoland, on October 17, 1803. The second son of Sir Edward O'Brien, he adopted his mothers surname Smith as an additional surname. After his education at Harrow and Cambridge he entered politics and was elected as Conservative MP for Ennis in 1820, and in 1835 as MP for County Limerick. He married and had seven children, although he also had a further two by a mistress.

With his Conservative and Protestant background, O'Brien was originally a fervent believer in the British Governments capacity to govern Ireland well. He sought liberal reform for Ireland in Westminster but became frustrated with the British political system and gradually came to the conclusion that Irish participation was a waste of time.

When O'Brien joined the Repeal Association in October 1843, he became a loyal deputy of Daniel O'Connell, and was active in seeking relief during the famine. However, O'Connell's rejection of physical force for securing ultimate freedom was becoming unpopular with many, and O'Brien joined the revolutionary group, the Young Irelanders,

A Young Ireland Rebellion was planned for the summer of 1848. However, with the general population still reeling from the Famine, the preparations and timing could not have been worse. The rebellion amounted to little more than a skirmish with policemen at Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary, known as the Battle of Widow Mc Cormack's Cabbage Garden, and ended in O'Brien's arrest and incarceration in Clonmel Gaol. It was while here that O'Brien signed the blood pact with fellow politician, turned rebel, Thomas Francis Meagher.

Found guilty of high treason, William Smith O'Brien and the other leaders were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This was subsequently commuted and he was transported to Australia along with the other leaders including Thomas Francis Meagher. He was granted a pardon after almost five years and he moved to Belgium. It was not until May 1856 that he was finally allowed to return to Ireland. Avoiding politics, he led a relatively quiet life, touring Europe and North America, writing articles for The Nation newspaper. After a period of failing health, he died on June 16th, 1864 and is buried in Rathronan, County Limerick.

Thomas Francis Meagher was born in Waterford City on August 3, 1823. He studied under the Jesuits at Clongoweswood, County Kildare and later at Stonyhurst College, Lancashire. He came to prominence in the Repeal Movement in 1846 and like O'Brien, became convinced that Irish Independence was the only way forward. Indeed, Meagher is credited with popularising the Irish tri-colour, having been sent one as a gift in 1848 by French Revolutionaries who sympathised with the Irish cause.

Meagher was transported to Australia with O'Brien and other leaders, where he married. In contrast with O'Brien, however, Meagher escaped to the US in 1852, where he became a popular lecturer and was later admitted to the New York Bar.

At the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, Meagher raised a company for the 69th New York Regiment. In February 1862, he was appointed Brigadier General and led his troops with distinction in battles at Fredricksburg and Antietam. At Chancellorville, Meagher and his brigade displayed great gallantry by holding the broken line, stemming the tide of retreat, and dragging into action a battery of artillery. At the end of the war, he was appointed provisional Governor of the State of Montana where he was again actively engaged in raising forces, this time against hostile Indians.

It was while engaged on such activity that he took some time off to rest on a steamer at Fort Benton, on the Missouri River. He was suffering from a bowel complaint at the time and consequently had to make frequent visits to the office on deck. On one of these visits he slipped, fell overboard and was swept away in the torrent. His body was never found.

The Young Ireland rebellion of 1848 was militarily a failure. It did however give Ireland its National Flag and influenced Irish Republican movement later in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The essence of two of its leaders is forever captured in the blood pact signed between William Smith O'Brien and Thomas Francis Meagher, at Clonmel Gaol in 1848.

View blood pact between William Smith O'Brien and Thomas Francis Meagher

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