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Cornelius O'Brien of Birchfield (1782 - 1857) by Henry Comber


The Duellist

In the course of the 1847 campaign, Pierse Creagh, election agent for William Fitzgerald, claimed that he had been insulted by Cornelius O’Brien and sent his friend, Blake-Forster as his second to call O’Brien out. Both parties were bound to the peace in £600 and the affair came to naught even though Blake-Forster suggested a meeting on the continent. A certain lack of enthusiasm on O’Brien’s part is understandable. He was sixty-five years of age and the memory of a previous affair of honour must have been indelibly impressed on his mind. This took place in 1810 and is described in a booklet Famous Irish Trials preserved in the National Library under the title,

A full and accurate report of the Trial of Cornelius O’Brien and Cornelius McDonough, Esqrs. for the Murder of Francis Drew, Esq. at the late Assizes of Trim held before the Hon. Sir William Cusack-Smith, Baronet, Third Baron of His Majesty’s Court of Exchequer containing The Very Eloquent Appeal made by Mr. O’Brien to the Court on his receiving sentence. Taken on the spot by Isaac Burke Bethel, Esq., Barrister at Law - 1810.

The lengthy verbatim report makes fascinating reading but is too long for inclusion here. The words “swaggerer” and “coward” were among the epithets dealt out at one of the public offices in the City of Dublin. The lie was given and this was followed by a blow inflicted on the deceased by the prisoner, O’Brien. The deceased, Drew, described by a witness as the most implacable, unmanageable, ungovernable man he had ever met with, would have no accommodation, nothing but a shot would satisfy him. The jury found the prisoners guilty of manslaughter and they were sentenced to six months imprisonment. Here Mr. O’Brien asked permission to address the court. This was granted and his speech deserves to be reproduced in full;

“I am sure you Lordship had good reason for paying attention to the reports which have reached you concerning me. But allow me, my Lord, to say they did me great injustice. I am no fighting man, my Lord; I abhor the character and I am grieved at the impression which seems to be made on your Lordship’s mind as to me. Allow me to inform your Lordship that my father was a gentleman of rank and prosperity in the County of Clare. He instructed me in the principles of religion and morality; and spared no expense on my education. He placed me in an honourable profession. He was in embarrassed circumstances, poor man. He is now in his grave. He died when I was young, very young, leaving me the management of those affairs, and the care of a widowed mother and five orphaned children. God protected us. By my industry and attention and by the means of my profession I succeeded in restoring my family to their property and enabled myself to become the protector of my mother and to stand in the place of a father to her children.

In the course of my exertions, which I hope were praiseworthy, I had to do with a gentleman who was the enemy of my father and helped to undermine his fortunes. His resentments outlived my poor father and he turned them on me. He met me on the street of Ennistymon, in my own county, my Lord, and there publicly called me a swindler, a liar, and a coward. I was then only 19. My friends thought that if I put up with such treatment I could neither follow my profession nor show my face in my county. I was well connected, my Lord. I did not wish to disgrace myself or my connexions. I had a meeting with Mr. McNamara. This, no doubt, reached your Lordship’s ears, and occasioned those severe observations which have afflicted me so much. My Lord, that was the first affair I was engaged in; the only except this late unfortunate one, which I shall lament the longest day I live. Before my meeting with Mr. McNamara, I solemnly declare I had never fired a shot out of a pistol; and you will recollect, my Lord, that my wish was to have recourse to a court of law.

To come to the last melancholy business, my Lord, God forbid that I should say anything untrue or cast any imputation on Mr. Drew. My counsel knew it would be far from my wish to do so. He cannot contradict me; he is in his grave, poor man; and for the remainder of my life I shall deplore his owing his death to me.”

Here Mr. O’Brien seemed overcome with the violence of his own emotions.

“My lord, far from practising, I solemnly declared in the presence of my God whom I revere, I do believe that unfortunate shot (here again he appeared strongly affected) was the fourth shot I ever fired in my life. Poor Mr. Drew had in the public offices insulted me with all the epithets that have been given in evidence by Mr. Pollock and Mr. Meares and for no other crime but my bringing him to a fair settlement of a long account he had with my family. When I went to tax his bill of costs, his manner was to the full as offensive as anything he said.

He assumed a superiority over me, my Lord, and a contemptuous behaviour that I could not brook. Yet, afterwards, and I appeal to God, who hears me for the truth of this, it was my wish to have avoided the meeting and to do everything in my power to have things amicably settled and if Mr. Drew himself was here, I would call on him to say whether I did not show that this was my sincere wish. But, poor man, I may say this much for myself, that he hated me and was determined not to make up matters up with me. My Lord, as to the unfortunate old man who is standing by my side, he is my relation. I was able to be of some assistance to him in his distresses. I thought and knew that he would take care of my life as well as my honour; and this was one of my reasons for choosing him for my Friend. He has suffered a great deal on my account; and indeed, he is more to be pitied than blamed. People have hardly spoken of him. He had to contend for many years with poverty and distress; and in the eyes of the world, my Lord, poverty is a crime; you seldom hear a poor man spoken well of, and when he was almost rescued from his distress, he has been unfortunately led into this situation by my means. He has undergone some confinement; and his health is very bad. There are physicians who can satisfy your Lordship.

That he has had dangerous attacks in the Gaol. Indeed my own health is not good. I have been always bilious and uneasiness of mind and confinement have made me worse.

My Lord, I am obliged for this indulgence. I could not retire from this Court where there are so many respectable people present, without trying to do your Lordship’s impressions of my being a fighting man, and a fire-eater away. My Lord, it is a character I abhor, and there are respectable people present who would make affidavit that all I have said to myself is true. After what has passed this day, I fear I am a ruined man in all my prospects. I could not bear to stay in the country - I could not, my Lord. At the expiration of your Lordship’s sentence, to which I bow with respect, I will quit the country; I will quit my family and my connexions for ever.”

His Lordship declared that the discourse he had just heard bore upon it the character and the stamp of truth. To him, notwithstanding the unfortunate transgression into which he had been betrayed, it presented Mr. O’Brien in the light of a young gentleman of amiable disposition and uncommon intellectual endowments. That address, delivered to a crowded auditory, seemed to him to change the face of things and to lay substantial grounds for a considerable and striking mitigation of the sentence. Accordingly, he had pleasure in abridging the term of imprisonment to one week.

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