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


Political Career

This short article allows only a very condensed account of O’Brien’s political life which extended from Catholic Emancipation to the Great Famine and a decade beyond. He seems to appear suddenly on the scene in 1832, but must have been well established as a politican before this, since he was chairman of the committee which selected Daniel O’Connell as candidate for the famous Clare Election of 1828.

The Clare Journal of December 10th, 1832 carried O’Briens address to the people of the county. Part of it reads:-

If I had seen any other person of liberal and independent principles disposed to rescue you from being made the instruments of those who triumphantly boast that they can nominate your representative and control your suffrage by undue influence and bribery, I should have remained in the unobtrusive privacy of professional life, content with giving support and assistance to any candidate who would be entitled to your unbiased suffrage. I come forward as one of yourselves and solicit the honour of your support uninfluenced by any consideration except that of promoting the interests of our common country.

A supplementary address clarifies his stand on Repeal pledging him to the advocacy of that great measure. His nomination was seconded rather half-heartedly by Tom Steele. A letter in the Stacpoole-Kenny papers in the National Library, gives a hint of the in-fighting which must have accompanied the battle for the two seats. Richard Scott of Dublin writes to Capt. John McNamara of Moher that Daniel O’Connell must keep his promise and that of O’Brien must be stopped at all costs in the interests of the Major (W.J. McNamara, the other Liberal.)

All went well, however, and the Major was elected with 920 votes followed by O’Brien with 897. They were also returned in 1835, 1837 and 1841 with only a few votes between them. The election of 1847 provided an upset for Cornelius. Sir Lucius O’Brien headed the poll followed by Major MacNamara. It was a bitterly fought campaign in many ways reminiscent of present-day elections. Accusations of corruption were flung about and in a blazing row at Kilkee Assizes, Mr. Collins, a young Kerry attorney, accused Charles O’Connell, barrister, of Castlepark House, Liscannor, of switching his support from Cornelius O’Brien to Sir Lucius for a bribe of six hundred pounds. Cornelius came back strongly in 1852 and headed the poll in 1853, his last election.

As a parliamentarian, O’Brien does not seem to have been in the mould of Burke or Grattan. His best work was done at constituency level and we search Hansard in vain for examples of his oratory. In extenuation, we must remember that Daniel O’Connell was in full spate at this time and it must have been hard to get a work in.
Lord Palmerston’s verdict was:-

"O’Brien was the best Irish M.P. we ever had. He didn’t open his mouth in twenty years."

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