William O'Brien

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We are taking to-night – I don’t conceal it from myself – one of the most momentous decisions in our history. If we make up our minds, for heaven's sake let there be no half-heartedness, let there be no qualifications or reservations. We have got to be honest friends or honest enemies of England. It won’t do merely to say that we are willing to fight for Belgium, or to fight for Ireland, or to fight for France, much though we love those gallant nations (cheers). We have got to go further and to say, without putting a tooth in it, that we are ready to fight for England as well, in England's way (cheers). And in fighting England's battle in the particular circumstance of this war, I am convinced to the heart's core that we are fighting the most effective battle in all the ages for Ireland's liberty (cheers) as well as to save our towns and our homes and our women and children from the grip of the most appalling horde of brutes in human shape that ever cursed this earth since Atilla met his doom at the hands of eternal justice (cheers). [41]

O'Brien later wrote: "Whether Home Rule is to have a future will depend upon the extent to which the Nationalists in combination with Ulster Covenanters, do their part in the firing line on the fields of France". [42] He stood on recruiting platforms with the other National leaders and spoke out encouragingly in favour of voluntary enlistment in the Royal Munster Fusiliers and other Irish regiments.

Changing tides

O'Brien, alarmed at the increased activity of Sinn Féin in 1915, predicted the danger of a potential republican eruption, culminating in the IRB 1916 Rebellion, in which however Sinn Féin were not involved. He was forced to cease publication of his Cork Free Press in 1916 soon after the appointment of Lord Decies as Chief Press Censor for Ireland. Decies warned the press to be careful about what they published. Such warnings had little effect when dealing with such papers as the Cork Free Press. It was suppressed after its republican editor, Frank Gallagher, accused the British authorities of lying about the conditions and situation of republican prisoners in the Frongoch internment camp. [43]

Ireland's Anti-Conscription Pledge, 1918 Ireland's National Pledge, April 1918.jpg
Ireland's Anti-Conscription Pledge, 1918

O'Brien accepted the Rising and the ensuing changed political climate in 1917 as the best way of ridding the country of IPP and AOH stagnation. Home Rule had been lost in 1913, an inflexible IPP long out of touch with reality, reflected by Britain's two failed attempts to introduce Home Rule in 1916 and again in 1917. O'Brien refused to participate in the Irish Convention after southern unionist representatives he had proposed were turned down. [44] During the Convention Redmond belatedly adopted O’Brien's policy of accommodating Unionist opposition both from the North and from the South. But it was ten years too late. Had he joined O’Brien earlier and carried the Irish Party with him, it is probable that Ireland's destiny would have been settled by evolution. [45] The Convention ended in failure as O'Brien predicted when Britain attempted to link the enactment of Home Rule with conscription.

During the anti-conscription crisis in April 1918 O'Brien and his AFIL left the House of Commons and joined Sinn Féin and other prominentaries in the mass protests in Dublin. Seeing no future for his conciliatory political concepts in a future election, he believed Sinn Féin in its moderate form had earned the right to represent nationalist interests. He and the other members of his All-for-Ireland League party stood aside putting their seats at the disposal of Sinn Féin, its candidates returned unopposed in the December 1918 general elections. In an address to the election he had said:

"We cannot subscribe to a programme of armed resistance in the field, or even of permanent withdrawal from Westminster; but to the spirit of Sinn Féin, as distinct from its abstract programme, the great mass of independent single-minded Irishmen have been won over, and accordingly they ought now to have a full and sympathetic trial for enforcing the Irish nation's right of self-determination." [46]

O'Brien disagreed with the establishment of a southern Irish Free State under the Treaty, still believing that Partition of Ireland was too high a price to pay for partial independence. He wrote in 1923, "It is now obvious enough that, had the Irish Council Bill been allowed to pass in 1907, the Partition of Ireland would never have been heard of." [47] Retiring from political life, he contented himself with writing and declined Éamon de Valera's offer to stand for Fianna Fáil in the 1927 general election. He died suddenly on 25 February 1928 while on a visit to London with his wife at the age of 75. His remains rest in Mallow, and one of the principal streets in the town bears his name to this day, as does Great William O'Brien Street in Cork. His head-bust overlooks the town Council's Chamber Room and a portrait of O'Brien hangs in University College Cork.

In 1920 Arthur Griffith said of O'Brien:

"The task of William O’Brien's generation was well and bravely done, had it not been so the work we are carrying out in this generation would have been impossible. In that great work none of Parnell's lieutenants did so much as William O’Brien." [48]


O'Brien's books, a number of which are collections of his journalistic writings and political speeches, include:

  • Christmas on the Galtees (1878) Ballybeg Village Irish Christmas
  • When we were boys (1890)
  • Irish Ideas (1893) Irish Ideas (1893)
  • A Queen of Men, Grace O'Malley (1898)
  • Recolections (1905)
  • An Olive Branch in Ireland, and Its History. London: Macmillan. 1910.
  • The Irish Cause and "The Irish Convention"  . Dublin: Maunsel & Company, Limited. 1917.
  • The Downfall of Parliamentarianism (1918)
  • Evening Memories (1920)
  • The Responsibility for Partition (1921)
  • The Irish Revolution and how it came about. London: Allen & Unwin. 1923.
  • Edmund Burke as an Irishman (1924)


  1. O'Donovan 2014, p. 141, Ch. 7.
  2. "Slice of Galtee-Felix M Larkin on William O'Brien's pioneering journalism". www.irishtimes.com. Retrieved 6 January 2022.
  3. Costello 1999, p. 77.
  4. "London and European Gossip". Taranaki Herald. Vol. 39, no. 8834. 18 July 1890. p. 3.
  5. Jackson 2003, p. 103.
  6. Potter 2011, p. 208.
  7. Miller 1973, pp. 86–87.
  8. Sheehan 1921, p. 99.
  9. King 2009, pp. 68–69.
  10. Lyons 1968, p. 235, Ch. 8 Estrangements.
  11. Lyons 1968, pp. 236–238.
  12. Lyons 1968, pp. 240-241 and 236.
  13. Sheehan 1921, pp. 187–188.
  14. Maume 1999, p. 70.
  15. O'Brien 1976, p. 170.
  16. MacDonagh 1928, p. 173.
  17. O'Brien 1976, pp. 163–165.
  18. O'Donovan 2013, pp. 220–237, Ch 13.
  19. Maume 1999, pp. 70–71.
  20. Sheehan 1921, p. 184.
  21. McKay 1992, p. 33.
  22. O'Donovan 2013, pp. 228, Ch 13.
  23. 1 2 O'Brien 1910, p. 389.
  24. Bradley 1988, p. 28, Ch. 2.
  25. Ferriter 2010, pp. 62–64.
  26. Ferriter 2010, p. 159.
  27. Sheehan 1921, pp. 199–206.
  28. O'Brien 1976, pp. 187–188.
  29. Jackson 2003, p. 112.
  30. MacDonagh 1928, p. 186.
  31. O'Brien 1976, p. 193, Ch. 8.
  32. Maume 1999, p. 207, note 322.
  33. O'Donovan 2014, p. 145, Ch. 7.
  34. "Mr O'Brien's Plan: A Suspensory Veto for Ulster". The Times. London. 29 January 1914.
  35. O'Donovan 2014, p. 157, Ch. 7.
  36. "O'Brien's Commons proposals for an inclusive Ulster settlement". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard) . House of Commons. 1 April 1914. col. 1242–1254.
  37. O'Donovan 2014, pp. 158–159, Ch. 7.
  38. Jackson 2003, p. 164.
  39. "O'Brien's Commons proposal for a scheme of federalism". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard) . House of Commons. 15 September 1914. col. 914–916.
  40. MacDonagh 1928, p. 200.
  41. MacDonagh 1928, pp. 200–201.
  42. O'Brien 1976, p. 215.
  43. Martin 2006, p. 9, Introduction.
  44. MacDonagh 1928, p. 231, Introduction.
  45. MacDonagh 1928, p. 231-232.
  46. MacDonagh 1928, p. 234.
  47. O'Brien 1923, pp. 35–36.
  48. MacDonagh 1928, p. 237.

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Further reading

  • Schilling, Friedrich K.: William O'Brien and the All-for-Ireland League, thesis (1956), Trinity College Dublin
  • Miller, David W.: Church, State and Nation in Ireland 1898–1921, Gill & Macmillan (1973) ISBN   0-7171-0645-4
  • Clifford, Brendan: Cork Free PressAn Account of Ireland's only Democratic Anti-Partition Movement, Athol Books, Belfast (1984)
  • Warwick-Halle, Sally: William O'Brien and the Irish land war, Irish Academic Press, Dublin (1990) ISBN   0-7165-2458-9
  • Callanan, Frank: T. M Healy, Cork University Press (1996) ISBN   1-85918-172-4
  • Hickey, D.J. & Doherty, J.E.: A new Dictionary of Irish History from 1800, pp. 353–54, Gill & MacMillan (2003) ISBN   0-7171-2520-3
William O'Brien
William O'Brien 1917.jpg
William O'Brien in 1917
Member of the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Mallow
Constituency abolished
New constituency Member of Parliament for Tyrone South
Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of Parliament for North East Cork
Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Cork City
Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Cork City
Vacant Member of Parliament for Cork City
Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of Parliament for North East Cork
Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Cork City
Succeeded by