22 September 2019

Remembering the life of
William Smith O’Brien

The statue of William Smith O’Brien in O’Connell Street, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Kieran’s Heritage Association,

Rathronan Churchyard, Ardagh, Co Limerick,

3 p.m., 22 September 2019

This afternoon is an opportunity to commemorate the life of William Smith O’Brien and to reflect on his contribution not only to the history of this part of West Limerick, but his role too in shaping Irish identity today.

This year marks the 170th anniversary of his deportation to Van Diemen’s Land, known today as Tasmania. But this year also marks the 90th anniversary of siting his memorial in the heart of O’Connell Street in Dublin’s city centre in 1929.

Although William Smith O’Brien (1803-1864) was born in Dromoland Castle in Co Clare on 17 October 1803, he was very much a son of this part of west Limerick.

His mother, Charlotte Smith, was from Cahermoyle, and that house has been inseparably linked with his branch of the O’Brien family ever since.

But if William Smith O’Brien’s own family background acts metaphorically as a bridge across the Shannon between Co Clare and Co Limerick, that is also true of how he bridges the gulfs that separate many of our identities in Ireland today, and almost embodies the different identities that shape the mosaic that is Ireland today.

1, He bridges the gap between the Old Irish and later arrivals: through his father, Sir Edward O’Brien, he was a direct descendant in the male line of Brian Boru, High King of Ireland; through his mother, he was a direct descendent of the new, English-speaking landed and banking class.

2, He bridges the gap between the conservative unionists and the radical nationalists: he was a Conservative MP for Ennis (1828-1831) and a Whig MP for Co Limerick (1835-1849) before he ever got caught up in Irish Nationalist causes.

3, He bridges the gap between the Irish speakers and English speakers: he was educated at Harrow and Trinity College Cambridge, but was a founding member of the Ossianic Society, founded to promote Irish language and literature, and read his Bible regularly in the Irish language.

4, He bridges the gap between Catholic and Protestant: he was a strong advocate of Catholic Emancipation before being radicalised by the jailing of Daniel O’Connell; yet it is impossible to tell his story without respecting the deep engagement he and his family had with the Church of Ireland.

5, He bridges the gap between idealism and activism: even before his failed revolutionary action in 1848, he was active in famine relief work throughout the 1840s.

6, He bridges the gap between the dispossessed and the landowners, even in the story of how he was treated in his own family.

7, He bridges the gap between the diaspora and those who have stayed at home.

8, He bridges the gap between Irish identity and the European dream: it should not be lost on us that he lived in Brussels for two years from 1854 to 1856, an Irish politician in Brussels a century before the European project.

9, He bridges the gap between Ireland and our nearest neighbours, through his education, his legal practice at both the King’s Inns and Lincoln’s Inn, and his sad and lonely death in Bangor.

10, He bridges the gap between our past and our future. For we face a challenge of welcoming and integrating our new arrivals in Ireland today. If we regret the fact that William Smith O’Brien was never properly welcomed back in his native Ireland, then we can rectify that by how we welcome those who come to live among us today.

And so, let us pray …

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