The history man – An Irishman’s Diary on Richard Barry O’Brien and Irish nationalism
Richard Barry O’Brien: prolific author and journalist helped pave the way for Gladstone’s public announcement of his conversion to home rule
Richard Barry O’Brien would be remembered today – if he is remembered at all – mainly as the first official biographer and strong champion of Charles Stewart Parnell but he was also a lawyer and prolific author and journalist who used his close access to and acquaintance with British politicians to influence them to support the cause of Irish nationalism. He died 100 years ago on March 17th.
Born on March 7th, 1847, in Kilrush, Co Clare, he was educated privately for a time, then attended St Laurence O’Toole’s Preparatory School in Dublin before entering the Catholic University. He was called to the Irish bar in 1874 and to the English bar the following year. However, he never built up an extensive practice, as journalism and writing became his main interests.
In 1877, he married Kathleen Teevan, daughter of a West Kensington doctor, and they had five sons and two daughters
In 1871, he joined Isaac Butt’s Home Government Association, which had been set up to campaign for home rule for Ireland. In London, he was employed as political secretary by Patrick MacMahon, a prominent lawyer who was MP for New Ross, and this position introduced him to senior legal and political circles in both Britain and Ireland. In 1877, he married Kathleen Teevan, daughter of a West Kensington doctor, and they had five sons and two daughters.
He published The Irish Land Question and English Public Opinion in 1879. Based mainly on parliamentary debates on the issue, the book argued that the 1870 Land Act had by no means solved the question. Coinciding as it did with the growth of the Land League in Ireland, the book gained a lot of public attention. O’Brien’s A Parliamentary History of the Irish Land Question (1880) was an even more detailed treatment of the subject and was welcomed by William Gladstone, leader of the Liberal Party, as a significant contribution to the debate about new legislation to tackle the issue.
A number of books followed, notably Fifty Years of Concessions to Ireland (two volumes, 1881-83), Fifty Years of Irish History (two volumes, 1883-85) and Irish Wrongs and English Remedies (1885). Of these books, historian Patrick Maume has written: “They aimed at distilling from official sources a history of Irish Catholic and nationalist grievances on such matters as education and land in order to convince British readers that the Union parliament had shown itself incapable of governing Ireland through ignorance of Irish conditions and inability to appeal to Irish national sentiment, whereas if the Irish were given responsibility for their own affairs, they would be reconciled to Britain.” The books helped pave the way for Gladstone’s public announcement of his conversion to home rule.
The Home Ruler’s Manual (1887) was a handbook for those publicly espousing the case for Irish self-government. The Life of Thomas Drummond (1889; he was under-secretary for Ireland 1835-40) presented Drummond’s difficulties with the Protestant Irish Ascendancy as a forerunner of Gladstone’s attempts to achieve justice for Ireland.
When the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) split over Parnell’s leadership, O’Brien supported Parnell as the only person strong and capable enough of leading the party. His biography of Parnell in 1899 strongly defended his lost leader but did not refer to the controversy caused by his private life; its value lies in the interviews and personal recollections it contains.
His works helped to educate a generation of British public figures and thinking members of the ordinary British public about Irish issues
O’Brien was among the founders of the Irish Literary Society of London in 1893 and as its chairman for 12 years and president for another six, he was friendly with Yeats and Lady Gregory. He was also friendly with John Redmond, who became leader of the reunited IPP in 1900, and edited a selection of his speeches in 1910. In the early 1900s, he published a number of other works, including A Hundred Years of Irish History (1902), England’s Claim to Ireland (1905), Fontenoy (1907) and Dublin Castle and the Irish People (1909).
He supported Irish involvement in the first World War and three of his sons fought. He died in London on St Patrick’s Day, 1918, and after a funeral service in Westminster Cathedral, he was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.
His writings provided many Irish MPs and members of the parliamentary-party organisations with material they could use to publicly promote the cause of home rule. More importantly, perhaps, his works helped to educate a generation of British public figures and thinking members of the ordinary British public about Irish issues and would probably have made them more sympathetic and susceptible to the concept of the Irish people ruling themselves.