William Smith O’Brien…An Irish Rebel at Port Arthur.

You could well be excused for not knowing that Irish nationalist William Smith O’Brien once “lived” at Port Arthur. While Australian convict folklore says that convicts were sent to Australia for “stealing a loaf of bread”, a number of Irish political  rebels were also transported to Van Dieman’s Land, as Tasmania was once known. This included William Smith O’Brien who lived in a separate cottage at Port Arthur, which is still standing.

William Smith OBriens House.JPG

Rewinding to Ireland 1848 on what is going to be a supersonic visit, Ireland was under English rule and in the grip of an unprecedented famine due to repeated failure of the potato crop, which in parts of the country, was their only crop. An 1848 uprising in Paris, inspired Younger Irelanders, led by William Smith O’Brien, to stage a rebellion.

The Young Irelander Rebellion was a failed Irish nationalist uprising led by the Young Ireland movement, part of the wider Revolutions of 1848 that affected most of Europe. It took place on 29 July 1848 in the village of Ballingarry, South Tipperary. After being chased by a force of Young Irelanders and their supporters, an Irish Constabulary unit raided a house and took those inside as hostages. A several-hour gunfight followed, but the rebels fled after a large group of police reinforcements arrived.It is sometimes called the Famine Rebellion (since it took place during the Great Irish Famine) or the Battle of Ballingarry.

william-smith-obriens-house-historic

William Smith O’Brien was convicted and sentenced to death for his part in the rebellion of 1848, but his sentence was later commuted to transportation to the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). Earl Grey, the Colonial Secretary, had decided that the best policy in regard to the Young Ireland prisoners was to consign them to gentlemanly oblivion. Sir William Denison, the governor, would have preferred to treat them as convicts. However, he was obliged to offer O’Brien a ticket-of-leave.
Initially O’Brien refused because of the condition attached which would have prevented him attempting to escape. So while his fellow-revolutionaries, Patrick O’Donohoe, Thomas Meagher and Terence MacManus, were immediately set at large, O’Brien was sent on to Maria Island, the most remote outpost of the penal settlement. An attempt at escape was bungled and he was, in August 1850, transferred to Port Arthur.

This article appeared in the Tasmanian press at the time:

“SMITH O’BRIEN.

This gentleman is now confined in the penal settlement of Port Arthur. He lives in a small cottage consisting of three or four apartments,—his rations are supplied by government,
and consist of a limited quantity of tea, sugar, bread, and meat. He is permitted to walk in a paddock adjoining his place of abode, constantly watched by a military sentry who
keeps within 20 paces of him. He is locked up from sun-set to sun-rise.

Thus lingers an Irish Patriot, the descendant of princes, whose life was spent in acts of virtue.”

The Irish Exile and Freedom’s Advocate (Hobart Town, Tas. : 1850 – 1851) Saturday 21 September 1850 p 3 Article

In November 1850 he was persuaded to give his parole, was granted a ticket-of-leave and settled first at New Norfolk and later at Avoca, where he acted as tutor to the children of a local doctor. Returning to New Norfolk he received a conditional pardon in 1854; he sailed for Europe and in Brussels was joined by his wife Lucy, née Gabbett, five sons and two daughters. In May 1856, following the intercession of 140 British parliamentarians, he was granted a free pardon which allowed him to return to Ireland. In 1859 he paid a brief visit to New York and in 1863 to Poland. He died at Bangor, Wales, on 18 June 1864.
Although we didn’t have time to even walk past Smith O’Brien’s Cottage, I’ve included him in my tour of Port Arthur because other branches of Geoff’s family were involved in helping another Irish political prisoner, John Mitchel escape. Geoff’s 4th Great Grandfather was Daniel Burke who was mentioned in John Mitchel’s account of his time in Tasmania: Jail Journal.
I hope that supersonic trip hasn’t glossed over too many details and recommend further reading. This post has been written more an an entre, rather than providing a comprehensive account. Otherwise, this blog is never going to leave Tasmania and make it home.
xx Rowena

 Sources

10 thoughts on “William Smith O’Brien…An Irish Rebel at Port Arthur.

  1. Rowena Post author

    Thanks for popping by. I’m roughly half Irish in terms of my ancestry. Much of my family came to Australia during the famine. Unfortunately, I’ve never been there but would dearly love to get there.
    xx Rowena

  2. Pingback: Weekend Coffee Share… 5th February, 2017 | beyondtheflow

  3. Rowena Post author

    Always a pleasure, Monika. It’s great to share it. Geoff’s been using the blog to share the trip with his work colleagues too. I should be getting sponsored by Tourism Tasmania!
    xx Rowena

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