The Treasonous Act of Loving Ireland

Friday, 18 May 1900 - Dublin, Ireland

Today I ran across the strangest memorial I have ever seen. High on a stone pedestal is a ten foot marble statue of a gentleman in a frock coat, arms folded in a noble stance. Nothing strange there. What is odd is the inscription. It’s in Gaelic but beneath it is an English translation which reads:

William Smith O’Brien
born 17th October 1803,
sentenced to death for high treason
on the 9th October 1848.
Died 16th June 1864.

“High treason?” I said aloud. “Why would they erect a ten foot memorial to a traitor?”

“O’Brien no traitor!“ snarled a voice. “His act of treason was loving Ireland.”

I turned to see an gentleman with a white beard. “Oh hullo, sir.” I smiled at him. “Do you know the story of this O’Brien chap?”

“Indeed I do! I helped erect this statue back in 1870. All paid for by folks like me given what they could. All patriotic Irishmen!” He glowered at me.

“Yes, my accent is English, isn’t it. What if I told you my parents immigrated from Dublin to London when I was a babe and I came back to find my Irish roots?” That’s a question, not a statement. I don’t like lying; I prefer misdirection.

The man’s expression softened. He now assumed I was Irish. “This is a good place for your education to start--with O’Brien. He descended from the great Irish king Brian Boru himself. Definitely inherited his ancestors courage and nobility, that’s for sure.”

“I would certainly love to hear his story. May I buy you a cup of tea?”

The man, who introduced himself as John Lyons, accepted my offer, and told me this amazing tale.

William Smith O’Brien was the son of a well-to-do Irish baronet. He was educated at the University of Cambridge. For twenty years he was a Member of Parliament and originally a conservative pro-unionist. But then the Irish famine came in 1845 and O’Brien like many others became disillusioned with being part of a kingdom where certain parts were left to starve. Parliament seemed apathetic, some seeing this as a way to solve what they perceived as Ireland’s over-population problem.

In 1848, the year of rebellion throughout Europe, Ireland really had something to rebel about with the famine only getting worse. O’Brien joined with Thomas Francis Meagher to incite a revolt. It led to one battle with police which ended the rebellion. O’Brien was captured and put on trail and found guilty of high treason. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Petitions for clemency signed by 70,000 Irish and 10,000 English stopped the execution. After all the battle was short and nearly bloodless. O’Brien had killed no one. Besides the sentence seemed a wee bit too medieval. Instead he was sent to the prison colony of Tasmania for life. Five years later O’Brien was released but banished from Ireland for life. After two years in Brussels, he was given and unconditional pardon and allowed to return to Ireland. He was barred from politics though.

William Smith O'Brien
Although the revolt was a failure, his fellow Irish men saw William Smith O’Brien as a hero, for he was willing to sacrifice everything for his fellow countrymen. He had come from the privileged class and could have lived a very cushy if he had just ignored the plight of the starving poor.

After O’Brien died people began collecting money to build a monument to him in. His statue isn’t hidden in a park, but stands in the middle of busy Sackville Street (later named O’Connell Street.) The plaque doesn’t say “hero” or “valiant leader” which probably made the authorities happy. It doesn’t need to. Every Irishman knows who this William Smith O’Brien is. Someday Dublin will be full of statues to all the leaders of Irish rebellions against England. However, this is the very first one. Erecting this statue to a rebel was an act of rebellion in itself.

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