He was argumentative, controversial, committed, exasperating, vicious, divisive, loyal and lots of other adjectives besides, some positive, some pejorative.
William O’Brien was a poacher turned gamekeeper. For the early part of his life he was a muck-raking nationalist journalist, before devoting himself almost entirely to politics. Born into a Cork Fenian family – his brother was a member of the IRB and he may well have been sworn in himself – he was a campaigning newspaperman in his youth in the late 1870s writing for the stuffy Freeman’s Journal. Although his often explosive articles got his proprietor, the MP Edmund Dwyer Gray into plenty of trouble there was a huge mutual admiration between the Dublin grandee and the Cork firebrand.
In 1881, still in his twenties, he was asked by Charles Stewart Parnell to become the first editor of the new Land League newspaper United Ireland. He took on the task with gusto – so much so that he was arrested and jailed after barely a dozen issues. Totally undeterred O’Brien continued to edit the newspaper from Kilmainham jail, using the same underground communications system that allowed his leader to continue to conduct his passionate and adulterous relationship with Katharine O’Shea.
After the Land War United Ireland became the mouthpiece of Parnellism and an equal opportunities offender. O’Brien would, on a weekly basis, attack the Liberal and Tory parties in England, the Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metropolitan Police, landlords, Unionists, Unionist journalists, nationalist journalists who weren’t nationalist enough, nationalist MPs who were equally unconvincing in their nationalism and anyone else who, in his eyes, was not stepping up to the mark. On finishing reading the very first issue of United Ireland in August 1881 the Chief Secretary for Ireland, William E. Forster was reported to have asked ‘Who is this new madman?’
He was a thorn in the side of the establishment, occasionally of his own party, and arguably he was even a thorn in his own side. He was utterly relentless and fearless in his journalism. That’s not to suggest that he was fair – he was anything but. However he was prepared to risk some stupendous libel suits in order to get his version of the truth out. It helped that for many years he wasn’t really worth suing, he had no personal resources, famously living out of two suitcases in the Imperial Hotel on Sackville Street – now Clery’s department store.
Although he could at times be a journalistic windbag he also had an eye for the pithy phrase or aphorism. When the Tory Prime Minister, Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury in 1887 appointed his own nephew Arthur Balfour as Irish Chief Secretary – in the process giving rise to the immortal phrase ‘Bob’s your uncle’ -O’Brien noted the languid Tory’s predilection for playing golf and dubbed him ‘Mr.Arthur Golfour’ . Balfour, however, had the last laugh, throwing O’Brien in jail many times over the next four years.
While it broke his heart he opposed Parnell after the O’Shea divorce case but played little part in the vicious hounding of the former Irish party leader which only ended with his death in October 1891. Thereafter O’Brien temporarily disappeared from active politics. He re-emerged at the end of the decade to re-assert his dedication to agrarian politics by forming the United Irish League. It was under the auspices of this grass roots organisation that the Irish party split was healed. But O’Brien had a penchant for falling out with people and he soon moved on.
His latter years as a politician and journalist saw him at the helm of a Cork-based nationalist splinter group the All For Ireland League and editing the Cork Free Press.
By the time of the 1916 Rising, like many other nationalist politicians of his generation he’s had his day. Although highly respected by many of the more extreme Republicans who came to dominate Irish post-WW1 politics there was no place for him in the new dispensation and it was time to write a number of highly readable, entertaining and utterly unreliable memoirs. He died in 1928.
William O’Brien, Irish father of the so-called ‘New Journalism’ of the late 19th century was born in Mallow, Co. Cork 163 years ago, on this day.
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