On a visit to Dromoland in August 2019, I made a pilgrimage of sorts to pay tribute to O'Brien and other Young Irelanders.

I sat with Grania O'Brien, author of These My Friends & Forebears, The O'Briens of Dromoland, to learn more about the family. I also visited the sites associated with the Young Ireland movement, of which William Smith O'Brien was a member.

The walled garden, lake, and surrounding woodland walks of Dromoland Castle create a serene atmosphere that belies Dromoland's history. 172 years ago, Ireland starved. Under English rule, the political atmosphere in Ireland ripened for rebellion, propelling the family who lived there into turmoil. The O'Briens did their part during the Great Hunger, setting up a soup kitchen of sorts for locals near two trees, later known as the Famine Trees. Descendants of legendary Irish hero Brian Boru, the family has known its fair share of politics and pain. Dromoland means Hill of Litigation. The O'Briens of Dromoland will see plenty of litigation during the years of the Great Hunger, 1845-1849.

The year is 1848—the year of revolutions in Europe. Initially, the Young Irelanders discussed waiting until harvest, but with draconian laws allowing for the arrests of Charles Gavin Duffy and John Mitchel, members decided that the time to strike was now. The group called themselves the Irish Confederates. Disagreeing with their idealistic politics, Daniel O'Connell perceived his politics as Old Irelandand called them Young Ireland as a put down

On July 29, 1848, fighting for Irish freedom from English rule during the Great Hunger, a group of Young Irelanders attempted to take over the police barracks in Callan, Co Kilkenny. As a result, the police abandoned their station. According to Constables John Moran, and Arthur Robinson, the crowd of over 500, armed with pikes, pitchforks, scythes, and blunderbusses, followed them through the countryside. A gunshot forced the police to seek shelter in a slated house two fields ahead of them in Ballingarry, Co Tipperary.

Barricaded in the Widow McCormick's house, now known as The Famine War House, Sub-Inspector Trant, along with 46 other police officers, held the widow's five children hostage. Trant's report claimed that an unarmed man later identified to be the rebellion's 45-year-old leader, William Smith O'Brien, reached through the front lobby window to shake hands with him and said, "For God's sake, let there be no firing. We want to make peace."

Inside the room, another constable fired the first shot. O'Brien, pushed out of harm's way by Terrence Bellew MacManus and James Stephens, escaped death. A three-day stand-off commenced. The rebels were surrounded on the final day by more police officers. James Stephens fled, but O'Brien was apprehended on his way home and arrested as was MacManus.

Sentenced to death for sedition, O'Brien was spared the gallows by global protests in Ireland, England, and America, and an influential family who sought to change the sentence for verdicts of treason from death to transportation.

In 1849, the sentence commuted, O'Brien was sent to a penal colony in Van Diemen's Land, modern-day Tasmania, along with MacManus, Patrick O'Donoghue, and Thomas Francis Meagher. The ship, The Swift, provided them with what they believed was their last views of Ireland. William Smith O'Brien was inconsolable as the ship sailed away. He refused his wife and sister's offers to go with him, wanting instead for his children to be raised in Ireland. Arriving in Hobart on October 29, 1849, John Mitchel later joined O'Brien, Meagher, MacManus, and O'Donoghue in Van Diemen's Land.

John Blake Dillon received less punishment than the other rebels for their part in the rebellion, as did Charles Gavan Duffy. Dillon lived in Ireland until his death on September 15, 1866. Duffy immigrated to Australia, became Premier of Victoria, and died in Nice, France, on February 9, 1903. Duffy and Dillon are both buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Providing Lord Clarendon at Dublin Castle with vital information, John Donnellan Balfe, the spy who infiltrated the Young Irelander's meetings, migrated to Van Diemen's Land in October of 1850. With him, he carried letters of introduction from Earl Grey and Lord Clarendon. The Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land, Sir William Denison, wrote of Balfe, "His education and habits fit him peculiarly for the situation," and appointed Balfe Assistant Comptroller of Convicts, a reward for a job well done in Ireland. One can’t help but wonder at the awkward first meeting between the Young Irelanders and Balfe in Van Diemen’s Land.

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Most of the Young Irelanders in Van Diemen's Land continued to meet secretly. Official pardons would be granted after five years. O’Brien’s fellow Young Irelanders, who had been transported with him onboard The Swift, Meagher, Mitchel, and O'Donoghue, considered the pardons insignificant to the ongoing fight for Irish freedom from British rule and escaped to America. The dutiful O'Brien waited for his official pardon and returned to Europe in 1854.

In America, Mitchel fought in the civil war on the pro-slavery side (south, Confederate Army) with the conflicting belief that slaves were private property and the government should not interfere with private property ownership. Mitchel returned to Ireland and became a Member of Parliament and died on March 20, 1875. His burial place is in Newry, Co Down.

Also, in America, Meagher fought on the anti-slavery side (north, Union Army), seeing the plight for freedom of slaves in America as slightly similar to the Irish fight for freedom from English rule. Meagher, then Secretary and Acting Governor of the Montana Territory, fell off the back of a steamboat and drowned in the Missouri River on July 1, 1867; his body was never found.

Patrick O'Donoghue, a talented writer, like most of the Young Irelanders, whose lack of funds, overindulgence in alcohol, “propensity for injudicious outspokenness and untidy habit,” according to the University of Tasmania’s Young Irelanders: Exiles in Paradise project, died on January 22, 1854. He is buried at the historic Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Kevin O'Doherty, transported to Van Diemen's Land on board the Elphinstone in November 1849, became a member of the Legislative Assembly for Brisbane, Australia. He returned to Paris upon his pardon and studied medicine. Although he promised never again to set foot in the United Kingdom again, O'Doherty made a secret trip back to Ireland to marry Eva of The Nation, Mary Kelly, and died on July 15, 1905. His burial place is in Twoong Cemetery, Brisbane.

John Martin, transported with O'Doherty on board the Elphinstone, was also granted a full pardon and returned to Ireland in 1854. Martin, elected as the first Home Rule MP in 1871, forgave all his tenant farmers' debts. He died impoverished in Newry, Co Down, on March 29, 1875.

Terrence Bellew MacManus, one of two men who allegedly saved O'Brien’s life that day in 1848, died in San Francisco on January 15, 1861. MacManus is buried in the Fenian Plot at Glasnevin Cemetery. 

James Stephens, the second man who helped pull O'Brien out of the line of fire, returned from exile in Paris to Ireland in 1856. On St Patrick's Day 1858, Stephens founded the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the house of Peter Langan at 16 East Lombard Street, Dublin. Stephens died on March 29, 1901, and is buried at Glasnevin Cemetery.

John O'Mahony founded the Fenian Brotherhood in America at the same time as the founding of the IRB. O'Mahoney, like John Martin, died impoverished in New York City on February 7, 1877. His remains were returned to Ireland and buried in Glasnevin Cemetry in what is now called The Fenian Plot.

Upon his release from Van Diemen's Land, after spending some time in Belgium composing his memoirs, O'Brien returned to Ireland in the summer of 1856. Cahermoyle House, where O'Brien lived with his wife and children at the time of the 1848 rebellion, was now the property of his eldest son, Edward. O'Brien's children found accepting a father who had fostered rebellious tendencies difficult. O'Brien, no longer master of Cahermoyle, was granted a yearly sum of money to survive. He died on a visit to Wales in 1864. Now in private ownership, Cahermoyle House has a grotto and a memorial to William Smith O'Brien. His statue, funded by friends, was unveiled in December of 1870 and stands on O'Connell Street in Dublin.

O’Brien is buried in the Smith O'Brien mausoleum in Rathronan, County Limerick. Standing at O'Brien's final resting place, I am sad to see it in decay. I feel that it should be preserved, not just because it is architecturally beautiful, but because "himself" is in there, and he deserves that respect, that recognition. O'Brien gave up so much, a prosperous life, his family, his position as a respected patriarch, all for the love of Ireland. My pilgrimage ends here.

I return to Dromoland and touch the blue limestone walls in the basement of the castle's original structure, imagining a young boy playing with his brothers and sisters. What games did they play? Were there any signs that William was different from his siblings? Did his parents, Edward and Charlotte, know there was a rebel in the castle?

There is much to be learned from July 29, 2020, 175 years after the Young Ireland Rebellion— only a few months after the worst year of the Great Hunger, Black '47. People were not strong enough to fight. Why even try to? Ridiculed as "The Battle of Widow McCormick's Cabbage Patch," the Young Ireland Rebellion of 1848 has long been considered a failed rebellion. For William Smith O’Brien and other Young Irelanders, it was all or nothing in the summer of 1848.

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