William Smith O'Brien Petition
The William Smith O’Brien Petition gathered in 1848 records the names, addresses, occupations and political loyalties of over 80,000 people from all over Ireland and parts of England. It is one of the first mass political petition movements, which aimed to save the life of this rebel leader, after his conviction for high treason and sentence of death.
Who was William Smith O’Brien?
Despite being the younger son of Baron Inchiquin, he was a political radical. His family were well established political conservatives and supporters of the Orange order. William was an MP, but he joined Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal movement in 1843, which sought to overturn the Act of Union. However, he did not think they were radical enough and he joined the revolutionary Young Irelanders in 1846 who were committed to Irish independence. On 29th July 1848 William led an abortive uprising in Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary, otherwise known as ‘the battle of Widow McCormack’s Cabbage patch’. He was arrested on 6th August 1848 for his part in this “rebellion” and tried for high treason at a special sitting of the district court at Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. He was sentenced to death on 10th October 1848.
What is the William Smith O’Brien Petition?
Following O’Brien’s sentence, meetings were organised all over Ireland to get people to sign petitions pleading for clemency. The petitions highlighted that the jury in O’Brien’s trial had recommended clemency, but had been ignored by the judge. What is published here are all the surviving petitions around this case.
Example of Poster for Petition meeting 12th October 1848, Wicklow
What is the difference between Petition headers?
Each district committee of the campaign was allowed to write their own petition, and as a result there are several different petition texts. The differences are often caused because of local issues, but some reflect the different political views of those who supported the basic demands. There are 166 different petitions, and while some were political sympathisers, others feared a serious rebellion if he was executed.
For each entry in this data-set there is a link to the scanned image of the petition header, so you can see exactly what the person signed.
What sort of people signed the Petition?
Geographic spread: Petitions were signed in 31 out of 32 Irish counties (the exception being County Offaly or King's County). Almost 50% were signed in Dublin. Nearly 8,000 signatures were gathered in England (mainly Liverpool and Manchester).
Occupations: The majority of signatories were literate farmers, tradesmen, artisans, etc..
Political allegiance: The majority were probably moderate nationalists, but more than 10% were unionists (e.g. the membership of the Orange Institution of Dublin signed). The signatories in England are comprised of Irish immigrants and Chartists.
Gender: There are only 1,135 signatures that are definitely women, around 1.4% of the total.
|Laois (Queen’s County)||18|
|Offaly (King’s County)||0|
What does the Petition tell you?
The petitions were gathered at the height of the Irish famine, and record a snap shot of those who were politically active at that time. Every entry includes the name of the signatory, usually an address, and often an occupation. Furthermore every entry is linked to a scanned image of the petition header, so you can see precisely what each person signed, whether they were a political supporter or not. Family groups tended to sign together, so it is worthwhile checking the order in which the entries are recorded to find potential relatives.
Did the Petition have any effect?
On 5th June 1849 Smith O’Brien’s death sentence was commuted to transportation to Australia for life. He was transported to Van Dieman’s Land aboard the Swift. On 22nd February 1854, William Smith O’Brien was granted a conditional pardon, on the basis that he not return to Ireland. He received a full pardon two years later, and briefly returned to Ireland. He died in Bangor, Caernarvonshire, Wales, on 18th June 1864.
Some advice on using the Petition
The petitions were often signed by groups of people who may have been related, so it is important to know exactly where a signature appears on a list. This database follows the format of the original.
Examples of original records
A petition header, Killarney, Co. Kerry
A petition header, Drumragh, Co. Tyrone
About the Author
Australian born Ruth Lawler née Folan has always had an interest in Irish genealogy and history, instilled in her by her father Kevin Folan, a Dublin man with strong Galway roots. Ruth originally trained as a nurse in Australia, and came to Ireland to marry Joe Lawler. Ruth and Joe ran a Bed and Breakfast in their family home, St Brendan's, in the historic harbour town of Howth, Co Dublin. Now that her family has grown, she has finally found time to follow her lifelong interest in Irish family history. In June 1999 Ruth qualified in the Certificate in Genealogy Course in University College Dublin. On completion of the course she won an Oscail scholarship, which subsequently enabled her to enroll for a B.A. Humanities course in N.U.I., Maynooth. Ruth is a founding member of the Certificate Genealogists Alumni Group in UCD, and was a committee member of The Irish Family History Society. She has also lectured in Genealogy to various groups around Ireland and the Ireland/Australian Association.