Start exploring the William O'Brien petition

The William Smith O'Brien Petition is list of over 80,000 names and places from 1848/9, the time of the Great Famine. It is a valuable census substitute for that time, as well as an important historical resource.

William Smith O'Brien (born 1803) entered politics in the 1820s, and sat in the House of Commons for Co. Clare, and later Co. Limerick.

In 1848 William Smith O'Brien was arrested in Ireland, on the grounds that he had traveled to Paris earlier that year in support of the leaders of the new French Republic. He was tried, but released when the jury failed to agree on a verdict. On 26th July 1848 the Irish Confederation Club was proclaimed illegal and warrants were issued for the arrest of the leaders of the Young Irelanders. On 29th July William Smith O'Brien led an abortive rising in Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary, otherwise known as 'the battle of Widow McCormack's cabbage patch'. He was arrested on 6th August 1848 and in a special sitting of the district court at Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, found guilty and sentenced to death.

The sentence caused great consternation among all segments of the Irish community. Between the finish of the trial in October 1848 and May 1849 various petitions in favour of clemency for William Smith O'Brien were collected around Ireland.

Between the finish of the trial in October 1848 and May 1849 various petitions in favour of clemency for William Smith O'Brien were collected around Ireland. Petitioners signed in support of Smith-O'Brien for many different reasons, some of them political, some religious and humanitarian. On 5th June 1849 Smith O'Brien's death sentence was commuted to transportation for life.

What do these records tell you?

For the family history researcher the William Smith O'Brien Petition records are essentially a census substitute: they give the names of people present at a particular place and time. Addresses are often given, and sometimes occupations. The petition was generated between October 1848 and May 1849, so during the Famine years in Ireland. These records complement those of the Griffith's Valuation, conducted between 1847 and 1864. Where a petitioner signatory was a head of household you may find that person's name in Griffith's Valuation - a useful cross-check.

Background Information

William Smith O'Brien, born 1803 in Newmarket-on-Fergus, into the O'Brien family of Dromoland Castle, Co. Clare, was one of 13 children of Sir Edward O'Brien and the heiress Charlotte, née Smith.

William completed his formal education with a B.A. in Classics at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1832 he married Lucy Gabbett daughter of the Mayor of Limerick City, and the couple had seven children. He entered politics in the 1820s, and sat in the House of Commons for Co. Clare, and later Co. Limerick.

See Biographical Note and Political History

In 1848 William Smith O'Brien was arrested in Ireland, on the grounds that he had traveled to Paris earlier that year in support of the leaders of the new French Republic. He was tried, but released when the jury failed to agree on a verdict. On 26th July 1848 the Irish Confederation Club was proclaimed illegal and warrants were issued for the arrest of the leaders of the Young Irelanders. On 29th July William Smith O'Brien led an abortive rising in Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary, otherwise known as 'the battle of Widow McCormack's cabbage patch'. He was arrested on 6th August 1848 and in a special sitting of the district court at Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, found guilty and sentenced to death.

His sentence was commuted to transportation to Tasmania by 28th June 1849. The sentence caused great consternation among all segments of the Irish community. Between the finish of the trial in October 1848 and May 1849 various petitions in favour of clemency for William Smith O'Brien were collected around Ireland.

See William Smith O'Brien's Trial

The Petition 1848-49

The William Smith O'Brien Petition was signed by over 80,000 names between 1848/9, the time of the Great Famine. A valuable census substitute for that time, as well as an important historical resource. Contains over 80,00 names addresses and occupations including 10,000 names from England and 70,000 from Ireland.

Between the finish of the trial in October 1848 and May 1849 various petitions in favour of clemency for William Smith O'Brien were collected around Ireland. Petitioners signed in support of Smith-O'Brien for many different reasons, some of them political, some religious and humanitarian. On 5th June 1849 Smith O'Brien's death sentence was commuted to transportation for life.

How the petition was organised

On 13th October 1848 The Freeman's Journal reported on a meeting "for the purpose of promoting a feeling in accordance with the recommendation of the jury in the case of Mr William Smith O'Brien", held at the house of Mr. Richard Davis Webb at 176 Great Brunswick St, Dublin. This occasion was prompted by an earlier and smaller meeting at which it was decided to prepare a 'small petition' in favour of clemency for Smith O'Brien. The following people were reported present on 13th October:

Mr William Sharman Crawford, M.P.; Hon. Cecil Lawless; Alderman O'Brien M.P.; Dr Nuttall; D. Corbett; Rev. Dr Spratt; Rev. Mr Close; James Haughton; Charles Hutton; Wm. Moss, M.D.; A.J. Malley (barrister); Rev. Mr Flenry; Francis Comyn, J.P.; Bowen Thompson; Alderman Tagart; J. Fortune; R.D. Webb; Mr Burke; Richard Hayes; James Fitzpatrick; G. Gilcrest; Dr Carolan; J.T. Rowland, solicitor; C.S.Ralph; Thomas Reynolds, city marshal; Dr Sullivan; Mathew White; William Longfield, and James O'Shaughnessy.

Because of uncertainty of Smith O'Brien's actual date of execution, the meeting of 13th October also decided to send a deputation to Dublin Castle to enquire when it should take place. One of the many rumours then circulating Dublin was that the execution was scheduled for the following Saturday 16th October. The meeting was adjourned until this deputation returned.

The Dublin Evening Press reported a further meeting on Thursday 14th October, when it was decided to write to the Lord Lieutenant to request a day when he could receive a deputation who would submit the memorial in favour of Smith O'Brien. It was also decided that Radleys Hotel would be one of the principal venues in Dublin, where petitions could be signed, and petitions from other parts of the country could be sent. It was also decided that the wording of each petition should be left to the individual committees of each district.

Within a matter of days, similar committees were established in districts throughout the country. On the 17th October 1848, a committee was formed in Kingscourt in Co. Cavan, attended by both the protestant and Catholic priests, while a similar meeting took place in Kiloran Co. Galway, attended likewise by churchmen of all denominations.

Between the finish of the trial in October 1848 and May 1849 various petitions in favour of clemency for William Smith O'Brien were collected around Ireland. One newspaper reported, the number of signatures daily coming in from provincial towns almost exceeds belief.8. Petitioners signed in support of Smith-O'Brien for many different reasons, some of them political, some religious and humanitarian. One petition even stated that Smith-O'Brien may have been temporarily insane at the time of the rebellion and should therefore not be held responsible for his actions.

In the preparation of the data, petitions were found all 32 counties of Ireland except King's County (modern day Co. Offaly). Petitions were also produced from 6 counties in England, comprising nearly 10% of the total signatories. It is noteable that the Orange Order sent two memorials to Dublin to petition that the Jury's recommendation for clemency in favour of Smith O'Brien, be observed.

On 5th June 1849 Smith O'Brien's death sentence was commuted to transportation for life.

The William Smith O'Brien Petition database

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The William Smith O'Brien Petition transcription project

The Smith-O'Brien petitions were originally brought to the attention of Ruth Lawler by Gregory O'Connor of the National Archives. Ruth initially prepared a section of the petitions to complete the Certificate in Genealogy course. This initial survey convinced her that the Smith-O'Brien petitions were in fact an extensive census substitute at the height of the Famine. Encouraged by her fellow genealogists, she decided to complete the database with a view to publication, not realising that this would consume her time for the following two and a half years. She thanks Brian Donovan & Fiona Fitzsimons of Eneclann for having the foresight to support publication of the project.

The rolls and bundles of the original manuscript were in some cases, extremely difficult to read. Where possible, checks were made against other primary source material, in the National Archives of Ireland to help confirm the spellings. For example Ruth Lawler was able to consult Thoms Directory 1846-50 for the City of Dublin, and for religious ministers and local government officials in other counties, and Griffith's Surname Indexes for some of the petitioners outside of Dublin.

The original Petitions were deposited in the State Paper Office in Dublin Castle and transferred to the National Archives in 1989. These Memorials were held in two sections in the National Archives records. The first in the Parliamentary Papers and the second in the Chief Secretaries Office Records. These two have now been brought together under a single series, Series O in the National Archives. In consultation with the archivists of the National Archives, Ruth Lawler inserted page numbers in the electronic copy, to improve the search facility, as the original Memorials were submitted as several petitions and therefore have no sequential numbers. Anyone who uses the original manuscript to find a name will still need to read the entire petition to find a signature - although they may try to navigate the document by counting down the 'joins', i.e. where the individual petitions were fastened together to form a larger document. The page numbers that Ruth Lawler introduced into the electronic copy are in fact based on these original 'joins', in an attempt to preserve something of the integrity of the original manuscript in the electronic copy. In some cases there are only a few signatures on a page and on others over a hundred names addresses and occupations with additional remarks.

The Dublin petition was absolutely enormous, and came in two sections. The first section was so large that it was rolled onto the handle of a broomstick. The second bundle for Dublin was preserved as an unbound book with such a huge number of loose leaves that proved just as time consuming to capture on data-base.

In general the signatures are quite clear although Ruth Lawker's nurses training was called to the fore to understand some of them. The captured data was compared with the original manuscript, and any remaining mistakes are to be accepted. It should be noted that family names were not entirely standardised at this time, and even families of a certain address can often spell the surname differently. Where this has happened, the names were left "as is".

Women do not appear significantly in this manuscript although there are a few, principally widows or businesswomen as can be confirmed in the remarks column of various memorials. 1,135 signatures were identified that are definitely those of women. (Signatures with abbreviated forenames cannot be estimated properly). These appear on 16 petitions.9. The vast majority (1,022) signed the Dublin petitions.

It should be noted that many of these petitions only came to light in the course of preparing the data for publication, and there may still be others that have not yet been found.

The value for family history research

The database of signatories to the William Smith O'Brien Petition can help researchers who have no other means of confirming whether people were present in an area during this period of the Famine. It is effectively a census substitute, especially for remote areas such as Achill Island in Co. Mayo and Tulla in Co. Clare, at a time when there are few other records for the populations here.

In addition there are approximately 10,000 petitioners from Irish communities in Britain, such as Liverpool, Manchester and Yorkshire. This section of the memorials would be of great interest for tracing Irish immigrants to England during the Great Famine, as a number of these people were on route to America as commented in the memorial. The database may also be of use in researching Chartist activity in England, as many of their number are likely to have signed

A number of different studies could be undertaken from the manuscripts. For example it may be possible to determine the rise in levels of literacy since the start of the national schooling system in the year 1832, from the numbers of people able to sign their own names. For example, it appears from the likeness of some signatures (capital letters, etc) in some smaller areas that writing had been learnt from the same teacher. Also, given that so many petitions were gathered in the West of Ireland, even from petitioners whose main occupation was as agricultural labourers, it is highly significant, and completely unexpected, that so few actually recorded their support for Smith O'Brien in the Irish language.

Bibliography

Secondary

Davis, Richard, To Solitude Consigned: The Tasmanian Journal of William Smith O'Brien 1847-1853 (Tasmanian University Press)

Davis, Richard, Revolutionary Imperialist. William Smith O'Brien 1803-1864 (Lilliput Press, 1998).

Grehan, Ida, Irish Family Histories, (Town House Press, 1993).

Primary: Printed

Burke's Peerage

(The) Dublin Evening Post (various dates).

(The) Freeman's Journal (various dates)

Thom's Directory (1847-1865)

Primary: Manuscript

Irish Transportation Records, National Archives of Ireland

Official papers Series 2, National Archives of Ireland

Outrage Papers Co Tipperary.1848/1849 National Archives of Ireland

Smith O'Brien Papers, NLI Ms. 8655