William Smith O’Brien, Compulsive Traveller

The-Grand-Tour-GroupBook Review by Liz Rushen

Richard Davis, Travels of William Smith O’Brien in Europe and the Wider World, 1843-1864, Geography Publications, Dublin, 2013

ISBN 97820090660220645

RRP €15

While it is somewhat of a long bow to liken convict transportation to undertaking a ‘Grand Tour’ of nineteenth-century Europe, in Richard Davis’ new book, ‘Travels of William Smith O’Brien in Europe and the Wider World, 1843-1864’ (Geography Publications, Dublin, 2013), we have another accomplished contribution to our understanding of the politician cum revolutionary. As Thomas Keneally writes in the Foreword to the book, ‘If William Smith O’Brien ever achieves the place he should rightly hold in our history, he will have Richard Davis to thank’. Prompted to write the book by the recent discovery of a fragment of O’Brien’s journal, Davis traces O’Brien’s extensive travels over a 20 year period, both before and after O’Brien’s sojourn in Tasmania as a political prisoner. Davis reveals that O’Brien’s compulsive travelling could be attributed to an early missed opportunity to see the world. When he was aged 23 and having wasted his time at Cambridge, O’Brien’s father refused permission for him to undertake an extensive tour of the Continent, his father considering it was time his son earned his living in a profession. It seems that this event set in place his son’s life-long yearning for travel.

A keen student of Gaelic, O’Brien closely observed the languages and customs in the countries he visited. We also read of the great cathedrals and landscapes of Europe, the mountains of America and his preference for environmental beauties over the works of man. While enjoying the beauties of Tasmania (or Van Diemen’s Land as it then was), O’Brien did not seem to be fazed by his transportation, treating this event as an opportunity to see more of the world. Indeed, he wrote in his journal ‘it is worth while to travel sixteen thousand miles to see such a scene as this’ (p.44), reminiscent of the comments of another Irish prisoner in 1835, ‘This is the best country under the sun. I am very thankful to my prosecutors for sending me here to the land of liberty and freedom’.

Although denied the opportunity to undertake a ‘Grand Tour’ in his youth, by the time of his transportation for leading the abortive uprising of 1848, O’Brien was already an experienced traveller. When he reached the Tasmanian lakes in the rises of the Derwent, O’Brien was able to make the judgement that while picturesque, the Tasmanian lakes were ‘not in the same category as the mountains of Ireland, Scotland, Cumberland, the Alps or Pyrenees’ (p.53), revealing the extent of his previous travels and also his interest in natural formations. Much more than a travelogue, O’Brien analysed the great issues of the day and conditions in the countries he visited, comparing and contrasting these conditions with those of the Irish working classes. Visiting India before the 1859 ‘Mutiny’, it was only here that he discovered greater poverty than in Ireland. O’Brien unfavourably compared the British administration’s lack of expenditure in infrastructure, such as public works and irrigation, with the expenditure of Indian princes on religious devotion, expressed in new schools, reservoirs for irrigation and resting places for travellers. For his month-long stay in India, O’Brien had the advantage of seeing the country through the hospitable eyes of his brother-in-law, Major General William Baggett of the Madras Artillery.

Underlying O’Brien’s reflections in both Tasmania and India was an assessment of both countries’ leanings towards self-government. With some prescience, when he was in Tasmania O’Brien endorsed the unification of Australia, with an elected presidential-style leader, a view which would find ready acceptance in Australia today. Davis’ regard for his subject shines through, particularly in his likening of O’Brien to Nelson Mandela. Like Mandela, O’Brien met the great leaders of his age. In 1859 O’Brien travelled to North America, where, somewhat reluctantly, he was given a hero’s welcome and met President Buchanan. According to Davis, O’Brien’s three-month journeying through the United States two years before the Civil War, ‘for my own gratification and instruction’ (p.138) proved to be the highlight of his career since leaving Tasmania. He was treated like a world statesman by Irish-Americans everywhere and survived an exhausting round of speeches and ovations, which he found excessively tiring as he was not a natural orator. In Rome, O’Brien had an audience with Pope Pius IX and while in Hungry he met Frederic Deàk in the middle of his successful campaign to achieve constitutional freedom for his country from Austria. Not so reassuring were O’Brien’s travels through Poland and Lithuania during their uprising against the Russians in 1863, O’Brien commenting it was a ‘region in which danger at present awaits the traveller at every step’ (p.220). Viewing the uprising through his concern for self rule for Ireland, O’Brien met a number of aristocrats who were supporting the revolution. Again and again O’Brien made the point that his travels were partly instruction and partly for his entertainment, although he clearly found his exile from Ireland very difficult.

Despite considerable lobbying from influential supporters, including a petition signed by 140 Westminster MPs, O’Brien received a conditional pardon which excluded his return to Great Britain or Ireland for many years. Finally reunited with his family after six years’ enforced separation, O’Brien met his family in Brussels just before Christmas 1854. Not content to sit and wait in exile, he journeyed through Belgium, Luxembourg and several German states, wondering if his wanderings would ever cease. Writing ‘I did not whine when in Australia. Why with the world before me should I now complain?’ (p.89), he kept an eye out for the next place to locate his family. Once again he became a ‘wanderer on the face of the earth’ (p.91) and consoled himself with a journey through Italy and Greece with his eldest son, Edward. Arriving in Greece just as the Crimean War ended, with Greece siding with the Russians against whom the British had been fighting at Sebastopol, O’Brien was in a quandary whether to look up his old friend, the British Resident, Sir Thomas Wyde, as they were now political opponents. But he did, and as usual, this association enabled O’Brien to assess the country’s condition, particularly his usual preoccupations with schools, gaols and institutions for the poor, in a way not usually undertaken by people undertaking a grand tour of the antiquities of Greece.

Finally, one day short of seven years, he was able to return to Ireland. He arrived quietly and immediately toured Western Ireland to view the condition of the people post-Famine. Nowhere in Ireland did he find the labouring classes ‘in comfort’ as regards food, clothing and housing. But his return home did not mark the end of his European wanderings. Following the death of his long-suffering but supportive wife Lucy (nee Gabbett) and having forfeited his Irish estates to his eldest son, O’Brien spent several years in restless wandering, in a self-imposed exile. While observing the papal rule in Italy and the impact of the coronation of the young Danish prince on the Greek throne, O’Brien seemed to be a lost soul, filling in time until his appointment with his maker.

In production, this book compares unfavourably with the luxuriously produced ‘To Solitude Confined: the Tasmanian journal of William Smith O’Brien, 1849-1853’, edited by Davis (Crossing Press, Sydney, 1995). This book would have done with better editing, to avoid such howlers as Corrobory (p.64) or the awkward syntax expressed on page 61. While not affecting the scholarship of the writing, they are distracting to a reader. Although rudimentary maps are provided, the book would have also benefited from more detailed maps of countries O’Brien visited. Davis has made a valiant effort to provide portrait images of people mentioned in the text, but the quality of the images and captions is nothing short of woeful. Brief introductory paragraphs on the places visited by O’Brien, such as the summary of the condition of Egypt in 1854 helpfully provide the reader with some contextual background to O’Brien’s journeys. Also slotted into the text are several examples of O’Brien’s poetry, which compliment the descriptive passages in the book. These quotations reveal O’Brien’s delightful writing style and give immediacy to the O’Brien’s view of the world. While providing a comprehensive analysis of O’Brien’s passion for travelling, O’Brien’s journal, on which this book is based, is read through a Davis filter. Many quotes or phrases are included in the book, but none are sourced, so a reader interested to find, for example, that O’Brien considered he had ‘thrown away the happiness of his life’ in 1848 has no way to quickly locate this passage in the original. This book provides an enticing taste of O’Brien’s journal and contributes to our understanding of the man and his passion for self-rule for Ireland as he constantly toured the world, in enforced, then self-imposed exile, but always with an eye to comparing the countries visited with his beloved Ireland.

Liz Rushen