‘To Solitude Confined’: the Tasmanian journal of William Smith O’Brien, 1849-1853, Richard Davis (ed.)(Crossing Press)

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Spring 1996), Reviews, Volume 4

William Smith O’Brien’s Tasmanian Journal covers the period from his arrival in Van Diemen’s Land/Tasmania in October 1849 to March 1853, a little under a year before he was granted his first conditional pardon. The journal was written by O’Brien for his wife Lucy but it is evident from both its style and content that he contemplated a time when it would reach a wider audience.

The contents of the journal are wide-ranging: they include observations on Van Diemen’s Land, climate, landscape, politics and economy; book reviews, philosophical musings, and an extensive corpus of poetry, some of which is of a high standard. It also contains a number of equitable pen-portraits of prominent British statesmen, many of them political opponents of O’Brien during his career at Westminster. Lords John Russell and Grey were the subjects of particularly savage character assaults. Others who suffered this fate were the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, Sir William Denison, and the Comptroller General of convicts, Dr. Hampton, whom he held responsible for many acts of petty-minded administrative tyranny. The amount of material devoted to retrospective exculpation is remarkably small. O’Brien did not regret the events of 1848 at Ballingarry, nor was he quick to blame others for their failure although he was acutely aware that his actions had led to his separation from his wife and family.

O’Brien was far from being a typical convict. He was never compelled to wear prison dress or engage in manual labour. He was also housed in a separate building by himself. Nevertheless he complained that his treatment was in some respects worse than that of other convicts. He had little opportunity to fraternise with the rank-and-file of inmates and he certainly avoided opportunities for doing so, yet he viewed criminals as being conditioned by the environment in which they grew up rather than being inherently evil.

He was a member of the highest social echelons: he held extensive lands in County Limerick and believed that landlords had a benign and paternalistic duty towards their tenantry. It was identification with this group, no matter how myopic, which informed his criticism of some of the tenets of the tenant right movement of the early 1850s. His education in Harrow and subsequently at Trinity College, Cambridge also placed him within an educational elite

The journal and diaries are preceded by an essay on O’Brien’s career before 1848 by Richard Davis while a short epilogue contains some notes on the final years of his life. A significant aspect of the work of the editorial team is the copious number of footnotes, and while some of the information contained in these may seem obvious to Irish readers, the identification of figures from Tasmanian society is of considerable benefit to those not acquainted with its history.

O’Brien hoped that the journal would convey a ‘just idea’ of its writer and the picture which emerges is of a very learned and attractive personality. Some of his ideas, whether on such an abstruse topic as the correct translation of New Testament Greek or on a more practical level his proposals for Irish land reform, were ahead of their time. As a work written by the involuntary inhabitant of a land far from his family and friends it is remarkably free from rancour or self-pity. It may be said that the student of nineteenth-century Irish history will learn more from this work about the personality of O’Brien than about his actions, but it deserves a place equal to that of Mitchel’s Jail Journal in the canon of Irish historical recollections.

Ciarán Parker is Liaison Officer of the Irish Centre for Australian Studies

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