O'BRIEN, Sir Edward, 4th bt. (1773-1837), of Dromoland, co. Clare

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1802 - 1826

Family and Education

b. 17 Apr. 1773, 1st s. of Sir Lucius Henry O’Brien, 3rd bt., MP [I], of Dromoland and Anne, da. of Robert French, MP [I], of Monivea, co. Galway. educ. R. Sch. Armagh; Trinity, Dublin 1791. m. 12 Nov. 1799, Charlotte, da. and coh. of William Smith of Cahermoyle, co. Limerick, 5s. 7da. (3 d.v.p.). suc. fa. as 4th bt. 15 Jan. 1795. d. 13 Mar. 1837.

Offices Held

MP [I] 1795-1800.

Lt.-col. Clare militia.


Ultimately descended from the great medieval chieftain Brian Boroimhe (Boru), O’Brien’s cadet branch of this ancient Clare family sprang from a younger son of Morrough O’Brien, who surrendered the kingship of Thomond to Henry VIII in 1543 and whose eldest son was the ancestor of the marquesses of Thomond.1 As with the three former holders of his baronetcy, which had been granted to his great-great-grandfather in 1686, O’Brien, who first sat for the family borough of Ennis on succeeding to his father’s extensive estates and electoral interests in 1795, represented his native county for many years.2 According to Richard Sheil’s* description of him, he was a striking Irish character who had a studied resemblance to his earliest forebear:

He is squat, bluff and impassioned. An expression of good nature, rather than good humour, is mixed up with a certain rough consciousness of his own dignity, which in his most familiar moments he never lays aside, for the Milesian predominates in his demeanour and his royal recollections wait perpetually upon him. He is a great favourite with the people, who are attached to the descendants of the ancient indigenous families of the county and who see in Sir Edward O’Brien a good landlord as well as the representative of Brian Boru.3

While not sharing the exasperating piety of his wife, who busied herself with supporting local Protestant schools, he devoted himself to the promotion of his estates, the rebuilding of Dromoland and his family’s parliamentary ambitions.4

A life-long supporter of Catholic relief and a ministerialist since 1807, he was an almost silent supporter of Lord Liverpool’s Tory government, though he had occasion to resent its neglect of his demands for county patronage.5 In 1819, when he was in conflict with the Irish secretary Charles Grant* over this, he expressed to his wife the hope that ‘I shall not again have to complain of a continuance of a system which would have driven me into opposition’; and by this time he had also declared that ‘London and Parliament has [sic] lost all of their charms for me and I now only remain in for the purpose of holding it open for my son’.6 Relieved not to be opposed at the general election of 1820 by the childless Lord James O’Bryen (the 2nd marquess’s brother and heir), he confided to his wife his delight that ‘nothing is likely to interrupt the harmony that subsists between the Thomonds and our family, as each day makes it more probable that our sons will ultimately represent their house’.7 No other challenge materialized and he was returned unopposed on his own interest with his colleague William Vesey Fitzgerald; with him, as at future elections, he co-operated over the choice of the Member for Ennis, where he occasionally served as provost.8

Writing en route to England, 29 Apr. 1820, O’Brien consoled his wife, who hated to be separated from him, that ‘I shall either remain at home next year or take you with me and after that I shall take the matter very easy, whether I ever attend Parliament or not’. On 9 May he wrote to her that

I am sure I shall never be able to give a close attendance in the House of Commons again. Indeed I entered it yesterday without a single feeling of either interest in the proceedings or pleasure at finding myself in a situation, the ambition of so many and the cause of such immense expense.

He was obliged to remain in London to divide with ministers that month, though on the 16th he informed his wife that, as he did not like the defence made by the lord advocate over the appointment of an additional baron of exchequer in Scotland, he had left the House before the division on this the previous night.9 Nomination to the protracted committee on the Callington election and fears of a lengthy inquiry into the Queen Caroline affair, which he considered too sordid to merit a public airing, led him to despair of being able to return home early that summer, especially as he was again involved in negotiations with ministers over personal patronage.10 It is unlikely that he attended the Commons in the autumn of 1820 or, having moved the loyal address to George IV at the Clare county meeting in January 1821, whether he was present during the following session, as no evidence of parliamentary activity has been traced.11 Evidently recovering from illness, he travelled with his eldest son Lucius to Scotland that summer, but returned to Dublin for the royal visit in August 1821, when he observed that if the king failed to grant Catholic claims, ‘he will disappoint very high raised hopes’.12

Having journeyed as far as Leicester, 28 Feb. 1822, he decided that the persistence of a cold would preclude his parliamentary attendance and so returned to Ireland. During the following two months he stayed at Dromoland, conscientiously and humanely assisting with local relief efforts, a duty which he judged to be incumbent upon him as a resident country gentleman, and corresponding with ministers about the devastating effect of the prevailing famine.13 In the House, 29 Apr., he overcame the objections of Peel, the home secretary, to make an emotional, indeed tearful, but effective appeal for government intervention to relieve distress.14 Perhaps dissatisfied with government’s response, he divided for abolition of one of the joint-postmasterships, 2 May, but on the 8th he boasted to his wife that ‘I am congratulated on all sides as being the cause of drawing public attention to the subject’.15 He thanked the English for their generous subscriptions, 16 May, but urged further relief measures, 17 June. He spoke and voted for Newport’s amendment to Hume’s motion for inquiry into Irish tithes, 19 June, but sided with ministers against repeal of the salt duties, 28 June. He remained in London to help supervise the central committee’s relief activities until the beginning of July 1822, when a county meeting in Clare passed resolutions thanking him for his endeavours and vindicating him from malicious charges of hoarding and profiteering.16 At a Clare county meeting in January 1823 he moved the address congratulating the lord lieutenant, Lord Wellesley, on escaping unharmed from the Dublin theatre riot and he signed the requisition for another on agricultural distress, which he presumably attended that month.17

O’Brien probably missed the 1823 session as in early May Lucius, who was hoping that his father would soon fulfil his promise to relinquish his seat to him, reported to a friend that he ‘has been prevented going to London hitherto by the state of his health which has been very precarious from liability to inflammation in the chest’.18 He does not appear to have visited Westminster again until the end of May 1824, when what he described as ‘a great variety of causes’, including a brief attendance in Parliament, rendered a short trip necessary.19 He was present to vote several times against the Irish unlawful societies bill in February 1825 and commented to his wife in an undated letter that month that ‘I am remarkably well given the many late nights we have had’; on the 26th he noted that ‘I am quite satisfied that as an independent Member I took the better line’, especially as he had nothing to lose by alienating the in any case hostile Irish secretary Goulburn.20 He divided for Catholic relief, 1 Mar., and although desperate to return home, continued to live in a very retired fashion at his lodgings for the satisfaction of doing so again, 21 Apr., 10 May, and in order to cast his vote against the second reading of the related Irish franchise bill, 26 Apr. By 11 May 1825, when he told his wife that the Catholic measure was bound to fail in the Lords, he was awaiting only the completion of the bonded corn bill to enable him to depart, and on the 14th he assured Lady O’Brien, whom he had kept informed of his efforts to secure the smooth transfer of the representation to Lucius, that ‘I am heartily tired of Parliament and both hope and believe that I shall never have another session to attend’.21

From Dromoland, he wrote to Canning, the foreign secretary, 28 Oct. 1825, that having for the previous 20 years ‘given a liberal and independent support to His Majesty’s ministers’, he would welcome government’s endorsement of his plan to return Lucius for Clare and his second son William for Ennis at the next election:

The politics of myself and my sons being in perfect unison with the liberal and enlightened views you have uniformly advocated both in and out of Parliament, I have thought it not unbecoming me to state these circumstances and to point out how you may attach two young independent men to your interest in the new Parliament.22

Declining to attend Daniel O’Connell’s* dinner to the Friends of Civil and Religious Liberty early the following year, he emphasized his ‘uniform and zealous support’ for Catholic claims.23 Electoral arrangements took him to London in the spring of 1826, though it is not clear that he participated much in the Commons: on 2 May he explained to his wife, with whom he was intending to travel abroad, that ‘I do not feel the least interest in a parliamentary life and shall be glad to be released from the trouble of it’, while on the 12th he recorded that ‘several people in the House last night congratulated me on the prospect of our Clare election going off quietly’.24 Once retired from public life he began a programme of drastic economies, particularly at Dromoland, and later that year he vowed to ‘mortify the flesh like an anchorite’ in order to restore his financial position.25

Although, perhaps because of his money worries, O’Brien nominated the ministerialist Thomas Frankland Lewis at Ennis, he secured the unopposed return of Lucius for Clare at the general election of 1826, and he was thanked for his exertions in their cause by the Catholics of his county at a meeting that summer.26 On vacating Ennis and obtaining a partial refund of the sale price in April 1828, Frankland Lewis noted that O’Brien was ‘not on the best credit’, and the latter certainly complained of the ‘considerable sacrifice’ involved in bringing in William for the borough that month.27 The new Member, who had just joined the Catholic Association, was more progressive than his father, whom he later described as being at this time ‘one of the class called liberal Conservatives’; but O’Brien was proud of the advancement of both his sons and that month he related to his wife that the Commons ‘is only suited to young men and I hope ours will be able to discharge their duties with credit to themselves, although I confess I am not sanguine enough to expect that either will be able to distinguish themselves’.28 On behalf of himself and his sons, O’Brien backed Vesey Fitzgerald and condemned the activities of the Catholic agitators at the Clare by-election in June 1828. He proposed his former colleague on the hustings, but, in Sheil’s words, while he ‘stood aghast, Father Murphy marched into Ennis at the head of his tenantry and polled them to a man in favour of Daniel O’Connell’, so provoking him to lament the breach between landlords and their freeholders; William later denied the O’Connellite charge that his father had retaliated by ejecting those who were in arrears with their rent.29 Stressing his family’s long parliamentary service and his sons’ commitment to government, especially given its introduction of Catholic emancipation, he unsuccessfully applied to the prime minister, the duke of Wellington, for a peerage in March 1829.30 Like the other leading Clare proprietors, he refused to interfere in or even attend O’Connell’s re-election that summer, when the O’Gorman Mahon* wrote to his fellow prospective candidate William Macnamara* that had the latter taken the seat (in 1826), ‘we should have no longer been exposed to the nausea resulting from those periodical doses, labelled with the pestle and mortar impress of concoction in the big spacious rat cage yclept House of Dromoland’.31 Criticisms of his neglect of the state of Ennis were made at a meeting called to promote lighting it with gas, a project which he endorsed, 6 Nov. 1829.32

Despite a rumour that O’Brien would stand himself, he again put forward the ineffective Lucius for Clare at the general election of 1830. As provost, he oversaw William’s re-election for Ennis, but illness forced his retreat from the proceedings at the county election and a few days into the poll, which Lucius lost, he was refused permission to enter the contest as a security for him.33 This grievance was included in the election petition which he prepared, at a cost of £1,000 on top of the £800 he had already spent, although it was apparently as the result of another that the O’Gorman Mahon was unseated early the following year.34 O’Brien, who had been actively electioneering that winter and had chaired a meeting of magistrates on the prevailing unrest in the county, 24 Feb., stood at the by-election in March 1831 as a rather grudging supporter of the Grey ministry’s reform bill.35 Despite the efforts of Lucius, who represented him on the hustings, to assert his reform principles, O’Brien, who was described by the lord lieutenant Lord Anglesey as ‘a pitiful fellow’, had effectively left his declared change of views too late. He was defeated by Maurice O’Connell in a short contest (which cost him another £1,000), and in a printed valedictory address he blamed his defeat on the agitation practised against him and stated that he was too old and infirm to fight further electoral battles.36 Having reportedly refused to stake more money on the election, this defeat was thought to mark the end of the O’Briens’ electoral interests in Clare.37 Neither he nor Lucius offered for the county at the general election of 1831, when he displaced William, it was said because of his pro-reform vote, from Ennis in favour of Vesey Fitzgerald.38 If, as was reported, it was intended to have him created Lord Dromoland that year, nothing transpired to this effect.39 Still unwilling to put up the necessary cash, the increasingly ill-tempered O’Brien was angry when William gave up his prospects in Ennis on the eve of the 1832 general election and humiliated when, partly as a result of his own stubbornness over the representation of Ennis, Lucius was defeated in Clare at the next one. William’s Liberal politics he perceived as a provocation, and in January 1835, when he was elected for county Limerick, O’Brien admitted to him that he was ‘easily agitated and sometimes irritable’, but quavered that he was ‘too old to turn democrat’.40

In spite of his failing health, O’Brien more or less completed the rebuilding of Dromoland and, having predicted that year that he would expire at the same age as his father (64), he died, murmuring ‘His mercy endureth forever’, in March 1837, when his title and estates were inherited by Lucius.41 According to his daughter-in-law’s brother, the poet Aubrey de Vere, ‘it was as an Irish chief that Sir Edward O’Brien was regarded by the masses in Old Thomond, and I have seen no other who reminded me so much of one’; he was the model for King Eochaid in his poem ‘Legends of St. Patrick’. De Vere recalled that ‘his stature was low and his eye of the paler Irish blue, his accost abrupt but friendly, his questions innumerable, his sympathies ready and he harboured malice against none’, and observed that he ‘had a great love for his country; but much of its noisier political life he regarded as more often a mixture of the game and the jest than as the serious expression of political convictions’.42

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Stephen Farrell


  • 1. See D. O’Brien, Hist. of O’Briens (1949); I. O’Brien, O’Brien of Thomond (1986).
  • 2. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 632-4; iv. 681.
  • 3. R.L. Sheil, Sketches of Irish Bar (1854), ii. 288.
  • 4. G.R. O’Brien, These My Friends and Forebears, 99-105, 109-10; Recollections of Aubrey de Vere, 77-79.
  • 5. O’Connell Corresp. ii. 561; Wellington mss WP1/168/22; Black Bk. (1823), 180; A.P.W. Malcomson, John Foster, 258.
  • 6. Add. 40296, ff. 45-46, 70-71; 40297, f. 52; NLI, Inchiquin mss T23/2970, O’Brien to wife [endorsed 1818]; 2971, same to same, 18, 20 Mar. 1819.
  • 7. Ibid. T23/2972, O’Brien to wife, 16, 17, 21 Feb. 1820.
  • 8. Dublin Weekly Reg. 12, 26 Feb., 25 Mar. 1820.
  • 9. Inchiquin mss T23/2972.
  • 10. Ibid. T23/2973, O’Brien to wife, 27 May, 6, 8, 13 June; 2974, same to same, 10, 24 June 1820.
  • 11. Dublin Weekly Reg. 20 Jan. 1821.
  • 12. Inchiquin mss T24/2980, O’Brien to wife, 26 July, 3, 17, 20 Aug. 1821.
  • 13. Ibid. T20/2976, O’Brien to wife, 28 Feb., 18, 25 Mar., 11, 13 Apr.; Dublin Evening Post, 9 Apr. 1822; Add. 37299, ff. 74, 78, 80; 40324, f. 33; 40345, f. 222; 40346, f. 145.
  • 14. The Times, 30 Apr. 1822; Sheil, ii. 288.
  • 15. Inchiquin mss T24/2976.
  • 16. Ibid. T24/2977; Add. 75937, Lady to Lord Spencer, 13 May; Dublin Evening Post, 4 June, 4, 6, 9 July 1822; K. Sheedy, Clare Elections, 130-3.
  • 17. Dublin Evening Post, 7, 18, 30 Jan. 1823.
  • 18. Hants RO, Calthorpe mss 26M62/F/C642.
  • 19. Inchiquin mss T24/2978, O’Brien to wife, 27, 31 May, 2 June 1824.
  • 20. Ibid. T24/2979; 3626.
  • 21. Ibid. T24/3625, O’Brien to wife, 22, 23 Feb., 4, 7 Mar.; 2979, same to same, 11, 30 Mar., 27 Apr., 11, 14 May; 3626, same to same, 18, 22 Mar., 17 Apr., 6 May 1825.
  • 22. Harewood mss WYL250/8/87.
  • 23. O’Connell Corresp. iii. 1280.
  • 24. Inchiquin mss T25/3627, O’Brien to wife, 26 Apr., 2, 6, 12, 15, 16, 18 May 1826.
  • 25. Ibid. T25/3628, O’Brien to wife, 9, 18, 25 Nov.; 2981, same to same, 19 Dec. 1826; G.R. O’Brien, 115-17.
  • 26. Dublin Evening Post, 20, 22, 29 June, 18 July 1826.
  • 27. NLW, Harpton Court mss C/600; R. Davis, Revolutionary Imperialist, 24.
  • 28. NLI, Smith O’Brien mss 449/3399; 10515 (4), Smith O’Brien to unknown, 25 Sept. 1844; Inchiquin mss T25/2982, O’Brien to wife, 9 Jan. 1827; T26/2983, same to same, 28 Apr., 2 May, 4 June 1828.
  • 29. Inchiquin mss T26/2983, O’Brien to wife, 13, 17 June; Clare Jnl. 30 June, 3, 7, 10 July 1828; Sheil, ii. 283, 289; Davis, 30-32, 88-90.
  • 30. Wellington mss WP1/1004/11.
  • 31. Dublin Evening Post, 30 May, 1 Aug. 1829; D. Gwynn, O’Gorman Mahon, 99.
  • 32. Clare Jnl. 9 Nov. 1829.
  • 33. Ibid. 12 July, 5, 12, 16 Aug. 1830.
  • 34. Clare Jnl. 30 Sept.; NLI, Stacpoole Kenny mss 18889 (15), W. to J. Macnamara, 11 Nov. 1830; Inchiquin mss T14/4893.
  • 35. Gwynn, 121, 137; Clare Jnl. 28 Feb., 10, 17 Mar.; Dublin Evening Post, 19, 22 Mar. 1831.
  • 36. Clare Jnl. 21, 24 Mar.; Derby mss 920 Der (14) 119/2, Anglesey to Smith Stanley, 27 Mar.; 121/1/2, Gosset to Earle, 26 Mar. 1831; PRO NI, Anglesey mss D619/28C, pp. 89-91; Sheedy, 832-4.
  • 37. Stacpoole Kenny mss 18889 (16), W. to J. Macnamara, 26 Mar.; (17), same to same [23 Mar.] 1831.
  • 38. Smith O’Brien mss 449/3398; Clare Jnl. 12 May 1831.
  • 39. Davis, 55.
  • 40. R. Sloan, William Smith O’Brien, 33, 40-41; Sheedy, 176-9.
  • 41. I. O’Brien, 156-7, 196; G.R. O’Brien, 120-2; Recollections of Aubrey de Vere, 79-80; Clare Jnl. 16 Mar. 1837; Gent. Mag. (1837), i. 546; Inchiquin mss T18/3214/A1518.
  • 42. Recollections of Aubrey de Vere, 77, 80, 357.