One cannot discuss Col. Arthur Lynch, an Australian-born politician sentenced to death for high treason in 1903 for his role in fighting against the British during the Anglo-Boer War, without invoking the memory of a previous Irish patriot sentenced under similar circumstances – William Smith O’Brien.
Born into an Anglo-Irish aristocratic family in 1803, O’Brien was a notable Irish nationalist figure who represented Limerick in the UK Parliament from 1835 to 1847 and then again from 1847 to 1848. Having been disillusioned with the British rule over Ireland due to the tragic effects of the Great Famine and witnessing the continuous undermining of the Irish cause, O’Brien decided to take an active role in the nationalist movement led by the Young Irelanders. This group sought to end British rule by force, if necessary, and establish an independent Irish Republic.
In 1848, O’Brien’s actions took a decisive turn as he participated in the Young Irelander Rebellion, an unsuccessful attempt to ignite a nationwide revolt against the British. Though the uprising was relatively small-scale and short-lived, its leaders faced severe consequences. Captured and charged with high treason, O’Brien was initially sentenced to be “hanged, drawn, and quartered,” a gruesome and humiliating method of execution.
However, due to a public outcry and with a writ of error, O’Brien’s case reached the House of Lords where the sentence was upheld in May 1849. The British government, aware of the sensitive nature of the situation and its potential to enflame further discontent, chose to commute O’Brien’s sentence and thus spared his life. Instead, he was sentenced to transportation for life to Van Diemens Land (present-day Tasmania).
Interestingly, William Smith O’Brien showcased dignity and defiance throughout the ordeal. He claimed that he preferred death to the life of an exile and challenged the legality of his transportation. As a result, an Act of Parliament was passed to ensure that his transfer to Tasmania was legal. Upon arrival, the colonial authorities granted him a ticket-of-leave in recognition of his social status, which allowed him certain liberties within specified areas; however, O’Brien refused it, demonstrating his unwavering desire for Irish independence.
Eventually, in 1854, O’Brien received a conditional pardon, but the British authorities prohibited him from returning to the United Kingdom. Despite his compromised freedom, he continued traveling and engaging in political discussions. It was not until 1856 that O’Brien was fully pardoned and allowed to come back to Ireland, where he continued advocating for his country’s rights.
Fast forward several decades, and Col. Arthur Lynch found himself in a similar predicament. Like O’Brien, Lynch was a Member of Parliament, but his involvement in the Anglo-Boer War fighting against his own country earned him a charge of high treason. This raised questions about the similarities between their cases and how the authorities would deal with Lynch’s situation.
Drawing parallels between O’Brien’s treatment and Lynch’s impending punishment, one could surmise that the British government might seek to make an example of him to deter others from aiding the Empire’s enemies. But it seems that history did not repeat itself when it came to treasonous Members of Parliament.
The sentence of death initially handed down to Col. Lynch was ultimately commuted to life imprisonment, and he only served a few years behind bars before being released in 1907. He was even elected MP for Galway in 1909, effectively allowing him to reenter the world of politics with relatively minimal consequences compared to O’Brien’s life-altering exile.
It would be wrong to compare the two cases in terms of their historical significance. Indeed, O’Brien’s struggle came at a time when Irish nationalism was in its formative years, and his actions were imbued with the passion and fiery spirit necessary to sustain a movement that would eventually lead to the establishment of an independent Irish nation. Conversely, Lynch’s actions, though reflecting a deep sense of empathy and support for the Boers during the Anglo-Boer War, did not carry the same weight in the broader context of British and Irish history.
Nonetheless, the stories of these two politicians – William Smith O’Brien and Arthur Lynch – offer a fascinating glimpse into the complexities of political dissent, national loyalty, and the consequences of high treason within the British Empire. Beyond the question of whether they were justly punished for their transgressions, these stories illustrate how political upheavals and acts of defiance can alter a person’s life and shape their legacies.
Gloucester Citizen – Tuesday 27 January 1903