William O’Brien in the Scots Observer (1889)

The Scots Observer

The Scots Observer was a weekly Saturday paper based in Edinburgh. It was founded November 24, 1888 by Fitzroy Bell, with William Ernest Henley as literary editor. In 1889, Henley took over as sole editor. In November 1890, the paper changed its name to the National Observer and relocated to London.

While it was the Scots Observer, the paper cost six pence, pricing it well out of the reach of the working class. Its circulation was small, at only 2,000 issues a year (Waterloo), and cultivated a reputation of elite literary merit. Notable contributors included J. M. Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, and W. B. Yeats. The paper’s politics were conservative and imperialist (Wintersgill), and thus strongly opposed to Irish Home Rule. In addition to an extensive section of literary essays and reviews, which often discussed and quoted poetry at length, each issue of the Scots Observer contained at least two original poems.  

The Arrests of William O’Brien

William O’Brien (October 2, 1852 – February 25, 1958) was an Irish nationalist and, for most of the years 1883 to 1918, a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons (Bull).

In 1887, O’Brien organized a rent strike in Mitchelstown, Ireland—and was subsequently one of the first Irish nationalists to be arrested under the new Crimes Act. The act, largely the brainchild of Arthur Balfour, eliminated trial by jury in Ireland for crimes associated with conspiracy (O’Brien 45). O’Brien originally refused to appear at his September 9 hearing, but was arrested and, on November 9, jailed. Because those arrested under the Crimes Act were not considered political prisoners (54), O’Brien was placed among ordinary criminals and expected to participate in their punishing forced labor. In protest, however, he refused even to put on his prison uniform. When his clothing was stolen from him, he spent several days in bed in his nightshirt, until sympathizers smuggled him a new suit (57). Prison officials turned a blind eye to his new clothes, and he was released at the end of January 1888.

On January 24, 1889, O’Brien was again summoned to court. This time, he attended, but his supporters attacked the police, allowing him to escape (Herbert). He evaded the police for five days, until, on January 29, he appeared in Manchester to deliver a speech that had been organized prior to his arrest. He spoke to a cheering crowd for an hour, criticizing the Irish Police, the British Government, and the treatment of Irish political prisoners (Herbert). Afterward, police walked O’Brien—still surrounded by cheering crowds, including “a small drum and fife band” (Herbert)—to the Manchester Town Hall, where he was permitted to stay in the mayoral apartments overnight. As O’Brien was transported back to Ireland, crowds met him at every stop.

On January 31, O’Brien was imprisoned in Clonmel Jail (O’Brien 69), where he again refused to wear prison clothing. This time, he was forcibly stripped, shaved, and put in a uniform. He immediately removed all of the clothing except for the shirt, and retreated to bed. After several days, his clothes were returned, and the policy officially changed. On February 21, he was transferred to “the more congenial atmosphere of Galway jail” (70), where he wrote his first novel, When We Were Boys, a romance that encouraged land reform.  In May, he was finally released (72).

Coverage in the Scots Observer

The Scots Observer dubbed O’Brien “the distrousered,” and frequently belittled the mistreatment of Irish nationalists  by referring to it as “distrousering.” Their February 2 issue, the first after his 1889 arrest, included a long article mock-praising O’Brien being “amusing” (289). A few pages later in the issue came a poem titled simply “A Paraphrase,” evidently referring to what they considered to be O’Brien’s overblown rhetoric and overwrought complaints:

GO on, Ingenious Torturer, go on!
Govan has spoken, and your day is gone.
Shave, limp and lily-fingered Ruffian, shave
Me martyred counthry even to the grave.
Know, though ye clip her whiskers night and day,
Ye cannot take the roots of um away.
And so, ye Thief, howe’er ye rack and screw,
Her Emerald Freedom still she will renew.
Thrimble then, Tyrant, thrimble and despair!
There is no killing liberty or hair. (292)

They returned to the topic in their next two issues as well, each time producing a longer and more poetically refined statement of their disdain. On February 9:


HE stood, his linen fluttering in the wind,
Scorning the Saxon with a constant mind;
And in the prospect of his many boons
He half-forgot his ravished pantaloons.
He saw the bands and banners all rehearsing,
The children praying, and the clergy cursing.
He heard among the echoes of his soul

His Sexton’s flat and fluent thunder roll.

He felt (and thrilled with pride in the sensation)
The grey Scots mist of Morley’s approbation.
He knew that, while his symptoms he arranged,
Afar Trevelyan shook and turned and changed.
And glad of all his friends would speak and think,
Sure of a world-wide splash of printer’s ink.
Proud of the nerves no doctor can restrain,
Stern to refuse and valiant to complain,
Strong in the thought he ‘d not one thing to dread,
He smiled a haughty smile . . and went to bed. (318)

And then on February 16:


FROM torture to torture the martyr was moving;
The woes of ould Ireland were on him en masse;
But his breeches were safe, and his weight was improving,
And, better than all things, he travelled first-class.
Almost he forgot to remember the smacks on
His former Distrouseredness. Stronger than brass,
He had cornered the Chief, he had shattered the Saxon —
At the cost of the Castle he travelled first-class!
As he lolled (in his chains) on the cushions around him,
He saw himself mirrored in History’s glass,
And a conqueror the cheers of his countrymen found him :
He knew that they knew that he travelled first-class.
He thought of the glory that heroes of his sort
Command when from earth (and its prisons) they pass.
And he sketched (for an epitaph) something of this sort:
‘He clung to his breeches and travelled first-class.’
And ’twas just as his chances of triumph he reckoned
That the bloody and brutal policeman (alas!)
Transferred him (by force) to a horrible second,
And quenched the bright convict who travelled first-class.
O Erin, me counthry! Disthressful ould lady
Thy sun-burst is clouded, thy war-horse at grass!
Ochone, wirrasthrue! By the Bones of Joe Brady,
They were feared to allow um to suffer first-class! (345)

Taken as a set, the poems describe O’Brien as primarily an attention-seeker. The first trivializes his forced shaving, whereas the second two refer to his pants, but all three describe his poor treatment in prison as an exaggeration. The first and the third also make use of an exaggerated Irish dialect to mock O’Brien further. Although the poems are clearly topical, they are not newsy. None use O’Brien’s name directly, and despite spanning a period of three weeks, they all depict the same day. Rather than attempting to inform their readers—a task left to the rest of the newspaper—these poems present an emotional reaction. They are not news themselves, but they serve an important role in modeling for their readers how they ought to feel about the news.

 Works Cited

Bull, Philip. “O’Brien, William (1852–1928).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, Oct. 2009. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.

Herbert, Michael. “The Arrest of William O’Brien MP in Hulme Town Hall, January 1889.” Manchester’s Radical History. Manchester Radical History Collective, 15 Nov. 2009. Web. 15 Oct. 2013.

O’Brien, Joseph V. William O’Brien and the Course of Irish Politics, 1881-1918. Berkeley: University of California, 1976. Print.

“RIOTS IN LONDON.” The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954) 15 Nov 1887: 7. Web. 22 Oct 2013 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13680814&gt;.

“SCOTS OBSERVER; a Record and Review.” The Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals: 1800 – 1900. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.

The Scots Observer. Vol. 1. Edinburgh: Scots Observer, 1889. Print.

Wintersgill, Donald. “Bell, Robert Fitzroy (1859–1908).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, Oct. 2009. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.


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