Smith O'Brien was a wealthy Irish landowner and member of the House of
Commons. Deeply affected by the suffering due to the potato famine, O'Brien
called for increasinly violent means of fighting English occupation. In
1848 he was sentenced to death for the change of high treason, which was
subsequently commuted to transportation.
In 1849, O'Brien was taken to Maria Island, off the east
coast of Tasmania, to solitary confinement. Unable to talk with anyone,
he communicated by letter to friends back in Ireland. His fate was keenly
watched by those on the other side of the world.
'Who can contemplate unmoved this descendent of a line of
kings... this man of warm and loving heart, subject to such vile torture?'
'They are killing Smith O'Brien by slow murder on Maria
Island... He is caged in the closest solitary confinement. His food is
scanty and loathsome... He never sees the face, or hears the voice, of
a friend. He is denied the common requisites of decency. For months has
had not been alllowed a change of raiment, or permitted to cleanse his
dress.' (Nation 1 June 1850)
The history of the Irish Fenians is detailed in Thomas Keneally
The Great Shame: A Story of the Irish in the Old World and the New
Sydney: Random House, 1998 (Chapter 13 By Order of Great Denison)