One hundred and fifty years ago, in the summer of 1861 William Smith O’Brien, one time Irish MP at Westminster spent three weeks in Hungary, recording almost every day of his visit in his Journal. He was a leading member of the Young Irelanders. In the summer of 1848 he led a rebellion against the English authorities. This ended in failure, and he was arrested on 15 August 1848, and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Because he was an aristocrat, and a member of the famous O’Brien clan, who could trace their lineage to Brian Boru, the 11th century king of Ireland, Queen Victoria in 1849 ordered the sentence of death to be commuted to transportation and exile for life. In the summer of that year O’Brien was sent to Tasmania and remained there until a pardon was granted to him in 1854.

Earlier, in the spring of 1848, O’Brien had gone to Paris, and presented a congratulatory address to Lamartine, the president of the French Republic. Passing through London on his return he expressed his sentiments in Westminster where he did not profess disloyalty to the Queen of England. He said that his life work should be to overthrow the dominion of this Parliament over Ireland…1

After his return from Tasmanian exile O’Brien, who had by now sworn to abandon active politics and never to stay in England, went to his estate in Ireland. He then travelled to Brussels with his family. There they stayed for two years, and he wrote the two volume work of Principles of Government or Meditations in exile (Published in Dublin, 1860).

In this work he hinted at a parallel which he was going to enlarge on in 1861.

“I will not avail myself of this opportunity for endeavouring to prove that the Irish nation would have been justified in rebelling against British misgovernment in 1848, or that the inhabitants of Hungary… deserve to be commended for having endeavoured to shake off the yoke of Austria” (Vol.1. p.159)

In 1859 he travelled to America and on his return to Ireland gave a series of lectures about his American observations. In 1861 he spent some time in Germany and Austria, then from 14 August to 6 September in Hungary, and finally in Poland. At every step of his foreign travels he assiduously wrote entries in his journal. Had they been published they would have shown his unwavering commitment to the cause of Irish independence.

The journal of his Hungarian visit covers his boat journey from Vienna to Pest Buda, his stay in Pest, his view of the Hungarian parliament’s last session from the gallery, his meeting with Deák in the municipal park, his trip to Balatonfüred, his excursion to Hotkócz, whence he proceeded to Poland.

Passing through Vienna at the beginning of August, O’Brien noted there the absence of Hungarian delegates in the Imperial Parliament (Reichsrat). He then decided to visit the Hungarian diet/parliament, still in session in Buda, in order to learn more of the stand and tactics of its members. We do not know why he visited only the last session 22 and 23 August of the parliament – presumably because Béla Széchenyi, his guide, had arranged his program accordingly. From the galleries, and in the company of good interpreters, he listened spellbound while Deák declared: “the Diet, being unable to act except upon the basis of the Hungarian Constitution, has neglected nothing to establish that basis, and to guarantee it completely. The elections prescribed by law to complete the Diet, the re-establishment of a responsible ministry, and of the laws which had been suspended, were, above all, necessary in order that the Diet might engage in the discussion of the projects of law. Towards that end our efforts have been directed, but our reiterated addresses have been without result…We enter our solemn protest, and we declare that we are seriously attached to all our laws, and consequently to the laws sanctioned in 1848 which no Diet has modified, and that we regard every measure taken by the government in opposition to these laws as hostile to the constitution.”2 According to the laws of 1848, the King, Ferdinand V had sanctioned the operation of the Hungarian parliament and an independent government. These laws had not been legally repealed only illegally revoked.

In British historiography Reichsrat meant “Austrian parliament without the Hungarians” or “Imperial parliament of Austria” (later Cisleithania). For the Austrian government it was an attempt engineered by Schmerling, the Minister of Justice, to rally around the “nationalities”, which failed, because by 1865 only Transylvanian Romanians and Saxons were present from the Hungarian territories. For Hungary it meant the resurrection of their independent parliament which banned the payment of future taxes, refused the legitimation of the resignation of King Ferdinand V, and adhered to the articles of the Pragmatica Sanctio.

In Hungarian history since 1723 Pragmatica Sanctio has meant the indivisibility of the realm and the right to succession of the female line. For the Irish – starting with O’Brien –, it was the sign that a nation can activate its representatives to form an assembly separate from Westminster. This would prove to be a giant step, half a century later, beyond the notions of the Home Rule movement, towards the first free Irish parliament coveted by Arthur Griffith.

“It was the best day of my life” reported O’Brien in his journal,3 having witnessed the debate and discussed with the Hungarians the implications of their stand.

In the eight days prior to attending the last session of the parliamentary debates O’Brien discussed with Hungarian landowners the tactics of “passive resistance” to direct Austrian rule, without parliament; the measures adopted; the Austrian government’s counter measures; the laws of 1848 which had been sanctioned by the king in 1848 but revoked; the beginnings of an independent Hungarian government, and the rights of a Hungarian parliament.

O’Brien is reporting on 15 August 1861 on passive resistance. He notes that “the Hungarian gentlemen Mr. Nitzky and Mr Kvassay spoke English with perfect ease though not without a foreign accent. From these gentlemen I derived much information. They both belong to the National Party and they mentioned a fact which shows that they were in earnest in their patriotism. At the present moment the Hungarians refuse to acknowledge the right of the Austrian government to impose taxes and are therefore engaged in passive resistance to the collection of such taxes. The mode in which the government meets this difficulty is to proceed by way of what is called a military execution, that is a party of soldiers is quartered in the houses of those who refuse to pay the taxes. The house of one of these gentlemen has recently been occupied by twenty soldiers and the house of another is now occupied by thirty five soldiers.”

O’Brien arrived in Pest from Vienna by steamship on the evening of 15 August. He recorded the main reason of his voyage in his diary. “The Hungarians have been invited to send deputies to the Reichsrath or the Imperial Parliament, but they refuse to do so, and demand the restoration of their own national diet. After much discussion during many weeks they have at last submitted an address to the Emperor as an ultimatum, and I have reached Pesth just at the moment when the whole nation is awaiting with the deepest interest the answer of the Emperor.”4

On 16 August O’Brien took an extended walk in the city of Pest, guided by Béla Széchenyi5 (István’s son) and they met Deák in the municipal park. The epithet of István Széchenyi (1791–1860) was “the greatest Hungarian”, due to his successful reform programme in the 19th century. “Here I was introduced by Count Széchenyi to Mr. Deák, the leader of the patriot party in the Hungarian Diet.

As he does not speak either French or English I could converse with him only through an interpreter. The young count (Széchenyi) obligingly acted as an interpreter, and I conversed with Deák for about ten minutes. I was subsequently introduced to Baron Podmaniczky, the vice president of the House of Deputies.

As he speaks both English and French I found no difficulty in conversing with him.”6

On 17 August O’Brien concluded the description of his conversations with Hungarian politicians with this observation: “The constitution of England is probably the model which statesmen of Hungary desire to adopt but they forget that Ireland stands in relation to England in a position nearly identical with that which is occupied by Hungary in relation to Austria.” (Journal, p.10)

Based on information provided by Count Széchenyi, and Count László Csáky,7 on 18 August, O’Brien described the constitutional and political setup in Hungary, the number of representatives sent by the constituencies to the Diet, and finally his meeting with Mr. Hajnik, the distinguished captain of the police in Pest in 1848–1849.

An extended entry in the Diary on 18 August described O’Brien’s tour of Pest and Buda, as guided by Pál Hajnik,8 including his praise of the Chain Bridge (Lánchíd).

On 19 August, exploiting the gap between two sessions of the Diet O’Brien took a day-trip to Balatonfüred, travelling by train to Szántód, then crossing the lake by steamer. His description of the “Hungarian Sea” by moonlight is worthy of a lyric poet. In general O’Brien’s style is faithful to the Cambridge tradition – where he took his degree – it is characterised by clarity, and elegant turns of phrase. The garden reaching to the shore of Lake Balaton is fairyland in his perception, the ladies in crinoline, walking in the garden, are white butterflies in the moonlight.

But more to the point, O’Brien there encountered a “Countess Teleki”. “I was presented to the countess Teleki, a young and pretty connexion to Count Ladislas Teleki whose fate has occasioned throughout Europe a deep sensation… She told me that she was in the house inhabited by Count Teleki… but she did not hear the report of the pistol. None of his family or his friends fully understood the motives which induced him to commit suicide.” (Diary, p.18)9

Back in Pest and Buda O’Brien visited Protestant and Catholic churches. He commented in his diary: “In regard of political affairs religion does not appear to prevent combined actions between the Catholics and the Protestants. They are all equally patriotic.” (Diary, p.13) Although not expressed plainly O’Brien must have thought with envy of the relative religious intolerance in his own country.

His next call, in the company of Count Csáky was to Kálmán Ghyczy,10 the “President of the Diet”. As Ghyczy was unable to converse in French or English they exchanged words in Latin, Ghyczy pointing out that the claims of the Hungarians to freedom and independence had been guaranteed by laws, and decreed by Emperor Leopold. After this visit they boarded a steamboat that took them to Szentendre-Island on the River Danube. During this boat trip Csáky invited O’Brien to spend a couple of days with him at his abode at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains (Hotkócz, also mentioned as Hotoc). He accepted the invitation.

On 21 August the pages of the Diary are filled with details of the state of Hungarian agriculture, the dresses the peasantry wore and the lack of a truly Hungarian seaport, because at the time the Croatians were controlling Fiume. There is also an intriguing sentence which I will quote in full “When I was at Pressburg 18 years ago I thought that the persons who were there assembled in attendance on the Diet were the most gentlemanlike set of men.” (Diary, p.24)

I was not able to detect any other reference to his visit in Pozsony (Pressburg; Bratislava, Slovakia today) either in the papers of the copious Irish O’Brien archive, or in Hungarian sources relating to the Diet of 1843.

On 22 August O’Brien reported the dissolution of the Diet. “The protest (of the deputies) was read by Mr. Deák and adopted with the greatest unanimity and enthusiasm. Above 250 members were present in the House of Deputies when the protest was adopted and there didn’t appear to be the slightest dissent…

– I went to the House of Lords (Magnates) to see how the protest would be there received and was told it was adopted unanimously by the Peers of Hungary.” (Journal, p.28)

23 August. The Diary reveals that on that day O’Brien visited the building of the Diet once more, where Pál Hajnik took the chair, and announced that the dissolution was concluded with a Rescript of the Emperor, which contained an intimation that the Diet might be reconvened in six months time. O’Brien, to his Diary: “I cannot find language sufficiently strong to express my admiration for the Hungarian nation in relation to all its recent history.” (Journal, p.26) There follows a summary of Hungarian events of the Revolution and the War of Independence. Although not expressly mentioned O’Brien’s words must have recalled his own role in the Irish 1848. Furthermore he received a memorandum from Csáky as quoted below, which indicated the rights of the Hungarians to maintain their own assembly in the imperial context: “By a legislative act of the 26th February 1861,11 the Reichsrath (state assembly) was established in the following manner; the political assemblies (Diet) from each country were to send representatives chosen by their respective assemblies, the number of representatives being 343. The distribution was most unconventional and unjust, as Hungary, whilst making up more than a third of the monarchy, only had 85 representatives in the Reichsrath – matters of foreign affairs, war, finance, commerce and communications would be debated and discussed in the Reichsrath, in which the majority, however, would not be able to exert any constitutional authority; the legislative act giving the Emperor the right to take into account the opinion of the minority – beyond that, ministers would not be accountable. At the present time Hungary, Transylvania, Croatia, Slovenia, Dalmatia, Carynthia, Carniola and Venice refuse to take part in the Reichsrath, and are not represented there, the Poles and the Czechs making particularly strong protestations against this political establishment.” (Journal, p.30)

O’Brien’s comment on this memorandum was a kind of prophecy concerning Hungary and Austria: “The Hungarians (will be) arbiters not only of their own fate, but also of the fate of the Austrian Empire. If, for instance, Louis Napoleon should encourage Victor Emanuel to attack Venice, and should at the same time encourage the Poles, and the Hungarians to make common course against their oppressor… such a combination might defy Austria…” (Journal, p.31) At the point of a possible clash, O’Brien speculated, between Austria and Hungary, the Hungarian soldiers serving in the Austrian army (ca. 100,000) might side with their own country, as happened in 1848–49. This contingency might induce Austria “to concede the claims of Hungary, even if the struggle be not terminated by a more violent disruption”. (Journal, p.33)

24 August. On that day O’Brien received information from János Máriássy12 of 1849 fame, who gave an account of the main turn of the 1849 course of the War of Independence. Máriássy condemned the treachery of Görgey, and the Austrian camarilla in negotiating secretly with the Croatians, and then inviting the Russians to invade Hungary. Asking about Kossuth, O’Brien received, a positive answer from everyone, some amounting to veneration. Máriássy also advised O’Brien of the lingering hatred Hungarians feel not only against the government in Vienna but all Austrians – especially those occupying Hungarian homes.

In the Journal we jump several days as the next entry is 3 September 1861, Hotkócz. The protagonist had been travelling, and wrote his recollections, at his last stop, at the Hotkócz estate of the Csáky family. On the first entry, remembering Pest and his Hungarian friends and acquaintances, O’Brien called the country a “stifled volcano”, while in contrast, he called Buda “one of the most beautiful elegant towns” he had seen. After ruminating over his experiences O’Brien recalled his journey to Debrecen in the company of Count Csáky. On the journey he sat next to an abbot with whom he conversed in Latin, and received detailed information first about the archbishops and bishops of the Hungarian Catholic Church then from Csáky details of the structure of the House of Magnates. This led him to compare the law of primogeniture of England with the custom of equality between all the issues of a noble family in Hungary. (W.S. O’Brien’s father was a baronet, his elder brother, Lucius eventually became Lord Inchiquin.)

O’Brien and company arrived in Debrecen on 29 August. The reception committee consisted of a certain Mihály Tóth, a Protestant pastor, his father, and “Mr. Kiss” the Mayor of Debrecen. They first visited a farm outside the town, where O’Brien was impressed by the farmer’s husbandry and the brilliance of his well educated children. In the town itself they visited the church of the majority: the Calvinist Great Church. Tóth declared: “Unum Deum unam Patriam habemus…” “Would to God that my countrymen in Ireland would adopt this sentiment as their motto.” (Journal, p.43)

O’Brien noted the population of Debrecen as 68,000, and recounted two events; he recalled the Declaration of Independence on 14 April 1849 proclaimed in the Church. He also mentioned the recollection of Paskievich13 about a battle between the Hungarians and the Russian invading force. O’Brien conversed with the Debrecen officials about the Austrian tax levied on the town, with indignation:

“The Austrian government had taken possession of the revenue of the town to make good but these simpletons have nevertheless required an additional payment of 100,000 florins and are now proceeding for the recovery of this amount by way of military execution, and have quartered up the town 400 infantry soldiers, and 190 cavalry.” (Journal, p.45)

In the penultimate entry in the Diary O’Brien described a banquet in his honour in the hotel he stayed (presumably the Grand Hotel Bika), the speeches given in his honour, in Latin, in Hungarian, and in Csáky’s translation into English. Patriotic songs were played and the tremendous cheers which greeted the music and the words of the Szózat (Szózat=Appeal), a patriotic poem by Mihály Vörösmarty (1800–1855) appealing to fate to preserve the Hungarian nation.

In his last entry relating to Debrecen O’Brien transcribed the words of the Szózat in Hungarian and in German in his Journal.14

At his next and last Hungarian stop, Hotkócz O’Brien made inquiries of the agriculture of the Csáky estates – just as he had done in Debrecen. He was interested in the prices of horses, pigs, and cattle, stating that the prices of such animals were one fourth less than the corresponding animals in Ireland. W.S. O’Brien was a bene possessionati landowner himself in Ireland. The O’Brien family still owns considerable acreage of land even today. One of William Smith’s great grandsons, Morrow O’Brien owns the island of Monaire, near Limerick, a territory of ca. 3000 acres, where he and his Hungarian-born wife, Susanne (Károlyi) lived until the end of the 20th century. Many O’Brien descendants survive. The “chief of the clan” is Lord Inchiquin, a descendant of W.S. O’Brien’s brother.15

In conclusion, we must present a dilemma. Did Arthur Griffith, the architect of the “Hungarian Way” borrow the notion of a Hungarian-Irish parallel from the ideas of William Smith O’Brien, or was the latter a precursor, a kind of John the Baptist to Griffith, the redeemer? O’Brien’s Journals have never been published – save the occasional snippets – as they were hidden from public eyes. The Diaries were kept by the O’Brien family, and were only transferred to the National Library in the 1990s. The Resurrection of Hungary, a parallel for Ireland16 was Griffith’s acknowledgement of the success of the Compromise of 1867, which itself was the outcome of Hungarian parliamentarism, and of Austrian military defeat. In Griffith’s work a strong Hungary, after 1867, owed its existence to the Hungarians’ tenacity. His “Sinn Fein” policy – Sinn Fein having been “based” on Kossuth’s Védegylet (Protection Association) – which called for the setting up of “Hungarian-like” institutions in Ireland, such as university education, national industries, national politics, manufacturing industries, an Irish parliament, Irish consular service, a national civil service, and other improvements. The ideas of Griffith might have just coincided with the legacy of O’Brien or they might have been mainly due to reforms of Hungarian affairs between 1861 and 1867.

In one way or another, the pioneer of the “parallel” was William Smith O’Brien.


1 William Smith O’Brien’s entry in: Compendium of Irish Biography, Dublin, 1878, p. 2.

2 The quotation is taken from O’Brien’s journal but it was also recorded internationally, in The Times and Freeman’s Journal (28 August 1861) and many other European papers.

3 Journal, 18 August 1861. All O’Brien quotations are from his Diary, called Journals. The Hungarian Journal is in the Irish National Library Archives marked 32,707. I am indebted to Emeritus Professor Richard Davis of the University of Tasmania for calling my attention to the existence of this valuable manuscript.

4 The Journal is written by a neat, eminently readable hand. The quotation is from page 6 of a hardback note book. Although the entries in the Diary are mostly chronological, some pages are recollections of events of previous days. Occasionally O’Brien misspelt names and place names.

5 Gróf Széchenyi Béla (1837–1908) The son of István Széchenyi, the great reformer. Béla was a distinguished geographer and occasional palaeontologist. He devoted the best part of his life to discoveries in Greece and in Asia.

6 Báró Podmaniczky Frigyes (1824–1907) Politician, writer and holder of cultural posts. He took part in the 1849 War of Liberation as a captain. His punishment by the Austrians was to demote him from his rank. He has written several accounts of his experiences.

7 Gróf Csáky László (1820–1891) During the War of Liberation Csáky founded and directed an arms factory. In order to escape a death sentence, by the Austrians, he emigrated. Returning in 1852 Csáky eventually became a member of parliament in the Deák party.

8 Hajnik Pál (1800–1864) Starting his career as a lawyer, Hajnik became the chief of police in 1848 then escaped to Turkey with Kossuth. He returned to Hungary in 1858 and from 1860 served as a member of parliament.

9 Teleki László (1811–1861) committed suicide in May 1861. His fate could have been sealed by his return to Hungary from exile, and getting embroiled in politics, despite his earlier promise to the king of not getting involved. This could have been a warning to O’Brien, who had made a similar promise and kept it.

10 Ghyczy Kálmán (1808–1888) In 1844, he was elected deputy Lord Lieutenant of Komárom county. Politician, lawyer, minister, he was President of the Lower House in 1861 then in 1874 he became the minister of finance.

11 The memorandum was written in French, presumably by Csáky, it was translated into English by Anna Kabdebo.

12 Colonel Máriássy János (1822–1905) “The treachery of Görgey” was his phrase. Máriássy was colonel in the army of Kossuth and accomplished outstanding achievements, such as taking a major part in the Battle of Kápolna, and the reconquest of Buda in 1849. Captured by the Austrians Máriássy spent seven years in prison. In 1861, he was elected member of parliament for Szepes County. In 1888, he received the rank of baron.

13 Prince Ivan Fedorovits Paskievich (1782–1856) was Commander of the invading Russian army in 1849, he defeated the last Hungarian military effort. At the battlefield of Világos Paskievich received the lazying down of arms from the Hungarian commander, Artúr Görgey.

14 A summarised version of the contents of O’Brien’s Journal is given on p.25–26 in Thomas Kabdebo’s book, Ireland and Hungary. Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2001. Assessments of W.S. O’Brien as an Irish statesman, a one time Young Irelander (reform movement in the 1840s) and a friend of John Mitchel (an Irish revolutionary) can be found in: Marianne Davis, The Rebel in his Family. Cork University Press, 1998, and Blanche Touhill, William Smith O’Brien and his Irish Revolutionary Companions. London, University of Missouri Press, 1981.

15 I am indebted to Morrow O’Brien, great grandson of W.S. O’Brien for explaining the O’Brien family tree.

16 Arthur Griffith, by Brian Maye (Dublin, Griffith College Publications, 1997) is the most complete of O’Brien critical biographies. Griffith’s bestseller book, The Resurrection of Hungary (Dublin, James Duffy, 1904) had three editions. Its Hungarian translation: Magyarország feltámadása was done by Thomas Kabdebo (Budapest, EPL, 2003). Griffith (1872–1922) was one of the most influential politicians of the era for the fight of Irish independence. He was the president of the Irish parliament, and minister of foreign affairs. His book advocated the Hungarian way for Ireland: success by negotiations. Cf. Thomas Kabdebo: Op.cit.14.

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