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culture

Historicist: The Trouble With O’Brien

An Irish nationalist's attempt to embarrass the governor general provoked mob scenes in May 1887.

Cartoon, the News, May 4, 1887.

Cartoon, the News, May 4, 1887.

Just after 9 p.m. on May 3, 1887, a train carrying Canada’s governor general rolled into the North Toronto Canadian Pacific Railway station. Accompanied by municipal officials, Lord and Lady Lansdowne led a procession of carriages south along Yonge Street toward Government House at King and Simcoe streets, where the couple would reside for the next three and a half weeks. While there was an enthusiastic turnout to watch the procession, there were also fears that Lansdowne’s presence would prompt one of the periodic riots between Orangemen and Irish Catholics that had marred the city since Confederation.

These fears were sparked by William O’Brien’s vow to visit Toronto while Lansdowne was in town. A journalist who represented East Cork in the British parliament, O’Brien was a fiery Irish nationalist who loved to stir things up. One of his main causes was supporting Irish tenant farmers who were being evicted by their landlords due to sharp rent increases. Lansdowne’s Luggacurran estate was a flashpoint, as he reputedly refused to work with tenant representatives to reduce their rent to affordable levels. As evictions occurred, O’Brien vowed to visit Canada to turn popular opinion against the governor general and paint him as “a most cruel and wanton man.” O’Brien scheduled a North American tour, bringing along evicted tenant Denis Kilbride to arouse sympathy.

"The Ass and the Figure-head; or O'Brien kicking at the wrong Lansdowne." Cartoon by J.W. Bengough, Grip, May 21, 1887.

“The Ass and the Figure-head; or O’Brien kicking at the wrong Lansdowne.” Cartoon by J.W. Bengough, Grip, May 21, 1887.

From the start, prominent members of the Toronto Catholic community urged O’Brien to stay away. Leaders like Archbishop John Joseph Lynch knew from experience that the incendiary nature of O’Brien’s platform could easily cause a riot. Battles between ultra-Protestant Orangemen and local Irish Catholics earned Toronto a reputation as the Belfast of North America. Triggers ranged from celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day and the Battle of the Boyne to an appearance by Fenian leader O’Donovan Rossa in 1878.

O’Brien ignored the warnings. He faced outright hostility from fellow passengers during a tense voyage on the ocean liner Umbria. When dense fog delayed its landing in New York City, a tugboat pickup was arranged so that O’Brien could keep his first speaking engagement. As he disembarked, alternating shouts of “God Save the Queen” and “God Save Ireland” were heard on the Umbria. The hawser on the rope ladder leading to the tugboat snapped, and O’Brien was barely saved from falling into the water. While there were suspicions that the rope was purposely cut, O’Brien assured the press it had been an accident.

As Toronto awaited O’Brien’s appearance, local papers obsessed over what might happen. The Telegram was prepared to let him talk in the name of free speech, but felt that it was “in execrable taste for an outsider to come among the citizens and abuse their guest.” The News hoped that “Mr. O’Brien will doubtless learn before his coming that an intolerant faction proposes to make trouble, and for the sake of peace will stay away.” Lansdowne was portrayed by the press as an upstanding representative of the crown, whose personal matters in Ireland had no bearing on his duties in Canada. Papers went to extremes to depict Lansdowne in a positive light, such as the Telegram’s unearthing of 20-year-old accounts of good relations with his tenants. The News amusingly observed that “it is very noticeable that the newspapers which have protested most strongly against his visit have harped most unceasingly upon the theme, and by their windy and reiterated articles on the subject have given it a degree of prominence which it could not otherwise have assumed.”

"O'Brien's Wild-Goose Chase." Cartoon by J.W. Bengough, Grip, June 4, 1887.

“O’Brien’s Wild-Goose Chase.” Cartoon by J.W. Bengough, Grip, June 4, 1887.

At City Hall, nervous politicians denied O’Brien permits to use any local halls, which prompted local Irish nationalist organizations to threaten legal action. Mayor William Holmes Howland organized a public meeting at Queen’s Park for May 14, 1887 to discuss the propriety of O’Brien’s visit. When O’Brien wired from Montreal a demand to appear at the meeting to explain his motive, Howland sent a sharp reply on May 12:

We understand your object in coming is to attack the representative of her Majesty, at present our guest, on personal grounds, as to the truth of which, as matters of fact, we cannot and should not be called upon to be judges. Our sense of fair play here will not justify the attack on the public platform of a gentleman who by reason of high office he holds is not privileged to meet and answer his accuser in like manner. If you persist in coming I shall have to afford you the protection which the law allows, but I would advise you to accept the decision of Saturday’s meeting, which I believe will express the true sentiments of all classes in this city.

As Howland assembled a speaking list of local clergy, intellectuals, and politicians, Lansdowne authorized the Globe to print his wish that nothing should prevent O’Brien from speaking in any Canadian city.

Cartoon by J.W. Bengough featuring the telegram William Holmes Howland sent to British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (far right) following the anti-O'Brien Queen's Park meeting. The "grand old friend" on the left is Irish Home Rule supporter and intermittent British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. Grip, May 28, 1887.

Cartoon by J.W. Bengough featuring the telegram William Holmes Howland sent to British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (far right) following the anti-O’Brien Queen’s Park meeting. The “grand old friend” on the left is Irish Home Rule supporter and intermittent British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. Grip, May 28, 1887.

Four resolutions were discussed at the meeting, including a reprobation of O’Brien’s visit for “exciting hostile feeling” against Lansdowne and a vote of confidence in the British Parliament’s ability to resolve its Irish issues. A crowd estimated to be between 6,000 and 15,000 spent the afternoon listening to the speakers, though rumours that O’Brien might be in the vicinity briefly caused a panic—according to the Globe, a large chunk of the audience “incontinently turned and fled helter-skelter across the park.” Howland good-humouredly calmed the crowd down before the remaining speakers took the Union-Jack-strewn stage. Praise in the press was overblown; “Such a scene was there presented as man may live a lifetime and never see again,” the Mail observed. “One of those occasions had arrived when the people, actuated by one impulse, reach a climax of enthusiasm grand and irresistible.” Editorial pages continued to urge O’Brien to reconsider his visit.

He didn’t. At the last minute, his organizers secured Queen’s Park for a public lecture on May 17. His entourage included reporters from pro-Irish American newspapers who, according to the New York Tribune, were “so thoroughly prepared for a riot in Toronto that they will be disappointed if it should not come off.” O’Brien was greeted enthusiastically at Union Station that morning before proceeding to the Rossin House hotel at King and York streets. He believed that given a fair hearing, he could still turn the minds of Canadians who seemed increasingly hostile to his cause.

The World advised its readers to “keep away from the meeting” to preserve the peace. But people didn’t. Up to 15,000 may have attended the session, which began around 4:30 p.m. Speakers were barely over the din of those attempting to drown them out. Accounts of the afternoon varied wildly, ranging from Toronto papers claiming police had the crowd under enough control so that only a couple of fights broke out, to proclamations from the New York press of O’Brien braving “the terrors of a Toronto mob.” Nobody denied there was a jeering section, made up of pro-Orange Order bank clerks allowed a day off work and University of Toronto students. The New York Sun observed that “most of them carried great canes, which they shook in the faces of the Irishmen with profane and obscene expressions, daring them to fight.” According to the New York Tribune, one heckler got his just desserts when a woman waving a green branch shoved it down his throat. She was saluted with cries of “God Save Ireland” and provided full protection when others tried to attack her. “The Nationalists,” the Tribune reported, “used their fists effectively and many Orangemen’s red blood spouted out profusely and stained the green turf in several places.” Despite many interruptions, O’Brien passionately spoke for the poor of Ireland in an hour-long speech. He urged Canadians to demand a response from Lansdowne regarding the tenant situation, claimed “nineteen-twentieths” of Canadians supported his cause, and challenged local opponents to an open discussion.

Cartoon by J.W. Bengough parodying a similar cartoon depicting O'Brien (left) and Lansdowne (right) published in Ireland. Grip, June 11, 1887.

Cartoon by J.W. Bengough parodying a similar cartoon depicting O’Brien (left) and Lansdowne (right) published in Ireland. Grip, June 11, 1887.

Where was Lansdowne in the midst of the ruckus? He was carrying on with engagements like visiting factories and enjoying local entertainment. A large crowd greeted him and his wife when they emerged from the Grand Opera House that evening. They followed his coach to Government House, where he thanked them for their support: “We have received a great deal of kindness from your city, but this is the crowning point of all.”

The next day, O’Brien took care of some personal housekeeping matters and visited a school. He was scheduled to leave from Union Station that night, but decided to stay overnight. Police weren’t informed of his change of plan, which left a large force waiting for nobody at the station. O’Brien and several colleagues made a stupid move—around 7:30 p.m., with barely any police guard, they took an evening stroll. They encountered young opponents, later portrayed as bored rich kids, who O’Brien told to keep back. A growing crowd followed the strollers east along King Street, yelling taunts like “to hell with the Pope and O’Brien.” When O’Brien tried to turn around at Bay Street, the mob hurled eggs and rocks at his entourage. The melee moved south along Bay, then west along Wellington Street. A Tribune reporter was knocked out by a large stone. Looking for shelter, they ran into Thomas Lalor’s bicycle shop, where the furious mob caused $500 worth of damage. O’Brien and his friends ducked out the back door and hid in a nearby tailor shop for an hour before police escorted them to the back of the Rossin House. The mob sensed what was going on and pelted them with debris as O’Brien’s group scaled a ten foot wall to return to their rooms.

O’Brien met with reporters and claimed he was fine despite being struck by stones at least three times. He was determined to leave the city in an open fashion. “If they murder us,” he told the Mail, “they will place a stain upon the reputation of Toronto that the city will never get rid of.” Later that night, around 100 Irishmen from the city’s west end accompanied by a fife-and-drum band paraded outside the hotel to show their support.

Cartoon by J.W. Bengough. Toronto Mayor William Holmes Howland is second from left. Grip, June 4, 1887

Cartoon by J.W. Bengough. Toronto Mayor William Holmes Howland is second from left. Grip, June 4, 1887

The incident was swiftly condemned on both sides of the border. The Globe attacked the police, whose lax enforcement during the Queens Park gatherings may have convinced some that there were no consequences for acting violently against O’Brien. “Lord Lansdowne,” an editorial remarked, “has been, without any foolish action of his own, compromised by zealous idiots.” The Telegram criticized Canadian politicians for approving relief to the Irish in the past and sticking their heads into a domestic British matter. The New York Sun observed that “people of Toronto in their hearts approve of the disturbance.” It felt Lansdowne should be recalled, and that while the paper supported discussions at the time of a union between the United States and Canada, if the rioters were examples of aristocratic Toronto, “we want that town kept out of the American Union, at least until decent folks begin to live in it.” The New York Times noted that “the cowardly and brutal riot” was “not needed to show what a disgrace to mankind the Orangeman is either on or off his native soil.”

O’Brien departed Toronto on May 19, briefly thanking his supporters for their kindness before departing for Kingston. He ran into trouble with mobs at his remaining Canadian stops, including a possible assassination attempt in Hamilton. He discovered he broke a rib during his foolish evening stroll, which he used as a sympathy point during stops in the United States. O’Brien continued to agitate for change in Ireland, and ended 1887 in a jail cell. He remained a key figure in the Irish independence movement until his death in 1928.

Meanwhile, the press split into those papers which continued harping on the fallout from O’Brien’s visit and those, like the World, who wanted to “hear no more of him.” The Mail feared that O’Brien left behind “a legacy of discord and bad blood, the effects of which, we greatly fear, Irish Catholics will feel for many a day in their business and social relations with the rest of the community.” Though tensions remained for years, the frequency of violent clashes between Orangemen and Irish gradually declined.

"O'Brien's Side-Show, as exhibited in the principal cities of the United States." Cartoon by J.W. Bengough, Grip, June 18, 1887.

“O’Brien’s Side-Show, as exhibited in the principal cities of the United States.” Cartoon by J.W. Bengough, Grip, June 18, 1887.

Lansdowne light-heartedly addressed the subject on May 24, during a dinner at the National Club:

During our visit a slight touch of electricity has been perceptible in the atmosphere, and certain stars have shot madly from their spheres into your quiet firmament. They have experienced the fate which usually overtakes such erratic constellations. The disturbance has been brief and inconsiderable. I trust that it will leave no traces behind it. As far as I am concerned I may say that owing to your kindness this incident has not for an instant interfered with my happiness or convenience. I might add that it is to the fact that we were not the only visitors of distinction to Toronto that we owe the extraordinary demonstrations of loyalty and good will which we have experienced. Your conduct has, in fact, once and for all, established that the Queen’s representative in Canada, so long as his conduct in his official capacity has not been impugned, so long as his conduct in any other capacity has not been called in question by the constitutional methods in the Legislature either of Canada or of his own country, may safely leave his public or private reputation in the custody of your people. It has shown your abhorrence for the methods of those who seek to achieve by intimidation and persecution what they know could not be obtained by legitimate courses.

Lansdowne’s name lives on via Lord Lansdowne Public School and Lansdowne Avenue.

Additional material from The Life of William O’Brien by Michael MacDonagh (London: Ernest Benn, 1929), The Waning of the Green by Mark G. McGowan (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999), and the following newspapers: the May 4, 1887, May 16, 1887, May 18, 1887, May 19, 1887, May 20, 1887, and May 23, 1887 editions of the Globe; the May 16, 1887, May 19, 1887, and May 23, 1887 editions of the Mail; the May 7, 1887, May 12, 1887, and May 13, 1887 editions of the News; the May 18, 1887, May 19, 1887, May 20, 1887, and May 25, 1887 editions of the New York Sun; the May 19, 1887 edition of the New York Times; the May 13, 1887, May 14, 1887, May 18, 1887 editions of the New York Tribune; the December 12, 1987 edition of the Toronto Star; the May 4, 1887, May 10, 1887, May 12, 1887, May 14, 1887, and May 20, 1887 editions of the Telegram; and the May 17, 1887, May 20, 1887, and May 23, 1887 editions of the Toronto World.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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