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William O'Brien

William O’Brien, actor and dramatist, the son of a fencing master, was probably born in County Clare in the first half of the eighteenth century. His family was connected with that of the Viscount Clare, and, like it, suffered ostracism for its adherence to the Stuart cause.

O’Brien acted for several years in Ireland before David Garrick saw him and engaged him to play at Drury Lane. He first appeared here on the 3rd October, 1758, in another Irishman’s play, “The Recruiting Officer,” by George Farquhar, and was an immediate success. This success continued until he was playing principal parts in Shakespearean and other plays, but, on his marriage in 1764, he retired from the stage. This marriage was to Lady Susan Sarah Louisa, eldest daughter of Stephen Fox-Strangways, first Earl of Ilchester, and niece to Henry Fox, and was without her father’s consent. Horace Walpole tells of a rumour that, for rashness, they were to be transported to a 40,000-acre farm in Ohio. Be that as it may, he certainly did go to America for a time, where according to one authority, he was “obliged to do penance for his redemption.”

O’Brien had a high reputation as an actor, and Walpole writes: “Colley Cibber and O’Brien were what Garrick could never reach—coxcombs and men of fashion.” On his retiral from the stage he wrote two plays, “Cross Purposes” (1772) and “The Duel” (1773), the former being a popular success; the latter, according to the critics, not meeting with the merit it deserved.

O’Brien’s rashness in marrying the daughter of a nobleman was soon forgiven, and he obtained an appointment under the Governor of New York. In 1768 he was gazetted Secretary and Provost-Master-General of the Bermudas, and eventually Receiver-General of Dorset. He died at an advanced age at Stinsford House, Dorset, on 2nd September, 1815.

O’Brien, according to his contemporaries, “had a good and gentlemanly bearing, easy manners, grace and elegance, and in the conduct of his sword (as befitted the son of a fencing master) was unapproachable.” Upon his elevation into high society, he endeavoured to hide the shameful fact that he had ever been a low stage-player.

Source: Robert Herbert, ‘The Worthies of Thomond, II’, Limerick, 1944

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