Historical Biographies

Notable Figures

Lawrence O’Brien, Merchant, Politician (1792 – 1870)

Laurence was born in Clashmore, County Waterford and came to Newfoundland sometime between 1808 and 1810 and within 10 years had established at Water Street, St. Johns the business of Lawrence O’Brien and Company, a wholesale and retail trading company. O’Brien owned a wharf, warehouses and a retail store, and was also the owner of several trading ships, aswell as being involved in the seal fishery.

Fig 1. Press Merchant Ad

He was also involved in the formation of the Bank of Newfoundland and was a promoter of the Union Bank. In 1840 Bishop Fleming  called upon O’Brien, as a prominent Irish Catholic, to run for the House of Assembly in St. Johns. He won the subsequent election by eight votes and sat in the House as a Liberal, advocating the institution of responsible government. In 1843 he replaced William Carson in the Executive Council, and later served in the  Legislative Council. With the granting of responsible Government in 1855, O’Brien was appointed President of the Legislative Council and, as President, served as member without portfolio in the cabinets of Philip Little and John Kent. Although strongly identified with the Liberals and the rights of Irish Catholics in Newfoundland, O’Brien always showed a compromising spirit. Described by historian D.W. Prowse as a man of duty, dignity and efficiency, in 1861 he was the only Liberal Roman Catholic to join a coalition proposed by Conservative Prime Minister Hugh Hoyles. He also served as colonial administrator for Newfoundland in 1863. 5 years on and he was a member of the coalition administration of Frederick Carter O’Brien was a long-time member of the Benevolent Irish Society and served as its President on 3 occasions. He died at his estate outside St. Johns in 1870.

Note: This is an abridged biography – for an extended article on Lawrence O’Brien, visit the excellent Dictionary of Canadian Biography