Charlotte Grace O'Brien.

Charlotte Grace O'Brien; selections from her writings and correspondence online

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jumping with joy at the thoughts of a visit to his
beloved Father Casey.

" Well, to make a long story short, Taylor was game,
so back I came to her with the news. She listened, and
then said ' Well, I see no reason why we should not
go. Call me at 7, and tell Taylor to be ready at 8 30


Introductory Memoir

in the morning. See that the pony has a good feed of
oats, and make up a bag of provisions to help us on the

" Call her at 7 ! Indeed she was up at 6 without
being called at all, and full of excitement over the

" We started, taking her beloved * Boss ' with us, snugly
tucked in at her feet. She was just as full of excitement
and fun as myself. Our provisions consisted of two
large brown cakes, a piece of cold bacon, and about
two dozen new potatoes, and Keating's 'History of
Ireland' laid carefully on top. After a lot of bustle and
fuss, we at last got off, and then, as usual, she kept up
a running conversation about the different places as we
passed them. We drove right up into the hills and
made straight for the Kerry line, which she was anxious
to see, as it was rather an unknown corner to her. As
we neared Athea she said ' My soul desires lunch, so
we'll stop and rest at the first decent little place we
come to.' The house we pitched on was a small little
shop at the far end of the town, and the bean a tighe
was a stout, pleasant-looking dame. We ordered bacon
(some of our own), eggs and tea, and the new potatoes.
" After a substantial meal and a rest, off we went again,
and after driving for about two hours, we came at last
to Abbeyfeale. The place was all decorated with flags
and arches. She said ' Now, I am too tired, so will
rest at the hotel, and you go on to the aeridheacht?

" I left her resting, and went off. First thing I knew
was that I was being hauled up on the platform, which
seemed to be lined with black-coated figures, one of
whom, after welcoming me in very hearty fashion, asked
where was Miss Charlotte. I told him. The minute
he heard it he disappeared, and in about ten minutes
I saw him dragging her after him up the steps of the


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platform. Such a reception as she got. There were
over 5,000 people present and they did cheer. She
must make a speech,'^ Father Casey said. She said
' All right, lead on, I am ready.' And then she began.
It wasn't a speech, but just a little straight talk from
her heart."

According to the report I heard from another witness,
she stood up on the platform, and when the cheers sub-
sided, she said : " I see caps, a whole sea of caps. How
many of those caps are Irish made ? " Then she put her
hand to her own straw hat. " This is an Irish-made hat I
have on me. How many of you have on Irish-made coats ?
This (touching her big mantle) is a Galway cloak I
have on me How many Irish-made boots are there in
that fine crowd ? (Then, sticking out her leg, as I
was told, and holding on to Father Casey to steady
herself). " And these are Irish boots and stockings I have
on me."

Naturally they cheered her to the echo, and, says
Miss Briscoe, " when we got to the hotel, she said, with
a funny little smile 'Well, Peggy, don't you think the
old woman has done enough for to-day ? '

" Old woman, indeed," her friend adds. " Her body
may have been feeble, but her heart was not."

And again :

" If there was a children's party, she entered into ah 1
the fun with them. One time I remember getting up
a bran dip, and she insisted on being allowed to dip too.
And the excitement she got into over the things she
fished up !

" Such a large, generous heart as she had, and so full
of sympathy about everything no matter how small the
thing, you were always sure of her taking an interest in it.


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" She just loved to hear all the little village excitements
and doings, and used to call me ' her newspaper.'
Whenever I went away, when I would come back first
thing she wanted all the news of Dublin and elsewhere.
Next question then would be ' Well, what pretty didoes
have you picked up ? ' When my tale had been told, then
she would tell all that had gone on while I was away.

" The settling of the flowers in the drawingroom was
always a great performance with her to welcome people.
' Somebody coming the flowers must be settled fresh.'
And glorious masses of colour she used to have on that

" On most fine evenings she used to sally forth just
about dusk with her skirt tucked over her arm to hunt
for slugs, or, as she used to say, ' looking for the enemy.'

" One time she was looking for a gardener, having,
as she expressed it, ' fallen foul of Dan.' She engaged

a man from . He arrived on the day settled, and

after interviewing him, she told him to walk round
and see the place, and then to come back and have his
supper. He went off, but did not turn up until some-
time about midnight, and then very much the worse for
drink. He kicked up a row and refused to go to bed
or even stay in the house said he must get a bed in the
best hotel. She dressed herself (having gone to bed)
and came down, looked at him, said ' All right, follow
me and I'll get it for you.' Away with her, armed with
a stick and a lantern, followed by this man. She marched
straight down to the barrack, knocked at the door till
she roused the guard, told them this man wanted the
best hotel in the place, and that she had come to them.
They closed round him, and soon lodged him all right.
Home with her then, and back to bed. Next morning

she bought a single ticket to , and got the police

to see him back to his native soil again.


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" The country people loved her. And when we would
go driving through the country she had a smile and a
merry word for them all as they passed."

These were her occupations, this was her life during
those last years. All this must be set off against the
desperately tragic utterance of that essay upon the
isolation of deafness which I found among her papers
written somewhere about 1892. That stands for what
she conquered, what she lived down.

After all, nothing gives a truer picture of the woman
than the series of papers which she contributed to Irish
Gardening in this very year, the last year of her life.
From January to June the readers of that little
magazine heard of " The Making of Our Home," and
among all the practical details, gardeners' hints and
improvisations, they had many glimpses of that mind,
beautiful in its final serenity. She was writing from
month to month, and June had its instalment. July
brought only the notice of her death.

The end came very suddenly. Her health had lately
given great uneasiness to her kinsfolk, but she refused to
see a doctor. At last, her nephew, Dermod O'Brien
of Cahirmoyle, went down to Foynes, bringing with him
Dr. Fogarty from Limerick, on the plea of a visit of

Once there, Dr. Fogarty got leave to make an examina-
tion, and discovered that she had not a week to live.
The two men went down to Foynes to telegraph to her
kin, and came back to the house after an hour's absence.
In that interval she had died in the arms of her friend,
Miss Briscoe.

The funeral took place on the Sunday. Many of her
kindred, I among them, who would have wished to be
present, did not hear the news in time to reach Foynes


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that day. But there was a huge concourse of the truest
and most fitting mourners, " her own people," among
whom she dwelt.

At the morning Mass in the little Foynes Chapel,
Father O'Kennedy preached, and he has written down
for this book what he said :

" Brethren, I ask your prayers for the repose of the
soul of Miss O'Brien. I need not tell you how kind
and good she was ; you know it. I need not tell you
how noble ; that too you know. I would speak rather
about that little corner of the altar rails there. Catholics
believe that at 'the altar rails they receive the Body and
Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Jesus Christ, the Son of
God. For twenty years and more she knelt at that
little corner of the altar rails. For these twenty years
it was my privilege to minister to her, and oh, the rever-
ence of that uplifted face ! Oh, the humility of that up-
lifted face ! Oh, the faith of that poor uplifted face ! It
always seemed to me to say ' Go thou, priest, and do
likewise.' My work here is now at end ; it was for her
alone, as you know, that I used to come here. She is
gone, and there is no more need of me ; but this Church
will be during my life solemn and blessed to me, and
that little corner of the altar rails the dearest and holiest
spot on earth."

She was carried to the high windy graveyard of
Knockpatrick, as her wish had been. Here is her own
description of it, written in 1890 :

" That's the place for me : grand. The wind was
sweeping up from the Atlantic, the sky was heavy with
broken clouds, the mid air bearing uncertain drifts of
rain, the river grim and wild, the Fergus desolate and


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grey, the bogland black, and a big heap of human bones
at my feet. My ! how weird it looked. The grandest
place in this world to my individuality ; may my grave
be there, and no other earth hold my bones."

She sleeps there now, in the place of her own choice,
overlooking the Shannon, which she loved ; and surely
her grave is not without honour.

Two things remain to be done to give here, briefly,
her final views, so far as I can gather them, upon the
question of emigration ; and, secondly, to take into
account her work as a writer.

Here is, first, the impression which she derived from
her first lockings about her in New York a two-sided
impression reinforced in both its aspects by wider
experience. She said to an interviewer :

" I have been to your free schools and the Normal
College, and I have not seen one child that in Ireland
we would call perfectly healthy. Whether it was due to
the climate or whatever, they were pallid and delicate-
looking. As to your tenement house system, it seems
to me to be as miserable a system as it is possible to
conceive. I did not happen to visit a single family that
had not lost most of the children it had ever had. One
does not wonder when one sees the sleeping rooms, with
their poisonous atmosphere, all opening into one common
apartment. But on the other hand, I have seen people
who at home in Ireland were living in cabins at the road-
sides along with pigs, and who at home, if you put them
in the best house in Ireland, would have made it intoler-
able in a short time, living now in real comfort, having
nice drawingrooms and everything neat and clean, in
tenement houses. A reform of manners is effected by

129 i

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the transportation to America so great that I never
could have believed it if I had not actually met with
people whose lives at home I have followed from their
earliest childhood. I have here a picture of a girl that
grew up in a cabin by my father's gate the whole
family in one apartment. See, she is better dressed than
I am. She has a nice home, with lace curtains and pretty
and comfortable apartments, and has the manners of a
lady. I never could have believed it if I had not seen it.
I went, however, into one of those houses across the
street, where I saw a score of almost naked children,
and every evil of miserable life in Ireland intensified."

And here is the result of her deeper meditation as
expressed in a curiously incoherent, but none the less
characteristic, manuscript essay which I can date only
by the fact that the tickets of the Irish National Co-
operative Society, Irish House, Dublin, on whose backs
or faces it is written, bear the figures 188 . It is called
" The Espousals and the Loves and the Courtships of
Ulster," and it begins by recounting the story of
Buaichne and Bualah, two lovers who died suddenly on
hearing the first a false, and the second a true report
of each other's death, and from whose graves trees sprang
and blended their branches. And after long years the
yew tree of Buaichne and the apple tree of Bualah came
to be felled, and tablets were made of them on which
to write the loves of Ulster. But as the King held those
tablets, one in his right hand and the other in his left,
suddenly they sprang together, and no man could separate
them for ever after.

And on that text Charlotte O'Brien moralises on the
separation of lovers :

" It is the tearing apart of the tablets, the very sub-

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stance of each is injured. I think, I have thought often,
of the hidden suffering our emigration has meant during
the last forty years : the mothers doomed to lose child
after child, the lovers separated, the fathers going down
to the grave, their grey hairs unhonoured and unwept
for ; every sacred relation of life broken into and torn
to pieces by this passion of wandering for that it is.
It is well to say, money and work will keep the young at
home. It is not true. We ah 1 know how the young
insist on going, even when they have little to look to
abroad, and have good work at home. It is the flight
of the swallows, the flying instinct, which, once developed
in a nation, can, perhaps, never be laid. Money and
work at home will bring people back ; it will not prevent
the young from going. It is not desirable it should.
How minds stagnate that never move ! Is not the
emigration a national education growing deeper into
the soul of our people than their school learning ? I
think it is a much more important education in many
ways, for it awakens the mind, it brings a larger range of
thought, it gives an outlet to talents, and, perhaps,
more than anything else, it will in time give the Irish
people the free use of their own minds and consciences.
" Does it or does it not loosen the bonds of affection ?
I am sure that it does not with maternal love, for the
mother's love clings the more tightly to that which it
may lose and must lose ; for other ties, I think it may
induce some hardening. But, except when an entirely
artificial civilization and education stunts natural growth,
Nature will always reassert itself. The kingdom of love
is not so easily shaken."

As a writer it must be said, broadly speaking, that
she failed, and failed because she never tried hard enough.
She was too busy living to concentrate her powers on the

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special task of bringing an art to it& completeness. The
dramatic gift, the power of interpreting and displaying
motives, she had not ; in her one novel no character
stands out. In her verse I find real excellence only when
she worked with a metre which imposed upon her a
rigid form. The looser lyrics have their charm and their
grace, but I find her distinctive and individual character
only in the sonnets, and in that poem upon deafness,
which is a stanza answering to the sestet of a sonnet.
r Once or twice in the Cahirmoyle series she played tricks
with the rigid convention, giving the sonnet a trochaic
movement to suggest the scythe's swish or the swing's
flight, and I do not dislike the result, though it shocked
her friend and critic, Aubrey de Vere, who wrote her an
interesting letter thereanent.

I should complain rather of the want of finish which
is found in not a few, even of those which I feel justified
in including. Obscurities are left, arising from no subtlety
of thought, but simply from inadequacy of expression.
Yet again and again one finds her moving with sur-
prising freedom in that difficult measure to which she
set again and again the very cry of her heart.

At its best, her work may be fittingly compared with
that of Aubrey de Vere ; it has the same classic dignity,
the same noble simplicity, and utter avoidance of jargon.
Her verse, even at its best, is certainly less accomplished
than his ; yet I do not know but it has more of the
essential stuff of poetry in it.

There remains her prose work, part of it done in the
higher regions of journalism ; and the two essays pub-
lished in the Nineteenth Century are as vigorous and direct
in their expression as the work of the best journalists.
Another phase of her style is shown in the thoughts
on deafness, vehement Brontesque outpourings : and of
such there is a good deal among her unpublished papers,


Introductory Memoir

though none else so poignant. Lastly, there is the work
of her maturer age in the essays here gathered
together, fof which the first and simplest is her
delightful account of her pet birds. That was written
in 1886. The papers of 1898" Shanid Castle," for
instance show a vastly developed command of her
medium. And in the last of all that she ever wrote
there is a passage which for beauty and dignity and
sweetness, for large and mellow utterance, may be set
beside anything in the work of any writer of our day.
It has the true accent of greatness : her whole nature
speaks there.

It may, indeed, come to pass, as she predicts in it,
that the choice briars and daffodils which she made to
grow wild on the hillside above her home will renew
their blossoms to a time when they shall " scent the
bloomy air " for a generation that knows not her memory ;
it may be that her name and her work will be forgotten.
She had no personal ambition to be remembered
except in love ; and in love she will surely be
cherished till the youngest generation that knew her
has passed away. Yet I think that some of her poems
and some also of these essays will survive, as good things
do, in the volumes of gleanings which are, perhaps, the
most companionable of books. Few writers can hope
for more ; many who attain notoriety and wealth have
no chance of that survival.

But about her more than about any person of public
note whom I have known, the important thing was, not
what she did but what she was. Boyle O'Reilly, no mean
judge, speaking out of the widest experience, wrote^of
her to her cousin Professor Stockley :

" If she has mentioned me at all, I am highly honoured
and deeply gratified. I admire and esteem her almost


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above anyone I have ever known. Her existence, her
sweet, unselfish, brave womanly individuality is a touch-
stone for noble lives, a reproof to little and mean desires."

The devil's advocate could easily point out, in her
character and career, foibles and faults follies, rather
which caused grief to others and most of all to herself.
But a true portraiture would show, I think, two chief
excellencies a nature unstunted by an infirmity which
went to the very core of life, and a passionate love of her
country with a sense of kinship with its poorest people.
She was proud of her descent, proud of her father, and
that pride made her the life-long champion and friend
and servant of the poor. I find little in her poems more
characteristic than this verse, which, as it first appeared
made part of the verses on Brian Boroimhe's harp * :

" O father of my father's ancient race,
Thy blood, thy life is mine, and thine my strength
Founded upon thy people ; mine the place,
Won, father ! by thy sad, lost life at length."

Her father, representing a stock with whom leadership
of a county was hereditary from time out of mind, was
accepted as a National leader very largely by reasons
of this historic background which appealed to his senti-
ment and that of the nation. Under that inspiration
he made the ultimate sacrifice, risking all that a man can
risk ; and he earned devotion. She, when the need came
for her to step forward in the service of her country,
appealed to that devotion with confident authority, as
representing not him alone, but all the past that he
stood for counting as any chieftainess might do on
the trust of her people, and feeling herself pledged by
it to make return. " Spend me and defend me," says

* Printed after the essay on " Shanid."

J 34

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the Irish proverb. All the rents she drew from them
were dues of honour and of love ; and in return for
these she gave to her clan and her country a shining
example of real patriotism which cherished alike
Ireland's past and its present alike the physical
beauty of hills and plains and streams and seas, and
the inner beauty of Ireland's very soul. She had that
seeing eye which pierces past superficial defects to the
very core of things : and, so seeing, she loved and trusted
her countrymen. For herself, for her own life, she was
despondent often ; but in all her writings I find no hint
of anything but hope and confidence for Ireland.




Charlotte O'Brien published three volumes of verse : A Drama
and Lyrics, 1880, dedicated " To the Memory of Charles Murrough
O'Brien. Lyrics, 1886, dedicated thus " To my dear Brothers
and Sisters, to their Children, who are my children, this book is
given by one who loves them" ; and " Cahirmoyle or the Old
Home," -which has this inscription " To all who love simple and
true things I commend this little book, hoping they also "will commend
and recommend it," I print the whole Cahirmoyle series. The
following are from manuscript : Dromoland, Winter, Song 1 (Bend,
O Bend), Sonnet on the Sonnet, To Mary, 1868, Sonnet to Charles
Murrough O'Brien, Convalescence, A Shannon Sabbath Evening",
A Commonplace Ballad, and Innisfail. All these except Winter
were written after 1887.



Not altogether for their own delight

The dear fields of our childhood's memory

Are sacred to us above all we see ;

We dream them clad in loveliest green, and dight

With sweetest wild flowers to make glad our sight,

While the deep hedgerows are alive with glee

Of life now wrapped in silent secrecy,

And all the heavens above are realms of light.

Again we wander through the self-same ways,

'Neath the same heavens, and even the flowers are

there ;

But, ah ! how much is gone, how cold and bare
And changed is all we loved in those far days !
Gazing sad-eyed o'er earth's so beauteous store,
The heart shrinks back and feels its love-loss more.


Rich with warm scents that the all-mastering sun
Draws to himself from grass and flowers and trees,
From deep moss-rose beds and sweet clustering peas,
From all the lovely life he shines upon,
Was that warm corner where, when work was done,
Beneath great limes mere living towers of bees
My mother sat, while round about her knees
Romped boys and girls and dogs in wildest fun.
What beds of stocks were there, what mignonette
With endless store of flowers ! and near the wall
What ranks and masses of white lilies met !
And O ! what hollyhocks ! stately, rich and tall !
They are gone, and so are we, but from my heart
Those lovely old-world scenes shall ne'er depart.



That dear old brown house with its ivied keep
Haunted by ghosts and grim and dismal tales,
The home of countless birds and bats and snails,
And ghastly unaccomplished sounds that steep
In dread delight young hearts too proud to weep !
There in the autumn eve when twilight fails,
And ivy boughs toss to the soughing gales,
From mouth to mouth old stories banish sleep :
The red lips chill, but cry for more and more,
And through the leaves the rain-drops sob and pour :
A sound goes creeping through the hollowed walls;
It moans and weeps then dreadful silence falls,
And through dark ways with swift and fearful tread,
And startled eyes, the young ones haste to bed.


Death on the white horse, near a stately knight
Clad all in steel, his lean hound at his feet,
The mocking fiend hard by were these things meet
For childish eyes ? Yes, Sintram in his might,
His armoured horse, his strong spear held upright,
His eyes set ever forward to complete
Some deed heroic, some world-honoured feat,
Filled us with sober awe and vague delight.
Those little wooden cots with tented heads,
Yellow and black, a painted, pillared show,
Held many pondering thoughts when lights

burned low,

When the old servants murmured near our beds,
The red turf glimmered, and the kettle, higher
And yet more high, sang its song to the fire.



Not whiter were the snow flakes as they flew

From chill December clouds so cold and grey,

Than were those snowy drifts of bloom that lay

On the old ivied cherry, all anew

Decked for the gay spring and the heavens blue.

Nestled within its sheltering arms all day,

All the long shining hours the children play,

And prize its scattered fruits though small and few.

The branches now are lichen-clad and dry,

Its flowers scarcer as the years roll by,

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Online LibraryCharlotte Grace O'BrienCharlotte Grace O'Brien; selections from her writings and correspondence → online text (page 10 of 16)