Charlotte Grace O'Brien.

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

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family joined him on the Continent, and they lived in
Brussels till 1856, when the condition of exile was with-
drawn, and he returned home. But the ordeal he had
gone through left its traces and wrecked his capacity
for happiness. The mother in that household was the
centre of happy life, and her last days were not only
clouded by the advance of disease, but also by family
dissensions which arose out of the fact that Smith O'Brien,
to avoid confiscation, had assigned his property to trustees
for his wife and children. Now, when liberated by the
criminal law, he was still bound by his own act, and he
felt it being a very proud man as a restriction on his
freedom. The weight of his resentment fell upon the
eldest son, Edward, then a grown man, who had been
to his mother all that a son could be, and who, in the
painful position in which he was placed, behaved, by the
consent of all who knew the facts, with perfect loyalty.
It was a cruel time for all husband, wife and son and
the death of her who was the peacemaker left the quarrel
still open. Under these unhappy circumstances Smith
O'Brien left Cahirmoyle when his wife died, in 1861,
and removed with his daughters to Killiney, near Dublin,
and equally near St. Columba's.

I find this passage in a manuscript essay upon the
" Analysis of Character " :

" Some natures are like wall fruit, beautiful and fruit-

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ful in one direction, bare and unsightly in another. For
instance, we take one man I have such a one in my
thought capable of the highest self-sacrifice, of the
most massive and masculine sympathies, of honour so
pure that his public name has become a symbol in his
nation for honour : Was he, therefore, perfect ? He
was noble, he was not perfect ; those very qualities
that raised his public life were a difficulty in his private.
Another man you will see unselfish, kind, patient,
thoughtful, having all those qualities the first failed to
possess : r should you, therefore, expect from him that
very high nervous tension that made the first great ?
If you do you will probably be disappointed. Accept
thankfully the loveable qualities of the second, honour
the great qualities of the first ; do not think to find
them combined, except in the very rarest instances."

There I find indicated with tenderness and with truth,
by the child to whom he was most of a hero, those
limitations in Charlotte O'Brien's father out of which
sprang bitterness for himself and his home.

But I think the bitterness of these days fell rather on
my mother than on her^younger sister, still in the school-
room ; and, naturally, the young life soon regained its
cheerfulness. I have under my hand a mass of papers
which commemorate " O'Brien's Feast " a dinner
given by Smith O'Brien in honour of the laurels won at
Cambridge by Richard Claverhouse Jebb, whose parents
came from County Limerick, and who had received the
earlier half of his schooling at St. Columba's. The
Jebbs then lived at Killiney, and between the families
there was close fellowship.

Here is the heading of the poem, written in my mother's
hand : " Some Account of the Strange and Remarkable
Events which happened at a Boys' Party given at the


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Kilmore House on April 2nd, 1862, by William Smith
O'Brien, Gentleman, in Honour of the Achievements at
the University of Cambridge of Richard Claverhouse
Jebb, now Bachelor of Arts, together with a full and true
description of the Persons who attended the aforesaid
Party, their Habits, Character, Manners and Appearance."
The poem tells of preparations and how

" Lucy's eyes dart fire,
While wrangling with her loved tho' stubborn sire."

and how, after the difficulty has been met of providing
plates and glasses for " a crew of five and twenty
reckoned," the same Lucy (my mother)

" Applies her most consummate skill,
With freshest flowers four beerglasses to fill."

while the master of the house

" Casts enquiring glances round,
And if he nothing does, at least looks grand."


" Charlotte, idle, good-for-nothing creature,
Doth prove herself the greatest plague in nature."

Charlotte, then aged seventeen, was one of the joint
authors, and she had to consent to her own condemnation.
But she was always ready to admit that she had possessed
no gift at any time for housewifery.

Then we read the arrival of the guests ; first the clan
of Jebb triumphant

"The Senior Classic beams in all their glance*."

especially in the lovely Eglantine's a young lady then
adored by old and young in the O'Brien household.
Presently arrives the St. Columba's contingent, headed
by the warden and the sub-warden (Mr. Forster), and


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the warden's sister aiding them to control a troop of
County Limerick boys. Donough leads, and

" Marshall, Studdert and Spring Rice
And the three Bourkes come forward in a trice,
And Charlie, captain of the lower school.


With them too comes our idle cousin Robin,

Kind as he's pleasant, half a brother he,

His manners winning, grand his smile and free.

Equal in idleness alike and years,

Lucius and he outshine their college peers ;

Like double stars they both together grow,

Their looks their passports are where'er they go."

The present Dean of Limerick had no hand in setting
out his own praises ; but his " peer in idleness alike and
years " had to accept part responsibility for a very just
appreciation. The writers name themselves :

" First, Lucy O'Brien,
Next Charlotte O'Brien,
Last, Robin O'Brien ;
They are each one a scion
Of Erin's famed lion,
The old monarch Brian."

They joked about Brian Boru it will be seen, but he
was always present in their consciousness ; he was a kind
of symbol of their pride and pleasure in their clan. It
is plain too that these young people had practised their
wits enough to be able to string out very passable couplets
which hold in them the echoes of a day's rejoicing and
festivity that lasted from early dinner until evening, when
after rambles by the Killiney cliffs (Charlotte accompany-
ing the " crowd of noisy boys " in their rock-climbing, while
her sister stayed sedately with the elders), they turned
home for a cup of tea, and then " schoolwards at last the
merry party wended."

Thus their upbringing touched life at a good many
points fruitful of education. It was no small privilege


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to be intimate with a household so cultured and so gifted
as that from which the great Cambridge scholar sprang ;
but Killiney held associates of another sort, for there lived
Mr. John Blake Dillon, one of Smith O'Brien's most
honoured political colleagues ; and his son, the John
Dillon of to-day, was a contemporary of the O'Brien
children. Their ways divided far in the course of Irish
life ; but Charlotte O'Brien when she went to visit Mr.
Dillon in Kilmainham gaol saw again one whom she must
have known as a child.

Killiney was no abiding city for the O'Briens. Three
months after the famous feast my mother was married to
the then Warden of St. Columba's, and Smith O'Brien,
deprived of his closest companion, his untiring amanu-
ensis (for he wrote unceasingly), went abroad for a solitary
tour. In December of that year he wrote to Charlotte
from Chamberi:

" I often wish that you were the companion of my
travels, and I half regret that I did not bring you with me.
If I were to consult my own wishes, I should ask Lucius
or William to bring you to Nice, but you must give another
year to tuition, after which time you must be prepared
to take a position in the world as the consoler of your

His daughter was then in her eighteenth year, and her
tuition was in charge of Miss D'Arcy, a lady of good
Irish family. Apparently she and her governess were
back at Cahirmoyle, she turning her hand, not very
prosperously, to the task of house-keeping for her brothers
Edward and William, and for the youngest, Charles
always her closest comrade who had been ordered
into the country because he was growing at such a pace
that his brains needed to lie fallow.


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Meantime, it was settled that Edward O'Brien should
take over the estate, should pay his father 2,000 a year,
should keep the house open for his sisters and brothers,
and subsist on what was left. The compact was the
harder because he was just then marrying. That
marriage was momentous in Charlotte O'Brien's life.

Among the houses most familiar to the young people
of Cahirmoyle was Mount Trenchard, Lord Monteagle's
home on the Shannon. The Spring Rice boys had gone
with the other Limerick contingent to St. Columba's ;
and now, in 1863, Edward O'Brien took his bride from
there a lady of great beauty, with whom he was very
passionately in love.

Over the marriage there was some attempt at a re-
conciliation between father and son, but the remaining
year of Smith O'Brien's life was spent restlessly moving
from hotel to hotel. Charlotte was much with him,
and so also was his second son William, to whom the
tenderest side of his nature showed itself. For this
young man, in all other respects physically admirable,
a bold climber, rider, and sportsman, was totally deaf
and almost dumb : the infirmity of which every one of
those brothers and sisters, except the eldest, had some
trace was fully developed in him from birth ; with
the others, it was a slowly growing disease. Yet he did
not allow it to cut him off from life. No one of all the
clan was more popular among the cousins ; certainly, too,
his deafness did not prevent him from being a close
and welcome companion of his father's in the latter days
of that sad life.

The latest letter from Smith O'Brien to his daughter,
which I have before me, is dated Feb. 10, 1864 (three days
before I was born). It recalled her from St. Columba's,
where she was staying with my mother, on the ground
that his own health needed her care ; and he spoke of

33 c

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moving from Dublin to get rid of a threatening of
bronchitis. The move made was to Wales, where he
travelled about for some time with his son Willy before
his health grew so bad that he had to lie up in the hotel
at Bangor. Charlotte was sent for, and weeks of a
very difficult and painful time followed. She was only
nineteen. The invalid was hard to manage, and refused
absolutely to see a doctor, adding terribly to the strain
on those who loved him. She often recalled that trouble ;
but when her own time came she acted as her father
had done. His death, like hers, was due to heart failure.
He died there, among strangers, in a hotel away from
his own country. It was characteristic of the circum-
stances that arrangements should have been deliberately
made so that his body should be borne from the Dublin
quays to Kingsbridge on its way south in the small hours
of morning, to avoid public demonstrations : characteristic
of Ireland that the cortege should have passed, none the
less, through streets densely lined with his countrymen
and countrywomen waiting to do him that last sad honour.
His death released Charlotte O'Brien from her chief
tie and bereft her of the one who most needed her.
It was her nature to need to be needed, and she went
to take up her home at Cahirmoyle with her eldest
brother and his newly-married wife with some natural
fear that she might find herself unneeded. In that
hour Mary O'Brien won from her husband's sister a
devotion that began in sheer gratitude : she apprehended
the stormy emotions of the yet unformed mind

"Saw where slept
Shadows of jealous love and tears unwept,"

and drew that unsatisfied heart into the " full flood of
her rich loving " as the sonnet tells, from which I quote
these words.

So began Charlotte O'Brien's last days in the old

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for already its master was planning to replace it
with a statelier home. And in these years she saw a new
generation beginning to take the place of those with
whom she herself had climbed trees and swung.

Edward O'Brien's eldest daughter was born on June 4,
1864 : her father had to hurry from her cradle to his
father's death-bed. A brother was born in 1865, a
younger sister in 1866. During these years Charlotte,
their aunt and mine, lived under the roof of her brother
and of his wife, to whom her vehement nature gave an
adoration which is expressed in the long series of sonnets
printed in this book. Those were days of happiness,
soon overcast. After the birth of her third child, Mary
O'Brien sickened, and then followed two years of lingering
in the Riviera. Charlotte was with them, and it added
a poignancy to the already marked physical affliction that
her fast-growing deafness made a barrier between her and
the invalid and a strain on the invalid's strength.

That tragedy ended in 1868 : the children were specially
committed by their mother to the care of their father's
sister. Charlotte O'Brien, then aged twenty- three,
undertook the charge with a passion of devotion. She
had more than the common woman-craving for maternity ;
and these were the children of one whom she had loved
with a love passing the love of sisters.

" Was it some little thing thou leftst to me.
Some brooch, some ring, some knot of hair entwined ?
No, but thy very life, thy self, outlined
In flesh and blood."

So she cried in a sonnet written many years later in
a bitter mood. It was, in truth, " a testament " imposing
a complex heritage "of joy and fear and pain she had to
dree." And well might she write :

" O mother, who bade me a mother prove
To thy dear babes, did I not give my love,
My whole, my deepest heart to thee and thine ? "


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She gave, indeed and at moments it seemed as if the
end were bitterness the bitterness which attends too
often upon all passion given in excess, which scarcely
ever fails to follow when that love rests on anything less
physical, less solid, less universal than the tie of
marriage or motherhood. I tell of one who was cruelly
hurt in life's journey, and I must name the wounds if
I am to show how the fundamental sanity of her nature
healed its hurt places, leaving no dishonourable scars.
Where she loved, she loved always, and though sometimes
in the fret and fever of her loneliness she cried out in
bitterness reproaches that were not deserved, yet always
the cry, even of her bitterest moment, was a new affir-
mation to love on

" Better the stifled breath,
The aching heart, the half-born tears that blot
Night's stars and glorious morn, than I should move
One step beyond thy shadow, Love, O Love."

But these agonies were of a later day, her fierce protest
against sunderings which came in the inevitable course
of nature. At first life went happily enough. After
the return from the Riviera they lived for some years
at Corgrig, a small house in Foynes, near Mount
Trenchard, while the old Cahirmoyle was being pulled
down, the new and stately one being built.

We, the elder sister's children, were by this time fully
established at Aghnagaddy, the big rectory near Ramelton,
in County Donegal whither my father had moved within
a month of Smith O'Brien's death and the family had
a second centre there, since before long Lucius O'Brien
came to be my father's curate, and married and settled
down there for long years ; and his brother Charles
was sent there that he might study with my father
instead of going to college ; and he too found a wife
in the north. Thus it happened that a visit of the


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Cahirmoyle folks to Aghnagaddy was almost a yearly
occurrence ; but one year we instead went there.

I carry from that visit which must have been about
1875 the impression of a household whose inmates
jarred upon each other.

Edward O'Brien resembled his father in being
punctilious and punctual almost to excess. There was
a strain of that tendency in the family, which found its
extreme expression in his brother Willy, who fined himself
sixpence for every drop of gravy or spillage of tea upon
the table cloth, and paid the fine to his housekeeper.
Charlotte, on the other hand a big, large-boned woman,
rough in her movements could not enter a room without
knocking things down, and as a girl had been the despair
of those who wished her to tie her bootlaces. It was a
tradition in the family to despise dress and fashions ;
and I suppose two homelier women in point of clothes
than she and my mother never lived ; but the elder sister
had that neatness which, some said, could be traced in
those children who had emerged from the nursery before
Smith O'Brien disappeared out of their ken, leaving the
whole discipline to his easy-going wife.

My mother's long and fine dark hair lay always close to
her forehead, and was stored behind in numberless plaits.
Charlotte O'Brien's light brown locks were always in
admired disorder : her broad square figure which had
something of a peasant woman's dignity in its carriage
was loosely garbed in garments of her own making ; and
she never had the gift of delicate finish.

Altogether in the width of the world you could hardly
have found a woman less fit to keep house for
my uncle. Things did not go so badly while
she was at Corgrig, in the little house, and could run
in and out of the kitchen and bustle up the
servants in her unmethodical way. But when it came


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to moving into the big new house, so spacious, so beauti-
ful, its master very naturally insisted that the equipment
should be answerable to the structure ; while she, on her
part, was confounded by his requirements more table
napkins than she had ever dreamt of, and so on.

On deeper matters, too, they were widely sundered.
She held by her father in politics, he by a somewhat
aggressive utilitarianism. Even his admiration for her
character and talents and it was great led to trouble ;
for he interested himself in all her schemes, which were
many, and her writings, for she had begun to write.
But he had the scholar's instinct developed in excess,
he demanded finish, form, all the qualities which she
lacked ; and she was never enough of an artist to submit
even while she raged. She raged without submitting,
insisted that her work must be spontaneous, or would
be nothing.

And undoubtedly her growing deafness must have
made against close companionship, and thus rendered it
difficult for her to combat the fierce self-withdrawal
which fell on Edward O'Brien after his early bereave-
ment. Between the two was always strong mutual
admiration and regard for each other's great abilities ;
but there was little harmony. I remember my aunt at
Cahirmoyle as a somewhat harassed woman harassed,
too, by that burden of teaching which my mother's
example justified her to assume, but for which she had
no gift, while my mother had an aptitude amounting
almost to genius. But in Donegal I remember her free
from domestic cares, the delightful and delighted com-
panion of our elders and us children on long excursions,
when there would be much talk of the haunts of various
wild flowers and ferns.

.^The earliest of the poems which I print that on
"Winter," dated 1869 bears witness to her close and


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loving observation of all forms of nature, and to the
school in which she made her studies of poetry. One
feels the influence of Cowper there almost more than
that of Wordsworth.

" I would that men and women-poets singing

Would sing of things they see and feel and touch,"

she writes in a rough verse somewhere, and certainly she
minded her own rede. Nature is always concrete and
visualised in her poems, and the best of her prose is definite
as a gardener's manual. But I do not think that in these
years she wrote more than a few stray poems : she
was too busy housekeeping, and mothering her charges
somewhat austerely. The traditions of " Sandford and
Merton " were not unfelt in that family. Wasps used to be
set to crawl on the children's hands, that the young
might learn to avoid being stung by not flinching ; and
as for the refusal to handle any living creature, worm, frog,
or spider it was not tolerated for an instant. Penalties
were pretty sharp and frequent too. We all, the children
of that generation, were brought up with something of
a hard hand. I daresay it was good for us ; but of this
I am sure our elders spared no pains of their own,
delegated no duties ; we were trained under the eye of
our parents and through their companionship.

Oddly enough, the Cahirmoyle children were not made
familiar with what to us were household words as much
those which a Cahirmoyle sonnet chronicles the
" learned clerk crying * Prodigious,' " or the deeds of
Horatius and his comrades I mean the literature of
the Young Ireland movement, the ballads of Davis and
Duffy. But one distinctively Irish element was given to
their education. There was then no talk of any Gaelic
League, and though Edward O'Brien, like his father,
made some study of the language, no one thought of


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teaching Irish to the children. But they were fully
instructed in the traditional Irish dances by one of the
old peasant professors of the art who wandered from
house to house with his fiddle; and my aunt had the
pleasure of seeing her care develop into as finished and
erudite performers of every jig and reel that is danced
as could be found within the four seas of Ireland.

A great element of happiness was added to her life
when in 1871 my Uncle Charles married and came to take
up the family agency and live at Rathgonan, the house
which his brother had built for him. Between the two
houses was little but the two avenues, and one huge
pasture-field surrounding the home farm. It is true there
was frequently a bull in the field, but a great part of the
theory of education was to abolish fear of animals ; and I
could never conceive of Charlotte O'Brien being afraid of
anything that moved on four legs or two for that matter.

As for her brother Charles, whatever had to do with
country life came kindly to him. He had not her special
gift with wild animals, but he had a way with horses and
dogs, and above all he had pre-eminently the genius for
making himself beloved. The least intellectual of his
family, he was the most loveable ; and especially he was
beloved by country people. It is nearly forty years since
the brief period when he was an inmate of our house in
Donegal, yet I know plenty who still break into
enthusiasm at the mere mention of his name. Like
his sisters, like his brothers, but in even fuller
measure than they, he knew how to associate with the
farmers and peasantry of Ireland on terms of perfect
fellowship and comprehension. The country people
would put it that " he was not proud " ; the truth is rather
that he and his trusted instinctively and implicitly that
fundamental delicacy which is amongst the finest traits of
our disinherited people. They know to a hairsbreadth the


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area of life in which the defects of their own training make
it impossible to associate on terms of equality with those of
another training, and, avoiding scrupulously the ground
where their own self-respect might suffer, they are grateful
to those who meet them on the rest of life with the frank
courtesy of comradeship. That gratitude, showing itself not
only in affection, but in an added respect, was the portion
through life of Charlotte O'Brien's favourite brother.

For his own kin, I know that we children found in
him what we found in no one else. He was a hero to all
of us and a beloved companion. It seems to me scarcely
credible that there should have existed between a boy
not yet in his teens and a man of six or seven and twenty
so real an intimacy as that of which I have clear memory.
I remember the sudden assault of grief when one of his
school friends, who was my schoolmaster, told me in the
spring of 1877 tnat ^ e had died anc ^ I can g uess n w at
the cruel blank which must have been made in the life
of that sister whose dearest comrade he had been always.

What I have written here sets out my impression of
that special grace of nature in the tall, kindly land-agent,
farmer, and sportsman which she so much nearer to
him calls boldly

" The Christ-love round thy head,
Which all who knew thee bowed to."

Besides the sonnets to his memory which are printed in
this book, I find two others speaking of her love for him

u A love born so long time ago,
In looking back, it seems I have forgot
The very dawn of love, nor can I know
How I could be without it, while my life

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Online LibraryCharlotte Grace O'BrienCharlotte Grace O'Brien; selections from her writings and correspondence → online text (page 3 of 16)