Charlotte Grace O'Brien.

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

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Is capable of thought and hope and strife."

His death in 1877 was the second great sorrow of my
aunt's life ; his image never faded from her heart. Yet
he left behind him one who to some extent at least took
his place. His marriage had been one of first youth,

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and he had chosen a lady of typical northern stock
shrewd, vigorous and capable, a notable help to him in
his farm. It has been the good quality of my mother's
clan to assimilate what is brought into it, giving and
taking of the best, and this lady, gaining her husband's
power of sympathy, brought into the O'Brien stock her
own helpfulness and solid common sense. She was a
rock of strength to Charlotte O'Brien's emotional
nature ; and between these women, both so strong, yet
so different in the quality of their strength, there grew up
a close and lasting bond.

In 1879 came the first wrench at the heart-strings
of this mother who was no mother. Dermod O'Brien,
the son of the house, had already gone to school in
England ; now the girls went too, and for three-fourths
of the year Charlotte O'Brien was thrown on her own
resources. What had been only a premonition when at the
age of twenty-six she wrote the sonnet " On Outliving
Love," became now in truth a poignant reality. She
was, for all the outward and visible signs of affection,
" in loneliness of love bereft." Now, nine years older, she
found herself to be the mother bird of one of her lyrics,
whose fledgelings have flown, whose " nest is left empty and
bare." And before that year was out, a new alliance had
been formed which made the parting doubly definite.

In 1880 Edward O'Brien married for the second time,
and his wife, Julia Marshall, owned a house in London,
which thus constituted a new and remote centre for the
Cahirmoyle household. What Charlotte O'Brien felt, her
genuine rejoicing in her brother's happiness, her un-
concealed pain in all that was entailed, is best told in
this letter to her younger niece:


" Your letter has been such a pleasure to me I must

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write you a line. I am most glad about your father's
marriage, most glad he and Aunt Julia will be happy,
and that you should be home again ; and yet, do you
know, I have felt torn to pieces in the thought of it.
There's nothing in the world to me like your love for
me, you children, and yet I know how easy it is for
young hearts to grow away from those they are not
always with. You do not know what suffering it was
to me to part with you, and this is in a way the seal of
our parting. It will only depend on you now, dear
youngs, not to grow away from me entirely. I do not
b eh' eve anyone, till you marry, will ever love you as I
do. If I had been your mother your tie to me would
have been a certain one. I do not believe I could have
clung to it as strongly as I do now, knowing how uncertain
the tie between us is. You must not let it go ; you have
everything before you and I have only my dogs !

From this same year of sorrowful change, 1879, dates
also the most tragic and most powerful of all her poems
that on Deafness ; for by this time the ever narrowing
gap which let in the world's messages of sound had
contracted till one's voice could scarcely force a passage.
In all ways, by varying privations, she was thrown back
and in on herself. Up till now, external circumstances
had dictated the occupations of her existence. Now,
at the age of thirty-four, she had to shape her own life.

Her little house near Mount Trenchard, overlooking
that great tidal river which held for her the central and
most home-like beauty of Ireland, had been built in 1870,
but let periodically often to some one of the con-
nection. Here she went to live when she left Cahirmoyle.
And since her nature abhorred the vacancy of idleness,
from this time onward she was increasingly busied with


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those forms of activity which brought her name before
the public. Literature, as has been seen, she had early
attempted : her first book, the novel "Light and Shade,"
was composed while she still kept house at Cahirmoyle,
and was published in the autumn of 1878, just before
the girls left her care.

This book is a tale of the Fenian rising of 1869, centering
round the personage, so often used in fiction, of a young
Irish absentee who returns for the first time to visit
his estates. It is violent, even melodramatic, in incident ;
it lacks the power of characterisation, but it has many
passages of beauty, and I am glad that it is to be re-
published as a serial in Dublin by the Irish Nation.

What gives to the book a special interest is that
Charlotte O'Brien worked largely upon material gathered
from the lips of men who had been actors in the Fenian
rising. She made it her business and her pleasure to
encourage that instinct for literary expression which is
so rife among the Irish, she lent books, she encouraged
those who wrote to show her their writings ; and chief
among her friends was Will Upton, carpenter in
the neighbouring village of Ardagh, who had been
a head centre in the Fenian organisation. He pub-
lished under her guidance in the early eighties a little
book called " Uncle Pat's Cabin," which contains much
interesting matter. From him I find a letter dated
Ardagh, Nov. 3, 1878, in acknowledgment of the novel.
He praises her freedom, " from the sensationalism that
has marked earlier writers of Irish life. . . . To depict
our peasant life truly without prejudice is indeed a
national good." Some criticism follows, chiefly directed
to her use of dialect, and then comes the summing up :
" In a word, I think it is the sweetest told story I ever
heard ; it surely tells an Irish pen wrote it : may it long
be guided by such reflections."


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Doubtless, a too generous appreciation, coloured with
gratitude, political and personal, as this goes on to show :

" You have shown Fenianism treading its determined
way, breathing noble tenderness and filled with a conscious
pride in the honour of their cause. No influence could
move them to dishonourable acts ; all this you have
faithfully traced, for which accept my thanks and the
thanks of many. Yet we cannot blame your censure if
our mode is condemned ; we did not carry it to its end,
for which thank the jealousies and disunions of our
leaders. Let me tell you, honoured Madam, * Light
and Shade ' I feel is a very personal compliment to me,
and when the Londonderry Road is mentioned, few
about here but knows who is Maurice."

That letter shows one aspect of Charlotte O'Brien's
life who her friends were, how her work impressed them ;
and let it be remembered that in 1878 the revival of
literary activity in Ireland had not yet begun. Mr.
Yeats, Lady Gregory, Miss Barlow, Shan Bullock, Moira
O'Neill and the rest were not yet appearing ; in the
novel Lever, an admirable student of the Irish gentry,
used the peasant only for comic relief; in the drama
Dion Boucicault held the field almost alone. The Fenian
had a right to be grateful, and many books less worthy
of recognition have become popular. Upton's praise
was endorsed by a very different person, but one as loyal
as he to County Limerick, and as much a part of
Charlotte O'Brien's environment.

Smith O'Brien's brother, Mr. Robert O'Brien, of Old
Church, was married to one of the De Veres of Curragh-
chase, a family made notable by three poets. Sir Aubrey,
first of the three, did not affect Charlotte O'Brien's life ;
but his son and heir, Sir Stephen, author of that singularly


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beautiful version of the Odes of Horace, was a remarkable
feature in their society ; and the younger Aubrey, poet
of Ireland, poet of Catholicism, interpreting Irish land-
scape and Irish tradition through a veil as it were of
Wordsworthian tradition, was a life-long friend of his
cousins, young and old. He also wrote :

" Your book is true to a portion of the Irish character
that is seldom illustrated by Irish novelists and far the
noblest portion of it. You have not failed to see how in-
comparably the noblest part of the Irish character is that
part which rests upon Faith ; though if you were your-
self a Catholic you would see this still more vividly and
deeply. When this element in that character has been
stunted by adverse circumstances, what comes out in
its place is either the barbarous, where poverty and
discontent prevail (as in your delineation of old Meenane),
or else the conceited, the trashy, and the trivial . . .

" You have well discriminated between the generous
and impulsive Fenian and the vindictive and Jacobinical
Fenian ; and you have also more than once pointed out
that the attempted Rebellion was wrong because it was
foolish, and certain to fail. But I think both in defer-
ence to truth and for the interests of our poor people,
who can never be good judges as to the chances of success,
all such attempts ought also to be reprobated on higher
grounds than those of expediency. Obedience to a
Ruler is surely a grave moral duty. The early Christians
practised it under terrible persecutions (one chief human
cause that their religion prevailed in the end), and only
very desperate and irremediable wrongs can justify an
appeal to arms and all the horrors of Civil War. This,
you know, was always even O'Connell's doctrine, and had
it been otherwise, in place of winning Emancipation, he
might have brought us back the * Penal Laws.' For the


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last fifty years Ireland has been making steady, though
not uniform, progress, and having now full constitutional
rights has constitutional means of redressing whatever
remains amiss. I think, therefore, loyalty is a duty
which all the friends of Ireland ought now to impress
most earnestly on our people. Thus only too can their
future be in harmony with their past. All the interesting
and memorable movements in Irish history were move-
ments not only in favour of liberty, but of ancient and
legitimate authorities also first Irish princes and chiefs,
then (when their time had gone by) of Charles and
James. The '98 movement was a new thing in Ireland
an echo from the French Revolution. Our Irish people
should in these matters be kept apart from all sympathy
with Continental Jacobins, English Radicals, and
American Levellers, or they will cease to be Irish"

Out of those two letters a reflection naturally arises.
One of Charlotte O'Brien's closest friends in Donegal, Miss
Cassandra Hill, daughter of old Lord George Hill, laboured
strenuously to promote among the peasantry pleasant
social life reading, writing, dancing, and the study
of their Irish tongue but to promote only what she
herself would entirely approve. She could never have
been what Charlotte O'Brien was a link between
Will Upton, the Fenian, prouder of his Fenianism than
of anything else, and Aubrey de Vere, the cultivated
Irish Unionist, lover of his country and of his people,
but opponent of their ideals.

The result appeared when a new revolution began.
It drove Miss Hfll and all of her kind, good kindred into
despairing opposition to those whom they had loved
and for whom they had laboured those peasants of
Gweedore, who in my boyhood would have drawn Lord
George's old pony phaeton from the back of Errigal to his


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hall door at Ballyarr. It found Charlotte O'Brien
confident in her faith that justice must be done, even
though the sky should fall upon herself and her own class.
Her novel, published in 1878, dealt with a revolutionary
movement that had spent itself, that was passing into
tradition ; but the factors that had produced it were
operating to bring forth a new and more potent uprising
a revolution that had its birth in a period of terrible
agrarian distress.



Before 1880 she was not closely interested in politics.
Her literary work is represented by the first volume
of her verses, " A Drama and Lyrics," published
in 1880, and dedicated to the memory of Charles
Murrough O'Brien. The drama (more lacking in merit
than any other of her writings) was recent ; the lyrics
reached back over many years. Two of the sonnets on
Gladstone were included ; and her sympathy with those
who carried on the struggle for Ireland's national rights
was avowed in " The Workers for Ireland."

But in truth her chief occupation of these years is
represented by a bundle of letters from Professor George
Rolleston, of Oxford, Natural Historian, Anthropologist
and Biologist. She was taken up with bones fand
stones, for she always tended to dabble in scientific

But the events of 1879 an( ^ I ^^ turned all thoughts


(She never wore a cap, but the photographer insisted on it for dignity.)

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in Ireland to very different themes. Famine was in the
land : Parnell and Davitt had raised the banner of the
Land League : trouble began to be so rife that Edward
O'Brien abandoned his project of taking his newly-
made bride to travel on the Continent, and came home
to look after his own people.

What Charlotte O'Brien was thinking in those days
may be clearly inferred from the article entitled " The
Irish Poor Man,"* which was given the place of honour
in the Nineteenth Century for December, 1880 (an article
which suggests vividly what has been accomplished,
what left undone in these thirty years), and her other
paper, " Eighty Years," published in March, 1881, by
the same Review. Her first conclusion, that Home
Rule " in its ordinary meaning " was impossible,
was soon abandoned. She became a thick and thin
supporter of Parnell. I find a letter written in December,
1885, expounding to her niece Mary the orthodox
doctrine of a parliament for Ireland, retaining the rule
of the Crown. " I, for one, am less of a Separatist
than I was before the Land League started, and I feel
sure many would say the same."

Now, in the spring of 1881, she was fiercely excited,
very angry with the Liberal Government, and busy
writing letters to the Pall Mall Gazette, then edited by
Mr. John Morley.

Her attitude upon what she frankly called the
" organised revolution " of these years is well illustrated
by letters to her sister-in-law's sister, the Hon. Alice

* Her main intention is thus indicated in a resolution drafted by her
"That the first need of life to the agricultural labourer is a plot of ground and
decent house held from neither farmer nor landlord. This will ensure him
a free market for his labour, without which wages cannot rise. We there-
fore call upon the Government to buy up suitable plots of land, provide
houses, and relet them at a fair rent on a secure tenure."

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Introductory Memoir

Spring Rice, a close and dear friend, but, like almost all
her kindred, at variance with her on this great issue.
The stand she took is the more notable because
life had brought her into touch with none but
the best landlords. Sir Stephen de Vere, living
the life of a recluse on Foynes Island, was indulgent to
a fault with his tenantry ; her brother Edward, his
brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, were not merely just
and moderate men Liberals of the 1870 type but
active in promoting schemes for the welfare of their
countryside, eager to create employment. In a class war
she took the side of her nation against the interest and
the judgment of those nearest to her, those whom she
had the best right to respect. No doubt she followed an
impulse that lay deeper than reason ; but all the pre-
possessions which affect ordinary minds were pulling her
the other way, and this fact lends a special significance
to her views. It is to the honour of those about her, as
well as to her own, that so deep a divergence on matters
of such flaming controversy should have led to no breach
of friendship, no slackening of affection.

The pull both ways is felt in her correspondence :
for she was indignant that Lord Monteagle's tenants
should turn against him, and the letter which I quote
first refers to this.

" I get rather wild about politics, it is so hard to get
things straight in one's head. The landlords with their
outcry of robbery, put against the doings of landlordism
the people with their failure of right, put against the just
treatment they have received from some : the labourers
suffering, pitched out by both parties, though offending
neither, and too stupid to combine. My prevailing
feeling, though, is indignation against those who want
to leave their country in the lurch because she


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difficulties ; only they take the money with them. I could
find it in my heart to say, ' Go, and let better men fill
your place.' Anyhow, rich or poor, right or wrong, I'll
stick by Ireland."

lat was written on January i6th, 1881. Very soon
her feeling drove her to a decisive step, and she published
a letter in the Munster News, which I have not before me,
but which evidently denounced the amazing Coercion
Act that had then been passed by the Liberal Govern-
ment before the great Land Bill of that year had seen
the light. She writes (Jan. 2yth) :

" I can't think why I have faced all the wrath I shall
meet, except that it has been fretting in my soul
for so long, and I got so angry at what I think the in-
justice of the attacks on the people, I could hold in no
longer. I am horrified too by the injustice of making
the suspension of the Habeas Corpus retrospective. Owing
to the dilatoriness, the slackness, the weakness of Mr.
Forster's use of the ordinary law for six months
or more, the liberty of the country was allowed to
degenerate into licence, and now those who were allowed
to do then exactly as they liked are to be subject to arrest
arbitrarily for eighteen months."

She wrote in the same month to Lord Monteagle :
" The people don't know yet what is coming, and are
as ready as possible to quiet down ; but once they see
coercion used as an instrument of eviction, I think you
landlords will have a country full of tigers to deal with.
I don't see how Government can avoid making the power
of summary arrest an instrument of the landlords, and
then the people will think nothing but murder can save
them in their homes. . . . Everything is quiet as


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possible here (Foynes) now, for everyone is depending
on the faith that the Government are going to do some-
thing to secure them and to give them arbitration of
rents. Instead of that, they'll hear of evictions and
arrests long before they see the bill for reform. How is it
Government can't see that Parnell knows the country,
and can foresee for it, and is a man to be consulted, not
treated as an enemy ? I suppose they are afraid of an
outcry if they dared to listen to the opinion of the man
who represents the people of Ireland, as surely he does."

By the middle of February she was ready to plunge
almost physically into the fray. I print her letter in

" ARDANOIR, \jth February, 1881.

" You see the Roman Catholic bishops have publicly
asked a blessing on the * great struggle ' in which the
people are engaged. I fear greatly though that this
Coercion Bill will bring up again into life all the bad side
of the agitation which has passed away so much lately.

Everything I hear from men like M and all our own

people, and others I don't know who have written to me,
and what I see in the papers, makes me daily stronger in
the belief that the evils of the League were pure ex-
crescences and the natural inevitable outcome of the
sudden idea of delivery from a serfdom of centuries.
For anything that comes now I shall hold the Government
wholly to blame in exasperating the people by this

dreadful Coercion Act. M says there never was a

truer word than that the present quiet is not the out-
come of coercion, but of the people having come to their
senses, and having set their faces against outrage. I hear
only that Parnell's party is omnipotent now. I am very
glad now I did write that letter any doubts I had then
have since passed away. I believe everyone who justifies


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the right half of the Land Leagueism weakens the wrong
half, and if I could in my person represent all the liberal
landlords of the country, I would say now to the people,
Come and let us talk the matter over, your men and our
men, and let us not have this coercion putting bad blood
between us for the benefit of spies and informers. ' All
the people want is justice.' Over and over this is said to
me. Whether the Government succeed in producing a
temporary lull remains to be seen, but that they have
strengthened the Parnellites immensely I have not the
smallest doubt. I have not seen Monteagle's paper, but
the review in the Freeman leads me to think he is fighting
an excrescence, a cry, not the real thing. I hope to see
his paper before long.

" My feelings about all this matter are very strong,
and I have always held that if one could clearly see one's
way in a great political question, it is not right to hold
back. Now the men will probably be imprisoned, it
may be all the more necessary the women should come

" I am working away steadily at the Pall Mall. I only
seldom write publicly, but often privately, to Mr. Morley,
just telling him as far as I can judge of the state of feeling.
He put a piece of one of my letters straight into one of
his leading articles, and I think I may help a little towards
showing how what is going on in London is reflected in
Ireland. I generally hear here the very opposite of what
you might judge from the newspapers, except the
Freeman, which I think really reflects the thought of the
country people, though, of course, it forms their thought
too. I enclose a scrap. I believe this is a sign my article
on the labourers came a propos. The priests have taken
it up. It is also a sign of one of the things in which I
see the great good the League has done. It has so raised
men to consider interests outside their own families.


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M says, if there never were a Land Bill the country

would never again be as it was before injustice, over-
reaching, land grabbing, usury, and ill-treatment of the
poor are now condemned by the awakened public spirit,
headed by priests and bishops. And to drive back
Ireland under these vices of slavery, the Government
are now about to use all their power. I never will
believe again in any public man from England as regards
Ireland, never, be he Mr. Greatheart, or Gladstone,
or Bright, or anyone. They are good upright men,
and understand England, but they do not understand

What is hinted here is put explicitly in another letter
of 1882 :

" is very fierce against the Ladies' Land League.

Well, the fates led me to the emigration instead, other-
wise I should have probably joined it, as I sympathised

with it. will be glad to hear I lost .8 to-day

through the means of it, having to accept my mortgage
interest short (owing to the no-rent agitation). I am
not less the land leaguer though, and I had the honour
of shaking hands with Michael Davitt the other day,
and had the opportunity of admiring his fine, true, honest
bright face. Well, we have all our different ways of
looking at things."

Happily, the work which she found to do was work in
which all sympathised who loved her nationalist and
unionist, landlord and tenant. I have now to describe
the main public activity of her life.

The sudden pinch of distress, which had brought the
political trouble to a head, produced another effect in a new
stimulation of that awful flux which has been the symptom


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of Ireland's deadly disease ever since the great famine.
We have the statistics from 1852 onwards, showing
in many years a loss equal to the natural loss by death
in a healthy community. From 1875 to 1879 there was
marked improvement ; the percentage had fallen to a
figure, shocking indeed, but still no worse, propor-
tionately, than it is to-day. In 1879, forty-seven
thousand people left Ireland 8.9 per 1,000 of the
population. In 1880 the total leapt to ninety-five
thousand 18 per 1,000, a percentage higher than the
death-rate of London.

a Charlotte O'Brien's love for her country and her
race was the deepest thing in her. It had found expres-
sion so far back as 1870 in that very moving sonnet,
" I dwell among my own People." And earlier still I find
verses (not reproduced here), called " The Exile," which
tell of the emigrant's loneliness and homeward yearning.

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Online LibraryCharlotte Grace O'BrienCharlotte Grace O'Brien; selections from her writings and correspondence → online text (page 4 of 16)