Charlotte Grace O'Brien.

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

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She knew that in such a time as this of the early
eighties, when the stream was not a slow drainage, but
a tumultuous rush, the Irish emigrants, " her own
people," fled as men might from a city of the plague ;
they went unprepared, weak, defenceless, hampering
each other, the prey of many horrors, rushing into peril most
obvious, least avoidable, for the women and girls. She had
read, years before, J. F. McGuire's book, " The Irish in
America," and the remembrance of it filled her with fear.
! " I was deeply impressed by his account of the ships,
and it took hold of my mind, that was to be my work,"
she says in a summarised account, written on Feb. 15,
1908, to be read at the Silver Jubilee of the American
Mission for the Protection of Irish Immigrant Girls.
1 ^Chance lent her a helper, a point to begin from. Her
sister-in-law and dear friend, the widow of Charles
O'Brien, had married again, and was living at Queenstown
with her husband, Mr. Dickson, then an officer in the


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Royal Irish Constabulary. She went to stay with the
Dicksons in March, 1881. Spring is the period when the
annual exodus is greatest : the store of potatoes is giving
out, the opening year gives more hope of work in America.
It was arranged that she should visit one of the ships
in company with the Dicksons and Captain Wilson, a
Board of Trade Inspector. The letter which I have
quoted goes on :

" The ship happened to be the Germanic (White Star
Line), not a bit worse, I am sure, than any other ship,
but I was not prepared for the way I saw all sexes and
ages huddled together, &c., &c. Well, I got into the
fight ; tumbled into it, I may say."

She did, indeed. On May 6, 1881, the Pall Mall
Gazette published an article describing her impressions
as powerful a piece of journalism as anyone could read.
Immediately questions were asked in Parliament, Mr.
Frank Hugh O'Donnell leading. The matter was very
grave, and Mr. Chamberlain, then at the Board of Trade,
promised an enquiry. Captain Wilson met her again,
went over some ten ships with her, and it must have
been apparent to her at once that she had, through
inaccurate observation, gravely misstated facts. Yet
she insisted, and rightly, that fundamentally her protest
had been justified : that the arrangements were very
scant of decency, and absolutely lacking in proper protec-
tion for the troops of young women who were streaming
across, inexperienced in travel and in life. Her memo-
randum, published in the Board of Trade Blue Book,
and based this time on no superficial impression, makes
perfectly plain the very undesirable possibilities which
the private enquiries among emigrants that she was
pushing ceaselessly proved to be only too real.

But at the same time, with characteristic indiscretion,

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she did things which must have infuriated her champions.
She wrote a letter to the Board of Trade declaring that
a second visit to the Germanic showed her arrangements
whose perfection and beauty she could not reconcile
with her previous recollection ; and she omitted to stress
Captain Wilson's evidence that these arrangements
were constantly altered from voyage to voyage on
emigrant ships. But she did worse. She wrote to
Mr. Forster, then Chief Secretary, saying that this letter
of retractation must be taken as meaning nothing.
Naturally Mr. Chamberlain, in the House of Commons,
made play with these two documents, and when the
Blue Book appeared, newspapers were in full cry of con-
demnation over her reckless and inconsequent assertions.
A weaker woman would not have survived that flood
of ridicule ; but her constitutional disregard of public
opinion stood well to her, showing itself here in a great
strength and sanity, as at other times in quaint
eccentricities. She wrote to Father O' Kennedy, then a
newly-made friend :

" I must tell you of my downfall. The White Star
Line was true about the beds being divided, and I was
not ; that is the answer of the emigrant girls " (to whom
she had writen for testimony). " But at the same time
they confirm the main question that 142 men, women
(married and single) and children were in the same room.
I am apologising to the Line publicly. I can't but feel
glad that in one way it makes a great clearance of a cloud
of falsehood. That is good."

Mrs. Dickson, her closest friend and associate in the years
of this work, writes me her account of its inception :

" As regards the beginning of her work in Queenstown,
it happened in quite an unpremeditated way. She was


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staying with, us, and expressed a desire to go over one
of the Atlantic Liners. It was the sailing day of the
White Star ship Germanic, and Willie, she and I wen:
out in the tender and went on board, and were shown
over the ship by the officer. We went all through the
steerage, and while we talked she spent her time observing
all the different arrangements as to berthing, &c. The
berths were all canvas and movable. She made no remark
about anything, and we returned home. I noticed she
was silent and absorbed in something for the rest of the
evening, and she said to me did I notice certain things
about the berthing ? Some of them I had noticed,
some not, as she had given me no idea of what she was
thinking of, and then the matter ended, and we heard
no more for some weeks when an official from the Board
of Trade called on us to say a letter had appeared in the
Pall Mall making very serious charges against the White
Star Liner, dated from our house. I wired for Charlotte
to come to Queenstown to meet this man, and she came.
Of course she could only assert things were as she had
seen, but thought by waiting and going on board
the Germanic on her return journey she could point out
all she had seen to the Board of Trade man. But she
had not taken into account that the steerage part of the
vessel is changed in New York, and quite different
arrangements made, so that when we went out expecting
to see things as they had been, all was changed This
was what put her in the wrong at the first, and left her
so open to attack. No one can know what she suffered and
went through during those years of the emigration work."

Somewhat of that suffering is disclosed though with a
noble reticence in this letter to Miss Alice Spring Rice :

"26th June, 1881.

" I have had a very ' rough ' time of it, it must be

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owned, but I have got the thing well afloat now, both as
a parliamentary battle and as to the Catholic Church.
They are all astir now. Archbishop Croke, one of the
most powerful men in Ireland, has promised me every
aid. The ' Nun of Kenmare ' is working hard, both in
America and in Ireland. The priests are thoroughly
awake to the part they must take, and in Parliament I am
not now alone, but have many champions, who are all
ready to take the work off my shoulders as soon as possible.
Like other reformers, I had the unpopular part to bear
and the hardest blows, but I have now plenty of proof
of the necessity of reform, and am not standing alone.
I have an immensity of writing to do also. I sent off
20 letters yesterday, besides any number of copies of
pamphlets. But the fact is my not writing to you or
anyone else has come more from a shrinking from putting
myself in the way of friendly stabs one is apt to get from
relations if one has a doubtful cause. Not that I feared
them from you you never stabbed me yet but I got
plenty, and I feared more, and that made me feel hunted.
But all through I knew that the work had been given
me to do, and that anything I might be suffering was
only a necessary part. It is long years ago, before I ever
saw an emigrant ship, that I have felt some work lay there
for me, only I did not think of it in this form, but rather
in the way of organising a body of matrons, or something
that way ; but my deafness turned me from that, but
still I kept the thought in my head, and then when I
was led up to this it has strengthened me greatly to feel
I was only a tool in God's hands. Don't believe them
when they tell you there is no Providence. I have been
led up to this, and it has been put into my hands to do
not this time alone in my life either. I can say clearly
that though I have had a hard fight and a very painful
one, I have had a strong hand guiding all through, so


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that I never have feared for my ultimate success I
knew that the fulness of the time was come. How
easily all might have been otherwise. I might have gone
on board one of the decenter ships, or even seen that
ship in its show dress and not have fully seen the evil.
Instead of that I saw it in its most hideous form almost.
Then, if I had not made the mistake of sending to Pall
Mall I might have convicted that ship, but I should
never have seen the others and learned that the evil
was only a bad form of a hideous system. The very
wounds I have had have all been working to drive me on.
I am quite satisfied now, though I fear Mr. Chamberlain
has put himself into the hands of the officials against me.
But difficulties like these will only make a more complete
rooting up of the matter necessary. . . . Mr. Arthur
Moore, M.P., is my Parliamentary champion. He
says to-day : * If we are men our policy must be to keep
you in the background, and not give the impertinent
officialism of the country the opportunity of slighting you.'
I can tell you I have had a good taste of that same
impertinent officialism, and am delighted to hand over all
of it to the men."

She had champions, too, out of Parliament, and
staunch ones. Father O' Kennedy, who was busily
engaged in the quest for corroborative evidence, wrote
to Mrs. Dickson on June 3rd, 1881 :

" Really when I read the Parliamentary Report of
Tuesday's Freeman, I hardly knew what I was doing.
I was lying on the grass, and when I saw the heading
I at once turned to and read it, but I felt as if I were
stung. That passage of Mr. Chamberlain's where he
said ' he did not know what to think of a lady writing
sensational letters, &c.' that was the worst of all
that and the laughter."


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A little further on in the same letter comes this
significant passage :

" I must say I did not think Miss O'Brien was acting
too precipitately. It was, I suppose, her own hot
interest but, mind you, there is a share of the ' leave-
me-to-myself ' in her composition, and I am reminded of
Davis' words (in the poem on Clare's Dragoons)

'Our Colonel comes of Brian's race :
His wounds are on his breast and face :
The Gap of Danger is his place. '

That shows not only the personal magnetism which she
exercised, but also the unfailing magic of her name.
To her countrymen, of whom this priest was a fine
representative, Charlotte O'Brien stood not for herself
alone : they saw in her one who caught up the standard
from a long and glorious line.' 1

Meanwhile Father O' Kennedy was assisting in the
tentative projects which she conceived before her action
took its final shape. He writes in a memorial notice
published in the Ave Maria, of Indiana, July, 1909 :

" Her first intention was she an Irish Protestant
to establish a body of Catholic Ocean Nuns. I knew her
to interview bishops and urge them to found such an
Order ; I was with her. Failing in that, her next
project was to have a priest as chaplain on board each of
the emigrant liners. She was a Protestant still, but she
knew the priest's influence with his people. She pointed
that out to the managers of the companies, insisted on its
beneficial effects, drew out a scheme of payment (six-
pence a head for each emigrant), asserted that Irish
emigrants would gladly pay an additional sixpence to go on
a vessel that had a priest, and declared that the names of all
such vessels should be advertised in Ireland and America'"


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She had other and more high-placed helpers, though
none more devoted. Archbishop Croke wrote from
Cashel on June 30 that he would put her proposals
before his clergy.

" God will, I am sure," he added, " give you a high
place in Heaven for all the good you are striving to do.
I hope to be able to second your efforts."

And from the Archbishop's House at Westminster
came this characteristic expression of Cardinal Manning's
view :

" All that I can do shall be done ... I am very
glad you persevere in defiance of contradiction. No
good ever escaped it, or was done without it."

Yet in the end, nothing came of all this but sympathy
and re-established confidence.

" Then I realised," she says, in her own account which
I have already quoted, " I could do nothing unless I
seized the ropes into my own hands. This I knew was
possible owing to the confidence of the Irish people
in my father's name, William Smith O'Brien. I took
a large house in Queenstown, and had myself registered
as an ordinary lodginghouse keeper, licensed for 105
lodgers, and then the play began in earnest. The Board
of Trade and the Ship Companies, my first foes, when they
saw I was in real earnest, determined upon improving
the condition of things in Queenstown, helped me all
they could.

" I visited the ships along with a medical officer day
after day, often beginning at six o'clock in the morning
and going through three or four ships. In the meantime


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more or less of my 105 lodgers had to be looked after
in the house. It was a rough life. I had not even a bed-
room, but slept in my sittingroom. Having been at the
work more than a year, I saw clearly that no permanent
good could be done in Ireland ; and that New York was
to be my next point. The White Star Line took me over
free of cost in the autumn of 1882. When I arrived,
instead of going to a hotel or fashionable boardinghouse,
I took a room in a tenement house in Washington Street.
I spent some time there with a porter, a longshoreman,
and their wives. A month spent in New York gave me
a full insight into the lives of the Irish emigrants and the
fate of the innumerable unprotected girls who were
swarming through my own hands in Queenstown.

" Talking to my friends, they said to me : ' Bishop
Ireland is your man ; go and see him.' So I went to
see him. I was fully primed and knew my question
down to the ground, the people at home, Queenstown,
Liverpool, and New York. Before I left, the Bishop
put his hand in mine and said : * You need not fear,
Miss O'Brien, I will not let this matter drop.' For I
had said to him, ' I am only the plank over the stream ;
it is you, the Catholic Church, who have to build the
bridge. I can do nothing more, and I am a Protestant.
This part of the work is yours, not mine,' and thus I
gave it into his hands."

" That part of the work " the care of the emigrants
when they landed was not neglected. She had been
well directed. Speaking of her interview with Arch-
bishop Ireland, she said to Father O'Kennedy " I met an
apostle." * He used his influence with Cardinal McCloskey,

* She corresponded with Archbishop Ireland to the end of her life ;
intermittently, but with constant cordiality ; she never forgot friends, nor
was forgotten by them.


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then head of the Catholics in America, and as a result
Father O'Riordan, " the most popular young priest
in the Archdiocese, was appointed Chaplain of Castle
Garden, the State Office where emigrants are received."
In 1883 the mission of our Lady of the Rosary began its

The other part of the work the reform of arrange-
ments for steerage passengers was also accomplished.
Here is the account which she gave to an American
interviewer in the course of that visit, telling the results
of her year's agitation :

" I tried very hard to get the Catholic clergy to establish
some institution in Queenstown for the care of emigrant
women, but I failed. I knew that a considerable im-
provement had resulted from the agitation of the matter,
but I feared all would fall through if I did not take some
further step. Therefore I decided to leave my own
home and become a licensed lodginghouse keeper in
Queenstown. When this step became known, all the
steamship companies saw at once that it gave me a great
power over the Irish traffic, and I suppose the White
Star people thought that if I settled myself there as their
enemy it might prove very serious to them. Father
Nugent brought about a meeting between me and Mr.
Ismay, the real owner of the line, who took me on his
ships and gave me a chance to understand the real points
on which we had been at variance.

" About three thousand people passed through my
lodging-house this year, but when I came to America
I determined to close it altogether and to re-open it
on my return. I established the house partly because
there was great need of such a place and partly because
I knew it would give me a direct and strong influence
over all the Queenstown steamship lines. I knew I


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could force almost any reform I wanted if I put myself
directly in relationship with the emigrants. I did not
attempt to influence their choice of lines, but to any
who spoke to me I expressed myself openly. I was most
anxious not to injure any line, but to work upon, write
to, and visit the heads of^the companies, and urge strongly
what reforms I thought were needed. I went over
eleven ships in May, 1881, with the Board of Trade
officer, and then none until January, 1882, since which
time I have seen them all constantly. I have paid them
over one hundred visits this year. I have visited every
nook and corner of them. I have had frequent letters
from emigrants describing the treatment they received,
and also a number of emigrants passing through my
hands returning from America. Thus I have gained
as thorough a knowledge of the subject as I could obtain.
" And what has been the result ? ^ When I first took
the matter in hand it was a common thing for single
women and married people to berth in the same rooms
together, sometimes in the same tiers of beds. The
companies professed to separate them, but the girls
who came with parents slept with them and other married
couples. Now this is all done away with on all the lines.
The single women are always quite separate from every
other class. Various arrangements are made. The
National line puts the single women on one side and
the married people on the other in what are called
enclosed berths small, separate rooms, accommodating
twenty persons each. Up the centre of the compart-
ment is run a lath partition, effectually dividing the
compartment into two, with separate entrances and
means of access to the decks. The Guion line has recently
introduced the same system. It is not thoroughly
introduced, but the work is under way. The Inman
line, as a rule, has its girls separate, but as the number

65 E

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of passengers varies, so do the arrangements. The
Cunarders are behind all of the other lines, because,
though they have enclosed berths, they are for all classes,
and all open into one compartment. Theirs are the
only steerages so arranged. The Allan line has a different
system. For twenty-five years they have viewed with
a condemnation equal to mine the systems I complain
of, and have separated the men from the women
altogether at night on their ships. The American line,
so far as I have seen, berths its single women in compart-
ments by themselves.

" I think we have gained several points," she con-
tinued, " one, that single men are almost always berthed,
as the English law originally intended, in compartments
bulkheaded away from the other sections. The single
women are, as a rule, berthed in a compartment entirely
by themselves, but in some cases the enclosed berths
open into the same compartment into which those of
the married people open. There are now stewardesses
on all emigrant ships. The Cunard had formerly none.
The Inman had them on some ships and not on others.
I have known of 400 or 500 women on a vessel with no
woman in charge. Improvement in this respect is still
needed. One Inman vessel on one trip carried about
1,000 steerage passengers and had only one steerage
stewardess. As to lavatories and sanitary arrangements,
the Board of Trade, after my letters, and what was brought
out in Parliament, took action, and there has been a great
improvement in this respect, and in the addition of a
number of staircases and entrances, so as to give separate
access to the different classes of steerage passengers.
In my opinion all sanitary arrangements ought to be,
as they are in the White Star vessels, so arranged that
there shall be no excuse for the women to leave their
steerage at night. This is not attainable in many of


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the old vessels, but in all new built ships I have no doubt
it will be studied and brought forward. As Mr. Rogers
said in his letter to the Sun, the White Star Line has
given the married people separate private rooms, while
the lavatories are provided on this and other lines
with soap, washbowls, and towels. This is a step beyond
even my anticipation. I should like to see them provide
the bedding and utensils that constitute a steerage
outfit, but the fact is that no member of the Conference
lines can take any step of that kind unless all do it
together. Mirrors are permitted, because there were no
Conference rules against them. Nobody ever thought
of such a thing being done or dreamed of as the provision of
towels and bowls, to enable steerage folks to wash.

" One of my objects in coming to America was to bring
the competition of improvement affecting English lines
to bear upon the foreign companies, because while
the foreign traffic is far behind the English, there remains
a much larger margin for the English lines to fall back
upon than if we could force the whole traffic up.

"You already are aware that in the improvements
introduced during the last few months on the White
Star line I see the emigrant ship of the future, but I
am fully conscious that such radical changes cannot be
brought about over the whole emigrant fleet in a moment.
Many of the older vessels could not be so remodelled
except at great expense. We must, therefore, while
doing justice to the line which has introduced the best
model ships yet crossing the Atlantic, equally do justice
to the very great improvements lately introduced on the
whole English trade. With regard to the five great
lines which I have visited at Queenstown this year,
and on which I have frequently examined the steerage
accommodation, I can speak confidently i.e., Inman,
Guion, National, Cunard, and Allan.


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" ' Did you ever travel as a steerage passenger ? '

" ' Yes, twice from Queenstown to Liverpool. I should
not have the slightest objection now to travel in that
way. I asked to be allowed to on this last trip, but they
would not permit me to. I wanted to find out about
the ventilation. I was told that nothing could be more
horrible than the experiences in the steerage a few years
ago. Now those who travelled then and have since
recrossed the ocean say they were treated well, and were
very comfortable.'

" * You were speaking of the objects of your visit to

" ' Yes. First, I wanted to find out what was being
done in Castle Garden ; secondly, I wanted to see the
condition of the lodging-houses, and how far Castle
Garden went toward solving the boarding-house question ;
third, I wanted to see the life of the Irish emigrant
when settled in America in the West, and here in the
tenement houses ; fourth, I wanted to draw attention
to this reform in the manner of berthing married people
in order to hasten its extension to other lines ; fifth,
I was anxious to call the attention of foreigners to the
question in order that the improvements introduced in
English lines should be extended to the foreign traffic ;
sixth, I wanted to find out if it lay in my power to start
any work for the improvement of the lodging-houses
here and for the protection of immigrant women ;
seventh, to try to supply the want of direct communica-
tion on the emigrant question between the two sides of
the Atlantic. This last want I have felt extremely,
Though for the last two years I have given my attention
to no other subject, I have been unable to get correct
information. Though the fact that a steamship line
may be acting badly be published here, the fact is not
certain to be communicated to the other side. If there


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were any system of intercommunication, such things

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Online LibraryCharlotte Grace O'BrienCharlotte Grace O'Brien; selections from her writings and correspondence → online text (page 5 of 16)