Charlotte Grace O'Brien.

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

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manner, but this is very useful as far as the work goes.
I have gained information on every point I needed, seen
the places I wanted to see, and shall be able to write more
useful advice than the emigrants ever before have had.
I have established inter-communication between different
points and travelled about 4,000 miles of American
soil, so that I have a good general notion of the country.
I have been always in private houses, so I have seen the
real internal life, and have entered into the internal
interests of the country, and I am under bonds to come


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here again probably in a few months. But the largeness
of the work I have now on hands will force me to get a
matron for my home at Queenstown. I must be free
to move about myself. Will you post enclosed to Aunt
Ellen. I am going to ask her to try and collect .30
or .40 to pay a matron. I hope it will only be for a year
or two, and that by that time I shall be able to have
established a really good system. I believe it may be a
result of my work to start here, or rather to consolidate
here, one of the greatest movements that has ever worked
for the Irish people a movement for systematically
exporting the people to the West the moment they touch
American shores, and doing this in connection with the
temperance movement Bishop Ireland at one end of the
rope, Father Nugent and myself at the other, the Lines
vying in improvements as they are societies here at the
ports. We have all the elements of success now, and
Bishop Ireland is one of the greatest men in America.
There has not been an hour or a day lost hitherto, and
I am rejoiced to be turning homewards sooner than I

But while she was thus exhorting her countrymen
in the States to care for those who must and will emigrate,
she was also uttering her plain warning through the
Nationalist press at home. She wrote from the
Emigrants' Home, Queenstown, to the Dublin Freeman,
on December 6, 1882 :

" SIR, The question of State-aided emigration being
now under consideration in all the Western parishes, I
wish to put before the people one point to which, in my
opinion, attention has not been sufficiently drawn, but
which ought to have great weight in the emigration of
families. It is the fact that the climate of America


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kills the children in a most terrible way. I see a state-
ment in a lecture of Bishop Ireland's (if I remember
rightly) that seventy-five per cent, of the children born
in New York among the poor Irish die. Certain it is
that wherever I went, among rich or poor, I heard the
same sad tale. I believe a vast number of those who wish
to take advantage of the State-assisted emigration will
do so, thinking to benefit their children. I tell them
their children have a better chance of life, starving and
barefoot at home, than living in comparative comfort
in America. Let them go to America. They may
escape, their children then will be better off ; but let
them go with a clear understanding that they may think
themselves fortunate if they rear two out of every four
they take out with them. Let them ask their neighbours
who have been to America if I do not speak the truth.
Let them ask those neighbours to describe the children
in America. Are they rosy and hardy, if poor and ragged ?
No. They are well dressed, well cared for, sapless,
lifeless, pale. ' It would kee-p you -poor burying your
children* said one woman to me ; and it is true.

" It is not impossible that I may be myself somewhat
mixed up with the carrying through of this Government
emigration scheme. I therefore all the more decidedly
wish to put on record my clear opinion that every Union
in Ireland should bind themselves against having any-
thing to do with this fatal gift. If people want to
emigrate, the right persons to go are young men and
women, matured, but still having the spring of youth.
America is not the land of gold it is represented. It
is a fine country, especially for women, and for those
who have friends that can start them ; but if I had children
whom I loved, I would rather rear them on potatoes
and salt at home than risk their lives by taking them
immature to America.

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" This is my clear, strong opinion, after travelling
four or five thousand miles in America north and
south, east and west. The further north-west you go
the better chance for the children ; also, I think, in the
south they do fairly well, but never as they do at home."

And, in truth, she was " mixed up " in the Govern-
ment scheme in this sense, that she did not refuse shelter
to those who, by the agency of the five pounds, were being
huddled out of sight and out of mind. I was with her
at Queenstown in my Easter vacation of that year for a
few days. The home was not specially full probably
not more than thirty or forty persons in it. But such
emigrants ! My impression of that group, as they sat
on benches round the big bare room, is one of a dreadful
shyness and strangeness like caught beasts. They
were dressed in slop clothes, furnished by some philan-
thropic society, and doled out at random ; one poor
idiot, half grown, was in a suit that might have fitted
a giant. Several spoke no English ; one man was very old.
I was almost relieved to hear that the United States had
refused to receive that cargo of misery, and sent nearly all
back to the country which was responsible for them.

And in the middle of that silent, sick, and drooping
company I remember a young man, some creature of the
town, standing up and singing impudently an indecent
song. That is the only time in my life that I ever heard
the like before Irish peasant women, and it brought home
sharply to me the fact that Charlotte O'Brien's solicitude
for the girl emigrants was deeply justified. That little
company was not merely alone, but forlorn adrift from
all its moorings, pushed from behind all the barriers that
had so closely guarded each of them.

The life of the house was like existence in a railway
tation, bare, draughty, clamorous, comfortless. I am


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not sure that deafness did not spare her something at
this time, though it was a great hindrance : Mrs. D ckson
had always to accompany her in visiting the ships.

But when I look on the record of her work in America,
as I find it in old newspaper cuttings, it is amazing how
little physical disabilities weighed on her. She had
never spoken in public ; yet she addressed great audiences
successfully ; she was extremely deaf, yet she went
everywhere making acquaintances, making friends, enter-
ing into the whole life of the place as very few women
could do with every natural advantage. Here is an
early letter, bubbling over with excitement :

" I will tell you how this day has been spent. It is
in a tenement house in the worst street in New York, to
begin with, that I am writing. First at 9 o'clock in comes
Mr. James Rogers, agent of Tammany Board of Education,
to take council with me about a letter relative to the
Baltic, which had been extinguished by the Star paper.
I had been previously interviewed by this reporter.
Then I went to inspect two emigrant lodginghouses next
door. Then John Downes joined me, and he took me
off to see Cardinal McCloskey ; thence to visit an aunt
of his in another tenement house at the other side of the
city ; then home. Mr. Rogers then took me out to
luncheon, and thence to the Board of Education. There
I was introduced to Hon. Lawrence Vierman, and had
a long chat with him. He is very charming, like Joe
Hennessy in looks and ways, only, as you may suppose,
from his occupying so high a position (Secretary, Board
of Education), a highly educated man. He showed me
all over the Board Hall, and was very pleasant. I go to
stay with him on Thursday, and snail desert my poor
surroundings then probably nearly for good. Thence
with Mr. Rogers to the Sun paper office. I am to be inter-


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viewed to-morrow by their reporter in the morning,
and taken out to Ward's Island, the hospital of Castle
Garden, by Mr. Jackson, the Superintendent, in the after-
noon. Thursday I have to visit the ' Normal School '
for the training of teachers with the President, I think,
of the building. In the evening to Mr. Kiernan's, where
I am to meet some influential men. You will see that I
am fairly afloat from this account of a few days. I can
hardly attempt to write fully, for in fact my days are all
taken up ; but I have hitherto been successful in a large
degree. I think I shall not find it necessary to remain
quite so long as I expected away from home. It is
lovely ; I haven't been a week yet in New York before
I am going ' lobbying ' on a little private job of my own.
I am to interview the Hon. John Kelly, who is in the
Government, to try and get Government work for John
Downes. That's the way we Yanks manage^ matters.
The Hon. John Kelly is said to be likely to be willing to
do anything for me, so I hope poor John Downes will get
his place. Don't fear, my heart is turning to Old Ireland
still I'd take the next ship home with a good heart if
I had my work complete. I have a deal to do yet before
I can set my foot again in the dear land."

In truth, whether in New York or Queenstown, her
heart was always turning to the " dear land " and those
whom she specially loved. Here is a letter, written in
1882, to her younger niece, which resumes all her abiding
interests the love for her children, her concern with
public affairs, and, with these, that delighted sense of
Nature's changing beauty which solaced her loneliness,
and yet always bred in her the longing for those she loved
to share her joy in it :

" MY DARLING CHILD, It is in a way true our ways
a re growing apart, and it is not true, and I do not think


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it will be so much so in the future. I begin to see my
way toward a plan for getting out of all this fight My
work is done in the main. Certainly the ships are vastly
improved, and, what is even more important, the Board
of Trade is thoroughly awake, refusing to pass over the
slightest infringements of the law, and pressing reform
every way. Just now I am fighting for the foreign
emigrants in Liverpool and am hopeful.

"I am sending you a Nation with a poem of mine,
which speaks your thoughts too, dear Polly Flinders.
I am writing somewhat just at present. The lodging-
house work I am taking no part in this year, except living
in the house. John is manager entirely now. I expect that
another year or two will see the house on a public basis, and
I out of it altogether. Meanwhile, I must go to America.

" But as soon as you go to Cahirmoyle I will go there
for a fortnight or so, and go a-maying. Then will the
cowslips shine forth among the dewy grasses, then will
the tender blossoms of the crab- trees array themselves
in rosy light, then will the dainty curling leaflets show
grey and downy in the low evening light. Then, oh
Mary ! we shall be at home, and the sweet country walks
will be beneath our feet. Then too will the little birds
sing on every bough, and the sweet, sweet never-ending
tale of the springtide begin afresh for the refreshment
of all souls that have aches and pains and spots in their
insides Oh, Mary, I found a little slug eating my fern
the other day. I didn't murder it, it looked so tender
and innocent. I took it away and put it in some moss.
I could have kissed it only it was so slimy."

So it closes, with a laugh her own kindly laughter.
The sense of humour pervaded her whole life like sun-
shine through a day of clouds, breaking out ever and
again, and bringing health and comfort.

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The poem which she refers to is that upon the
emigrants the group I saw. Probably her talk with me
over what I had seen stimulated her to expression, which
echoes the note of the first letter written to the same
niece on this subject. That was her central preoccupa-
tion the care for the purity of unprotected young girls.

My memory of her in those days reflects a curious
blending of intense mental life and energy and interest,
with a flagging and inconstant vitality. That impression
was faithful, though it is only now, after all these years,
that I learn the causes, physical and moral, of what even
my boyish observation perceived.

First, and this was no small matter, she was threatened
while still at her post with the loss of her nearest ally.
Mr. Dickson had made up his mind to leave the police
and enter the Irish Church : this would mean their
departure from Queenstown.

Charlotte O'Brien wrote suggesting that he might
take work in Liverpool among the poor Irish of that great
city, and then she herself might keep in touch with them.
For she said (writing from my father's house in the north,
where she was on a visit) " I am very happy here, but
really it has come to be almost Ruth and Naomi ' Where
thou dwellest, I will dwell.' "

Then, later in that year, came the culmination of
trouble in another sort. She found herself menaced with
the apprehension of mortal disease in its cruellest form.
I give in full this letter, so complete in its revelation of
her courage, her piety, and her weariness :


" I send you a note of Stephen's and another letter
about which I wish you and Willie to keep absolute
silence. You will see from it I have had something

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wrong, sufficiently serious to make me uneasy. I mean
to wait another month, it has gone on for nearly two
already, and if it is still going on then, to go to Dublin
and see Dr. McDonnell. It is some strange pain and
tenderness in the right breast, so that a very light touch
will cause acute pain, and even the movement of the arm
often. It may be nothing but overstrained nerves.
That it is that I know, but it may be more, and its being
such a nasty thing in any shape to have an unexplained
tenderness in the breast, I thought it better to write
to Dr. McDonnell. I have always meant to tell you
and Willie at once if I had reason to believe it might be
serious, but you see I don't know as yet. Dr. McD.'s
letter is reassuring, but he does not at all suggest what
he thinks may be the cause. I'm well enough, and able
for hard work, and jolly with Scan, who has filled Crib's
place, with a difference, but this goes on steadily all the
same. As for me, I will not say I am quite indifferent.
I don't think I am, but rather that my wishes lean the
wrong way. It's a painful way of getting out of the world,
but it would be a blessing to have all fight and miseries
and responsibilities absolutely laid aside, and it might
make peace. In any case the bringing this near to me
has been a mental rest, and you know I never had any
constitutional fear. I'll let you know if the Dr.'s stuffs
are any good, but I don't think I shall be able to judge
so soon, it goes up and down so much. What I should
think of doing is going to you for New Year's Day, if I
go at all, and spending the month with you, but if I
am well, I shan't leave home. I have a wish to spend
Christmas at home. I enclose a cutting of the German
society. This is the prayer of the society ; I wish
you'd write it down and use it :

" * Hear, O Lord, our prayers, and lead with Thy blessing
the way of Thy servants, that in all that may befall them


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in their wanderings and in their life they may rejoice
in Thy steadfast protection. Amen.' g

" Dear Molly, if this were the end of the little comedy
after all, it would hit you harder than anyone, but it's
likely enough it's only a passing thing, and if it is not,
it's only a short time after all, and if our life is truly in
God's hand, what are the few years with the unfailing
and growing love ? I am queer about that. I think
I should feel the separation from the little earthly things,
the flowers especially, which one can't someway reproduce,
more than with the eternal souls which are always there.
Strange to cling most to the most passing of all things,
those which under our eyes are reproduced daily new,
as if that power which renews their beauty in new forms
hourly were unable to give them to us again ! And
after all, in meeting death we must stand between two
alternatives, either absolute death and all the aspirations
of the human mind having been empty vanity or life
in God's hand, more directly, more visibly than here.
Take either alternative, and why wish for life ? I do not.

" Yours,

" C. G. O'B."

After it comes another, on the same theme of the
anticipation of death : ^


" Don't fret about it. I feel much better these days,
and in a more reasonable frame of mind. Of course it is
true, I have had a sore hard turn, but it's a great con-
solation to have a Dr. to turn to who understands one's
constitution, and doesn't snub one's poor nervous system.
Not that I speak of this as the hard turn. This, for
myself, I could meet far more easily than I have met
my other troubles. I'm taking the medicines, and the
plaster is very soothing, and the days are exquisite, and


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I have just made a grand new border by the rhodo-
dendrons, seventy yards long. I have it edged with
forget-me-not, inside of those yellow polyanthus, inside
of those wallflowers. Think of that. I suppose at
least 500 wallflowers, same or more primroses and forget-
me-not close as it will go, rhododendrons and mixed
flowers behind. Won't it be pretty ? Even bare it is
a great improvement.

" Scan has got her pups, none good I fear, though I
keep three to rear.

" I'll write to you often and tell you how I am,
till this new question settles itself. Only I thought
you'd like to know, but it seems selfish to put an anxiety
on you which you will feel more than I do. But in any
case this physical fright has done me good. It's rather
a blessing to have the shortness of all one's troubles
forced on one. I wrote these lines last night ; needless
to say, they are an allegory, the reading of which will
not be hard to you :

Alas ! the summer past away and gone !

Summer that seemed so sweet, so bright, so new,

So faithful and so true ;

So loved of every flower, leaf and stone

Summer that laid its hand upon the sea,

And stilled to harmony

Its subtle shiftings and its treacherous moan.

Summer and joy, summer and life seemed one,
And winter, death, and cruel, cold and bare
To all things fair.

Yet in the winter was the new life won,
The new leaf formed, and the tumultuous sea
Set pure and free

Its rotting falsehoods on the black sands strewn.

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Arise, O Lord ! Behold we are Thine own
Throughout this stormy year, this bitter year
Thou still wert near.

Thou wentest with us through the depths unknown
And all the wild, the dark mysterious sea
Was peace to Thee

By Thee the ground was tilled, the seed was sown.
Dec. 4/, 5 th.

The reading of the allegory was in truth not hard
for that close and dear friend. This year of turmoil
and sorrow, 1883, marked the turning point of her life,
the close of her strength, the final good-bye to youth.
It was accompanied by those other troubles which, as
she said, were so far harder to meet than the dread of
disease. Out of her emigration work had sprung a
friendship, which passed into another feeling, and the
end was bitter disillusion. Yet even from this trial she
emerged, hurt, indeed, and deeply shaken, but with the
central sanity of her nature clear and sound.

" It's all over," she cries, like one regaining breath
after some ghastly swoon, " it's all over, thank God,
and the woods are full of anemones and springing ferns."

So she wrote to her niece Mary though only hinting
vaguely at the trouble which had encompassed and
obscured her days. For the last word on all this time I
quote a longer passage from that letter :

" The outskirts and trimmings of that nature that makes
me hold fiercely to my friends have been getting me
into trouble ; the core, the very heart and centre is with
you young ones you three. If you would just realise
how your being home, especially when you come to me
here, makes such a difference. If you come home in
May you will find everything in great beauty, for though


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the spring began early, it is now not at all early I think,
and another month will bring it to perfection. My
garden is very bright. I don't know why you never
send for flowers now. My basket is away. When Cath
sends it back I will send some, but my chief beauty are
the anemones and scarlet tulips. The anemones I don't
gather, because I want the seed, for I have lovely kinds,
so only pull the worst, and it's hard to make up one's
mind to pick tulips that won't send up second flowers,
but keep so long bright in the garden. I have had a
more plentiful supply of hot water over my shoulders
in the last three years through my own faults and my
neighbours that can well be imagined ; and to say the
truth, I feel rather as if I were left without a skin ; but
if I have, I have, too, made many friends, who are not
mercenary friends, and who will not forget me. It is
wonderful how my American friends have stood to me ;
it is so easy to take a person up and be civil for a few
days to one coming in the name of a public cause, but to
retain them as true friends when you know the chances
are you will never meet again is what one hardly dares
look for, but what they have done. I send two letters,
which show the true and gentle spirit in which I was
met, which show, too, the way in which the work is

The postscript to that letter tells me that I was again
spending my Easter vacation in her company, and I must
try to set out some of my impressions of these years.
They were chiefly of dogs. All her family were dog-
loving, but to her dogs were the chief companions, the
gaiety of her life. Irish wolfhounds and brown water
spaniels were the kinds specially affected by her brothers ;
she devoted herself to the Irish terrier, a breed upon
which she had theories, set out in a letter to the Irish


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Homestead of I2th March, 1898. The "really separate
big Irish breed " should be " over 30 Ibs. in weight, or
2 stone at least ; they should be hard-haired, well-
frilled, and have large lustrous eyes : they should be
tall on the legs and powerful ; they may be grey, black-
backed, or red ; a little white is often found on the chest,
but usually nowhere else."

But, in truth, her concern was with character and
talents rather than show points, and no dog has so much
character, good and bad, as the Irish terrier. " Crib "
was the leading dog of this period, the Cuchulain of that
cycle ; and certainly I never saw his equal. He could
count. His mistress would hold up her hands outspread,
and you named any number up to ten ; Crib would put
his paw on the appropriate finger. But Crib's perform-
ing tricks were (in all senses) the cheapest part of his
endowment. He fought, of course, ceaselessly ; but
his passion was for the chase. He hunted anything, and
sheep by preference, and would take away with him
sober respectable dogs, pointers and such like, that had
never trespassed in their lives, into some wild buccaneer-
ing, after which a bill would come in. Consequently,
he had to be moored fast when not under supervision ;
and no rope would hold him. Once that I remember,
he had been attached by a chain to a mowing machine,
and when we sought him he and the machine had dis-
appeared : we found them an incredible distance off,
tangled round a telegraph post.

He was one of a band. I take this from a letter of
Feb. 10, 1 88 1 :

" Colleen is growing very pretty, like a little fox.
Garry, too, though still stubbly and quite wonderfully
fat and soft and big, will, I think, be pretty in a few
months. They are both dear little things, and amuse


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my lonely hours. Crib as usual, only, perhaps, a little
more sentimental than ever when I notice the others."

Then here is a tragedy, later in that year :

" Fancy what a dreadful blow I have just escaped.
All the dogs have had distemper : Crib so bad they
thought he would die. They are all right again now,
all the terriers, only very thin and ragged looking. If
Crib had died, I don't think I should ever have been able
to stay at home, but the darling was there all right before
me. You should have seen him, he had so much to tell
me. If ever a dog was trying to talk he was, sitting before
me, his little mouth open and trembling, and with little
squeaks, his eyes jumping out of his head. All the others

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Online LibraryCharlotte Grace O'BrienCharlotte Grace O'Brien; selections from her writings and correspondence → online text (page 7 of 16)