Charlotte Grace O'Brien.

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

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were tearing about, but he was trying, trying to speak."

Together, the dogs were like a troupe of comedians
for her. Their rehearsed performances were diverting
enough. At Queenstown one of the young dogs used
to go to Crib to get his blessing the old dog, erect
on a chair, with outstretched paws, the other begging
submissively on the floor. But, of course, the life of the
thing was in their mutual relations to each other and to
their mistress.

Somewhere about 1884 Crib's day ended. He
went off on one of his raids and reappeared no more.
It would be senseless to underrate the grief that this loss
caused to one so dependent on this companionship. For
months no dog took his place ; my recollection is that the
others were disbanded and that my aunt was dogless,
till one day (driving from Cahirmoyle to Ardanoir) a storm
of rain sent her into a cottage, where a snarling,
yapping terrier bitch attacked the stranger. The fierce
little thing's head and bright eyes made a sudden conquest ;



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here was the companion she had been seeking, and she
insisted on making friends. The dog snapped at her
outstretched hand, she let it meet its teeth in her ;
puzzled and perturbed the wild creature growled still, but
submitted to be handled ; was purchased, was carried
away, and became " Scan " (from its keen peering eyes),
the mother of many generations. One of the descendants
bit me instantly the last time that I crossed the threshold
of Ardanoir.

For all but herself the dogs were too numerous, and
above all too noisy ; but she, who did not hear them, loved
to see them excited and amused. " ' Scan,' " she would
say, " wild dogs ! wild dogs on the hill ! " and on the
instant Scan's bristles would be up, and there would
be a dash to the window and a passion of barking. She
liked rough play with them, too ; would encourage them
to growl and snap in pretended onslaughts, and again
and again her clothes would get torn ; she herself would
be marked with sharp little teeth. But she loved them
all, and was always their absolute mistress.

The history of her life after she left Queenstown has
its clearest landmarks in the history of her animals ; and
I print now a highly characteristic letter which tells of a
new acquisition as well as of her preoccupations with
public life :

" DEAREST MARY, I got your letter when out driving to-
day, and have been rather burning to answer it ever since,
only I don't know where to begin, for you have got so the
English notion of this movement that I am puzzled to
know what to deny. First as to separation. Mr. Parnell
is no more asking for separation than Grattan, O'Connell,
or my father. What we are seeking is, ' No power on
earth has the right to make laws for Ireland but the
King, Lords, and Commons of Ireland.' That was

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Grattan's, that is ours. Again and again Parnell has
spoken of the link of the Crown. I, for one, am less of a
separatist now than I was before the Land League
started, and I feel sure many would say the same. Then
as to murder and outrage, even Lord Spencer admits
the National Party are doing their best to keep it down ;
and as to boycotting well I have always held that a
perfectly legitimate weapon just as blackballing at a club is.
" Now for my news. / too have an acquisition. I
have bought another pony ! It is a yellow pony when
long-haired, with black mane, tail, and legs. It is, relatively
speaking, as broad as the Shannon, or rather like a lake
as broad as it is long. It is as fat as ' Scan,' with a small
head. It had such a fell of hair that John, clipping it,
said it wasn't like hair at all, but fur. Like what the
barber said to Uncle Donough : ' You might as well
cut a field of stubble ! ' Well, you need not be onasy
about him, for John says he never saw so quiet a horse.
* You needn't be more afraid of him than a horse of
wood ! ' Well, he bundles along over the ground really
at a pretty good pace, but he seems to go so slow, you
have to take your watch and time him to give him credit
for his pace. Meanwhile, as he jogs along he wags his
thick, big tail all the time behind his fat legs wag
wag wag wag so that his back view suggests the
utmost of comfort. He looks tremendously strong, with
a neck like a cart-horse, and is large enough to look really
very pretty in the phaeton. As I have always held that
all old maids ought to have yellow ponies, and as he is
just my ideal for an old maid turnout, I call him ' Amen
Czartorisky,'* as he is the very Amen of ponies, the end
of all my prayers in the equine line. He is a Galway
pony, brought by a poor man who swaps horses. So far

* I cannot explain Czartorisky.

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we find him sound, but he clearly had never been in a
carriage. He had not a notion how to throw his strength
on it the first day ; now he goes better. I mean to turn
him on the grass all the summer, so he won't cost much
to keep ; and as for his price, well, it was about what you
would give in England for a well-favoured donkey, j los.
We had great bargaining for about a fortnight for him,
and the more I see of him the more charmed I am with
him. He has such a pretty, gentle little head, and looks
so thoroughly jovial, and is so quiet ; his pace is about
six miles an hour not express ; but I expect he'd keep it
up all day, and none the worse, if I wanted him. At
least if he isn't tremendously strong, his looks belie him."

We may leave "Amen," the end of all prayers, tore-
appear later on, as he is bound to do, and revert to the
political beginning of her letter.

Her pre-occupation with the struggle of that day
is evidenced by many poems in the volume of " Lyrics "
published by Gill, of Dublin, in 1886 the year of the
first Home Rule Bill. And though among these is the
fourth of her sonnets to Gladstone, there is much more
evidence of the temper shown in the third. Some of
the others are slashing Nationalist ballads, belonging
to rhetoric rather than to literature. She wrote in
1 88 1 to her nieec Nelly :

" The action of the Government has sent me over root
and branch to the National side. I think it would be
our bounden duty to fight if it were anything else than
knocking our heads against the wall, and as we can't
fight, at least we need not lie down, or pretend to be
satisfied. Therefore, in a matter-of-business sort of way
I am writing poems to the Nation as a protest. I hear
the first published has taken, and a priest in Scotland


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having put an air to it, it is to appear to music in the
next Nation. You sing ' Ninety-eight,' will you sing
a rebel song of mine ? '*

But the collection keeps many other memories alive.
There are poems of the emigrant home, poems of the
Atlantic crossing, several poems descriptive of America.
These, as well as the distinctively political verse, appeared
from time to time in Nationalist newspapers at home,
and also in the Boston Pilot. One of them drew from
Boyle O'Reilly (on June II, 1884) a characteristic
letter (he had written the praises of Bromidon) :

" Carragh and Bromidon never weary the soul or vex.
Your poem is very beautiful and very pathetic. It has
a dear old unreasoning Irish wail in its reproach it is
Carragh's own voice crying that no Irishman has a right
to think any foreign brook so beautiful as an Irish brook.
It is an exquisite poem ; and if my hasty sketch evoked
so tender a word, I shall respect it more than I have
hitherto done. I do not know the Carragh : the river
I know best in Ireland is the Boyne. But I know many
American rivers and brooks, for I am an inveterate canoeist.

" Now, because you have given up the home for girls
shall we never see you again ? Surely you must come to
America for yourself, as you came before for others.
Come and see one of our lovely rivers, and divide your
heart with it and the Carragh. Or are you happier
being true to the dear face you have known so long ?
Devotion has its recompense even if new souls
fascinate. . The light-o'-love have shallow joys. If
I knew the Carragh I think I should love it so that I should
not wish to look at the brooks of Paradise. But my
ideals are American in rivers at least. I "have lost
something as a Hungarian woman loses when she puts


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away her braided bodice. The cosmopolite is common-
place. I should like to take you to the Bromidon, and
show you its soft meadow banks and its brown eddies
and shadowy deeps ; but I should like to hold your heart
from its uttermost beauty for the sweet Carragh's sake."

The " Lyrics " achieved no success in Ireland, and she
entertained, as all Irish writers do, the delusive dream of a
sale in America. Boyle O'Reilly, writing to her in
February, 1887, dispelled that illusion :

" We Irish in America are a great power for work
and politics, &c., but we do not buy books. My books
are sold, but not to my own people."

He went on to refer to her series of Cahirmoyle sonnets
which were being written in this year, and of which
she had told him. It was her last sustained literary
effort. The reading public had given her no encourage-
ment to continue, and her health was not equal to the
strain which any serious writing entails. Moreover,
about this time her mind was filled with a new and
absorbing interest. I cannot give the story of her
change of religion better than in her own words, written
to her younger niece :


" Just a word before I go to bed. I knew you and
Nell would understand I had thought much about the
question of religion. You know that I came very near
holding views like your father's. My whole life experience,
however, has been to lead me to believe not only in
revelation, but in the personal communion between God
and man. Also, I could not fail to see that agnostics
lose a vast territory of the most splendid human thought,


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or thought human and divine. Then in the great
crisis of my life, faith asserted itself, and swept away
doubt. Then came if revelation is true, do Protestants
stand right who confine it to a limited period in Church
history ? Then I went to America, and all along through
my life I saw the intense and loving faith of Catholic lay-
men and priests ; I went into convent after convent, and
saw the saintly faces. Everywhere I saw the intense reality
of Catholic faith shown in self-denial and works for
God and man. I have been consciously to myself watch-
ing the question since I was in America, eight years ago,
but have been too sick for reading or mental work. Last
spring I was present at the death of a little child, killed
by a blast on the road here. At her death all the village
of Foynes knelt and prayed all through her last agony,
the priest being there only for a moment, as he was only
passing by on his way to Limerick. It was a scene of such
truly Christian worship as brought me face to face with
the desire to enquire. That, and also because in America
the great witness for Christian moral life as against
divorce is the Catholic Church ; and here in Ireland,
where faith is a living power, morality is strongest
moral life, religious life, pure and intense. ' By their
fruits ye shall know them.'

" That evening I told A. de Vere I meant to enquire,
and asked not for controversial books, but for devotional.
I read for three or four months, then I went to Mass,
but said I had not decided. Since then, I was in Dublin.
I insisted on Father Russell teaching me. Not a Catholic
except Aubrey de Vere would ever be drawn into a
controversy till I myself lately forced them into it. Since
then I have read everything I could lay my hands on,
on both sides, and I am satisfied that, to me at least,
if revelation is true, Truth lies with the Catholics.
Catholic worship in their churches is so intense, so

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devotional it makes the spiritual exercises of Protestant
congregations seem hardly worship at all. I have had
such a lot of letters from people, known and unknown, all
with one voice saying just the same as these two letters.
Dear Lord Emly, was it not good of him to write so!
Send it back to me. Aubrey de Vere's letter you can
imagine. Lucy and Lucius, of course, are sorry, but they
don't understand what the Catholic faith is. If ever you
want to look into the question don't believe Protestant
accounts of it. They knock down foes that have no real
existence as in their quarrels with agnostics."

That letter tells all that need be told of this deep
change in her life, save what may be learnt from the
words spoken at the Mass before her burial by Father
O' Kennedy, which will be found at a later page of this

The love of her people and the love of her religion
which was theirs, were from this one : she defended theii
faith as she defended their history and their character,
incorporating herself with them. Yet even in her
defence, as in the letter which she wrote to Mr. Standish
O'Grady's All Ireland Review only a few years before
her death, her utterance was the utterance of one
nurtured on the Bible, possessing that close familiarity
with it which is the special heritage of good Protestants.

Very soon after her change of religion came a crisis
which divided her allegiance. Parnell fell, and fell
fighting. Those of his associates who were foremost
in the opposition were men who had touched her
imagination more than he. Michael Davitt and John
Dillon had been praised by her in poems, not the less
sincere because less accomplished than some of her other
work. Yet she sided passionately with Parnell, and
against Parnell were arrayed all the forces of her Church.


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But it was no new thing'for[herto be sharply estranged
in^ opinion from those whom she most held in esteem,
and here, too, no personal severance followed. What
followed, for her and for all Ireland, in that long-drawn
out and bitter contention was a weariness of disgust,
a slackening of interest in the whole political movement.
And though she never changed her mind, and was to the
day of her death * as much the Land Leaguer as ever,'
and as fully convinced that the political leaders of Ireland
were striving for the just and necessary consummation
of hope by the only means practicable, her personal
interest, in the last period of her life, lay rather in the
developments of co-operation and mutual credit associa-
tions objects keenly pushed forward by her kindred at
Foynes and Cahirmoyle and in the work of the Gaelic



'" The Parnell " split " is the last marking date in her
life. I have told all the story there is to tell. What
remains is to give as best I may, with the help of others,
some picture of that vivid, vigorous, eccentric, and most
loveable personality, which displayed itself in private life
after growing infirmity had cut her off from all forms
of public activity.

Let me give, to begin with, this connected impression
written by her friend and kinswoman, Miss Catherine
Spring Rice :

" I remember her first as a young woman with a
perfect exuberance of life, energy and joyousness ; almost


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every interest out of door and indoor appealed to her,
and in its turn gave her intense pleasure ; even music,
though she was quite devoid of ear, was made, till deaf-
ness intervened, a source of pleasure through sheer force
of intellect and susceptibility to any form of artistic
expression. Few women have the intense delight she
took in all that belongs to open-air life, coupled with her
keen interest in the world of letters. Natural history,
poetry, books of all kinds religious, scientific, historical
everything came as grist to her mill, and filled up the
hours when stress of weather (it had to be pretty bad
before it was taken any notice of) or absolute darkness
kept her indoors. Then with returning light and sun-
shine she would be ' off out ' : the mere phrase suggests
her, and brings back the recollection of her long walks
over hill and dale, straight across the wide grass country
round Cahirmoyle ; her botanising expeditions, her
adventurous climbs on the rocks at Kilkee, her daring
swims in the Atlantic and the swift-flowing Shannon ;
and when advancing years had put an end to all these,
her long days of hard work among her flowers, her love
for which amounting to a passion, did indeed ' first
come ' and ' to the last endure.' She had a most
ardent, impulsive, and, at the same time, a happy nature,
full of enthusiasm and admiration for what she felt to be
great and good in thought and deed in the past, and
for the living men and women with whom she came in
contact. In her young days there was a touching self-
abandonment in the way she, so to speak, flung herself
at the feet of those she admired ' She must be very
sweet-tempered to bear her deafness thus,' was the remark
of a keen observer on seeing her for the first time, when
it was beginning to cut her off, but long before the
hopeless cloud had settled down over her life. In all
characters there is something which is a source of weak-


Introductory Memoir

ness ; higher it^lay in a rashness of nature, which was
apt to involve her in difficulties by leading her to plunge
into things without due consideration, and with complete
disregard of advice. Also, with all her splendid courage,
physical and moral, which corresponded to her vigour
of body and mind, there was a tendency to get mentally
over-wrought. Once, at any rate, she was near to a
nervous break-down. In the same way what appeared
in youth to be exuberant strength must have had some
underlying weakness, which, joined to a serious carriage
accident, led to failure of health at a comparatively
early age.

" In 1868 she undertook what became, apart from her
exertions on behalf of emigrants, the work of her life
namely, the charge of Edward's children. It lasted for
ten years, and well did she fulfil it. This at least was
the opinion I heard generally expressed by their mother's
relations, who would naturally be the most severe judges.
During it they were the dominant interest in her life,
and, I believe, on the whole she must have been very
happy. The maternal instinct was strong in her, and it
was fully satisfied. She had ample freedom to take up
the occupations and interests she cared for. She had a
great capacity for friendship with men, and the wifely
instinct would, no doubt, have developed had marriage
been her fate, but as it was she did not feel it so strongly
as many women, and it was counterbalanced by much
independence of nature, and a strong desire to live ' her
own life ' a favourite phrase. Fits of morbid depression,
no doubt, she had now, as later in life, but she would
pour out her soul in her verses, or perhaps in a letter
to an intimate friend, and regain her spirits with a bound.

" In 1874 I remember her being one of a large and
merry young party at Kilkee, and in company with one
or two male members of it, one of whom was something

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of an Alpine climber, she started off on an adventurous
climb on the rocks. Shoes and stockings were quickly
discarded for safety's sake. Another time, of course,
on a calm day, she swam out from the Amphitheatre,
round the Pulpit rock, and back to her starting point,
where landing was not altogether easy, calm though
it was. Another time she swam across the Shannon to
Foynes Island and back, a distance of close to a quarter
of a mile each way, and rendered more formidable by the
strong current.

" In 1875 she and I went together to pay one or two
visits in Lancashire and Cumberland. The obvious
route to take was to cross to Holyhead and proceed
thence by North Western Railway. This, however, was
far too tame for Charlotte. She, therefore, felt it
necessary for her health or her purse, I really forget
which, to avoid railway travelling as much as possible,
so we arranged to cross from Dublin to Douglas in the
Isle of Man, and there take another steamer to
Barrow, in Lancashire. The drawback to the plan was
that one boat arrived at Douglas at 2 a.m. and the other
did not start till 6 a.m. ' O never mind,' said Charlotte,
' the boat will be there at the pier we shall go on board.'
I don't know whether the boat was there or not, but
anyway we could not get on her, and we had to pile up
our rugs on the pier and sleep there. I have a lively
remembrance of being waked from uneasy sleep to a view
of Douglas bathed in morning sunshine by small dogs
barking at the unusual spectacle of two females, huddled
in wraps, lying asleep on the pier.

" During these years, before deafness cut her off, the
friends she made among the working people of County
Limerick were a great interest to her. There were, in
especial one or two clever young men who had taken to
verse writing, whose efforts she used to read and criticise,


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and with whom she used to have long talks on politics. I
remember her saying she should never have felt dull
if she could have continued to go freely among the people
hearing their talk they were such good company.

" Early in 1877 came the death of her brother Charlie
a great grief to her and in that year she fell into a
nervous state, and was a good deal out of health.
In the spring of 1878 Edward resolved to shut up
Cahirmoyle, and to send his daughters to school in
England. It was a great blow to her, and in every way
a great break up. He returned to Cahirmoyle in, I
think, 1880, but as his second marriage had taken place
in the interval, it was never her home again. It was
fortunate that some years before this it had come into
her head to build herself a house beside the Shannon.
With characteristic happy knack she hit on the ideal
site of the whole locality. The place was from the first
a delight to her, and by degrees, as she made the garden
and shrubbery and laid out rough paths on the rocky
hillside, it became a charming little home. She called
it Ardanoir the Height of Gold from the golden gorse
with which the hill is covered in spring.

" From 1878 till her death it remained her home,
though she had several long absences from it. Here,
after she had become totally deaf, she lived sometimes
with no companions but her beloved dogs, always
surrounded by flowers and growing plants always a
welcoming hostess to all friends and relations as they
turned up. Her gift as a hostess was quite remarkable ;
when perfectly deaf, she contrived somehow to make
a roomful of guests enjoy themselves and feel at home
with one another and herself."

I have alluded to her fashion, or lack of fashion, in
dress, and the photographs will give some idea of her.

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Add colour, and you should have light brown hair,
complexion very clear and somewhat sanguine, a bright
pink showing pleasantly on the cheeks, and especially
on the high cheek bones ; eyes blue-grey, small, but full
of light and laughter. At moments she was really
picturesque when dressed, as, for instance, her kinswoman
recalls her at Cahirmoyle in a gown of black velveteen,
with flowers in her hair chosen with her never-failing
sense of their artistic value.

Her gift as a hostess, referred to above, always seemed
to me to be one of her most extraordinary qualities :
and she exerted it deliberately, not only for her own
amusement, but for the profit of those who were dear
to her. With all her love for her home, and with Ardanoir
yearly increasing in beauty, she was the least stay-at-home
of mortals ; and her narrow income never seemed to
hinder her from doing what she was set on. In the nineties
she found a generation of young people, her nephews
and nieces not only her own particular care, but the
daughters of her brothers Lucius and Charles growing
up in the country, and it was her inclination to give
them the opportunity of meeting a wider society. Very
largely with that object she took again and again some
kind of temporary abode in Dublin (once also in London) ;
and wherever she settled she drew interesting people
about her by the force and charm of her own personality.
She was, to use a favourite word in that family, very
enterprising a new venture always amused her and
she used to tell with pride how she, cut off by deafness,
without any means of providing entertainment, got
people together about her in London. Rising young men
brilliant young women, gathered to her to discuss their
own outlook on life, even their own most intimate affairs

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Online LibraryCharlotte Grace O'BrienCharlotte Grace O'Brien; selections from her writings and correspondence → online text (page 8 of 16)