Charlotte Grace O'Brien.

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

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interested in her because she was so original, so candid,
and, above all, so profoundly interested in them.


Introductory Memoir

Especially was she interested by the growing difficulties
in the position of women : the paper (printed here for
the first time) on the " Feminine Animal " exists among
her MSS. in many shapes and rehandlings.

Her detachment from the activities of life was beginning
to affect her literary temper ; and whereas till now
she had either used the pen as an instrument to forward
some public purpose or to express in verse her own
personal emotion, I find her now observing and speculat-
ing on the lives and emotions of others, attracted, not
towards fiction, but to that form so little handled
by women, the prose essay. She commented on this
tendency in herself in what was to have been the first
of a series of " Soap Bubbles ":

" I write because I have the desire of writing on me,
because talk and life going on round me has led me to
think vividly on many subjects, because also, being myself
on the threshold of age, yet with a strong sympathy
for the young, I have been able to look close on the lives
of three generations that now taking possession of the
world, my own, and my father's."

These earliest of her essays were not successful, and she,
no austere critic of her own work, never printed them,
but their subjects are worth noting. There is a paper
on " London Lodgings," which begins with a picture
of the unhomeliness and isolation of that life of myriad
creatures, each separate in its cell, and then passes to
thoughts of Irish friends meeting and greeting, of gifts
of flowers bringing memories of far off beauty.

" So we decorate our rooms with human sympathy,
our walls with graceful and gracious kindliness. Is it so
bare a lodging after all ? "

Yet the underlying current of thought in that essay

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bears upon the same theme as that handled in the
" Feminine Animal " the growing disinclination to
face all the consequences of marriage ; and I find another
phase of it in another paper on " The Evolution of the Cold
Blooded," where hot age cries out on provident youth.

" Sweet reasonableness and so forth ! I confess I am
somewhat impatient of this sweet reasonableness united
with solid and well-founded self-satisfaction, which seems
so much the fashion among fin de siecle young men
and women ; and then they look with such sublime
superiority on their elders who have the blood of life
flowing in their veins instead of a coagulated fluid.
Besides, it is annoying, they have so much the stronger
position with their sweet reasonableness. We elders
feel and love, get angry, or are grateful, maybe for little
things which are the outcome of great things. The young
ones have not grasped, do not seek after the great things ;
that little things should so touch us appears to them
a craze. . . ."

So far London. But the real centre of her social
activities in these years was Dublin. My mother's
household gave her a centre there, and she camped one
year about a mile off, somewhere in Rathmines, and
another year in a pleasant little house with a garden,
called Woodville, in Clonskeagh. Here was a meeting
ground for many different natures but chiefly for those
concerned with letters or art notable among whom
were Douglas Hyde, leader of the Gaelic League, the
honoured friend of her latest days, and Walter Osborne,
most beloved of painters.

People from outside our own circle of friends used
to arrive there too ; and I can date Woodville about
1894 or 1895, because Mr. Charles Trevelyan, now


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Under-Secretary of Education, but then attached to
Lord Aberdeen's staff at the Viceregal establishment,
was a constant figure at these gatherings.

There are many droll memories of those years, whether
in Dublin or in County Limerick, and one of the drollest
is recorded in a letter to her niece Mary (Mrs. Cane).
I give the whole as a picture of her life :

" Fancy us with the luxury of a tiny bright fire of
sticks, the open window, and the lamp to make all look
real snug : Mabel and Miss C. at draughts, and the
room decorated with ferns and rowan berries. I am
in a light cotton near the fire in my chair, enjoying a
well-earned rest, having actually walked up to Mt.
Trenchard to-day and a good part of the way back
moreover, and not tired. I thought I would show myself
off to Eilish before she expected me, so went up to
luncheon unasked, and received a most warm welcome.
I can walk with a good conscience now and drive, for
Dr. Kidd told me it would be good for me, and I now
feel the advantage of never having given up being out
of doors as much as possible through all that sick time.
Such a run of adventures as I had the day I came home !
I had been panting for adventures all the time I was in
Dublin, but it was all shockingly common-place there,
but as soon as I started for home on Wednesday a cheerful
variety began. First I fainted, or went as near it as I
can do, shortly after starting from Dublin, and was
restored by some ladies with brandy and Eau de Cologne.
It was horribly close, hot and dusty till we turned past
Limerick, and got the river air, which freshened me up
the first sniff. As soon as ever I got home the boys
insisted on my scrambling a bush to see a bird's nest.
Then Tory and Raleigh got into an awful fight, and I
had to separate them. Then Tory chased the cows, and


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I had to chastise him ; then the invalid chair got wrong.
I had to get John to open it, and in doing so it fell together
like a pair of scissors on my unlucky finger, and squashed
the whole ball under the nail almost entirely off. I
thought I should resume the fainting process, but wound
it up in wet moss, and pulled through all right; but it
was a horrid mash, and only for the invaluable remedy
of wet moss I should have suffered an amount. The
moss stops the blood and soothes the pain as nothing else
does. Well, was not that enough for a homecoming,
but we have not got to the end yet. Miss C. rushed
in to say Amen was lying nearly dead in the bushes.
We all tore up the cross walk, and sure enough there
we saw Amen lying on his back in the top of a tree. Poor
beast, he had lost his footing, rolled clean down the hill
across the walk, and down into a dense mass of scrub
strong enough to hold him up. He was not dead,
however, and after a while three men managed to haul
him up and get him on his legs. Whether he is seriously
hurt we don't know yet, but he is very stiff, no

" Amen " died years later and had a successor in the ram-
shackle phaeton, which we called her " yellow chariot,"
She used to bring her carriage with her to Dublin often
driving all the way from Limerick in such a "jog jog
journey " as is described in her essay. (She was indeed
the only person I ever knew who really travelled in
Ireland for pleasure. I have known Government
inspectors, many of them, who travelled on business ;
I have known thousands of tourists in Ireland, Irish and
English ; but no other who did as she did, taking the only
way to familiarise herself with the country as a whole.)
Now, it happened that while driving she had the mis-
fortune to knock down a small boy. By way of solace to

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his feelings and his parents, she took the lad into her
service : so began the career of Christy. I suppose she
sent the pony home, for she purchased a tricycle as a
means of getting from her house to ours ; but, since her
health was not strong, she made Christy accompany her
as a running footman, and shove behind when she came
to a hill. Not very unnaturally the cortege excited a
good deal of comment, especially from the factory girls
at Milltown.

Christy's end was arbitrary as his beginning. The room
which my aunt inhabited at Woodville was double, and
the fire was in the inner small return, which could only
be approached through a doorway from the outer portion.
It was her custom to fling herself down to rest wherever
the humour took her frequently on a rug near the fire.
Now, Christy was under strict orders to keep the fire
a turf fire always going, and coming up one afternoon
he saw the fire ah 1 but extinct and his mistress's figure
extended on a rug across the doorway apparently asleep.
He could not attract attention by sound, and I suppose
that he was shy of disturbing her ; besides, probably the
course which he took appeared the most spirited way of
dealing with the situation, for he cleared the obstacle with
a flying leap. At that, the chief tain ess in her wakened,
and Christy was summarily dismissed I fear unabashed,
for my recollection is that he was unabashable.

She liked turf fires, because when she went to bed she
could seize a couple of turf in the tongs and a couple
more in the shovel and take her fire upstairs with her
when she went to bed a very disconcerting habit when
one was staying in the house, for she retired about nine.
In such matters she was very high-handed ; she took what
she wanted. We entertain memory of her setting out
on one of her journeys for Limerick early, of course and
calling in at my mother's house on the way. On the bar


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which ought to have carried the phaeton reins (it did not
much matter how her steeds were driven) was hung a
huge straw hat, such as country women wear in the
harvest field, carried against the chance of sun. She
entered to us at breakfast, distributed large enveloping
embraces, then with another bold and ample gesture
swept to her all the provision of hot brown bread (our
special glory), saying it would do for lunch ; then cast
a glance at the sideboard, spied grapes, swept them also,
and, waving her goodbyes, deposited the whole on the
front seat under the shadow of the straw hat.

In short, she carried to the extreme that practical
communism which is so characteristic of Irish life. Her
niece Mary tells me that at her last visit to Ardanoir
no provision could be made for meeting her at the station,
because one of the wheels off the trap had been lent to
some one in the village. Neighbourhness could not go
further ; and it was reciprocal. On occasion she would
mobilise the countryside generally for a dog-hunt.
Here is a note of one of these forays, jotted down by Miss
Briscoe the companion and friend of her last years :

" It was ' Cainos ' that had got lost in a rabbit
burrow." (This must have been the dog originally named
' Cionas ta tu ' How are you ? when Charlotte O'Brien
was in the first stages of studying O'Growney's colloquial
Irish.) " The whole house was turned out to search for
her, and the large dinner bell was- rung at intervals all
over the place. We had been searching for the dog all
day, and had come in tired out, but no trace could we get.
About 9 o'clock we were told a policeman wanted to see
Miss Charlotte. This was to tell her that he had heard
a faint barking at the side of the cliff. We all turned
out again, armed with shovels, furze cutters and lanterns,
herself leading the way, and after scrambling about amongst


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furze bushes and briars we at last located the burrow.
All the village turned out to help to dig out the dog, and
great was their delight and hers when they got him."

And, of course, as a part of the same social convention,
or unconvention this order rooted in disorder any
man or woman, boy or girl, of the clan had only to arrive
and demand entertainment. Some place would be found
for one to sleep in, something for one to eat (it was
generally very little, for she ate little herself, and we
always mocked at the appetites people came away with).
But there was always the welcome, and abundance of
flowers. You could depart laden with blossoms and
plants as well ; for, like all good Irish gardeners, she
was lavish even of her treasures ; and like all good Irish
gardeners, when she visited a garden, she generally came
provided with a basket to carry off slips, cuttings, stray
roots, and so forth.

Cahirmoyle was, of course, the main object of her
visits ; but for many of the years in the eighties and
nineties Cahirmoyle stood empty, " beautiful, homelike,
but all, all alone," as she writes in a sad sonnet. Yet
there were other homes of the clan : Mount Trenchard,
Corgrig, Curragh, and above all the houses of her two
brothers, Lucius and Donough. To the rectory at
Adare, and, later, to the old Deanery at Limerick, she
carried her quest for flowers and a welcome ; but the
happy hunting ground -par excellence was her brother
Donough's little house on a knoll above the Lax Weir,
where there was another gardener as zealous as she.
" They always had great colloguing over their different
gardens," writes Miss Briscoe (in some notes kindly sent
me), " and she would come back from his place laden
with spoil in the way of plants, and would say : ' Come
along and see what the good Donough has given me.' "


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A very close friend of her*s and his, and a skilled ally
in their many botanising expeditions, was Miss Knowles,
from the Dublin Museum of Science and Arts. I find
some gay little doggerel addressed to her, a song of
triumph over a prize missed by the expert :

"See you not, O Matty mine,

How you walked and trotted
Right along the bridge o'er brine ;
Called from Rhobart, knight so fine,
Of the Normans, ancient line,

Yet you never spotted


Arvensis, Miss,"

And so on.

The same bundle has a set of verses in lament for the
departure of one I know not which in a series of
superficially unattractive pets. One " Gruffy " is men-
tioned in the Cahirmoyle sonnets : the verses I am going
to quote are dated Dec. 12, 1884 ; but I am sure there
were other hedgehogs after this one, and all, I think,
were banished upon the remonstrances of friends, as had
happened when she wrote :

" No more those pretty pattering feet
Shall scuttle forth in haste to greet
Thy tiny tray of rosy meat,
My Gruffy !

" No more thy black and beady eyes
Shall gaze on mine with fond surprise,
While grunting forth contented sighs,
My Gruffy ! "

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The grammar is a trifle vague, it will be seen, but the
description very accurate, and still more in this :

" No more thy faint and musky scent
The public nostril shall resent,
While angry eyes on thee are bent,
My Gruffy ! "

My sister was the worst sufferer from this pet that I
know of, for she happened to share a room with her
aunt, and was disturbed by the creature's noise and
prowlings ; yet the matches were across the room, and
in going to look for them she might step, barefooted,
on Gruffy. But when Charlotte O'Brien came to stay
in the house of any of her kin, some animal always came
with her, and if they were troublesome they were always

Another thing very characteristic was her dealing in
houses. She rented Woodville by the year, and she used
to sublet it. There, very often, she would be the paying
guest of her own tenants, who were always friends ; and
we used to assert, very probably with justice, that even
under these conditions she carried off the turf fire at
night to bed with her. But Woodville did not satisfy
her ambitions, and she decided to build, a little way out
of Dublin, close to a station on the line which had Mil-
town station near our house. Foxrock was then a place
of whins and stone ; but her shrewdness guided her well,
and the little house is now in a populous neighbourhood.
" Failte " she called it, that is " Welcome."

Unluckily almost as soon as " Failte " was built my
parents decided, for the first time in a married life of nearly
forty years, to change their abode voluntarily for reasons
of health ; and she complained vehemently of their un-
settled habits. The result was that "Failte" was little


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occupied by her, and after a few years she sold it to the
friend who had been its most frequent tenant.

Her enterprising ways seldom involved her in a loss :
there was always a practical sagacity in her doings. At
the same time she had not the type of mind which
persists in one pursuit. She took up things apart
from her public work, which, unquestionably, she put
through for the amusement of trying them. Thus,
in the first year after she had given up the emigration
business and settled permanently at Ardanoir, she set
her hand to growing daffodils for sale, finding that the
soil and climate suited them to perfection. But this
commerce was soon abandoned : all that stayed with
her was the delight of the flowers, and sometimes the
literary impulse to tell of that delight. Her essay on the
daffodils, to me a very charming piece of prose, was one
of a series contributed in 1898 to the Irish Homestead ;
and to each of them she appended verses of her own
sometmes new, sometimes already published. All of
these papers show how strong a stamp had been set upon
her mind by that study of scientific books which, especially
in her early life, had gone hand in hand with minute
observation of living nature. It stamps her imagination
when she figures London as some huge polyzoic animal
with separate cell life ; it informs her thought, notably
in all her speculation upon jthe relations of the sexes ;
it guides and illuminates her observation, as in her vivid
picture of Ireland's central low-lying plain. And like
every other acquired element in her mind, its history
is bound up with droll recollections. One of these
goes back to a far off past, before my school days, when
she was with us in Donegal, and her passion of the moment
was for skulls. She wanted a type of the pure Celtic
skull, and she was convinced (very justly) that no purer
Celtic stock could be found in Ireland than that of the


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Irish-speaking mountaineers on the slopes of Lough
Salt, one of whose daughters was a servant in our house
a black-haired, comely girl, with a sharp tongue and a
turn for making verses. My aunt besought this girl
many times to get her by hook or by crook a skull from the
graveyard where her people buried ; it seemed an easy
enough enterprise to her own mind, for near Fo7nes
was a crowded burying place, where all parts of the
human anatomy lay about in indecent profusion. I
have never seen the like in Donegal, and Mary Ann
M'Gettigan refused to hear of the proposal. But one day
she had done something which roused Miss Charlotte
to just anger, and it was necessary to propitiate her.
Mary Ann came voluble in entreaty. " Ah, Miss
Charlotte, dear, don't be put out with me, sun I'll
let you have my skull when I'm dead."

For the last ten years of her life I have few docu-
ments. She wrote little : the only verse I have of that
period is the " Common Place Ballad," dated 1904.
Of private letters there were few, I fancy ; her health
disinclined her for correspondence. Yet here is one to
Douglas Hyde, to whom she wrote perhaps oftener than
to any other friend :


" Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday I do be running.
Sunday I sit down and turn over my week's letters.
Wherefore I have not yet thanked you for your little
prose poem. I have not yet had time to spell out the
Irish, but have been through the trans. It has a tender-
ness also that gains on the second reading. When one
has taken in the form in the first reading one is freer
to observe the more hidden beauty. I hope the poor
woman for whom the vote was requested may succeed.
The downfall of the old ancient families is tragical,


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though well earned very, very often. How I wish the
men who are taking their places, the strong farmers,
had a decent education. The houses and places are pass-
ing into the hands of new men, decent fellows, many
of them, but not possible in society. If only the
University question were settled ! I have always thought
the three colleges one university the only plan that
would break the frightful bar between the religions.
Well, now, when I was in Dublin, being a R. C. myself,
I desired to make friends amongst them. I could not,
because I was in a Protestant clique. One can't get at
them. Here you can't from different social status.
Even the priests will hardly venture, except an odd one
like Father O'Kennedy ; and what a charming man he
is, with all the Irish charm, education and the knowledge
of the rich and poor from within, not outside. I think
you met him. He is here every month or so, and all
Ireland is talked out that same time."

That marks her constant preoccupation with the public
life of the country. Other letters to him have reference
to her own distractions. She was busy collecting riddles
and inventing riddles, which she proposed to make a
book of, and he was to add a Gaelic collection. This
book was to be illustrated by her, for she drew cease-
lessly, but without success : she would never learn the
grammar of it. Yet in her sketches of animals one
feels her keen perception of their individual character
and life.

In her study of Irish, about which she wrote much to
Hyde, there was the same impatience of method : she
wanted to arrive direct at the literature without really
learning the language. But it was a source of constant
interest and pleasure to her, and some notes which Miss
Briscoe has jotted down concern themselves again and


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again with activities belonging to the Gaelic League.
I give these memories in Miss Briscoe's own words :

" ' Peggy, you ought to learn Irish : if you do I am
sure I could help you through the first part, for I know
a little share.' I was delighted, and many a pleasant
hour we had after that. She was what she would call
a great one for ' hurrishing you up,' and many a hurrish-
ing I got from her over those same lessons. Thinking
over them now, I wonder at the extraordinary patience
and trouble that she took with me, for I was a stupid
pupil. She always used to say : ' Well, I dragged you
through the drudgery part anyway, and set you afloat.'

" Our lessons were conducted in rather a quaint
fashion, for they were varied with all sorts of stories of
the past as well as the present time. I had to write every
word of whatever exercise we were doing, and then she
would read a simple story, her finger pointing out the
words as she read, stopping every now and then to tell
some little funny thing that had happened in her

" When I started learning dancing she would come and
watch with the greatest amusement my efforts at the
rising step, and comment very freely on the way I
held myself. Afterwards, when I was able to dance
myself, I used to teach a children's class, and had them
up at the house, and she always came down to see them,
as she expressed it, ' put through their paces.' When
the class would be over she would fly off and waylay the
children as they passed out and present them with an
apple or a cake."

Here now is an account of her last public appearance.
The Gaelic League was arranging for an aeridheacht
(that is, an " airing," an open-air gathering) at Abbey-


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feale, in the parish of Father Casey, best beloved of
Nationalist priests in County Limerick. Miss Briscoe
belonged, of course, to the Foynes Branch of the League,
and she writes :

"July, 1905.

" I had come in very disappointed from the committee
meeting, for the arrangements to go to the aeridkeacht
at Abbeyfeale had fallen through; my first thought, of
course, was to talk it all over with her. She had gone
to bed, but not to sleep, for that was not possible till
she had heard all the business that went on at our meet-
ings. She must know all the little bits of fun, the little
disputes and discussions that went on, and she always
had something to say as to how they should be dealt with.
Well, this night she was all awake, wanting to hear every-
thing at once ; she had half promised to go with us
herself, so, of course, was wanting to know the arrange-

" Very disgusted she was at the dismal tale I had to
tell. She listened in silence, then suddenly said
' You are fearfully disappointed, aren't you, Peggy ?
What would you say to our just going off on our own
hook, taking Taylor and the pony.' I need hardly say that
my heart jumped at the thought. We started planning
it all, sheitting up in her bed, with her blue eyes twink-
ling, I sitting on the edge of the bed. ' Well, trot down
and see if you can coax Taylor into staying away a night
from the little Mrs., and come back and tell me.' Off
I went, knowing that the great Anselm would only be

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Online LibraryCharlotte Grace O'BrienCharlotte Grace O'Brien; selections from her writings and correspondence → online text (page 9 of 16)