Adventures with Charlotte Grace O’Brien: student Jennifer Greene on her 2020 SPUR experience

This blog post has been written by current final year student Jennifer Greene who is studying History and French at Maynooth University. In the summer of 2020 she worked with mentor Dr. Jennifer Redmond on her current monograph project, a study of Charlotte Grace O’Brien.

Charlotte Grace O’Brien

Over the course of this summer, I completed research on Charlotte Grace O’Brien (1845-1909) under the guidance of Dr. Jennifer Redmond. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, a large amount of the project was completed remotely. The project aimed to delve deeper into the life of Charlotte Grace O’Brien and analyse the valuable work she undertook throughout it. Charlotte was the daughter of the well-known nationalist MP, William Smith O’Brien. Because of this, the memory of Charlotte and her achievements are often overshadowed by her father’s political career and participation in the Young Ireland Rebellion of 1848.

Cahirmoyle

Charlotte was born into the O’Brien family in Cahirmoyle, Co. Limerick. Although there is no evidence of Charlotte receiving any formal education, she was a curious child who was often immersed in nature. Despite never marrying or having children of her own, Charlotte often assumed a caring, maternal role as she got older; first with her father until his death in 1864 and later with her brother Edward’s children after his wife passed away. Having suffered from poor hearing throughout her life, Charlotte had become entirely deaf by 1879 which makes her achievements all the more admirable. Charlotte was a poet and author of numerous works, the most famous being her novel, Light and Shade (1878). Apart from her literary work, Charlotte was also a passionate advocate for emigrants’ rights, especially young women.

Research poster by Jennifer Greene for SPUR project showcase

Having been born in 1845, Charlotte witnessed the large scale emigration taking place in the post-Famine era due to poor economic conditions and political turmoil. After reading J.F Maguire’s book, The Irish in America, Charlotte was horrified to hear of the conditions endured by emigrants leaving Ireland for England and America. Charlotte then took it upon herself to visit Queenstown, present-day Cobh, which was where many ships embarked from and she also toured a liner ship there. Unsanitary and cramped conditions were far too common in the steerage area of liner ships but the hardship did not end there. Once finished their journey, young female emigrants were often exploited once they reached America and charged exorbitant fees for accommodation or tricked into prostitution through offers of employment. Fuelled by what she had witnessed, Charlotte used her literary capabilities to persuade the liner company owners to implement more sanitary conditions aboard their ships by writing and publishing persuasive letters and articles. In addition, she also aided in the establishment of a shelter house for emigrants in New York. Charlotte funded her work with what little of her own money she had and used her status as a member of the prominent O’Brien family to help those in need.

During my programme, I got the opportunity to visit the National Library of Ireland (NLI) to handle and view Charlotte’s novels and poetry collections and also, documents her family members had collected about her. There is undoubtedly room for more research on Charlotte Grace O’Brien as she has been largely forgotten since her death. Her contributions to both the Irish literary world and the development of emigrant’s rights are both considerable and enduring. With regards to the historical context of nineteenth century Ireland, I think it is extremely important to create the space for prominent women to be remembered and commemorated to the same extent as their male counterparts.

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