EXHIBITION: Charlotte Grace O'Brien

Charlotte Grace O’Brien (1845-1909) was the daughter of the Young Irelander, William Smith O’Brien, who was transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) for his part in the unsuccessful 1848 Rebellion. She was responsible for a number of emigration reforms and the guiding spirit to the creation of the Mission. Critical of the overcrowding and overcharging in Queenstown emigrant boarding houses, O’Brien opened her own O’Brien Emigrants Home for 105 travelers at 7 The Beach, Queenstown. It was a daunting task for a woman of modest means who was almost profoundly deaf. The Home failed because it was boycotted by other boardinghouse keepers and local merchants, forcing her to order provisions from Cork. Concerned about conditions in steerage, O’Brien pressed for a reconfiguration of the sleeping accommodations in steerage that would give young women more privacy. In 1882, she travelled by herself on the Germanic to New York in order to investigate conditions aboard an emigrant ship and assess first-hand what the real circumstances were.

Her sonnet, “Steerage of Germanic – Two Pictures of the Mind 1882” describes her observation of her Irish fellow travelers:

Tween dim-lit decks, hard hands, and weary eyes,
Hearts so toil-worn that scarce they dare arise
To gaze upon themselves and own their youth.

After spending a month with a longshoreman’s family in a tenement house on Washington Street, O’Brien travelled to see Bishop John Ireland in St. Paul, Minnesota because she believed that of all the American hierarchy, he would be most sympathetic to her proposal to organize services for arriving Irish women: an information bureau at Castle Garden, a temporary shelter to provide accommodation for immigrants and a chapel. Telling Bishop Ireland, “I am only the plank over the stream; it is you, the Catholic Church who has to build the bridge.” Bishop Ireland promised to raise the matter at the May, 1883 meeting of the Irish Catholic Association who endorsed the scheme. He also contacted Cardinal John McCloskey, Archbishop of New York, about providing a priest for immigrants arriving at Castle Garden. And 1883, Watson House was purchased by Rev. John J. Riordan and the Mission was established.

O’Brien spent her last years in Ardanoir, her home above the Shannon at Foynes, Co. Limerick. She continued her active interest in the welfare of immigrants until her death in 1909.