Charlotte Grace O’Brien, author, philanthropist, plant collector, and activist in nationalist causes and the protection of female emigrants, is born on November 23, 1845 at Cahirmoyle, County Limerick.
O’Brien is the younger daughter in a family of five sons and two daughters of William Smith O’Brien, Irish nationalist, and his wife Lucy Caroline, eldest daughter of Joseph Gabbett, of High Park, County Limerick. Upon her father’s return in 1854 from the penal colony in Tasmania, she rejoins him in Brussels and stays there until his removal to Cahirmoyle in 1856. Upon her mother’s death in 1861 she moves with her father to Killiney, near Dublin, and is his constant companion until his death at Bangor, Gwynedd in 1864.
From 1864 O’Brien lives at Cahirmoyle with her brother Edward, tending his motherless children, until his remarriage in 1880. She then goes to live at Foynes on the River Shannon and there devotes herself to literary pursuits. She has already published in 1878 her first novel, Light and Shade, a tale of the Fenian rising of 1867, the material for which had been gathered from Fenian leaders. A Tale of Venice, a drama, and Lyrics appear in 1880.
By 1881 her interests and pen are absorbed in Irish political affairs, in which she shares her father’s opinions. She contributes articles to the Nineteenth Century on The Irish Poor Man (December 1880) and Eighty Years (March 1881). In the spring of 1881 the attitude of the liberal government towards Ireland leads her to address many fiery letters to The Pall Mall Gazette, then edited by John Morley.
Another interest, however, soon absorbs O’Brien’s activities. The disastrous harvest in Ireland in 1879, combined with Irish political turmoil, leads to much emigration to the United States. At Queenstown, the port of embarkation, female emigrants suffer much from overcrowded lodgings and robbery. She not only induces the board of trade to exercise greater vigilance but also founds in 1881 a large boarding-house at Queenstown for the reception and protection of girls on the point of emigrating.
In order to improve the steamship accommodations for female emigrants, and to study their prospects in America, O’Brien makes several steerage passages to America. She also establishes in New York a similar institution to that in Queenstown for the protection of girls. Many experiences during this period find expression in her Lyrics (Dublin, 1886), a small volume of poems, which gives simple pictures of the emigrants and contains some stirring nationalist ballads.
On her retirement from active public work in 1886, O’Brien returns to Ardanoir, Foynes, on the bank of the Shannon, devoting her leisure to writing and to study of plant life. She contributes much on the flora of the Shannon district to the Irish Naturalist and joins the Roman communion in 1887.
Charlotte Grace O’Brien dies on June 3, 1909 at Foynes, and is buried at Knockpatrick. Selections from her Writings and Correspondence is published at Dublin in 1909. Her verses have dignity and grace, her polemical essays are vigorous and direct, and her essays on nature charm by their simple style.