O'Brien, Charlotte Grace (1845–1909), social reformer and writer, was born 23 November 1845 at Cahirmoyle, Co. Limerick, younger daughter of the Young Ireland leader, William Smith O’Brien (qv), and his wife Lucy Caroline, daughter of Joseph Gabbett of High Park, Co. Limerick. She lived in Cahirmoyle until 1861, except for a period between 1854 and 1856, when the family were in Brussels. She spent much of the time from 1861 until his death in 1864 accompanying her father on his travels. She then returned to Cahirmoyle, then her brother Edward’s home, and from the death of his wife in 1868 until 1878 cared for his children. She then moved into a little house near Mount Trenchard on the Shannon.
O’Brien’s principal cause was that of Irish emigrant women and the hazardous conditions under which they travelled to America – from the grim, overpriced boarding houses at Queenstown (Cobh) pre-departure, to the awful conditions onboard ships, to the dock slums and exploitation they arrived to. She vividly portrayed these dangers in her influential May 1881 article for the Pall Mall Gazette on the ‘Horrors of the immigrant ship’. She campaigned successfully on both sides of the Atlantic on these issues, and to the dismay of the shipping lines she established a boarding house at Queenstown (Cobh) and was able to give advice to thousands of emigrants on the best way to travel to America.
O’Brien actively opposed the coercive legislation of 1881 and was a supporter of the Land League. Later she was an enthusiast for the Gaelic League. In spite of increasing deafness she was an avid traveller in later life. She became a catholic in 1887 and died on 3/4 June 1909 at home in Co. Limerick.
She wrote for the Nation and United Ireland and published a number of works of literature including A drama and lyrics (1880). Her most noted work was a novel, Light and shade (1878), which attempts to foster a positive relationship between landlord and tenant through mutual goodwill and offers an explanation of the circumstances that sustained secret societies and led to agrarian outrages. Thus at the end of the novel, which was ‘received with a chorus of praise by the critics of all manner of politics’ (Katharine Tynan (qv)), the Fenians are seen as tragic examples of a lost opportunity for conciliation, a sad reflection on Ireland’s troubled history.