MICHAEL FITZ-JAMES O’BRIEN
by Randal A. Everts
The date of birth for the early American phantasy author is not only incorrect, it was a fabrication by the collector Sam Moskowitz. He and I discussed O’Brien during my summer of research in 1968 and the information that was on the plaque (it was incorrectly reported in the NEW YORK TIMES as “Died April 6, 1862, aged 33.”) on O’Brien’s coffin that actually states “Aet. 33.” (which means the deceased was in his 33rd year when he died and would turn 34 sometime between 07 April 1862 and 31 December 1862). I told this to Sam Moskowitz since this type of nomenclature was used mainly by the British and that to me it meant that O’Brien had passed his 33rd birthday and would have been 34 sometime later in 1862. Somehow Sam construed this as indicating a birth date between 07 April 1828 and 31 December 1828 for O’Brien reaching his 34th birthday between those 1862 dates. However, this erroneous estimation by Sam Moskowitz has today turned into the Wikipedia entry using 31 December 1828 for the date of birth for Fitz-James O’Brien. I have spent many a month using research tools to correct the numerous errors of interpretation and outright mistakes of Sam Moskowitz concerning Willliam Hope Hodgson and the same for Lyon S. de Camp’s book on H.P. Lovecraft.
But in fact, this fabricated date by Sam Moskowitz is not only incorrect, but the actual date of Michael O’Brien is not only available online, but verified by his 1851 London Census return. The problem of where Fitz-James O’Brien was born was verified by a newspaper article in the CORK EXAMINER for 31 January 1853: under Theatricals in America “Among the novelties of the season in New York, a new piece has been played in Wallack’s theatre, which appears to have created quite a sensation among the play-goers of that city. The name of the piece is ‘My Christmas Dinner,’ and the writer, Mr. Fitzjames O’Brien, though only twenty-three [sic], has already acquired considerable literary fame. He is a native of Cork, being son of the late James O’Brien, Esq., of Camden-place and a stepson of De Courcy O’Grady, Esq., of Limerick.”
Francis Wolle, (1889-1979) who kindly responded to my enquiry many decades ago, did not have access to these resources (he would have had to page through the actual fragile newspaper pages over a period of decades) and also was not able to come up with much information on Michael O’Brien’s parents in his dissertation on Fitz-James O’Brien. Francis Wolle did know the parentage of Fitz-James (which means “son of James) O’Brien: James O’Brien a solicitor and Elizabeth O’Driscoll, both well-to-do persons and property owning landed gentry, earning James the title Esquire (indicating a social position above Gentleman but below Knight) and later when called to the Bar, Q.C. (Queen’s Counsel, which to quote Wikipedia “is an eminent lawyer (mostly barristers) who is appointed by the Queen to be one of “Her Majesty’s Counsel learned in the law.”” This also allows the wife to be described as “Lady.”
So what I discovered was the following notice in the SOUTHERN REPORTER AND CORK COMMERCIAL COURIER for 14 January 1826: “MARRIED—On Tuesday, the 10th inst. James O’Brien, Esq., of this city, Solicitor, to Elizabeth, second daughter of O’Driscoll, of Baltimore-House, in this county.” These are clearly Fitz-James O’Brien’s parents.
James O’Brien’s obituary in 1881 gives his date of birth as 27 February 1806 in Limerick, son of merchant James O’Brien of that same city, of the County Clare branch of the O’Briens. “He was educated in the Belfast Institute under Mr. Hincks, between whose family as that of the O’Briens the friendliest relations always subsisted. He entered Trinity from Belfast, and in the year 1825, before he was yet out of his teens, had obtained the only gold medal awarded at that time. In 1850 he was called to the Irish Bar, where his progress was rapidly successful. He took silk (Queen’s Counsel) in 1841 (17 August) and was created one of her Majesty’s Sergeants-at-Law in 1848 (and third Sergeant-at-Law from 1851 to 25 January 1858 which coincides with his departure permanently from Cork). In 1854 he entered the Parliament as member for Limerick City (until 1858), which constituency had been represented by his brother, John O’Brien, Esq., of Elmvale, in the House of Commons…” (FREEMAN’S J0URNAL, 30 December 1881). James O’Brien became a Judge (Justice of Court) in 1858 (on 25 January) and remained there for 23 years “where he had since administered justice without fear and without reproach… The deceased judge was a practical Catholic of the purest and the best type” (Ibid.). Except of course for abandoning his wife and son and in Dublin marrying and raising another son and daughter.
Thinking that the sheen of a new marriage by youngsters might not dissipate for a year or more, I checked the rest of 1826 for the announcement of a birth and found this from the Tuesday 31 October 1826 issue of the SOUTHERN REPORTER AND CORK COMMERCIAL COURIER:
On Wednesday last, at his house on the South Mall, the lady of James O’Brien, Esq., of a son.”
This same announcement appeared on the same date in the CORK CONSTITUTION and the birth date of this son (Christian names are never given in the newspaper announcements) who is undoubtedly Michael (son of James—Fitzjames) O’Brien is
25 OCTOBER 1826
This date agrees perfectly with the 1851 Census for Townshead Road, Marylebone Registration District, St. Marylebone, Middlesex, England (actually a part of London) for an unmarried lodger aged 24, born in Ireland, giving his occupation as “author” named Fitz James Obrion. [ENGLAND AND WALES CENSUS, 1851, Household ID 681134, Line #2; Digital Folder # 101796320, Image # 00101]. The date of this 1851 Census was 30 March 1851, making Obrion 25 on 25 October 1851, and thus 24 at the time of the Census.
There are some further references to the parents of FitzJames O’Brien in the newspapers. The CORK EXAMINER for 14 July 1848 states “THE NEW SERGEANT—James O’Brien, Esq., Q.C., who was called to the bar in Easter Term, 1830, has been appointed one of her Majesty’s Sergeants-at-Law, in the room of the late lamented Sergeant Warren [he died in early July of 1848]. The learned gentleman, who is a Roman Catholic, is a member of the Munster Circuit, from which circuit four out of the five last Queen’s Counsel were selected.” James O’Brien, Esq., Q.C. apparently had a brother, John O’Brien, Esq., M.P. mentioned in an issue of a Cork newspaper dated 10 July 1846. His brother John O’Brien (M.P., Limerick, 1841) was also born in Limerick, albeit 12 years earlier, on 06 December 1794 and he entered (after private tutoring) Trinity College in Dublin on 10 November 1810 aged 15, and obtaining his B.A. degree in Summer of 1814. He represented Limerick in London from 1841 to 1852. He died suddenly at 92 Stephen’s Green South on 05 February 1855, the same address where his brother died in 1881. His obituary said that he “…had distinguished himself amongst the Cathollic gentry during the protracted struggle for Emancipation, by his judicious zeal and by a manly eloquence…” (DUBLIN EVENING POST, 06 February 1855). Stricken with a fit of apoplexy, his brother Sergeant O’Brien and his own eldest son James O’Brien, were at his bedside when he died. (LIMERICK AND CLARE EXAMINER, 07 February 1855). John O’Brien had married Ellen Murphy (1805-1860) and their son was Sir Peter O’Brien, First and Last Baron O’Brien (1842-1914) and whose Will is filed in both Ireland and England under “(Baron) O’Brien of Kilfenora, Right Honorable Peter of Airfield Donnybrook County Dublin, P.C. LL.D. died 07 September 1914 Probate Dublin to lady Annie O’Brien of Kilfenora, widow.” His effects were listed at £5134/10 in England (£534,000 today). (ANCESTRY.COM, Mount Family Tree).
James O’Brien, Esq. continued to be mentioned in various newspapers:
16 May 1846 he was elected for the 1847 Board of the Catholic Institution for the Deaf and Dumb (FREEMAN’S JOURNAL)
20 July 1849 he presided on the judicial bench of the Limerick High Court (FREEMAN’S JOURNAL).
19 January 1850 he was listed as running as a candidate, but ended up losing (DUBLIN WEEKLY REGISTER).
11 June 1851 made Her Majesty’s Second Sergeant-at-Law (DUBLIN EVENING MAIL).
10 July 1852 he is listed in a vote again (DUBLIN EVENING MAIL).
31 July 1852 is the last mention of James O’Brien, Sergeant-at-Law (LIMERICK AND CLARE EXAMINER).
James O’Brien suddenly disappeared from the life of his wife and son between August of 1852 and January 1853 when the CORK EXAMINER referred to James O’Brien (wrongly) as “the late James O’Brien.” In truth, James O’Brien lived a long and prosperous life in Dublin, turning his back on his Cork family. Was it divorce or abandonment, we will likely not know for sure, save that his marriage to Elizabeth O’Driscoll at age 19 to a woman barely 20 (an entry for her death in the CIVIL REGISTRATION DEATHS INDEX, 1864-1958) gives her age at her death in 1877 as 72) with a baby following less than 1 year later might have had enough pressure to cause a rift. His numerous obituaries after his death on 29 December 1881 in Dublin mention he had been ailing for “some time past, but the illness only assumed a serious form within the last few days. … He was senior Judge in point of service.” (BELFAST TELEGRAPH, 30 December 1881). His obituary mentions his elevation to the Bench in 1858 and that he was the “fourth son of James O’Brien, Esq. Of Limerick. He was called to the Bar in 1830, was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1841, Sergeant-at-Law in 1848 and was member for Limerick (M.P.) from 1854 to 1858. The deceased was also a bencher of the King’s Inns.” (THE DERRY JOURNAL, 30 December 1881).
His funeral occurred on 02 January 1882 and Mr. Justice O’Brien’s remains were taken from his home at 92 Stephen’s Green South to the Church of the Catholic University “where the Office of the Dead was recited by the clergy of the University and the parish, the Jesuit and Carmelite communities, and Mass for the repose of the soul of the deceased was said by the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin.” The funeral cortege, “which was of great length, left for the Parish Church in Frenais-street, where the remains were interred in the family vault.” Among the chief mourners was Mr. John Henry O’Brien, son of the deceased by his wife Margaret; Mr. Henry Monahan, son-in-law and hundreds of the elite of Dublin as he was laid to rest in the cemetery of St. Nicholas Church after the funeral (IRELAND CATHOLIC PARISH REGISTER 1655-1915/ST. NICHOLAS (WITHOUT) DUBLIN 1857-1905). His Will listed effects in both England and Ireland–£1291 (£142,000 today) in the former and £12,680 £1,395,000 today) in the latter.
Shortly after James O’Brien’s disappearance, his widow Eliza(beth) O’Brien married another landed gentry, DeCourcy O’Grady (1814-1864) of Limerick, who had fallen on hard times. The LIMERICK REPORTER ran this advertisement on 01 April 1851: “CASTLECONNELL—TO BE LET, AT No. 1, TONTINE BUILDINGS, with the Walled-in Garden and Green-House, immediately adjoining, and the Pleasure-ground in front, as lately occupied by De Courcy O’Grady, Esq. The House consists of Drawing Room, Parlour, and 5 Bed Booms [sic], with Celerage under ground, is perfectly dry, in good repair, and fit for immediate reception of a Tenant. Apply to Mr. ARTHUR, Lower Glentworth-street, or to Mr. JOSEPH LYNCH, Saxton-street, Liimerick. April 1.”
His life went downhill quickly and De Courcy O’Grady was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin after he died on 29 February 1864, born 1814. The inscription on his tombstone states: “Erected by ELIZA O’GRADY, in memory of her beloved husband DE COURCY O’GRADY who died 29th Feby 1864. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord. ‘O death where is thy sting, O grave where is thy victory.’ R.I.P.” His Will was proved on 19 March 1864 with his effects under £4000 [a fortune worth today $427,000)]. “The Will of De Courcy O’Grady formerly of Cahercon Kildysart in the County of Clare and late of South Frederick-street in the city of Dublin Esquire deceased who died 29 February 1864 at No. 34 South Frederick-street aforesaid was proved at the Principal Registry by the oath of Elizabeth O’Grady of South Frederick-street aforesaid Widow the sole Executrix.” The address on South Frederick Street was directly across the street fronting Trinity College which had made it easy for Fitz James O’Brien to attend there.
The WARDER AND DUBLIN WEEKLY MAIL (10 February 1866) ran this notice: IN CHANCERY. ADVERTISEMENT TO CREDITORS. Cause Petition under ‘The Court of Chancery (Ireland) Regulation Act, 1850,’ sec. 15 / In the Matter of Margaret Moroney, Petitioner; Richard Bourke and others, Respondents./ I hereby require all persons claiming to be Creditors of the late DeCourcy O’Grady, Esquire, deceased, on or before the 8th day of March, 1866, to furnish in writing to Mr. Richard Atkinson, Solicitor for the Petitioner, No. 15 Merchant’s-quay, Dublin, the amount and particulars of their several demands (accompanied, in case of simple contract debts, by a statement of the consideration of such debts), in order that the Petitioner may, without any expense to them, prove in this matter such or so much of their demands as she shall think just, of the allowance or disallowance of which, or any part of same, said creditors shall receive due notice : And all such creditors whose demands shall be disallowed, either wholly or in part, shall, at the peril of costs, be at liberty to file charges in my office, in respect of the claims or amounts so disallowed, within one fortnight after they shall respectively have received notice of such disallowance. Dated this 8th day of February, 1866. E. LITTON, Master in Chancery. RICHARD ATKINSON, Solicitor for the Petitioner, No. 15 Merchant’s-quay.”
His widow, Eliza(beth) O’Grady died on 26 April 1877 in Dublin; her death notice read: “O’Grady—April 26, at 55, Lower Baggott-street, Dublin, Elizabeth, widow of DeCourcy O’Grady, Esq., of Castle Farm, county Limerick, and last surviving daughter of The O’Driscoll, late of Baltimore, county Cork.” Her final address was only some 8 blocks from Trinity College and her Will was proved on 01 June 1877 with effects under £5,000 [another fortune worth today $482,000]: “The Will of Elizabeth or Elisabeth O’Grady late of 55 Lower Baggott-street Dublin Widow deceased who died 26 April 1877 at same place was proved at the Principal Registry by the oath of Thomas Kelly of 5 Nassau-street Dublin Esquire Barrister-at-Law the Executor.”
On 10 July 1877, appeared (in the IRISH TIMES) this “NOTICE TO CREDITORS. In the Goods of Elizabeth O’Grady late of No. 55 Lower Baggott-street, in the City of Dublin, Widow, Deceased. Notice is hereby given, pursuant to the 22nd and 23rd Victoria, cap 35, that all persons claiming to be creditors, or otherwise to have any claim or demand against the assets of the said Elizabeth O’Grady, deceased, who died on the 25th day of April, 1877, are hereby required, on or before the 1st day of August next, to furnish (in writing) the particulars of such claims or demands to Thomas Kelly, of No. 3 Nassau street, in the City of Dublin, Esq., Barrister-at-Law, one of the executors of the deceased, and to whom Probate of the will of said deceased has been granted forth of the Principal Registry of the Court of Probate at Dublin, or to the undersigned solicitor for the said executor. And, in default of thereof, the said executor will proceed to distribute the assets of the said testatrix, having regard only to the claims of which notice and particulars shall have been given as above required. Dated this 4th day of June, 1877. EDWARD HARTIGAN, Solicitor for the said Executor, 31 Kildare street, Dublin. An 1876 evaluation in the tax assessment records indicated that Elizabeth De Courcy O’Grady had land in Cork county extending 969 acres valued at £131/15- which was then considered a fair amount (today worth $12,800).
[I have referred to Fitz James O’Brien with and without the hyphen between his Christian names and sometimes with no space between them and with both with initial capitals. His mother is sometimes Eliza, sometimes Elizabeth (and in one notice as Elisabeth) and her family name is sometimes O’Driscoll, or just Driscoll. Her father was called The O’Driscoll. O’Brien himself is listed as Obrion in the 1851 Census in England].