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Cornelius O'Brien of Birchfield (1782 - 1857) by Henry Comber


Various local memoirs tell of Cornelius O’Brien’s conversation to Catholicism but nowhere is their confirmation of this myth. In his farewell letter to his constituents, two months before his death in 1857, he refers to:

our Roman Catholic fellow subjects . . . while they energetically repudiate undue and often irritating interference with the exercise of their own faith, they have shown by their selection of me, a Protestant, as their representative, that feelings of intolerance or bigotry have not found have not found a place in their minds or influenced their conduct.

This is not to say that the family were long-standing pillars of the Established Church. Conversion or apostasy - depending on the point of view - was common in those days and some changed their faith for a piece of land, some for a bowl of soup. O’Brien’s maternal grandparents appear on the Roll of Converts from Popery in 1743 and in 1759, we find a Henry O’Brien of Ennis who was probably his father. It can be presumed that O’Brien died a Protestant but his end was very ecumenical. After lying in state before the front door of Birchfield House, his coffin was taken to St. Bridgid’s Cemetery followed by thousands of mourners in a mile-long cortege. Here the burial rites were read by his great friend, Most. Rev. Dr. Fallon, Bishop of Kilfenora assisted by Dean Bell. Then the remains were laid to rest in a temporary tomb pending the completion of the family vault.

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O'Brien's Tower at the Cliffs of Moher, built by Cornelius O'Brien
O'Brien's Tower at the Cliffs of
Moher, built by Cornelius O'Brien.