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

Storied Urn or Animated Bust

The impressive column, some call it Doric, some Ionic, which stands beside the roadway near St. Brigid’s Well, has become the butt of journalistic jibes and a source of phallic preoccupation to one lady writer; but it has fulfilled its object in commemorating Cornelius O’Brien. His name, if nothing else, must have been noted by thousands of tourists from all over the world.

The oft-repeated libel that the memorial was erected by O’Brien himself, during his own lifetime and paid for with money wrung from his unfortunate tenants, is completely without foundation. The date on the inscription - 1853 - can only be explained as a stonecutter’s equivalent of a typist’s error. The internal evidence alone proves it wrong. O’Brien was an M.P. for 20 years at the time of his death in 1857 and not in 1853 as the inscription states.

The suggestion of a testimonial first appears in the editorial column of the Clare Journal on October 5, 1854. An article in the same issue by “an English Visitor” heaps praise on Cornelius O’Brien for his developments at the Cliffs of Moher - the tower, pathways, stables, round table etc. and even the provision of a piper to entertain the visitors.

Unfortunately, the piper fell over the cliffs while drunk. The writer remarks that such public spirit should be marked by some sign of the people’s appreciation.

The response to the suggestion, formation of a committee and collection of subscriptions, is reported in subsequent issues and a full list of subscribers is published. This is headed by Bishop Fallon of Kilfenora and Bishop Vaughan of Nenagh. The list totals £400 and includes £36 ‘wrung’ from the tenants in Birchfield and Caruduff.

According to a letter from Orbilus in the Clare Journal of 2 March, 1857, the form of the memorial had not been decided. Three suggestions were being considered:-

a. an extension to the Carnegie Library in Ennis;
b. an inscribed silver dinner service.
(not favoured by O’Brien);
c. a memorial at the Cliffs of Moher

A letter from visitor to Lahinch on 22 August, 1861 refers to the completed monument.

All in all, Cornelius O’Brien was quite a man. His vision, backed by a secure parliamentary seat and ten thousand acres of land in Birchfield, Inagh and Toonagh, would make him a giant in the Ireland of today. He had style in his works, words and deeds and there was charisma and a touch of poetry in the man responsible for the following inscription in Kilmacrehy cemetery: -

Erected by Cornelius O’Brien M.P. to the memory of his friend John Collins Esq., M.D. A good man respected for his learning and loved for his benevolence and virtue by all who had the happiness of his acquaintance. Here he sleeps well by the seashore wherein he loved to dwell. February 16th, 1841.

Photos of the column in Foto

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Monument to Cornelius O'Brien at St. Bridget's Well, Liscannor
Monument to Cornelius O'Brien
at St. Bridget's Well, Liscannor.

The Round Table at the Cliffs of Moher, erected by Cornelius O'Brien
The Round Table at the Cliffs
of Moher, erected by
Cornelius O'Brien.