Irish Connections

Brian Boru It was Brian Boru (925–1014) High King of Munster and then High King and Emperor of the Irish who gave the name O’Brien to this ancient family. His son by the treacherous Danish Princess Gormflath, Donough, began the lineage. With the O’Neills and the O’Conors, they have been for centuries the leading Gaelic aristocratic families.
Coat of Arms

In 1938, The Hon. Donough O’Brien’s History of the O’Briens traces the family back to the senior line descending from King Milesius of Spain (1500 BC) and thence back to Noah! So the O’Briens are not just one of the oldest families in Ireland but in the world. Donough O'Brien

Battle of ClontarfKing Brian Boru beat the Danes at Clontarf (1014) but died in the battle, leaving a power vacuum. A grandson of Brian’s, Donal Mór O’Brien (d. 1194) was for years locked in battle for that elusive goal, rule of all Ireland. In the twelfth century, the contenders for the high kingship, apart from the O’Briens, were the Mac Lochlainns of Aileach in Ulster and the O’Conors of Connacht. The story of Donal Mór, King of Munster, is a saga of ruthless battles, blinding of rivals and abandoning of hostages.

Murrough O’Brien (d. 1551), finding that he could not defeat Henry VIII, led the Gaelic chiefs in acknowledging Saxon sovereignty. He adopted the Protestant religion, dropping his royal title and was rewarded by being created 1st Earl of Thomond in 1543.
D O'Brien
Donough O’Brien (d. 1624) (left), 4th Earl of Thomond, Governor of Clare and Thomond and known as “The Great Earl” was one of those Irish heirs who were cunningly nurtured by Queen Elizabeth’s court. In 1599, at the head of a large army of the Queen’s troops, he toured his Irish domains and found them ravaged. He inflicted terrible retaliation, hanging the entire garrison of Castle Dunbeg on the nearby trees.

M. O'BrienMurrough O’Brien (1616–74), 1st Earl of Inchiquin, fought on the English side in the rebellion of 1642. With the Cromwellians he sacked and burned towns, earning the nickname “Murrough of the Burnings”. He savagely drove the Catholics from Cork, Youghal and Kinsale. When the monarchy was restored in England, he sided with Charles II. This did not help him, for he was now regarded as a traitor by both the Irish and English. He went to Rome to seek pardon from the Pope for his atrocities and passed his remaining fifteen years doing severe penance.
Conor O’Brien, who with his wife, the famous Maire Rua MacMahon, in 1643 built Lemenagh Castle in County Clare, headquarters of the Inchiquin O’Briens, was killed by the Cromwellians.

It was about this time that the O’Briens moved to Dromoland Castle above).

William O’Brien, 2nd Earl of Inchiquin, was surprisingly on King William’s side at the battle of the Boyne in 1690. After the Battle and the Treaty of Limerick (1691), Charles O’Brien, Fifth Viscount Clare, was, by contrast, one of the now impoverished ‘Wild Geese’ who fled Ireland, leaving behind 57,000 acres of land. As a French General, he fought Churchill’s ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, at Blenheim and two years later at Ramillies in 1706, where he died of his wounds.

The Sixth Viscount fought so well at Dettingen and Fontenoy that he became the famous Maréchal Clare. The exiled Scots and Irish lived in the Jacobite enclave of the old Chateau at St Germain-en-Laye, given to James II by Louis XIV, when he moved to larger premises at Versailles!

Many O’Briens joined the exodus that followed the Treaty of Limerick and from these descend the Spanish and French O’Briens. The Dutch O’Briens had left Ireland in the sixteenth century.

One mercenary Colonel O’Brien gave a phrase to the Portuguese language. On the way to fight the Spanish, his Irish force hung around the coastal town of Peniche eating and drinking for weeks too long. To this day ‘Um amigo de Peniche’ means a friend who has outstayed his welcome!

In Vienna, the street ‘O’Brien Gasse’ and monument ‘O’Brien Denkmal’ commemorate Generalmajor Johann Freiherr von O’Brien for outstanding service to Austria, especially at the 1809 battle against Napoleon at Vienna.

Street sign

Smith O'BrienWilliam Smith O’Brien, Conservative Member of Parliament for Limerick, led the ill-fated Young Ireland Revolt of 1848 culminating in the ‘Battle of Widow McCormack’s Cabbage Garden’. He was arrested by a railway guard, sentenced to death and then exiled to Tasmania.
Edward Conor Marshall O’Brien (1880–1952), a grandson of William Smith O’Brien, was an author, an outstanding yachtsman and architect. A committed nationalist, he landed German arms for the Irish volunteers in his yacht Kelpie.

Beatrice O’Brien married Guglielmo Marconi, the pioneer of wireless, in 1905.

In 1937, Donough O’Brien, 16th Baron Inchiquin, very nearly became the first President of Ireland but was beaten by Dr Wilfred Hyde.

The O’Brien name is conspicuous in American history. In the eighteenth century, Maurice O’Brien of County Cork emigrated to the coast of Maine. One of his sons was Captain Jeremiah O’Brien, and, when the Navy arrived to load timber for the British army, Captain Jeremiah and his brothers captured several of their ships, an incident which has since been recognized as the first naval engagement of the American Revolution. In 1900, the American navy commemorated the O’Brien action by naming one of their battleships the Jeremiah O’Brien.

In the world of international politics, Conor Cruise O’Brien (b. 1917) has had a versatile career. He served in the Irish Diplomatic Service and the United Nations in the Congo. He was Chancellor of Ghana University, and served as a minister in a coalition government in Ireland.

The name Vincent O’Brien is synonymous with horses, both in Ireland and internationally. Some of Ireland’s most successful thoroughbreds come from his training stables at Cashel, County Tipperary.

Among writers, Kate O’Brien (1897–1974) of Limerick wrote many successful plays and novels. During her most fruitful years she suffered the fate of many leading writers of the time, the banning of her books by the Irish Censorship Board. She is now acclaimed as “the Jane Austin of Limerick”. Edna O’Brien (b. 1932), a convent girl from county Clare, had a sensational success with her first novel, The County Girls, which she has now followed with a series of novels and plays.

The present head of the O’Brien Clan is Conor O’Brien, 18th Baron Inchiquin, who lives at Thomond House which overlooks Dromoland Castle, now a magnificent hotel.

For more information check out the O’Brien clan website and read “Fringe Benefits”!

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