21 February 2018

Portrait of a radical Dean
is brought back to life in
Saint Mary’s Cathedral

Dean Henry Lucius O’Brien … a full-length portrait in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

One of the delights of visiting Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, on Sunday last to preside and preach at the Cathedral Eucharist, to see how the new dean has cleared away years of accumulated clutter and brought light into once-dim or hidden corners.

Robing in the dean’s office, I noticed for the first time a fine, almost life-size portrait of one of his predecessors, the Very Revd Lucius Henry O’Brien (1842-1913), who was the Dean of Limerick from 1905 to 1913.

The full-length portrait shows Dean O’Brien with his Irish wolfhound by his hand, and the River Shannon and Saint Mary’s Cathedral in the background.

Lucius Henry O’Brien was born at Cahermoyle, Co Limerick, on 13 August 1842. His father, the Young Ireland patriot, William Smith O’Brien (1803-1864), was MP for Limerick and inherited Cahermoyle, Ardagh, Co Limerick, from his mother. Cahermoyle is now within the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes, 9 km west of Rathkeale and 14 km south-west of Askeaton.

Dean O’Brien’s grandfather was Sir Edward O’Brien of Dromoland Castle, Co Clare. The dean’s aunt, Harriet Monsell (1811-1883), married Canon Charles Henry Monsell (1815-1851), who was Curate of Aghadoe, near Killarney, Co Kerry, and Prebendary of Donaghamore (1843-1851) in the Chapter of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.

When the Thomond peerages became extinct in 1855 with the death of James O’Brien, 3rd Marquess of Thomond and 7th Earl of Thomond, it seemed the ancient O’Brien titles had come to an end. However, Harriet’s eldest brother and the future dean’s uncle, Sir Lucius O’Brien, was surprisingly successful in taking his claim to an obscure and almost-forgotten 16th century title to the Committee for Privileges of the House of Lords, and in 1862 he became the 13th Baron Inchiquin.

As a result of the decision in the Lords, Lord Inchiquin’s four surviving sisters and two of his three surviving brothers were given a royal licence to use ‘the style and precedence of the younger sons of a baron’ – meaning, in effect, they could put the prefix ‘The Hon’ in front of their names.

The other surviving brother was Dean O’Brien’s father, William Smith O’Brien, MP for Co Limerick. He had inherited the Cahirmoyle estate in Co Limerick through his mother, Charlotte Smith, whose father had bailed the O’Briens out of threatened bankruptcy. Charlotte was one of the founding lights of the women’s branch of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), and William Smith O’Brien was proud of his mother’s humanitarian work among the starving and homeless famine victims of Co Clare in 1847.

A year later, on the 50th anniversary of the 1798 Rising, William Smith O’Brien, led the Young Ireland insurrection, and after the failure of the Battle of Ballingarry, he was deported to Tasmania. Eventually, he was pardoned in 1854 and allowed to return home to Co Limerick. Despite being snobbily snubbed by the House of Lords two years before his death, O’Brien is commemorated today by a statue at the south end of O’Connell Street, Dublin.

In the year the House of Lords snubbed William Smith O’Brien, his elder daughter, Lucy Josephine, married the Very Revd John Gwynn, Dean of Raphoe and Regius Professor of Divinity at Trinity College Dublin.

At one time, three Gwynn brothers were prominent in TCD so that it was referred to jokingly as ‘Gwynnity College’. Dean Gwynn’s son, the Revd Professor Robert Malcolm Gwynn, shared his grandfather’s radical political outlook: it is said that the concept of the Irish Citizens’ Army was born in his college rooms, and later, as senior master, he introduced social studies to TCD. His daughter, equally active in campaigning on social issues, was the late Mercy Simms, wife of Archbishop George Simms.

Three of the patriot MP’s sisters were married into clerical families: Anne was the wife of Canon Arthur Martineau of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London; Katherine married Bishop Charles Harris of Gibraltar; and in 1839 Harriet married Canon Charles Henry Monsell, youngest son of the Ven Thomas Bewley Monsell, Archdeacon of Derry and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Harriet and Charles had no children, and after his death in 1851 she founded one of the first Anglican religious communities of women, the Community of Saint John the Baptist at Clewer, near Windsor in Berkshire. The order soon spread to India, South Africa and North America.

Harriet Monsell House seen to the right of the room in Liddon where I stayed at Ripon College Cuddesdon in 2013 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It seems only natural that her nephew, Lucius Henry O’Brien, would pursue a career in radical politics or seek ordination. He was educated at Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, and Trinity College Dublin (BA 1865, MA 1874), and was ordained in 1867.

He was ordained at Salisbury Cathedral in 1869 and became a curate in Mere in Wiltshire, on the edge of the Salisbury Plain, before returning to Ireland as a curate in Ramelton, Co Donegal, where his brother-in-law, John Gwynn, was the rector.

In 1872, he married Emily Mary Hannah Montgomery (1848-1942) from Beaulieu, Co Louth, on the banks of the River Boyne.

Lucius Henry O’Brien returned to his native Co Limerick in 1878 as Rector of Adare. There he was also a canon and then Treasurer of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick. When he was elected Dean of Limerick in 1905, it was seen as an appropriate appointment, as the O’Briens were credited with founding Saint Mary’s Cathedral in the 12th century.

While he was dean, his works in the cathedral included the new reredos in the chancel, carved in 1907 by James Pearse, father of the 1916 rebel leader Patrick Pearse.

Dean O’Brien died on 25 September 1913. In the year he died, his nephew, the Revd Professor Robert Malcolm Gwynn (1877-1962), was one of the founding figures in the Irish Citizens’ Army. He helped to conduct the funeral in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, which included John Ellerton’s hymn ‘Now the Labourer’s Task is O’er.’

His obituary in the Limerick Chronicle said: ‘He was most sympathetic to the poor, and a generous friend to all local charities.’ The charities he was involved with directly included the Limerick Protestant Orphan Society and Barrington’s Hospital. His wife Emily died on 6 June 1942 at the age of 94.

The Lancet Windows by Catherine O’Brien in the Jebb Chapel commemorating the the Very Revd Lucius Henry O’Brien, a former Dean of Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Dean O’Brien is commemorated in the cathedral in a pair of stained-glass lancet windows by Catherine O’Brien. The memorial windows by Catherine O’Brien, measuring 1360 mm x 330 mm, depict Saint Luke (left) and the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child (right), and one tracery-light above depicts a winged ox, the traditional symbol for Saint Luke the Evangelist.

The lettering reads: ‘To the Glory of God’ (above), and (below): ‘In loving memory of Lucius Henry O’Brien, Dean of this Cathedral from 1905 to 1913. Erected by the family.’

His memorial in the cathedral describes him as ‘a strong man, ever seeking the larger light, upholder of the truth, worthy of his name. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.’ It adds: ‘After God, his country, and his kindred he loved most this cathedral for which he did much and all that in his power lay.’

The portrait is the work of his nephew, the landscape and portrait artist, William Dermod O’Brien (1865-1945).

Dermod O’Brien was born at Mount Trenchard House, near Foynes, Co Limerick, on 10 June 1865. His father was Dean O’Brien’s brother, Edward William O’Brien; his mother, the Hon Mary Spring Rice, was a granddaughter of Lord Monteagle.

For a time after his mother’s death, Dermod O’Brien was raised at Cahermoyle by his aunt, the nationalist activist Charlotte Grace O’Brien (1845-1909), along with his sisters Nelly and Lucy, until their father married again in 1880.

Dermod O’Brien was educated at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge. After graduating from Cambridge, he travelled to Paris, where he studied the paintings at the Louvre. In 1887, he visited galleries in Italy and then enrolled at the Royal Academy in Antwerp, where he was a fellow student of Walter Osborne. Back in Paris, he studied at Académie Julian, before moving to London in 1893 and Dublin in 1901. In 1902, he married Mabel Emmeline Smyly, daughter of Sir Philip Crampton Smyly.

He became an associate of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1906, a member in 1907, and later was president between 1910 and 1945 (PRHA). He was made an honorary member of the Royal Academy, London in 1912. He was High Sheriff of Co Limerick in 1916 and was Deputy Lieutenant of Co Limerick. He died on 3 October 1945.

Dean O’Brien’s nephew, the Revd Professor Robert Malcolm Gwynn, died in 1962; Catherine O’Brien died in 1963; they are both buried in Whitechurch Churchyard in south Co Dublin.

Meanwhile, Mother Harriet Monsell is remembered in the Calendar of Saints in Common Worship in the Church of England and in other parts of the Anglican Communion on 26 March. She is also commemorated in the name of Harriet Monsell House in Ripon College Cuddesdon, near Oxford, where her community helped build the prize-winning college chapel.

The chapel built at Ripon College Cuddesdon, near Oxford, by the community founded by Harriet Monsell … it was voted into second place in the prestigious architectural prize, the Stirling Prize (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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