Charlotte Grace O'Brien was born on the 23rd of November, 1845 in Cahermoyle in the civil parish of Rathronan in County Limerick. Her father, William Smith O'Brien (1803-1864), was a great supporter of Daniel O'Connell and a member of the Young Irelanders. Her childhood lacked stability, as her father was exiled to Tasmania for taking part in the 1848 rising, and her mother died when Charlotte was just 16 years old. She was sent to live with her brother Edward and his family. After Edward's wife Mary died, Charlotte became the primary care giver of her brother's children. Charlotte was also troubled by a hereditary hearing condition which saw her becoming completely deaf by the age of 34. In the same year, Edward remarried, and Charlotte was no longer required to look after the children. As a result she found herself alone.
Charlotte began to write novels, poetry, plays, and children's stories. Her topics were generally historical as her main area of interest was archaeology, but in 1881 she focused her attentions solely on the Land War, though it would be immigration, in particular the conditions on board the ships that would make her a well known name.
Charlotte read a book by J.F. McGuire entitled, The Irish in America. In it, McGuire describes the appalling conditions experienced by the Irish emigrants making their way across the Atlantic Ocean. So taken aback was Charlotte by McGuire's descriptions that she dedicated her life to shedding light on improving the transportation conditions for emigrants. In March of 1881, Charlotte visited Queenstown in Cork (now called Cobh). There she inspected the conditions on the ships for herself. What she found appalled her, but so too did the situation in Queenstown itself where passengers would be required to stay prior to their departure. It was particularly dangerous for young women and girls who were travelling alone. Such were Charlotte's concerns for these young women that she opened a boarding house with 105 beds so that female solo travellers would have a safe place to stay before embarking on their journeys.
In order to gain a better understanding of what her lodgers were facing, Charlotte undertook the 24 hour journey from Liverpool to Queenstown, travelling in steerage as her lodgers would. She was horrified to find that four horses were berthed along with the people, and even more horrified when she discovered that it was perfectly within the law to berth up to 10 horses with the steerage passengers.
Charlotte began to lobby for improved conditions on the ships. Her first triumph was the inclusion of a Catholic priest on each ship to at least provide spiritual comfort to the passengers and to administer the last rites to those unlucky people who did not survive the voyage. Later she would have a medical officer inspect the ships prior to departure to ensure that they were satisfactorily hygenic for human occupation. She also made a number of transatlantic voyages, though not as a steerage passenger, where she would make tours of the ships, making notes on what improvements were required.
Upon arrival in New York, Charlotte realised that the troubles of the Irish emigrants were not limited to their time on the ships. Conditions in the New York tenements were terrible at the time. She spoke with religious organisations in New York and arranged for the establishment of the Our Lady of the Rosary Mission which was dedicated to providing aid to emigrant famillies.
As Charlotte's health waned, she was forced to retire from public work. In 1886 she relocated to Foynes in Robertstown civil parish where she died of heart failure on the 3rd of June 1909.
The Our Lady of the Rosary Mission house still stands in New York City as a testament to Charlotte's dedication to improving living conditions for all of those Irish people that made the journey to America in search of a better life.