no image

Cornelius O'Brien MP (abt. 1782 - 1857)

Privacy Level: Open (White)
Sir Cornelius O'Brien MP
Born about in Ennis, County Clare, Irelandmap
Ancestors ancestors
Husband of — married in Clare County, Irelandmap
Descendants descendants
Died in County Clare, Irelandmap [uncertain]
O'Brien-1087 created 29 Feb 2012 | Last modified
This page has been accessed 1,289 times.


Sir Cornelius O'Brien (1782 – 1857) was an Irish politician. He built a tower, now referred to as O'Brien's Tower on the Cliffs of Moher in 1835 as an observation tower for the hundreds of tourists that frequented the cliffs during the time. O'Brien's Tower stands on a headland of the Cliffs of Moher. Folklore holds that Cornelius O'Brien was a man ahead of his time, believing that the development of tourism would benefit the local economy and bring people out of poverty. O'Brien also built a wall of Moher flagstones along the Cliffs, and it is said in the locality that he built everything around here except the Cliffs. He died in 1857 and his remains lie in the O'Brien vault in the graveyard adjoining St Brigid’s Well. [1]

Genealogy: One tourist brochure names Sir Lucius O’Brien as the father of Cornelius, another attributes his paternity to Sir Turlough. However, in spite of this convenient but confusing pedigree, he did not belong to the Inchiquin family. His parentage is not very obscure. A memorial to be apprenticed to Cornelius O’Callaghan, attorney of the Courts of Chancery and Common Please and Exchequer states:- “Cornelius O’Brien was the third son of Henry O’Brien, late of the town of Ennis in the County of Clare, Esq., deceased and Helen O’Brien, otherwise O’Callaghan. He is aged at least 16 years. He was educated in the school of Stephen O’Halloran in the town of Ennis in the county of Clare and was reading Virgil when he left same.” A separate petition dated 12 November, 1802 states that “he studied Grammar, Corderius, Ovid and part of Virgil.” An entry in the Who’s Who of British M.P.s reads:- “4 North St., Westminster, London; 20 Summerhill, Dublin; Birchfield, Ennistymon. Son of Henry O’Brien, Esq. of Birchfield, Co. Clare by Helen, daughter of Donough O’Callaghan, Esq. of Kilgorey, Co. Clare. Born at Birchfield 1782. Married 1816, Margaret, daughter of Peter Long of Waterford and relict of James O’Brien of Limerick. A solicitor in Ireland from 1811, a magistrate for Clare, a Liberal in favour of the Repeal of the Union with Ireland, tenants rights and vote by ballot. Sat for Clare from 1832 to 1847 when he was an unsuccessful candidate. Regained seat July 1852. Retired 1857. Died 1857.” It appears that Henry O’Brien was the son of Kate McDonough, daughter of Nicholas of Birchfield by her marriage with an O’Brien of Toonagh. Concerning Edward, born 1779, eldest son and heir of Henry O’Brien, the Biographical Succession List of Glendalough Diocese by Canon B. Leslie, D. Lit. (copyright Representative Church Body) states:- Son of Henry O’Brien, gen., born in Co. Clare; educated by Rev. M. Fitzgerald; entered Trinity College as Sizar June 5, 1798 aged 19. Scholar 1805, B.A. 1806. He was curate of Hollywood (Glendalough diocese) c.1825. A daughter, Mary, married John Lysaght of Ballyvorda. They had two sons, Andrew and Henry. Their daughter, Mary, married Michael Finucane of Ballymacooda House, Ennis. Another son, George died in 1867 in Clare, Ireland. 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.

Political Career: This short article allows only a very condensed account of O’Brien’s political life which extended from Catholic Emancipation to the Great Famine and a decade beyond. He seems to appear suddenly on the scene in 1832, but must have been well established as a politican before this, since he was chairman of the committee which selected Daniel O’Connell as candidate for the famous Clare Election of 1828.

The Clare Journal of December 10th, 1832 carried O’Briens address to the people of the county. Part of it reads:- If I had seen any other person of liberal and independent principles disposed to rescue you from being made the instruments of those who triumphantly boast that they can nominate your representative and control your suffrage by undue influence and bribery, I should have remained in the unobtrusive privacy of professional life, content with giving support and assistance to any candidate who would be entitled to your unbiased suffrage. I come forward as one of yourselves and solicit the honour of your support uninfluenced by any consideration except that of promoting the interests of our common country.

A supplementary address clarifies his stand on Repeal pledging him to the advocacy of that great measure. His nomination was seconded rather half-heartedly by Tom Steele. A letter in the Stacpoole-Kenny papers in the National Library, gives a hint of the in-fighting which must have accompanied the battle for the two seats. Richard Scott of Dublin writes to Capt. John McNamara of Moher that Daniel O’Connell must keep his promise and that of O’Brien must be stopped at all costs in the interests of the Major (W.J. McNamara, the other Liberal.)

All went well, however, and the Major was elected with 920 votes followed by O’Brien with 897. They were also returned in 1835, 1837 and 1841 with only a few votes between them. The election of 1847 provided an upset for Cornelius. Sir Lucius O’Brien headed the poll followed by Major MacNamara. It was a bitterly fought campaign in many ways reminiscent of present-day elections. Accusations of corruption were flung about and in a blazing row at Kilkee Assizes, Mr. Collins, a young Kerry attorney, accused Charles O’Connell, barrister, of Castlepark House, Liscannor, of switching his support from Cornelius O’Brien to Sir Lucius for a bribe of six hundred pounds. Cornelius came back strongly in 1852 and headed the poll in 1853, his last election.

As a parliamentarian, O’Brien does not seem to have been in the mould of Burke or Grattan. His best work was done at constituency level and we search Hansard in vain for examples of his oratory. In extenuation, we must remember that Daniel O’Connell was in full spate at this time and it must have been hard to get a work in.

Lord Palmerston’s verdict was:- "O’Brien was the best Irish M.P. we ever had. He didn’t open his mouth in twenty years." *Note: In 1821 he owned 17 slaves. Cornelius was born about 1782. Cornelius O'Brien ... He passed away about 1857. [2]

No more info is currently available for Cornelius O'Brien. Can you add to his biography?


  • A Chorographical Description of West Or H-Iar Connaught, Written A.D. 1684
  2. Entered by Joe Fitzgerald, Feb 28, 2012

More Genealogy Tools

Sponsored by MyHeritage

Searching for someone else?
First: Last:

No known carriers of Cornelius's Y-chromosome or his mother's mitochondrial DNA have taken yDNA or mtDNA tests and no close relatives have taken a 23andMe, AncestryDNA, or Family Tree DNA "Family Finder" test.

Have you taken a DNA test for genealogy? If so, login to add it. If not, see our friends at Family Tree DNA.

  • Login to edit this profile.
  • Public Comments: Login to post. (Best for messages specifically directed to those editing this profile. Limit 20 per day.)
  • Public Q&A: These will appear above and in the Genealogist-to-Genealogist (G2G) Forum. (Best for anything directed to the wider genealogy community.)

On 12 May 2015 at 22:12 GMT J (Fitzgerald) F wrote:

Cornelius O’Brien, a benevolent local landlord, was the first to formally recognise the cliffs as a tourist destination. Samuel Lewis reported in 1833 that O’Brien was erecting ‘an ornamental building in the castellated style . . . for the accommodation of visiters [sic] to this bold and iron-bound coast, from which is obtained a magnificent view embracing nearly the whole line of coast from Loop Head to the northern extremity of the bay of Galway, together with the Arran Isles [sic] and a vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean . . .’. In order to make the cliffs accessible, safe and attractive, O’Brien also built stables and an iron picnic table for the convenience of visitors, whom he frequently entertained at Birchfield, his nearby estate. His only surviving son, George, continued his father’s hospitality to strangers.

Cornelius O’Brien (c. 1782–1857) was born around 1782 at Birchfield, Liscannor, Co. Clare, the third son of Henry O’Brien of Birchfield and Ennis. He was educated by Stephen O’Halloran in Ennis, entered the King’s Inns, Dublin, in the Hilary term of 1803, and graduated as an attorney in the Easter term of 1808. He was a proctor, solicitor and magistrate for County Clare, with a business address in Dublin. Throughout his career, however, his primary place of residence was his estate at Birchfield. O’Brien was elected MP for County Clare on 1 December 1832, but he was clearly involved in local politics before this date. He was a member of the committee that selected Daniel O’Connell to run in the 1828 election. His own politics were liberal, pro-Repeal and pro-secret ballot and tenants’ rights. He held his seat in Westminster from 1832 to 1857, losing only once, in 1847. Advancing age and ill health forced his retirement from parliament in March 1857, two months before his death on 30 May 1857. Apart from his estate at Birchfield in the townland of Beaghy (Kilmacrehy), Cornelius O’Brien’s holdings in Clare were extensive. In 1829 the Birchfield estate was valued at £50, and his role as an improving, resident landlord is an important aspect of the man. The Griffith Valuation in 1855 showed that he held 9,679 acres, spread across seventeen parishes and 36 townlands of County Clare, and had 275 tenants. Jonathan Binns, assistant agricultural commissioner in 1837, noted the great number of whitewashed and comfortable cottages scattered over the O’Brien estate, an indication of the care and attention of the owner. O’Brien sometimes provided his tenants with a car to bring in lime from Doolin, and in times of need he supplied the poor with wool and potatoes in lieu of labour.

O’Brien’s Tower, the Cliffs of Moher’s first ‘visitor centre’, described by Samuel Lewis in 1833 as ‘an ornamental building in the castellated style’. (Perry McIntyre) O’Brien’s Tower, the Cliffs of Moher’s first ‘visitor centre’, described by Samuel Lewis in 1833 as ‘an ornamental building in the castellated style’. (Perry McIntyre)

O’Brien’s care of his tenants continued through the Famine, with some evidence that he waived rent. In an angry debate at a meeting of the Liscannor famine relief committee, George Westropp, agent for Dean Stacpoole, accused O’Brien of favouring his own tenants in the allocation of relief work. O’Brien replied that if Westropp had the slightest compassion in such a year he would not have taken rent from his poor tenants and would have told them to take back their money and buy some bread with it. It is unlikely that O’Brien would have made such a statement if he himself was charging rent. Harriet Martineau visited Clare in the wake of the Famine in September 1852. As she travelled from Galway along the coastal route to Clare, she described scenes of utter desolation until she came to the whitewashed dwellings of O’Brien’s tenants. She was not the only contemporary observer to note him as a kind landlord. His care and expenditure in making the Cliffs of Moher accessible, safe and attractive to visitors made him popular among his tenants, who were given employment when little else was available. Cornelius O’Brien engaged in numerous building projects, beginning with the construction of Birchfield House before 1816, the year he married Margaret Long. His next project was the relocation and upgrading of St Bridget’s Well at Kilmacrehy from higher up the hillside to its present location beside the road. Here he erected the well-house and rustic seating for his tenants. He then turned his attention to the dangerous ford across the river between Lahinch and Liscannor, where in 1833 he facilitated the building of a fine stone bridge of three arches, known as O’Brien’s Bridge, which remains to this day. In 1845 he built a boys’ and girls’ national school beside the main road to St Bridget’s Well. He also erected a little Gothic structure over the nearby Reliever’s Well. Cornelius O’Brien was on many committees and was chairman of the Ennistymon Poor Law Union from its formation on 25 August 1839. The workhouse opened in September 1842 and, along with five auxiliary workhouses, by 1853 provided accommodation for 3,618 inmates. The minutes reveal that O’Brien was very active in the weekly meetings and on the subcommittees that worked to improve roads, to house people evicted by their landlords during the Famine, and to obtain suitable contracts for the supply of a variety of needs for the workhouses, including additional accommodation. There are no known portraits of Cornelius O’Brien, but two monuments other than O’Brien’s Tower remain to memorialise a man who has been overshadowed by the more powerful Thomond O’Brien families, particularly Lucius and William Smith O’Brien (leader of the rebellion of 1848). In mid-October 1854 the first meeting of a testimonial committee took place in Ennis at the office of the Clare Journal and Ennis Advertiser. Sir Colman O’Loghlen QC presided, and there was a unanimous decision to erect a testimonial as a mark of appreciation for the successful efforts of Cornelius O’Brien of Birchfield to improve the condition of the middle and lower classes in his neighbourhood, including encouraging their education. Mention was also made of the accommodation he afforded to all classes visiting the Cliffs of Moher and surrounding scenery. There was much debate about the form of the testimonial, and by the time a sketch of the proposed monument appeared in the press in November 1855 donations amounted to more than £400. The sketch shows O’Brien on top of a column similar in style to Daniel O’Connell’s in Ennis or Nelson’s in Dublin’s Sackville Street and London’s Trafalgar Square. Despite the inscribed date (14 October 1853) it was not completed until after his death, and was certainly not built by him as self-aggrandisement, as is often wrongly claimed. The other remaining monument to Cornelius O’Brien is his family plot in the nearby cemetery above St Bridget’s Well. It was built for his son, John Cornelius O’Brien, a lieutenant in the 22nd Regiment Native Infantry, who died at Secunderabad, India, on 28 December 1856, aged 26. Five months later Cornelius himself died and was buried in the family mausoleum. Ten years later his other son, George O’Brien, was also laid to rest there. Thus 1867 saw the end of the O’Brien association with Birchfield House, which today lies in ruins. The stables and the iron picnic table are long gone from the Cliffs of Moher, but the astute visitor can still see the local testaments to Cornelius O’Brien. His visitors’ tower and the magnificent view that these cliffs have long offered to the casual visitor remain to remind us of Cornelius O’Brien 150 years after his death.

O  >  O'Brien  >  Cornelius O'Brien MP