Eris O'Brien: Historian and Scholar

By Johnston, Elizabeth | Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, Annual 2003 | Go to article overview

Eris O'Brien: Historian and Scholar


Johnston, Elizabeth, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society


In Cassocks in the Wilderness, an account by Chris Geraghty of his time as a junior seminarian at St Columba's College in Springwood, the author reflects on the portraits of 'episcopal old boys' in a corridor at St Columba's:

   I used to smile at the photograph of Archbishop Eris O'Brien as I
   processed slowly down the passage to chapel. In the photograph, he
   appeared educated, with a heavy book open in front of him. He looked
   so urbane, sophisticated and very handsome. Eris had been my parish
   priest at Neutral Bay from my earliest memories. I had served at his
   mass often in the parish church, on occasions reminding him when he
   lost concentration and omitted the words of consecration, or began
   all over again when he was supposed to be rattling through the last
   gospel. He was always late for the second weekday mass at 7.15 am
   officially, but no one complained. We knew he used to stay up late,
   reading, preparing lectures in Australian History for students at
   Sydney University, poring over historical sources from the days of
   Father Therry and the establishment of the Catholic Church in
   Australia. All Neutral Bay loved this man who later became a bishop,
   then archbishop. He was not typical of the Sydney clergy who in
   general were muscular, practical, tougher, working-class men. He had
   no faults we could see. From primary school, my life was influenced
   by and modelled on him. As I sauntered by, I would glance with
   respect, sometimes feeling homesick just looking at his portrait.
  (1)

In his long and distinguished life and career, Eris O'Brien is remembered by many people, for many things. He was a parish priest and an archbishop, a professional historian and academic, an amateur poet, dramatist and composer, a confidant of diplomats and prime ministers and a publican's son, only two generations removed from illiteracy. Truly, in the words of the Melbourne Advocate, a 'brilliant many-sided Australian priest'. (2)

In an article of this length, it would not be possible to do justice to the full breadth and depth of O'Brien's achievements. Instead, what I wish to do is give an outline of his work as a scholar and historian, looking briefly at his early years as they contributed to his education and first steps in his scholarly, field, and his subsequent intellectual flowering that produced his greatest scholarly achievements.

What is perhaps surprising, for a scholar of his later accomplishment, is that Eris O'Brien came from a decidedly un-academic background. O'Brien's paternal grandparents--Thomas O'Brien and Alan Kelly--were Irish Catholic emigrants, at the bottom of the colonial hierarchy. Married in April 1852, at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, they signed the marriage register with a cross, both presumably unable to read or write (not unusual for the times). Thomas and Ann settled in the Marulan district near Goulburn and had at least ten children. One of these, Terence, was bona in 1865.

It is said that the Catholic Irish settlers in Australia wanted one of the three 'Ps' for their sons--that they be priests, policemen or publicans. I don't know what careers the rest of the O'Brien children followed, but it seems fitting that Terence became a policeman, and later a publican, and his older son Eris became a priest.

Eris was born in Condobolin, NSW on 29 September, 1895, the feast of St Michael. Though christened Erisford Norman, his confirmation name was Michael, and he came to be called Eris Michael O'Brien. (3) In 1907 the family moved to the Sydney suburb of Chatswood, where Terence was appointed senior constable. Eris attended St Aloysius' College at Milson's Point, starting in the commercial stream but rapidly moving to the academic. He was academically very able, and tended to share prizes with Cyril Ritchard, the future Australian actor. In 1913 he began as a junior seminarian at St Columba's in Springwood, and was ordained from St Patrick's College Manly in 1918.

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