Michael O’Brien: In honor of Father’s Day, helping my children understand their paternal roots

Their surname brings a rich Irish tradition of royal ties and humanitarian compassion.

My wife, Vicki, has a perfectly wonderful last name (Comeau) with strong French Canadian and European roots that might even include some French royalty. Yet, like most American couples, we gave our three children my last name.

This “patrilineal tradition,” according to a recent New York Times article, arose as a nod to fathers as “the head of the household” and because use of a paternal surname was an expression of “legitimate birth” and of a child’s right of inheritance.

The custom has remained strong even as some of these considerations have faded.

The Times also reported that there is no national data on how many parents give children a surname not derived from the father. A 2023 Pew Research Center study, however, suggests such a practice would be uncommon, given that 80% of women in opposite-sex marriages adopt their husband’s last name.

And so, our children — Erin Kathleen, Megan Mary and Daniel Patrick — each got stuck with the last name of O’Brien. My wife has ensured they know about their fine maternal heritage, but among other fatherly duties, it has been my job to help them understand more about their surname.

This has not been easy. I grew up in the arid deserts and mountains of Latter-day Saint northern Utah, far from my surname’s ancient home in Ireland.

The cultural distance was even greater, for we Utah O’Briens had no family nearby to tell us stories about our Celtic forebears. And, as explained in my 2021 memoir, “Monastery Mornings,” I had a tenuous relationship with my own O’Brien father after my parents divorced.

One way I tried to teach (and learn) about the family name was to take the family to Ireland and Northern Ireland a few years ago, just after Father’s Day. It was more pilgrimage than vacation and so, of course, we paid due homage to the sacred sights of the auld sod.

Our trip to Ireland

(Michael Patrick O'Brien) Danny O’Brien, Erin O’Brien and Megan O’Brien explore the history of their last name at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.

We walked around Dublin, saw the Book of Kells at Trinity College, drank Guinness at the Hairy Lemon pub, strolled through the rocky ruins of St. Kevin’s monastery in Glendalough, and watched the crafting of delicate crystal at the Waterford factory.

We kissed the Blarney Stone, stood on the dock in Cobh, where the Titanic boarded its final passengers (including a few O’Briens) before its doomed 1912 Atlantic crossing, and rode a horse-drawn jaunty cart through a deep green forest near Killarney.

In our spare time, I even won a limerick writing contest.

Ireland also is the only place in the world where we could stay in our ancestral family castle and view spectacular sea cliffs from a stone tower that bears our paternal surname. So we did.

Our patrilineal heritage started with Brian Boru, the high king of Ireland from 1002 to 1014. Today, any O’Brien clan nobility claims reside in an Irish peerage known as the Barony of Inchiquin, granted in 1543 to Murrough O’Brien by King Henry VIII during Henry’s sixth and final marriage.

(Michael Patrick O'Brien) Dromoland Castle, seat of the O’Brien clan, near Limerick, Ireland.

The clan ancestral home is at Dromoland Castle, originally built in the 16th century but with the current structure dating to 1835. In 1962, the Earl of Inchiquin sold it to an American businessman, who converted the property to a five-star hotel.

Some of The Beatles stayed at the castle in 1964, when John Lennon and George Harrison famously dueled with swords on the front lawn. We made it there almost a half-century later.

The O’Brien coat of arms (three medieval lions in resplendent red and gold) was everywhere, pictured in either stone or stained glass, and including the clan motto: “The strong hand from above.” We scoured the castle’s artwork for familiar faces.

I found only one, bearing a slight resemblance to our son, Danny. So much for making ancestral connections.

The Cliffs of Moher, an hour’s drive from the castle in County Clare, are another famous O’Brien place, and not just because the ashes of singer Dusty Springfield (originally Mary O’Brien) were scattered there.

The sandstone cliffs — formed more than 300 million years ago — run for nearly 10 miles along Ireland’s southwestern Atlantic coast and reach sheer heights that top 700 feet. We scaled those heights via O’Brien’s Tower, an old stone edifice a man named Cornelius O’Brien built almost 200 years ago in 1835.

A ‘mixed destiny’

(Megan O'Brien) Mike O’Brien strikes the pose of possible ancestor and Irish nationalist William Smith O’Brien, who was born at Dromoland Castle near Limerick, Ireland.

A landowner, Cornelius O’Brien (1782–1857) was a member of the British Parliament. Our trip tour guide suggested he built the tower to seduce women. My own research, however, indicates that O’Brien had redeeming qualities, too.

During a time when the word “landlord” was a slur in certain circles, O’Brien was respected as a benevolent and fair businessman. He was a lawyer and an early enthusiastic supporter of Daniel O’Connell — called the great Liberator for his advocacy of Catholic rights within the English- and Protestant-ruled Irish homeland.

He built a school and advocated for tenant rights. During the Potato Famine in the middle 1800s, he waived rent payments and brought in food and wool to help his farmers. O’Brien urged his fellow landlords to be compassionate, too, and to tell their tenants to spend money on bread instead of rent.

The locals admired O’Brien enough to erect a monument to him after he died. The tall limestone column honors O’Brien’s humanitarian work as well as his vision of the cliffs as a boon to the economy.

To attract visitors to the spectacular site, and to make the cliffs safe and more accessible, O’Brien built stables, retaining walls, pathways and an iron picnic table. He even hired a piper to entertain the tourists.

Unfortunately, those pipes stopped calling one night when the poor fellow got drunk and tumbled off the cliffs.

We fared a bit better.

We climbed the tower, sober and on a sunny day, and took in the stunning vistas. Afterward, my wife, Vicki, took our preteen son, Danny, back down the stairs. I was about to join them when inspiration hit.

There was not much room on the circular tower top, but there was some, so I jumped on a small step I saw on one side. I asked my daughters to pose for the camera from the other side, with the cliffs behind them.

It was a keen photographic decision. Later, I realized the photo is also metaphorical.

Regardless of their surname, my three children — like the cliffs themselves — will see both bright sunshine and dense fog, soothing calm and fierce storms, rough seas and placid waters. They will feel the euphoria of the tower top and the melancholy of the descent that must follow.

‘Tis a mixed destiny from which no one escapes. Knowing this is both a blessing and a curse for any parent, but especially for an Irish Catholic man who has passed his name on to his children.

An old Irish proverb explains the curse: “You’ve got to do your own growing, no matter how tall your father was.” The Catholic Irish American scholar and former U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it more ominously, “To be Irish is to know that, in the end, the world will break your heart.”

Thankfully, another Irish proverb lends comfort by describing the bounty and blessings of such fatherhood: “Bricks and mortar make a house, but the laughter of children makes a home.”

(Michael Patrick O'Brien) Vicki and Michael O'Brien at Ireland's Dromoland Castle.

Michael Patrick O’Brien is a writer and attorney living in Salt Lake City who often represents The Salt Lake Tribune in legal matters. His book “Monastery Mornings: My Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks,” about growing up with the monks at an old Trappist monastery in Huntsville, was published by Paraclete Press and chosen by the League of Utah Writers as the best nonfiction book in 2022.