Maurice, Michael, James and David O'Brien were lost in one two-year period, from 1940 to 1942
Growing up in a tiny house with their family in St. John’s, sisters Cathy Breen and Margie Osmond could never figure out why their grandmother always looked so glum.
“You never ever saw her smile,” Breen said about her father’s mother, Margaret O’Brien (nee Hickey).
“I remember being told not to make any noise because Nanny wasn’t feeling very well.”
“She lived with us,” Osmond added, “and now and then, she’d call us into her room to say the rosary and always had her prayer beads, but we weren’t allowed to bother her. She always seemed so sad.”
As children, they never knew why she was so unhappy.
It was only in later years that they realized what their grandmother was going through.
“Nanny was Newfoundland’s most bereaved mother."
Margaret O’Brien was a woman in mourning, having lost four of her sons in the Second World War, all within the span of two years.
Maurice Jr., 19, named after his father, was the first to lose his life, on Dec. 2, 1940, while serving in the Royal Navy on the HMS Forfar. Four months later, on April 19, 1941, Michael, 28, a member of the Merchant Navy, was lost at sea while serving on the merchant ship Easterlea. A year later, in July 1942, news arrived of the death of her 30-year-old son, James, who died while also serving in the Merchant Navy. On Oct. 5 of that year, David, 26, a member of the Canadian Navy, was lost at sea on the HMCS Frisky.
Two other brothers — Jack (Breen and Osmond’s father), a member of the Newfoundland Militia, and Denis (Dinn), who served in the Royal Navy — were honourably discharged.
“Nanny was Newfoundland’s most bereaved mother,” Breen said.
There were also two other brothers in the O’Brien family – William and Patrick — as well as three daughters, Mary, Bridget (Bride) and Perpetua (Pet).
“Dad was so quiet,” Osmond said. “He didn’t like to talk about any of it.”
“I can never remember Dad mentioning anything about the death of his four brothers,” Breen added. “And the same with Nanny.
“The first inclination we had of any of this was when Dad took Nanny, his mother, to the war memorial every year.”
As mothers, Breen and Osmond can empathize with their grandmother.
“When the O’Brien memorial was placed (there), I found myself trying to imagine the unspeakable pain and heartache that my grandmother must have suffered for the rest of her life from that tragedy,” said Breen, adding that Margaret’s husband, their grandfather, Maurice O’Brien Sr., also died in 1942.
“I have four sons of my own and I can’t even begin to imagine losing one of them, let alone four.”
Their grandmother was a National Silver Cross Mother, an honour bestowed by the Royal Canadian Legion as a memento of personal loss and sacrifice on the part of widows and mothers of Canadian sailors, aviators and soldiers who died for their country during the war.
Margaret died in 1963 and their father, Jack, died in 1994. Whatever information the grandchildren had about the four O’Brien brothers, they heard from their mother, Mary (nee Finn), who died in 2003.
Remembering their sacrifice has always been important for Breen, Osmond, their sister, Joni Snow, and other members of their family.
In 1980, the four O’Brien brothers were commemorated with a memorial park at the corner of Signal Hill Road and Battery Road, on the site where their family home once stood. The official opening ceremony on Aug. 4 of that year was attended by government officials, including then-mayor Dorothy Wyatt, along with Jack Dinn, who was president of the Battery Neighbourhood Improvement Program committee at the time and spurred the efforts to have the park built. Several residents and family members were also in attendance.
“That’s Mom and Dad and Dad’s sisters at the opening ceremonies there,” Osmond said, pointing to one of the black and white photos scattered with Telegram newspaper clippings on the dining room table at Breen’s house earlier this week.
They say residents and tourists pass the park frequently, but many don't know what and who it commemorates. Breen, Osmond and Snow visit the site every year on Remembrance Day to lay a wreath.
The family is disappointed the brothers aren’t recognized with a wreath at the annual official Remembrance Day ceremony at the War Memorial in St. John’s
“It feels like they’ve been forgotten,” Breen said.
“Not a lot of people know about these men, but they gave so much. We just want people to remember the sacrifice they made during the war years.”
However, they’re glad many still do remember the brothers and their sacrifice.
There’s also a memorial grotto at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Logy Bay-Middle Cove-Outer Cove, where the O’Brien brothers lived.
Breen and Snow also have framed photo displays of the brothers and their parents. Snow’s includes the brothers’ medals.
“We’re just really proud (to be their descendants),” Osmond said of her four uncles.
Breen’s son, Peter Breen, found a permanent way to pay tribute to his great-uncles. Two years ago, he got a large tattoo on his left arm, on which is inked the O’Brien brothers’ names, their dates of death, large red poppies and four crosses.
“People are nice to wear their poppies in November (for Remembrance Day), but I thought, why just November?” he said, proudly displaying the colourful body art. “It’s something I always wanted, especially with our family ties.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation of the official Remembrance Day ceremony in St. John’s, the family is asking that people, in their private memorials, remember the O’Brien brothers.
“Not a lot of people know about these men, but they gave so much,” Breen said. “We just want people to remember the sacrifice they made during the war years.”
They believe if their grandmother was alive today, that’s what would make her smile.
Rosie Mullaley is a reporter in St. John’s.