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Eris Michael O'Brien (1895–1974)

by Elizabeth Johnston

This article was published:

Eris Michael O'Brien (1895-1974), Catholic archbishop and Australian historian, was born on 29 September 1895 at Condobolin, New South Wales, eldest of three children of Terence O'Brien, a native-born police constable, and his Irish-born wife Bertha, née Conroy. Terence became a publican and a Sydney Municipal Council alderman. His son was baptized Erisford (allegedly after the racehorse, Eridsforde) Norman and called Eris; the adopted second name Michael was both his confirmation name and that of the saint whose feast fell on his birthday. In 1901 the family settled in Sydney. Eris attended primary schools at Camperdown and Chatswood, then studied at St Aloysius' College, Milsons Point.

After training at St Columba's Seminary, Springwood, and St Patrick's College, Manly, O'Brien was ordained priest on 30 November 1918. His parish work in Sydney was to take him to Haymarket (1918-21 and 1929-31), Waterloo (1922), Rose Bay (1922-24), Hurstville (1927-29) and Bankstown (1931-34). He lectured in Australian history at his old colleges (St Patrick's in 1921 and St Columba's in 1924-27), and published The Life and Letters of Archpriest John Joseph Therry (Sydney, 1922, also titled The Foundation of Catholicism in Australia). The Dawn of Catholicism in Australia, the story of Fr Jeremiah O'Flynn, appeared in 1928. Both books were well received. Today they are considered uncritical. O'Brien also published The Hostage: A Miracle Play (1928).

Among his archdiocesan appointments, O'Brien was editor (1931-32) of the Catholic School Paper. In 1934 he was granted leave to attend the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium (Ph.D., 1936), and the National University of Ireland, Dublin (M.A., 1936). His aims were to study a topic in social science and political economy, and—at the request of the New South Wales bishops—to collect sources for a biography of Cardinal Patrick Moran. O'Brien's thesis, published as The Foundation of Australia (1786-1800) (London, 1937), established his academic reputation. A Sydney edition (1950) was used as a text in Australian universities. He worked on his biography of Moran for many years, but never completed it.

O'Brien returned to Sydney in 1936. Taking up parish duties at Bankstown and later at Neutral Bay (1938-48), he also held the post of diocesan director (1937-40) of Catholic Action, the lay social apostolate. At (Sir) Stephen Roberts's invitation, he lectured part time in Australian history (1947-48) at the University of Sydney; Dr Bert Evatt asked him to give courses at the Australian School of Pacific Administration. On 6 April 1948 O'Brien was consecrated auxiliary bishop to Cardinal (Sir) Norman Gilroy. O'Brien was a member of the Australian delegation to the third session (1948) of the United Nations General Assembly in Paris and to the fifth session (1950) at Lake Success, New York State, United States of America. Evatt presided at the third session and arranged for him to sit on the committee dealing with human rights. O'Brien enjoyed Paris, but not Lake Success where he was at odds with the rest of the Australian delegation over the issue of Jerusalem.

In January 1951 O'Brien was made an auxiliary archbishop in the archdiocese of Sydney. On 16 November 1953 he was appointed archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn. He was enthroned twice on 28 December, first at the cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, Goulburn, and later at St Christopher's Pro-Cathedral, Canberra. In 1955 he moved to Canberra and designated St Christopher's co-cathedral for the archdiocese. During his term the number of Catholic parishes in the Australian Capital Territory increased from one to ten, placing strain on finances and personnel.

After lobbying for assistance, O'Brien accepted the Federal government's offer in 1956 to subsidize interest on money borrowed to build or extend church secondary schools in the A.C.T. Pressures on the New South Wales Catholic school system led to the 'Goulburn School Strike' in 1962, during which O'Brien's auxiliary bishop John Cullinane and a lay committee closed Catholic schools in that city. O'Brien publicly gave his support, emphasizing the right of Catholics to take action as private citizens. Privately he wavered. The schools reopened after five days, but the incident accelerated action to provide state aid for all church schools.

With Gilroy, O'Brien travelled to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in 1955. He was an active member of the Social Science Research Council of Australia, the council of Canberra University College, and the Canberra and District Historical Society. In 1957 he was appointed C.M.G. O'Brien had been elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical and the Royal Historical societies, London, in 1935 and of the Royal Australian Historical Society in 1949. He composed church music, translated French, co-founded (1940) the Australian Catholic Historical Society and participated in the Second Vatican Council.

Increasing mental and physical frailty obliged O'Brien to resign his see in 1967. Shifting to Sydney, he lived at St Patrick's College, Manly, and later with his sister Beryl at Crows Nest. He died on 28 February 1974 at the St John of God Hospital, Richmond, and was buried in the crypt of St Christopher's Cathedral, Canberra. Archbishop Guilford Young of Hobart wrote of O'Brien's achievements: 'When we, as a Catholic community, did not have any standing in the world of scholarship . . . you made the break through . . . You showed . . . that the Australian priest valued culture and was not a mere pragmatist'.

Select Bibliography

  • J. N. Cullinane, Goulburn School 'Strike' (Canb, 1989)
  • Historical Studies, vol 17, no 66, April 1976, p 129
  • O'Brien papers (Catholic Institute of Sydney Library)
  • Sydney Archdiocesan Archives
  • Archdiocese of Hobart Archives
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Elizabeth Johnston, 'O'Brien, Eris Michael (1895–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 5 March 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 September, 1895
Condobolin, New South Wales, Australia


28 February, 1974 (aged 78)
Richmond, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.