Irish-Canadian Margaret O’Brien Newfoundland’s most bereaved mother – who lost four sons during World War II, writes Con McGrath in his Role of the Irish in WWII Series


Margaret O’Brien died on June 18, 1963, with a heavy heart. Between December 1940 and October 1942, four of her sons who had served during the Second World War were killed. To add to the tragedy, her husband, Maurice, died a short time after news arrived of the third son’s death. Granddaughter Cathy Breen states that people always say her grandfather died of a broken heart.

Mrs. O’Brien knew how three of her sons died, but there was little information about the fourth, James. She was told only that James was “lost at sea” after the ship he was on was attacked.

Recent research shows that he survived two at-sea attacks in the spring of 1942, and made it to land in Murmansk, Russia, where he later died in hospital from injuries, and was buried there.

Breen says while knowing James had a final resting place may have brought some comfort to her grandmother, the depth of the overall tragedy meant her grandmother was never the same, and lived the rest of her life in mourning.
“As children, we always wondered why she never smiled. We didn’t know why until we grew up a bit and found out the details of all this.”

Margaret and her husband Maurice O’Brien, after marrying in 1900, lived in an area known as Rocky Hills in Outer Cove. They had three daughters and nine sons. One son, however, died before his eighth birthday.
In 1928, the family moved to Signal Hill Road in St. John’s, where some members of Margaret’s family were already living, and so Maurice could be closer to a new job with the municipal council.

Upon the start of the Second World War, six O’Brien boys signed up to serve.

Maurice Jr., David and Denis served in the Royal Navy, and Michael joined the Royal Merchant Navy. (Michael, who had moved to Boston at the age of 20, to work as a fisherman, was married with two daughters.)
James O’Brien, who had moved to Boston in 1930, signed a U.S. draft card and was assigned to the merchant ship SS Ballot.
Jack, (father of Cathy Breen and Margie Osmond), was a member of the Newfoundland Militia.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own