Henry O’Brien

1808-1835, b. Co. Kerry, ed. TCD; author of The Round Towers of Ireland (1834), condemned by Petrie and reviewed dismissively by Moore - exciting a defence by “Fr Prout“ (pseud. of Sylvester Mahony, q.v.); also prepared unpublished work on Pyramids. ODNB DIW RAF


  • [Joaquín Lorenzo Villanueva Estengo [1757-1837], Phœnician Ireland ... Translated and illustrated with notes ... and Ptolomey's map made modern, by H. O'Brien (London: Longman 1832), xi, 361 p. ; 8º.[fict. auth.]
  • Joaquín Lorenzo Villanueva, Ibernia Phoenicea. / Phoenician Ireland / Auctore Doctore Joachimo Laurentio Villanueva, [...] Translated, and illustrated with notes, an additional plate, and Ptolemy's map made modern, by Henry O'Brien, Esq. A.B. (London: Longman & Co. Paternoster Row; [...] Dublin: R.M. Timms, Grafton Street; M. Keene & Son, College Green; and F.W. [sic] Wakeman, D'Ollier Street. 1833), xi, [1], xxxii, [3], 36-361, [3]pp., [2] lvs. of pls. (1 fold.): map, facsim.; 8°. [A translation of Ibernia Phoenicea first published in 1831;Robins and Sons, printers, Southwark- - foot of p.361; incls. as an appendix, the original Latin dedication and extracts from the text of Villanueva's work.
  • Phoenician Ireland: Translated and illustrated with notes, plates, and Ptolomey's map of Erin made modern / Henry O'Brien (Dublin : R. M. Timms 1833)
  • The Round Towers of Ireland: or, The history of the tuath-de-danaans [2nd Edn. Morris Library] (London: Parbury and Allen 1834), 2pp. l., 524, [2]pp., ill. [4] lvs. of pls: [22 cm.]; Do. [another edn.] ( London & Calcutta: W. Thacker & Co.; Thacker, Spink & Co. 1898), xcv, 551 p. [22] ill. [lvs. of pls.; port.; 23 cm.; tp. from 1834 edn.; 750 copies only of this edition have been printed - T.p. verso.

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Joseph Leerssen, Remembrance and Imagination: Patterns in the Historical and Literary Representations of Ireland in the Nineteenth Century (Cork UP 1996), chap. on Round Towers, esp. p.131, derogating his unscholarly ‘flair for projecting models and seeing patterns’.

Ethel Mannin, Two Studies in Integrity (London: Jarrolds 1954), ‘Rev. Francis Mahony’, in connection with Mahony’s accounts of Moore’s review of O’Brien’s book. According to Mannin Moore wrote a review of Henry O’Brien’s Round Towers [1834/5], claiming that his theory had already been put forward by the Hon. Reginald Herbert in Nimrod (1826). Father Prout considered this ‘ineffable impudence’ since Herbert’s theory was that they were the towers were fire altars, and went on to express his indignation at the injustice done to his friend’s ‘grand and unparalleled discovery’ and more, ‘But to accuse a writer of plagiarism, he should be himself immaculate; and while he dwells in a glass house, he should not throw stones at a man in a tower’. He then charged Moore with taking songs from troubadours, &c. Returning to O’Brien after a series of mock-translations, he writes, ‘O’Brien’s book can, and will, no doubt, afford much matter for witticism and merriment to the superficial, the unthinking, and the profane; but to the eye of [candour] it ought to have presented a page rightly fraught with wondrous research ... the volume, at least, should not be indicated to the vulgar by the fingers of scorn. Even granting that there were in the books some errors of fancy, of judgement, or of style, which [is] without reproach for our juvenile productions ... must [we] scare away O’Brien because he approaches with a rude and unpolished but serviceable lantern ... I should shudder at the thought of crushing with my foot that dim speck of brilliancy [glow-worm] ... I would not harm the little lamplighter as a passed along in the woodland shade.’ In the obituary of O’Brien which is added to Father Prout’s paper in this issue of Fraser’s, the author declares that his book on Round Towers has through more light on early history of Ireland and of the freemasonry of these gigantic puzzles than will ever shine from the cracked pitchers of the Royal Irish Academy or the farthing candle of Tommy Moore’, and further speaks of ‘malignant hostility’ of Irish Academy twaddlers’ and ‘their paltry transactions in the matter of the prize-essay, &c. [160-164]

Rev. Dr. Healy, [Archb. of Tuam], The Round Towers and Holy Wells of Ireland (Dublin: CTS [1898?]), 28pp.; '[republication of O’Brien’s Essay, 1898 is] ‘not worthy of a serious refutation’, in the style ‘puerile and turgid’, the alleged facts unfounded; quotations inaccurate, &c.

A. P. Graves, Irish Literature and Musical Studies (1913), writes: ‘When George Petrie won the RIA gold medal with his essay, ‘Origin and Uses of the Round Towers,’ with two other papers on the same subject, O’Brien received the second prize of 20, supporting the contention that they were of Danish origin, and was supported by Sir William Bentham in a virulent attack on the council’s decision, which Petrie answered in Illustrations of the Round Towers.’ (p.220f.)

Roger Stalley in Irish Round Towers (Dublin: Country House 2000), notes that in 1832 one Henry O’Brien, who had a theory that they were relics of phallus worship, was awarded 20 by the Royal Irish Academy for his research, or possibly, as Stalley argues, ‘to keep him quiet’ (see Irish Times review, 15 July 2000.)

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John Crone, A Concise Dictionary of Irish Biography (Dublin: Talbot 1928), remarks that he urged a phallic theory of origin, hotly debated.

Brian Cleeve & Anne Brady, A Dictionary of Irish Writers (Dublin: Lilliput 1985) and Dictionary of National Biography note that he ‘attempted to show that [the round towers] were Buddhist remains’.

Patrick Rafroidi, Irish Literature in English, The Romantic Period, 1789-1850 (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1980), Vol. 2; Irish archaeologist and author of The Round Towers of Ireland (London 1833; Dublin 1834); O’Brien accused Thomas Moore of plagiarising him in his History of Ireland, F. S. Mahon[e]y siding with O’Brien.

Belfast Public Library holds J. L. Vilanueva, Phoenician Ireland [1833], trans. with notes, by H. O’Brien (1867) [q.d.].

Hyland Books (Cat. 214) lists The Round Towers of Ireland, or The History of the Tuath-de-Dananns, intro. W.H.C. [new edition] (.e. 1898), xcv+551pp., port, ills.


G. B. Shaw refers to O’Brien’s theory in John Bull’s Other Island (1904): Father Dempsey: “Oh, I thought you did [believe myth about Fin]. D’ye see the top of the Round Tower there? thats an antiquity worth looking at.” Broadbent: “(Deeply interested) have you any theory as to what the Round Towers were for?” Father Dempsey: “(A Little offended) A theory? Me!” (Stage direction: Theories are connected in his mind with the late Prof. Tyndall, and with scientific scepticism generally: also perhaps with the view that the Round Towers are phallic symbols.)

Load of Trollope: Rare copy of Henry O’Brien, Phoenician Ireland (1833), notes and add. pls., with inscription from the author and Anthony Trollope’s bookplate; to be sold by Martin Walsh Books at National Book Fair, Masonic Hall, Molesworth St. Dublin (Irish Times, 24 Aug. 1996, p.17).

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