Imposters and pretenders
Here is a pastel described by the auctioneer as an anonymous “19th century” portrait of “Charlotte Antoinette Septimanie O’Brien de Chomond”. It is (to judge from the wholly inadequate photograph on the website) a perfectly good late eighteenth century pastel (although I should need a better photograph to confirm the attribution I have in mind), of the duchesse de Praslin. Her death in 1808, inscribed on the back, explains the dating; ignorance of contemporary orthography and of Irish genealogy explains the misreading of Thomond. For she was the daughter of the Earl of Thomond.
Except of course that she wasn’t. Her father was Charles O’Brien, “Viscount Clare”, the cousin of Henry, 8th Earl of Thomond, on whose death in 1741 Charles would have succeeded, had his grandfather not fought on the wrong side at the Battle of the Boyne. Charles in fact was totally French: born at Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1699, he served with distinction in the French service, where he was known as the maréchal comte de Thomond. He was made a chevalier du Saint Esprit, the highest chivalric order in France. His only son died without marrying, so that the titles, already under attainder, became extinct (they could only pass to the male heirs, so the duchesse de Praslin plays no further part in this story). Meanwhile, according to the English, in 1741 the 8th Earl was succeeded by his wife’s nephew, Percy Wyndham, who added the name of O’Brien. When he died, unmarried (according to the British reference books), the title became extinct, although it was later revived as an Irish marquessate for Lord Inchiquin, a distant member of the O’Brien clan.
Except that that wasn’t the version according to a certain Raymond Moulton O’Brien (1905–1977). I came across him as a child, since his wife was our housekeeper. Not you may imagine the most likely occupation for a sovereign princess – nor did I at the time discover the full extent of her husband’s elaborate fantasy, claiming to be Colonel his Highness Raymond Moulton Seán, by the Sovereign Authority of the Roman Pontiff Prince O’Brien of Thomond, also entitled The O’Brien, Prince O’Brien of the Dalcassians of Thomond, Earl and Count of Thomond and Baron of Ibrackan etc. etc.
Apparently he was a member of the Wyndham family, since he claimed descent from a secret marriage of the last Earl – who had no O’Brien blood in him: so even if the putative secret marriage had taken place, and even if Moulton-O’Brien was the direct descendent of such a union, he simply could never have been The O’Brien; the two claims were incompatible. But this technicality was lost on the court in Mexico where he obtained judgement in 1936 recognising his claim, for which he then obtained some form of recognition in Germany, Luxembourg and France. All of this was part of a hugely elaborate, lifetime pursuit, involving a number of ingenious deceptions. He called himself prince on his children’s birth certificates (his son was given the courtesy title of Baron Ibrackan, and a notice of his birth was inserted in the newspapers claiming an Apostolic Blessing), and arranged the registration of the transfer of a castle in Co. Clare – presumably a ruin – to his heir, again with their full titles appearing in official documents.
Next he faked an accusation of slander against him, which permitted him to bring a court case. Mysteriously the two parties agreed to settle, with the Prince being awarded full damages; the purpose of this was then to have the court record the agreed arbitration – whereupon the scheme fell apart, as the Chief Herald spotted the ruse; it seemed that O’Brien was simultaneously plaintiff, defendant and arbitrator. He created a bogus chivalric order (the Most Honourable Dalcassian Order of the Princely House of Thomond, of which of course he was the sovereign grand master), issued postage stamps for the principality of Thomond, claimed that his house in Dublin (a run-down tenement in Charlemont Street) was an embassy (it appeared in Thom’s Directory in 1950 as such) etc.
A photograph of the “Countess of Thomond” (allegedly the former Vassilia Comtesse Guliaris de Zante of Greece) and her husband appeared in a number of American newspapers in October 1936 as they (including the New York Times) printed the completely false story that his claim to the title had been acknowledged by the British royal family, and that he and his wife would attend the coronation of George VI in that capacity.
Claiming sovereignty over Shannon airport, he sent a letter to John Foster Dulles in 1953 offering to permit US air force planes to land there. The newspaper described him as a former floor-sweep and fence tarrer – while the New York papers who had printed the 1936 reports described him as a New York oil man. According to Edward MacLysaght (Changing Times, 1978) “he was eventually confined to St John of Gods, an institution then situated at Stillorgan Castle . . . an address well suited to his dignity.”
O’Brien’s thoroughness has an amusing afterlife: when Googling his name, I found one of the press cuttings acknowledging his claim which had been scanned in with a volume of Cockayne’s peerage, giving it the ultimate endorsement for the many who take their information in “snippets”.
What I find slightly curious today is my complete lack of interest in Mrs O’Brien’s story at the time. My parents explained that we should have sympathy for her burden, having to sew name-tags into her children’s clothes with the titles of Prince and Princess of Thomond, knowing the ridicule they would receive at the schools they couldn’t afford. I shared in the amusement in the postage stamps they had printed (I remember they were a vivid green in colour), but I had only the dimmest notion of what it might mean for the 14th Earl of Thomond to be locked up in a mental hospital. I also had no interest in the genealogical aspects of his claim, involving questions which at the time would have seemed to me quite silly (whatever the answers).
But today my work as an art historian specialising in portraiture involves endless examination of pedigrees and similar documents. Which leads me to the rather disconcerting aspect of this story: were Moulton-O’Brien’s pretensions any more ludicrous than those of the aristocrats whose claims are recognised in the official sources? Was his parallel universe categorically different from that of the maréchal comte de Thomond? In Talleyrand’s mot, it’s only a question of dates. And in the eyes of a Charlus, most aristocrats are no better than the vagabond under the pont d’Iéna. Of course, if Julian Fellowes gets to write the script according to the rules he prefers, the title would be handed over to a chocolate.