O’BEIRNE, EUGENE FRANCIS (known as Mr O’B), adventurer and schoolmaster; b. c. 1809–11 at Newtown Forbes, County Longford (Republic of Ireland), sixth son of John O’Beirne, a farmer, and his wife Claire; d. sometime after 1864.
Eugene Francis O’Beirne was educated at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, County Kildare, about 1826–30, but was expelled before graduation and ordination to the priesthood. In 1834 he enrolled in Trinity College, Dublin, but he gave much time to two pamphlets attacking St Patrick’s. Then from 1836 to 1839 he toured England giving anti-Catholic lectures and again attacking his old college. In 1842 he was admitted to St John’s College, Cambridge, and the next year transferred to Clare College. He did not take a degree. After these years his career until he arrived in Canada is obscure, and the details he gave later to Viscount Milton [Wentworth-Fitzwilliam*] and Walter Butler Cheadle have not been confirmed or refuted. It is certain that he arrived in Louisiana in the late 1850s, moved north after the outbreak of the Civil War, and unsuccessfully sought ordination in Minnesota in 1861 in the Episcopal Church, or a teaching position. In September of that year he arrived in the Red River Settlement with vague plans for starting a private school. Joseph James Hargrave* provides a lengthy account of him here.
In 1862 O’Beirne joined one of the parties of the “Overlanders” on their way to the Cariboo gold-fields [see Thomas McMicking]. His querulous disposition, insobriety, and abuse of hospitality by then were well known, and were experienced anew by the “Overlanders,” who refused to take him beyond Fort Carleton. The Hudson’s Bay Company gave him transport farther west, and he spent the winter of 1862–63 with the pioneer Methodist missionaries Thomas Woolsey and John Chantler McDougall* in the North Saskatchewan valley east of Edmonton. McDougall brought O’Beirne to Fort Edmonton in March 1863.
When Viscount Milton and Dr Cheadle, two venturesome young English travellers on their way overland to the Pacific, arrived at Edmonton in May 1863, O’Beirne was living in a miner’s shack on the riverbank. He importuned them to take him across the mountains, which, against their better judgement, they agreed to do. The party, with horses and native guides, left Fort Edmonton in early June 1863, traversing heavily forested and swampy country, and crossing countless hazardous streams in the mountains. They arrived at Kamloops three months later, ragged and half-starved. O’Beirne had proved to be a helpless, quarrelsome, and uncooperative companion, although possibly his behaviour can be partially explained by the defects of his character and physique, and the fact that he was twice the age of his two hosts.
At Kamloops, Milton and Cheadle gave him supplies and arranged for him to proceed alone to Victoria. They subsequently reported in a later edition of their book, The north-west passage by land (first published in 1865), that O’Beirne had reached Victoria, and that he had gone on to San Francisco, where he boarded a ship to Melbourne, Australia, arriving there in January 1864. He embarked on a career as a tutor, according to Australians who later reported his peripatetic activities to Milton and Cheadle. At this point he disappears from history, and no record of his death exists in official records in Australia. The Canadian government immortalized him in 1918 by giving his name to a peak in the Yellowhead Pass.
So curious a character led some readers of The north-west passage by land to believe that “Mr. O’B” had been invented by the authors to add comic relief to their narrative. But he was in truth a real person, whom the tolerant young authors described somewhat more charitably than did Joseph James
[For details on Eugene Francis O’Beirne’s parentage, education, and career to 1861 see PAC, Tweed papers (MG 30, D159), which include a copy of Thomas Tweed, “Eugene Francis O’Beirne,” an unpublished paper read at the annual meeting of the Canadian Hist. Assoc. in 1968. l.h.t]
E. F. O’Beirne, An impartial view of the internal economy and discipline at Maynooth College . . . (1st and 2nd ed., Dublin, 1835). W. B. Cheadle, Cheadle’s journal of trip across Canada, 1862–1863, ed. A. G. Doughty and Gustave Lanctot (Ottawa, 1931; repr. Edmonton, 1971). J. J. Hargrave, Red River (Montreal, 1871), 199–201, 216–19, 221–29. [William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam] Viscount Milton and W. B. Cheadle, The north-west passage by land; being the narrative of an expedition from the Atlantic to the Pacific . . . by one of the northern passes in the Rocky Mountains (8th ed., London, 1875). J. [C.] McDougall, Forest, lake and prairie; twenty years of frontier life in western Canada, 1842–62 (Toronto, 1895), 250–51; Saddle, sled and snowshoe; pioneering on the Saskatchewan in the sixties (Toronto, 1896), 17–18, 43–50. M. S. Wade, The overlanders of ‘62, ed. John Hosie (Victoria, 1931), 49–50.