The Saga of Seattle’s
‘Bit of the Ould Sod’

The Marble Headstone over the O'Brien grave in Lot 79 of the St. Joseph Section of Seattle's Calvary Cemetery.
In 1862, Terence O'Brien from Co. Tipperary and his wife Maria from Co. Clare, sailed with their young family for more than four months around Cape Horn en route to the Pacific Northwest. When Maria took seriously ill on board ship, she extracted a promise from Terence that on her death she would be buried “on Irish soil.” Maria died on November 17, 1862, aged 33, shortly before the ship reached Vancouver, British Columbia.

When the ship docked, Terence set about keeping his promise to his wife. However, rather than sending her remains back to Ireland, he had a load of Irish soil shipped from Ireland around Cape Horn and he buried his wife in the Irish soil at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s burial ground in Esquimalt, near Victoria.

In 1868, Terence moved his family to the White River Valley area south of Seattle where he started farming. The area’s name was later officially changed to O’Brien, so named for Terence and his brother Morgan O’Brien. When Terence died on April 11, 1888, his son Terence junior buried his father in Holy Cross Cemetery on Seattle’s Capitol Hill (located where Seattle Prep High School is today). Terence junior also arranged to have his mother’s remains, including the grave’s Irish soil, moved from Victoria to Seattle and re-buried his mother in the Irish soil next to his father in Holy Cross Cemetery. He also paid $1,400 to have a 10-ft tall marble headstone erected.

In the 1890s, because Holy Cross Cemetery had been located on a geologically unsuitable site, the Diocese of Seattle started the process of moving all the buried remains from Holy Cross to Seattle’s Calvary Cemetery. However, Terence O’Brien Jr. refused to have his mother’s remains moved again. He even camped out with his rifle at Holy Cross Cemetery to make sure that nobody would touch his parents’ graves.

Seattle Bishop Edward O’Dea, whose parents were also Irish immigrants, went down to Holy Cross Cemetery and reasoned with O’Brien who finally agreed to permit the transfer of his parents’ bodies to Calvary Cemetery on condition that the Irish soil, along with the $1,400 monument, were also transferred to Calvary. In November 1898, the bodies of Terence Sr. and Maria, along with their small part of Ireland and the marble headstone, were finally moved to Lot 79 of the St. Joseph Section of Calvary Cemetery where they remain today, Seattle’s genuine “bit of the ould sod”.