O'Brien, Kate (1897–1974)

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O'Brien, Kate (1897–1974)

Irish writer. Born Catherine O'Brien in Limerick, Ireland, on December 3, 1897; died in Canterbury, England, on August 13, 1974; daughter of Thomas O'Brien (a horse dealer) and Catherine (Thornhill) O'Brien; educated at Laurel Hill Convent and University College Dublin; B.A. in modern literature, 1919; married Gustaaf Renier (a Dutch journalist), on May 17, 1923 (divorced 1925).


Hawthornden Prize (1932).

Kate O'Brien was born in 1897 into a prosperous, middle-class family in Limerick, Ireland. The family's prosperity was new, and traumatic memories of the Great Famine of the 1840s still lingered among her older relatives. Five of her novels deal with the period from the Famine to the Second World War, from the arrival of her grandparents in Limerick, escaping an impoverished countryside, to the time when her own links with the city were diminishing. Her mother died in 1903, and later that year she went as a boarder to Laurel Hill, a local convent school. Although the school curriculum stressed "ladylike" accomplishments, it also emphasized the new educational opportunities opening up for women. O'Brien's time at the school was happy and this was reflected in the positive portrayals of women religious in her novels. (Two of her maternal aunts were also nuns in another Limerick convent.)

In My Ireland (1963), Kate O'Brien wrote that Limerick was where she started "to view the world and to develop the necessary passion by which to judge it. It was there indeed that I learnt the world and I know that wherever I am, it is still from Limerick that I look out and make my surmises." Limerick, fictionally disguised as Mellick, appears in five of her nine novels: Without My Cloak (1931), The Ante-Room (1933), Pray for the Wanderer (1938), The Land of Spices (1941), and The Last of Summer (1943). The Mellick novels reflect O'Brien's own personal odyssey. In the first two she explores the lives of the Considine and Mulqueen families and particularly their women, who are constrained by the demands of their wealthy, patriarchal families in late Victorian Ireland. Pray for the Wanderer had a contemporary setting, and aspects of O'Brien are evident in the leading character Matt Costelloe, a writer paying a rare visit to his family in Ireland, disillusioned with the new Ireland which has banned his books. Two of O'Brien's novels were banned under Irish censorship legislation: Mary Lavelle (1936) and The Land of Spices (1941), the latter because of a single sentence referring to homosexuality. Her friend and biographer Lorna Reynolds has written that O'Brien's heroines "are in search of two absolutes, freedom and love, and … the freedom to love, not just to succeed in the marriage market but to be able to offer themselves to another human being in the freedom of choice." In Mary Lavelle, the heroine offers herself to her married lover and in doing so takes responsibility for her own life.

O'Brien's father died in 1916, and later that year she won a scholarship to University College Dublin, where she studied modern literature. After obtaining her degree in 1919, she went to England and worked in journalism and teaching. In 1922, she journeyed to the United States on a political mission with her brother-in-law. She married the Dutch journalist Gustaaf Renier in 1923, but the marriage lasted less than a year; they were divorced in 1925. O'Brien went to Spain for ten months, working as a governess for a family in Bilbao. She drew on these experiences for her novel Mary Lavelle and wrote about Spain, which she visited frequently in the 1920s and 1930s, with great insight and affection. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, her Republican sympathies were evident in her book Farewell Spain (1937), which Spanish critics praised for its accuracy and which was an elegy for the Spain she loved. Because of her anti-Franco comments, she was banned from Spain for 20 years. Her most financially successful book was That Lady (1946), a novel based on the life of the 16th-century princess of Eboli, Ana de Mendoza , an independent woman who refused to let her life be dictated by Philip II of Spain. That Lady was made into a Hollywood film in 1955 with Olivia de Havilland in the title role. In 1951, O'Brien published the biography of another remarkable Spanish woman, St. Teresa of Avila , whom she admired for her independence and dynamism.

O'Brien worked in London for the British Ministry of Information during World War II. After the armistice, the success of That Lady gave her financial security, and in 1950 she returned to Ireland where she lived in the picturesque village of Roundstone near Galway. She was allowed to return to Spain in 1957 and visited it again two years before her death, when she was the guest of the Irish seminar at the University of Valladolid. However, her books were less successful in the 1950s, and royalties began to dry up. In 1960, O'Brien moved back to England and supported herself by journalism and travel writing. Her last years were dark: she talked of the horrors of growing old and was depressed at the neglect of her books. When she died in 1974, few of her books were in print. Kate O'Brien was dismissed as a romantic novelist, in part because she wrote about a feminine, provincial world. In 1979, the Irish poet Eavan Boland , who with others felt that O'Brien was not sufficiently honored in her lifetime, approached O'Brien's executors on behalf of the Irish publishers Arlen House for permission to reprint some of her novels. Over the following decade, most of O'Brien's work was reprinted by Arlen House and by Virago, the London women's press. This prompted major reassessments of her work and her importance as an early Irish feminist writer.


Logan, John. ed. With Warmest Love: Lectures for Kate O'Brien 1984–93. Limerick: Mellick Press, 1994.

Reynolds, Lorna. Kate O'Brien: A Literary Portrait. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1987.

Walshe, Eibhear, ed. Ordinary People Dancing: Essays on Kate O'Brien. Cork: Cork University Press, 1993.

Deirdre McMahon , lecturer in history at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland

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