Kate O'Brien (novelist)

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Kate O'Brien
Nancy and Kate O’Brien
Nancy and Kate O’Brien
BornKathleen Mary Louise O'Brien
(1897-12-03)3 December 1897
Limerick City, Ireland
Died13 August 1974(1974-08-13) (aged 76)
Canterbury, England, UK
OccupationNovelist and playwright

Kate O'Brien (3 December 1897 – 13 August 1974) was an Irish novelist and playwright.


Kathleen Mary Louise "Kate" O'Brien was born in Limerick City in 1897. Following the death of her mother when she was five, she became a boarder at Laurel Hill Convent. She graduated in English and French from the newly established University College, Dublin, and she then moved to London, where she worked as a teacher for a year.[1]

In 1922–23, she worked as a governess in the Basque Country, in the north of Spain, where she began to write fiction.[2] Upon her return to England, Kate O'Brien worked at the Manchester Guardian.[3] After the success of her play Distinguished Villa in 1926, she took to full-time writing and was awarded both the 1931 James Tait Black Prize and the Hawthornden Prize for her debut novel Without My Cloak. Kate O'Brien is best known for her 1934 novel The Ante-Room, her 1941 novel The Land of Spices, and the 1946 novel That Lady.[4]

Many of her books deal with issues of female agency and sexuality in ways that were new and radical at the time. Her 1936 novel, Mary Lavelle, was banned in Ireland and Spain, while The Land of Spices was banned in Ireland upon publication.[5] In addition to novels, she wrote plays, film scripts, short stories, essays, copious journalism, two biographical studies, and two very personal travelogues. Throughout her life, O'Brien felt a particular affinity with Spain—while her experiences in the Basque Country inspired Mary Lavelle, she also wrote a life of the Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila, and she used the relationship between the Spanish king Philip II and Maria de Mendoza to write the anti-fascist novel That Lady.[6]

O'Brien wrote a political travelogue, Farewell Spain, to gather support for the leftist cause in the Spanish Civil War, and it has been argued that she was close to anarchism in the 1930s.[2] A feminist, her novels promoted gender equality and were mostly protagonised by young women yearning for independence. Kate O'Brien's determination to encourage a greater understanding of sexual diversity — several of her books include positive gay/lesbian characters —, make her a pioneer in queer literary representation.[7] She was very critical of conservatism in Ireland, and by spearheading a challenge to the Irish Censorship Act, she helped bring to an end the cultural restrictions of the 1930s and 40s in the country.[8] She lived much of her life in England and died in Faversham, near Canterbury, in 1974.[4]


The Glucksman Library at the University of Limerick holds an important collection of O'Brien's writings.[4]

In August 2005, Penguin reissued her final novel, As Music and Splendour (1958), which had been out of print for decades.

The Limerick Literary Festival in honour of Kate O’Brien (formerly the Kate O'Brien Weekend), takes place in Limerick every year, attracting academic and non-academic audiences.[9]

In the classic film Brief Encounter (1945), the co-protagonist Laura (Celia Johnson) says she has reserved "the new Kate O'Brien" at her local Boots library,[10] which prepares the audience for the moral dilemmas that the character is about to face. This offers a good example of how popular Kate O'Brien was in the 1940s, before falling into obscurity for decades, only to be 'rediscovered' as a key writer in the 1980s.

In the 1930s one of the notorious members of Ferguson's Gang adopted the pseudonym 'Kate O'Brien the Nark' in tribute to Kate.[11]


  • Without My Cloak (1931) – (winner of the James Tait Black Prize and Hawthornden Prize))
  • The Ante-Room (1934)
  • Mary Lavelle (1936) (adapted as the 1998 film Talk of Angels)
  • Pray for the Wanderer (1938)
  • The Land of Spices (1941)
  • The Last of Summer (1943)
  • That Lady (1946) (later a 1949 Broadway show and a 1955 movie)
  • The Flower of May (1953) - (winner of the Book of the Year award, by the Women Writers Association in Ireland)
  • As Music and Splendour (1958)
  • Constancy (two chapters of an unfinished novel were published in 1972)


  • Distinguished Villa: A Play in Three Acts (1926)
  • Gloria Gish (play, n.d., archive of the National Library of Ireland)
  • The Anteroom (adaptation of her novel)
  • That Lady: A Romantic Drama (adaptation of her novel, 1949)

Film scripts[edit]

  • Mary Magdalen (n.d., one version at the archive of the National Library of Ireland)
  • A Broken Song (n.d., Kate O'Brien Papers at University of Limerick)

Life writing[edit]

  • Teresa of Avila (biography, 1951)
  • Presentation Parlour (biography, 1963)
  • English Diaries and Journals (literary criticism, 1943)
  • Kate O'Brien: Self-Portrait (documentary for RTÉ television, broadcast 28 March 1962; script by Kate O'Brien)

Travel writing[edit]

  • Farewell Spain (political travelogue, 1937)* Dublin and Cork (photographic book with text by O'Brien, 1961)
  • My Ireland (travelogue, 1962)


  • Long Distance (column for The Irish Times newspaper, 1967–71)
  • book reviews (see E.Walshe's Ordinary People Dancing for Listings)

Critical studies on O'Brien[edit]

  • John Jordan (editor): Special issue on Kate O'Brien, Stony Thursday Book, vol. 7, 1981
  • Lorna Reynolds: Kate O'Brien: A Literary Portrait (1987)
  • John Logan (editor): With Warmest Love: Lectures for Kate O'Brien 1984–93. (1994)
  • Adele M. Dalsimer: Kate O'Brien: A Critical Study (1990)
  • Éibhear Walshe (editor): Ordinary People Dancing: Essays on Kate O'Brien (1993)
  • Éibhear Walshe: Kate O'Brien: A Writing Life (2006)
  • Mary Coll (editor): Faithful Companions: Collected Essays Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Kate O'Brien Weekend. (2009)
  • Aintzane L. Mentxaka: Kate O'Brien and the Fiction of Identity (2011)
  • Aintzane L. Mentxaka: The Postcolonial Traveller: Kate O'Brien and the Basques (2016)
  • Jane Davison: Kate O'Brien and Spanish Literary Culture (2017)

Critical essays on O'Brien[edit]

  • Joan Ryan: "Class and Creed in the Novels of Kate O'Brien" in M. Harmon (editor): The Irish Writer and the City (1984)
  • Lorna Reynolds: "The Image of Spain in the Novels of Kate O'Brien" in W. Zack and H Kosok (editors): National Images and Stereotypes (1988)
  • Emma Donoghue. "'Out of Order': Kate O'Brien's Lesbian Fictions". in Ordinary People Dancing: Essays on Kate O'Brien. Eibhear Walshe ed. Cork: Cork University Press, 1993, pp. 36–59.
  • Anne C. Fogarty: "The Ear of the Other: Dissident Voices in Kate O'Brien's As Music and Splendor and Mary Dorcey's A Noise From the Woodshed" in Éibhear Walshe (editor): Sex, Nation and Dissent in Irish Writing (1997)
  • Gerardine Meaney. “Territory and Transgression – History, Nationality and Sexuality in Kate O’Brien’s Fiction.” Irish Journal of Feminist Studies. Col. 2, issue 2 (December 1997): 77–92.
  • Eamon Maher: "Love and the Loss of Faith in the Novels of Kate O'Brien" in Crosscurrents and Confluences (2000)
  • Angela Ryan:"'A Franco-Irish Solution?' Francois Mauriac, Kate O' Brien and the Catholic Intellectual Novel". in France and Ireland: Anatomy of a Relationship. Ed E. Maher and G. Neville. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2004: 97–109.
  • Sharon Tighe-Mooney. “Sexuality and Religion in Kate O’Brien’s Novels”. Essays in Irish Literary Criticism: Gender, Sexuality, and Corporeality. Deirdre Quinn and Sharon Tighe-Mooney eds. Lewinston, Queenston, and Lampeter: Edwin Mellen, 2008, pp. 125–140.
  • Aintzane L. Mentxaka. "La Belle – Kate O’Brien and Female Beauty". in Women, Social and Cultural Change in Twentieth Century Ireland: Dissenting Voices?. Sarah O’Connor and Christopher C. Shepard eds. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars’ Press, 2008, pp. 183– 198.
  • Aintzane L. Mentxaka. "A 'Catholic Agnostic' – Kate O’Brien”. in Breaking the Mould: Literary Representations of Irish Catholicism. Eamon Maher and Eugene O’Brien eds. Peter Lang, 2011. 87–104* Aintzane L. Mentxaka. "Politics and Feminism: The Basque Contexts of Kate O’Brien’s Mary Lavelle". in Irish University Review, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2009): 65–75.
  • Emma Donoghue. "Embraces of Love". in Faithful Companions: Collected Essays Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of The Kate O'Brien Weekend. Mary Coll ed. Limerick: Mellick Press, 2009, pp. 16–31.
  • Aintzane L. Mentxaka: “Film Into Novel: Kate O’Brien’s Modernist use of Film Techniques”. in Viewpoints: Theoretical Perspectives on Irish Visual Texts. Clare Bracken and Emma Radley eds. Cork: Cork University Press, 2013, pp. 124–36.

Film adaptations[edit]

  • That Lady (1955) starring Olivia de Havilland, Gilbert Roland, and Paul Scofield
  • Last of Summer (TV, 1977)
  • Talk of Angels (1998) starring Polly Walker, Vincent Perez, Franco Nero, Frances McDormand, Ruth McCabe and Penélope Cruz

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ E. Walshe, Kate O'Brien: A Writing Life (Cork UP, 2006)
  2. ^ a b A.L. Mentxaka, Kate O'Brien and the Fiction of Identity (McFarland, 2011)
  3. ^ E. Walshe. Kate O'Brien: A Writing Life (Cork UP, 2006)
  4. ^ a b c Legge, Charles (25 August 2008). "Answers To Correspondents". The Daily Mail. London.
  5. ^ http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2010/1218/1224285785943.html
  6. ^ "St Teresa would back Madrid". Review by H S Skeffington of Farewell to Spain. Irish Democrat. 16 October 1937. Retrieved 26 September 2015.
  7. ^ E. Donoghue. "'Out of Order': Kate O'Brien's Lesbian Fictions". in Ordinary People Dancing: Essays on Kate O'Brien. Eibhear Walshe ed. Cork: Cork University Press, 1993, pp. 36–59.
  8. ^ Fischerova, Jana. “The Writer and the Censor: Czechoslovakia and Ireland; the case of Kate O’Brien and Frank O’Connor.” Unpublished paper. CAIS conference, Maynooth, 24 June 2005.
  9. ^ "Limerick Literary Festival in honour of Kate O'Brien". Archived from the original on 27 September 2015. Retrieved 26 September 2015.
  10. ^ Dugan, page 170; Snoek-Brown, Jennifer, 'A brief encounter with a librarian', Reel Librarians (2011)
  11. ^ Hutton-North, Anna (2013). Ferguson's Gang – The Maidens behind the Masks. Lulu Inc. ISBN 978-1-291-48453-3.

External links[edit]