O'Brien, Dermod (1865–1945), artist, was born 10 June 1865 at Foynes, Co. Limerick, the only son and second among three children of Edward William O'Brien (1837–1909), landowner, JP, DL and high sheriff of Limerick, and his wife, Mary Spring-Rice, an accomplished musician and artist, and daughter of Lord Monteagle. Dermod's grandfather was the Young Irelander William Smith O'Brien (qv). As their mother died in 1868, the O'Brien children were brought up by their aunt Charlotte O'Brien (qv), later a poet and social reformer, until their father's remarriage (1880). Dermod was educated in Temple Grove, East Sheen, Mortlake, Surrey, and at Harrow. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge (1883), but did not graduate.
His father hoped Dermod would join the Foreign Office, but was supportive when he decided to became a painter after a visit to Italy in 1887. That year he enrolled in the art academy in Antwerp under Charles Verlat (1824–90), and there met Walter Osborne (qv), won a silver medal for drawing, and developed a solid academic style. A talented musician, he played in string ensembles in Antwerp. In 1891 he moved to the Académie Julian in Paris, and in 1893 went to London, where he enrolled in the Slade School of Fine Art in 1894. He was seven years in London, living in Cheyne Walk and moving in London literary and artistic circles, but showed only one work at the Royal Academy, a portrait of his friend Leslie Stephen. His return to Ireland (1901) proved opportune. The ‘Irish renaissance’ was under way and he was soon part of the circle of Lady Gregory (qv), the Yeatses, and Hugh Lane (qv). He married (1902) Mabel Emmaline (d. 1942), daughter of Sir Philip Crampton Smyly (qv), and his career took off.
His rise in the RHA was swift: in 1905 he was elected associate, two years later he was appointed full member, and in 1910 he was made president, an office he held for thirty-five years until his death, the longest presidency in the history of the institution. Gregarious, public-spirited, hard-working, and a born committee man, O'Brien did much to further the arts in Dublin. In 1906 he helped organise the first Oireachtas art exhibition; the following year he promoted the formation of the United Arts Club (of which he was president in 1919). A strong supporter of Hugh Lane's efforts to find a gallery for modern art in Dublin, he later campaigned for the return from London of the Lane pictures. Exceptionally generous, he encouraged young painters in the best possible way by buying their work. In 1926 he was appointed to the committee to select designs for the Irish Free State coinage. A strong academician, he saw the RHA as the chief teacher of the fine arts in Ireland and took care to maintain its school, first in rented premises at 6 St Stephen's Green (1916–39) and then in Ely Place. In 1943 he refused the annual government grant of £300, because this had been made conditional on a regular annual inspection, which he saw as interfering with the academy's autonomy.
O'Brien's energies went beyond the art world. A member of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society since 1902, he chaired its meetings with zeal and displayed a good head for figures. After returning in 1908 to live on the family estate of Cahirmoyle, Co. Limerick, he started a dairy farm and took a growing interest in politics. Despite a certain family tradition of nationalism, including his grandfather, his sister who was in the Gaelic League, and his cousin Mary Spring Rice (qv) who helped land guns at Howth, O'Brien adhered to the politics of his class and was originally a unionist, though he came round after 1912 to favour home rule within the empire. He helped organise the Irish conference committee from which came the 1917 Irish convention, and was on the committee of the Irish Dominion League. He was high sheriff of Leitrim in 1917 and in November 1918 thought seriously of putting himself forward as a candidate for the Irish parliamentary party, but was dissuaded by John Dillon (qv). In 1920 he was forced to sell Cahirmoyle to the Oblate Fathers and move to Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin, which he did with little regret, having been prepared for this eventuality since the Wyndham land act of 1903. Cahirmoyle had been a constant financial anxiety.
O'Brien enjoyed wide acclaim as one of the country's foremost artists and was represented at an exhibition of Irish artists in Paris (1922) and at the Royal Society of British Artists (1924, 1925, 1929). In 1936 he was made freeman of the city of Limerick. He was undoubtedly highly talented; his work is technically skilled, delicate, and sincere. However, many critics agree with S. B. Kennedy's assessment that he never realised his potential, possibly because his numerous activities prevented his full development and because he was tradition-bound. The likenesses in his early portraits are good, but they are formal paintings, with a stiffness and reserve that he never quite broke through. From the mid 1920s he concentrated on landscapes. The best of them are small in size, less academic in execution, reminiscent of Constable, and show his deep, pastoral appreciation of nature. From 1924 he took to spending long holidays in the south of France, where he developed impressionistic brushwork. A review in Ireland Today of his 1936 RHA exhibition noted that his landscape paintings were executed more freely, surely, and honestly than ever before. He also excelled at precise, delicate still lifes.
He died 4 October 1945 in Fitzwilliam Square, leaving four children. His works are in the permanent collections of the NGI, Dublin City Gallery. The Hugh Lane, King's Inns, United Arts Club (all in Dublin); Ulster Museum, Belfast; Crawford Municipal Arts Gallery, Cork; City Gallery of Art, Limerick; and County Museum and Art Gallery, Sligo.