O'Brien, Frances Marcella (‘Attie ’) (1840–83), poet and novelist, was born 24 June 1840 near Ennis, Co. Clare, second youngest among three sons and two daughters of William O'Brien, farmer, from Co. Clare, and Marcella O'Brien (née Burke-Browne) of Newgrove, Co. Clare. Her mother died during her early childhood, and her father married secondly a Miss Taylor of Mulpit, Co. Galway. Financial hardship compelled the family to emigrate to New York (1849), but the debilitating asthma that marred Attie's life precluded her from accompanying them, and she remained behind with her mother's relatives. Though poor health also prevented her from receiving a formal education, she read widely and sought intellectual guidance from both her aunt and the parish priest. She was befriended by T. D. Sullivan (qv) and Fr Matthew Russell (qv); the latter, editor of the Irish Monthly, published her poetry and fiction, originally under the initials ‘A. O'B.’, and then under her familial name, ‘Attie O'Brien’. Her first notable appearance in print was her poem ‘Probatica’, which featured in the Irish Monthly in 1877. The following year, six more of her poems appeared there.
Her personal journals reveal her to be self-deprecating about her contribution to literature, and disclose that she wrote mainly to alleviate boredom and earn a little money. Four novels serialised in the Irish Monthly and the Weekly Freeman were later published as books, three of them posthumously. The monk's prophecy (1882) and The Carradassan family (1897) are romantic comedies that emphasise the respectability of catholic society in Victorian Ireland. In contrast, Won by worth (1891) and Through the dark night (1897) both reveal her growing nationalist fervour, through the themes of agrarian violence in the former, and British colonial oppression, both political and cultural, in the latter. Her work also featured in the Nation, Young Ireland, and Tinsley's Magazine. Although she attributed her failure to break into the British market to the reluctance of editors there to publish material of specifically catholic interest, within her Irish catholic audience she sometimes encountered opposition from conservative elements ruffled by her efforts to address contemporary issues in terms relevant to younger readers. Fragile health discouraged O'Brien from marrying, though once she was engaged. A fervently pious catholic, she devoted much time to charitable activity, especially with inmates of a workhouse near her home. She was taken ill with severe asthma during a month-long visit to Dublin, and died there on 5 April 1883. Her remains were returned to Killadysert (Kildysart), Co. Clare, where she had spent most of her adult life. Glimpses of a hidden life: memories of Attie O'Brien (1887), compiled by Mrs M. J. O'Connell, offers a selective and sentimentalised account of her life.