O'Brien, George Augustine Thomas (1892–1973), economic historian and economist, was born 26 January 1892 in Dublin, only child of Richard O'Brien (d. 1906), hotelier, by his second marriage, to Mary (née Dowse) (d. 1946), a native of Co. Wicklow. His father, a self-made businessman who owned and managed the Wicklow Hotel, off Grafton St., had three adult children (two sons and a daughter) from his first marriage. After living in the hotel until 1904, George moved with his parents to 8 Marine Ter., Dún Laoghaire, and later moved with his widowed mother to 40 Northumberland Rd, Dublin (c.1912). He was educated at the Catholic University School, Dublin (1900–04), and at St George's College, Weybridge, Surrey (1904–08). Returning to Ireland, he attended Belvedere College for two years (1908–10), where he passed matriculation and first arts, before entering UCD for his second year in 1910. He took his arts degree in the legal and political science group with first-class honours and first place in political economy (1912). As a law student at the King's Inns (1910–13), he won the junior Victoria prize (1912), and the senior Victoria and Brooke prizes (1913), a ‘hat trick’ achieved only once before.
Called to the bar in 1913, he began practice on the Leinster circuit. His legal career was a short one. In the case of Mackay v J. H. Monks (Preston) Ltd, he acted for the father of a dock labourer killed on 27 March 1914 while unloading coal from a ship at Waterford. Mackay senior sought compensation for the loss of the subvention that his son had made to his maintenance. O'Brien pleaded the case in Waterford, before the king's bench in Dublin (which dismissed the action, holding that the relevant regulations were ultra vires), and before the court of appeal (which upheld the dismissal). Though these decisions were reversed by the house of lords (October 1916), the pressure of pursuing the case, almost single-handedly at some stages, led to a failure of O'Brien's confidence in his own judgement and capacity, and precipitated a severe breakdown. Suffering extreme anxiety, and crippled psychologically by a profound sense of failure, he travelled twice to Glasgow in 1917 to receive treatment for nervous disorder, and decided in January 1918 to abandon the bar.
Sustained by a private income (his family owned the Wicklow Hotel until 1932), he pursued the idea of equipping himself to seek an academic appointment, and began writing an MA thesis in political economy which soon outgrew its intended purpose. Published as The economic history of Ireland in the eighteenth century (1918), it secured for him the degree of D.Litt. from the NUI, conferred in 1919. He followed with two companion volumes on Irish economic history, treating the seventeenth century (1919), and the period from the union to the great famine (1921). Though the three volumes became recognised as standard, O'Brien always minimised their importance, because he had not based his research exclusively on primary sources. He also published essays on medieval economic teaching (1920), and on the economic effects of the reformation (1923), both of which were important contributions to the history of economic thought.
Through membership of the United Arts Club, O'Brien met the major Irish-based literary figures of the day, and became a close associate of Horace Plunkett (qv). He joined the Irish Reconstruction Association and the Irish Dominion League, both founded by Plunkett in 1919, and was assistant editor of the first series of the latter body's organ, the Irish Statesman (1919–20). Consulted on the drafting of the constitution of the Irish Free State, he made a significant contribution to its text. He served as government representative on the board of the Abbey Theatre (1925–6), but clashed with his colleagues over the extent of revisions that were desirable before staging ‘The plough and the stars’ by Sean O'Casey (qv). He was appointed to several government commissions of inquiry into economic matters: the commission on agriculture (1922), the fiscal inquiry committee (1923), the economic committee (1928), the de-rating commission (1930), and the commission on banking, currency, and credit (1934–8). He defended the economic policies of the Cumann na nGaedheal governments of the 1920s, upholding free trade and urging intensification of a livestock-based agriculture, and rejecting industrial protectionism and conversion to tillage agriculture. Such views, he maintained, were founded on an acceptance of the fundamental facts of Irish geography and history, rather than a chimerical desire to charm them away.
O'Brien was appointed professor of national economics in UCD in 1926, to which the chair of political economy was added in 1931; he held the combined post until his retirement in 1961. A dedicated teacher, he made a deep impression on students, whose instruction he regarded as his first concern as an academic, over and above his own research. He was elected dean of UCD's faculty of commerce (1951), and was co-opted to the college's governing body (1953), and to the NUI senate. On his retirement, an endowed lecture covering the fields of economics, law, and administration, was established in his honour. Elected MRIA in 1920, he served on the academy's council (1924–7, 1936–7, 1941–5, 1947–50), and twice as RIA vice-president (1944–5, 1949–50). A member of the RDS from 1925, he served as the society's vice-president. Elected president of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland (1942–6), he read several important papers to the society, most notably his presidential address ‘Economic relativity’ (1942), in which he defended traditional methods of economic inquiry against the increasing reliance on statistical approaches. He represented the NUI as an independent member of Seanad Éireann (1948–65), making notable contributions to debates on economic policy. He was a member in 1952 of the first executive committee of the Irish Management Institute, served as vice-president of the Institute of Public Administration (1957–68), and chaired the executive committee of the Economic and Social Research Institute from its foundation in 1960 until his death. A trustee from 1934 of the NLI, he chaired the board of trustees (1967–73). He was awarded an honorary Litt.D. by TCD, and was a member of Pontificia Accademia degli Arcadi. He was a board member of several commercial enterprises, including Guinness's, Ryan's Tourist Holdings, the Ashtown Tin Box Co., Phoenix Estates, and the publishers Clonmore and Reynolds.
O'Brien was regarded as the leading Irish economist of his time. While his economic thinking was founded firmly on the tradition of nineteenth-century liberalism, he remained abreast of contemporary trends, and modified certain of his views under their influence; he lectured to his UCD courses on Keynes's General theory of employment, interest, and money (1936), immediately after its publication, before the first scholarly reviews appeared. He invited Keynes to deliver the inaugural Finlay lecture at UCD (1933), thereby initiating a permanent friendship. At heart he remained a lawyer, and often referred to the study of economic theories as his ‘brief’. He achieved international distinction in 1942 when he discovered a packet of letters written by David Ricardo to James Mill, which had been deposited in a box containing correspondence between John Stuart Mill and J. E. Cairnes (qv), which had been found in the latter's former house in Raheny, Co. Dublin. The Ricardo letters were used by Piero Sraffa in his complete edition of the great economist's works, and O'Brien published an account of the discovery in Economica (November 1943).
Among his major writings, Notes on the theory of profit (1929) was an original contribution to economic theory, argued with succinct and perceptive logic, and inspired much work by others. As a therapeutic diversion during another breakdown he wrote The four green fields (1936); he argued that the partition question was insoluble (owing largely to the intransigence of the unionist ascendancy), but must not deter either the reestablishment of friendly relations with Great Britain, or the pursuit of economic prosperity in the Free State. In his last book, The phantom of plenty (1948), he maintained that the unprecedented economic progress initiated in the nineteenth century was both exceptional and unduly costly in terms of resources, and thereby queried the assumption that economic growth could continue indefinitely. The theme was unfashionable at the time, but foreshadowed by some twenty-five years the argument of The limits to growth, commissioned by the Club of Rome. O'Brien was a frequent contributor to Studies, and published prolifically in other scholarly journals in Ireland and abroad. He was an editorial consultant to Irish Banking Review from its inception in 1957.
Nervous breakdowns recurred cyclically at twenty-year intervals; he expected and feared them, but always recovered. Unmarried, he lived many years with his mother and an invalid maiden aunt; the household moved in the early 1930s to 3 Burlington Rd, his home until his death. He found refuge from the emotional inadequacies of his domestic life by membership of many clubs, of which his favourite was the Royal Irish Yacht Club. While socially shy, and uneasy in company, he enjoyed lively conversation over a small dinner table. His extreme nervousness gave rise to numerous phobias and eccentricities. For his last fifty-six years he never left Ireland, and rarely ventured beyond the close environs of Dublin. Invalided after suffering a heart attack in February 1973, he died 31 December 1973 in Baggot St. hospital, Dublin.