O'Brien, Sophie Raffalovich (1860–1960), writer and activist, was born in Odessa on 15 January 1860, daughter of Herman Raffalovich , banker, and his wife, Marie. She had two brothers: André, who became well known as a homosexual aesthete, and Ernest, a banker and tsarist agent. Sophie was particularly close to André and to their governess, Florence Gribbell. When she was aged four the family moved to France to avoid official pressure to abandon Judaism. Herman spent six months of each year in Odessa to supervise his business, while Marie held a successful salon and took an interest in the arts and sciences. (She had a platonic relationship with the physiologist Claude Bernard.) Marie Raffalovich held republican political views and associated with exiled opponents of the Second Empire (Sophie O'Brien, Silhouettes d'dutrefois, 1926). Sophie was fond of her mother but seems to have been slightly overshadowed by her (she was plain and her mother was beautiful). She grew up extremely conscious of her fortunate position and wished to help the poor; in pursuit of this aim she studied political economy and translated lives of Cobden and Lord Shaftesbury. She sometimes acted as hostess at André's literary salon in London (where she met the young Augusta Gregory (qv), whom she found priggish and condescending). From the 1880s she and her mother supported a girls’ school and orphanage in Amiens.
In the late 1880s Sophie and Marie developed an interest in the Irish question, having a particular concern for William O'Brien (qv), whose widely publicised imprisonments during the Plan of Campaign attracted international attention. They corresponded with ‘l'Aiglon’, as O'Brien was known in France, and first met him in Paris on 8 June 1889. He and Sophie became engaged after a brief courtship, in which she took the initiative. To her father's dismay, Sophie converted to catholicism before her marriage. Several of Sophie's maternal relatives had already done the same, and both her brothers eventually followed suit. She later stated that she had been seeking religious certainty for some time previously, and it is clear from her private writings that her conversion was sincere; at the same time she retained a strong consciousness of her Jewish heritage, partly because of attacks from French and Irish anti-Semites. When in 1903 O'Brien broke with the Irish Parliamentary Party over the issue of land purchase, Jasper Tully (qv) developed a conspiracy theory, which presented him as the pawn of Jewish financiers who wished landlords to get good prices for their estates so that they could redeem their debts; at public meetings O'Brien was heckled with cries of ‘Down with the Russian Jewess and her moneybags.’ Much later, when Sophie was living in France semi-clandestinely under the Vichy regime, she refused to adopt a false name, feeling that this amounted to symbolically disowning her parents.
The O'Brien wedding in London on 11 June 1890 was attended by C. S. Parnell (qv); the couple settled in Ireland, but Sophie remained in regular contact with her parents, who came to accept William as a son. In retrospect their marriage assumed tragic significance as the last gathering of the Irish party before the Parnell split later that year, which disrupted many of the O'Briens’ friendships. Sophie was rapidly absorbed into the informal female social networks surrounding the Irish party (for which her writings provide an underused research resource); particularly close friends included Anne Deane (qv) and Henrietta Mitchel Martin. William O'Brien's career was marked with periods of intense activity alternating with physical collapse; Sophie acted as enabler by funding his political activities, copying and preserving his correspondence (his handwriting was notoriously illegible), and ensuring that he took regular meals, dressed warmly, and went on overseas holidays. Her relationship to her husband was as much maternal as spousal. They agreed to live relatively simply and devote as much of their annual income as they could to helping the poor; Sophie kept their accounts.
William left parliament in 1895; he chose bankruptcy rather than pay back to P. A. Chance (qv), the ally of T. M. Healy (qv), the debts he had incurred in connection with the Plan of Campaign, which would have paved the way for further claims against the Raffaloviches and the depleted Dillonite party funds. The O'Briens retired to Mallow Cottage, Westport, Co. Mayo. Here they collaborated on literary work, played at farming (encouraging local farmers to use copper sulphate spray against potato blight), bred St Bernard dogs, and gave financial support to improvements in local fisheries. Their activities at this time are described in Sophie's Under Croagh Patrick (1904), which combines a sentimental view of the local people with a keen awareness of their poverty and remoteness. In 1907 she published a novel, Rosette: a romance of Paris and Dublin.
Sophie worked with nuns in Westport to establish craft industries, and opened Paris markets for lace produced by the local technical school. Her friends included Sister Mary Eustace (Eaton) of the Harold's Cross Hospice for the Dying, who was a close friend of William's; Sophie published a short life of her in 1923, and intended to enter her convent on William's death, but in the event did not do so. On realising that she and her husband were unlikely to have children, Sophie wished to adopt a child (as she recalled in an article in the Irish Weekly Independent); as O'Brien opposed this, on the grounds that the child's antecedents might be undesirable, she then decided to pay for the upbringing of a number of poor girls, who would continue to live with their own families. In later life these wards provided her with significant emotional support.
The O'Briens took an active role in relief work during the near famine in Connacht in 1897–8; subsequently Sophie was the principal financial backer of the nascent United Irish League, which was founded by William to campaign for land redistribution and became the vehicle for the reunion of the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1900. After O'Brien's break with the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1903 she underwrote his political activities in support of his new ‘policy of conciliation’; these were particularly expensive after 1910, when he launched a loss- making daily paper, the Cork Free Press, to support his All-for-Ireland League. In 1912 they moved to Bellevue House, Mallow, Co. Cork. Sophie became active in charitable work there, and was greatly impressed by the dense network of charitable societies and institutions in Munster, compared with the relative sparsity of such organisations in Connacht. She wrote extensively for catholic and nationalist papers throughout her career, including a women's column for the Cork Free Press. Her Unseen friends (1912) is a collection of essays on women whom she admired (mostly nuns and writers). Sophie was deeply concerned with female education and saw women's involvement in local government as an extension of their domestic and charitable role, but she was bitterly opposed to women's suffrage. (Her husband supported it: they agreed to differ.) She appeared on William's platforms (to keep an eye on his health) but never made speeches; when women became eligible for the vote, she refused to put her name on the electoral register.
Sophie's identification with France was heightened by the outbreak of the first world war (her mother refused to leave Paris for most of the conflict) and this influenced William's early and enthusiastic support for the allied cause. Sophie's wealth, already depleted by William's political activities, was virtually wiped out through the loss of Raffalovich family investments in Germany and Russia during the war and the Russian revolution. Over the question of Irish nationalism, Sophie had much less emotional sympathy for Sinn Féin than William; while he saw the party through the prism of his youthful separatist experiences, she regarded its activities as undermining the Allied war effort and endangering France, though, as usual, she followed his general political direction. This difference of opinion extended into the 1920s; William regarded Éamon de Valera (qv) as an idealist, but Sophie thought him an egotist, and she privately wrote of Frank Gallagher (qv), who worked for a time on the Cork Free Press: ‘never had lying been carried to such a fine art’ (NLI, MS 8507(7)).
After William's career ended at the 1918 election the couple retired to Mallow, where they occupied themselves with writing and country walks. Two books of sketches describing her poorer neighbours at this time are In Mallow (1920), which ends with a denunciation of the burning of the town by crown forces, and Around Broom Lane (1931), resented by some Mallow residents as patronising but containing much interesting material. After O’Brien's death on 25 February 1928 Sophie constituted herself the guardian of his memory, a role that served a therapeutic function for her. Several years were spent in classifying and transcribing his papers, writing memoranda for the guidance of his biographer, Michael MacDonagh (qv) – several, edited for discretion, appear in My Irish friends (1937) – and attempting (with mixed success) to publish his work: she edited his early letters to her as Golden memories (2 vols, 1928–9); an extensive commentary, covering their entire life together, remains in manuscript in the NLI. She finally divided his papers between UCC and the NLI. In February 1938 the NUI awarded her a Litt.D.
Realising that Bellevue was too big for her to inhabit alone, and deciding that she was too old to adjust to convent life, in June 1933 Sophie left Mallow and returned to France to live at Eplessier, near Amiens, with the unmarried sisters Fernande and Lucie Guilmart. (The proceeds of the sale of Bellevue went to an Irish goddaughter.) These former pupils of the Amiens school, who had become her close friends during a visit to Ireland in the early 1930s, looked after her for the rest of her life; she spoke of them as ‘the best daughters a childless old woman could have’. When France was invaded by German forces in 1940 she was obliged to escape with the Guilmarts, at one point travelling on a hay cart; they hid in the Pyrenees region but were reduced to near destitution. An attempt in Ireland to raise a collection for her support was stifled by de Valera, who said that the government would provide for her; she received a one-off payment of £150 (which she regarded as outrageously stingy) through the Irish legation in Vichy. Paul O'Dwyer (qv) collected money for her among the New York Irish. Two members of the Raffalovich family (possibly a nephew and a cousin) died in Nazi extermination camps during the war.
After the war she lived with the Guilmart sisters at Neuilly-St Front, near Soissons, in extremely reduced circumstances. Lucie died in 1957; Fernande outlived her. From 1948 she was bedridden, and in her last years her eyesight failed. Feeling old and helpless, she spent much of her time recalling the past and producing occasional articles with the aim of providing a little income and upholding her husband's memory. In her last years she corresponded with information seekers, some of whom became friends (notably Sean Rahilly-Mahony, chairman of the Mallow William O'Brien centenary committee). She died 8 January 1960 at Neuilly, a few days short of her hundredth birthday.
It is possible to present Sophie O'Brien as a victim of her husband's vagaries, but this is to ignore the ways in which her career was shaped by her own agency. Despite the whiff of a folie à deux sometimes detectable in their relationship, it was a genuinely close and loving marriage; the sentimental idiom of much of Sophie's writing should not be allowed to eclipse her genuine intelligence and social concern, and her interest in her neighbours’ well-being was far more intimate than that of a mere patronising Lady Bountiful. Her career provides insights into the workings and limitations of non-feminist female activism in late Victorian and Edwardian Ireland, and some of her contemporary critics display the period's meaner xenophobias.