O'Brien, Kate (1897–1974), novelist, was born Kathleen Mary Louise O'Brien on 3 December 1897 in Limerick city, seventh among ten children of Thomas O'Brien, horse breeder, and Katherine O'Brien (née Thornhill) of Kilfinane, Co. Limerick. Her grandfather was an evicted tenant who established a successful stud farm – when the Empress Elizabeth of Austria came to Ireland, the O'Briens provided her with a horse. Kate's childhood was bourgeois and comfortable, though marred by the death (1903) of her mother. Though only five years old, she was sent to join her sisters as a boarder at Laurel Hill, a Limerick school run by a French order of nuns, the Faithful Companions of Jesus. As the youngest pupil, she was the school pet and was well behaved and intelligent. Two of her mother's sisters were nuns in the Presentation Convent in Limerick and were devoted, exacting aunts; one of them, according to O'Brien, had something of St Teresa of Avila's passionate spirituality. In later life O'Brien prized seriousness, spirituality, and independence in women; these traits she first encountered in the nuns of her childhood, and she drew on her early experiences to produce a number of striking portraits of nuns, as well as a biography of St Teresa. Her early identification with catholic spirituality – one friend remarked that she should have been a reverend mother – meant that though she lapsed in her faith, was radical in her views on sexuality, and could be critical in her writings of the catholic church in Ireland, she maintained respectful sympathy for catholic doctrine and for religious life.
In June 1916 her loving, high-spirited father died, and the family fortunes rapidly declined; by 1918 their large home, Boru House, had been sold. However, Kate (or ‘Kitty’, as she was still known) managed to go to UCD in autumn 1916, possibly through the assistance of her father's friend, Edward O'Dwyer (qv), bishop of Limerick. She won a scholarship in her second year, but had to live frugally. Enjoying the liberty of college life, she worked less hard than at school; her tutor, Austin Clarke (qv) remarked, to her delight, that her essays manifested the outward signs of inward grace, but she was disappointed with her BA second class (1919). In summer 1920 she left for London, having suffered, in quick succession, the death in India of the two brothers closest in age to her. Though she kept in constant contact with her close-knit family, she did not live in Ireland for the next thirty years. After a brief stint in the foreign department of the Manchester Guardian Weekly, she taught at an Ursuline Convent in Hampstead, London. Her looks were so striking that a group of girls developed a cult around her, calling her ‘The Beloved’. One mother raised the matter with the reverend mother, who replied: ‘The truth is that The Beloved is very beautiful’ (Walshe, Kate O'Brien, 13). One of the girls, Mary O'Neill, became a lifelong friend (and probably lover) of O'Brien, and eventually inherited her estate.
After an enjoyable tour of the US in 1922 – accompanying her sister and brother-in-law, Stephen O'Mara (qv), mayor of Limerick, on a fund-raising tour for Michael Collins (qv) – O'Brien left in September 1922 for Spain, to act as a governess to the Areilza family in Bilbao. The country and its people made a profound impression on her; she visited frequently during the early 1930s and it is the setting for two of her novels, her biography of St Teresa, and a travel book, Farewell Spain (1937), which was strongly critical of Franco. Her work was not, as is sometimes suggested, ever banned in Spain, but she did experience difficulties entering the country between 1937 and 1957.
Back in London, O'Brien married (23 May 1923) a Dutch journalist, Gustaaf Renier, whom she had met the previous year. Subsequently author of a popular book, The English – are they human? (1931), Renier was probably bi- or homosexual; O'Brien was lesbian and not domesticated and the marriage only lasted eleven months, though they did not divorce finally until 1937. From this period persists an unverifiable rumour that O'Brien gave birth to a boy who was placed in an orphanage and subsequently adopted by her sister. After leaving her husband O'Brien worked as secretary to a charity, the Sunlight League, but as a result of a wager with an old UCD friend and actress, Veronica Turleigh, she wrote in a month a play, ‘Distinguished villa’, which she later described as ‘young, over-written, very tragic, very kitchen-sink, over-romantic, but had some merit’ (Walshe, ibid., 38). It played in the Aldwych Theatre (2 May 1926) to excellent audiences and mixed reviews. Sean O'Casey (qv) sent her a telegram, ‘Dublin ventures to congratulate Limerick’, but other critics attacked her for setting the play in a petty-bourgeois England of which she knew little. Her looks helped with press coverage – she started to adopt her characteristic attire of smart mannish clothes, short hair, and sometimes a cloak. Always striking in appearance, she was to complain in later life of decline from ‘good looks to a too heavy handsomeness’ (O'Brien, Presentation parlour, 17).
According to her biographer Eibhear Walshe, she began having affairs with women around this time; her first lover was Margaret ‘Stephie’ Stephens, who was ten years older than her and had a daughter. They lived together in Ashurst Bank, where O'Brien wrote two more plays, less successful than her first. Her affair with Stephie lasted a few years and this became the pattern for O'Brien, but she generally remained friends with lovers. It is, however, impossible to state definitively that the women with whom she enjoyed close friendships were lovers; O'Brien was secretive and enigmatic and destroyed much of her correspondence.
In 1927 O'Brien was given an advance to write a novel by the publishers Heinemann, but the book, Without my cloak, did not appear until 1931. She was a slow, painstaking writer who put everything into the first draft, so that very little revising was required. Without my cloak is a family saga, depicting the rise of an Irish family, the Considines, from famine in the mid nineteenth century to affluence two generations later. It benefited from the Galsworthy-inspired vogue for family epics and won the Hawthornden prize, was selected as book of the month by the Book Society, and sold 50,000 copies in its first few months, but it is less assured and more derivative than her later works, though it did introduce her perennial subject matter – the Irish bourgeoisie.
She spent the next eighteen years living either in London or in various rented cottages in the English countryside, where she would retire to finish her novels. Though she had a wide circle of friends, she enjoyed solitude and was peripatetic. These years were her most productive: she was, from 1937, a reviewer for the Spectator, where she was among the first critics to spot the potential of Samuel Beckett (qv), and between 1934 and 1946 she published six novels, four of them remarkable. Her novels followed a pattern – frequently set in the fictional Mellick (recognisably Limerick) in the recent past, the archetypal plot involves a young, beautiful, intellectual, moral girl seeking independence from her bourgeois family, undergoing some kind of a crisis, frequently sexual, finding only transient happiness, and left, at the end, alone but with self-knowledge. Her second novel, The ante-room (1934), was dramatised by John Perry for the Queen's Theatre, London in 1936, but flopped.
Though never sensationalist, O'Brien's treatment of her material was daring and unflinching, and two of her novels, Mary Lavelle (1936) and The land of spices (1941), were banned in Ireland. Mary Lavelle depicted an adulterous relationship between a young Irish girl and a married Spanish man (as well as a declaration of love for the girl from an older Irish lesbian); The land of spices, a close parallel study of the difficulties encountered in the vocation of a nun, Mère Helen Archer, head of an Irish convent, and the coming of age of one of her pupils, Anna Murphy, was banned because of one line: ‘She saw Etienne and her father, in the embrace of love.’ Since the book was austere and intellectual, its banning caused outrage, and when Senator Sir John Keane (qv) tabled a motion in the seanad criticising the Censorship of Publications Board, he cited the ban on The land of spices as an example of the board's absurdity. In 1946 friends persuaded O'Brien to lodge an appeal against the board, which she won. A mother superior from a Limerick convent apparently wrote to O'Brien once asking why her novels were so scandalous; she replied by telegram: ‘Pounds, shillings and pence’. But this story, if true, shows O'Brien's bravado rather than her true motivation; she was serious and passionate about her work, did not compromise to write bestsellers, and was angry when she was censored. Two inferior novels, Pray for the wanderer (1938) and The last of summer (1943), ridiculed the puritanical, self-regarding, insular world that she felt Ireland had become under Éamon de Valera (qv). Never particularly nationalistic, she had enjoyed the instability and revolutionary fervour of Dublin during her college years, and was friendly with her Fermoy cousins who were active in the IRA, but she was well travelled, cosmopolitan, free-thinking, and left-leaning, and saw herself more as a European intellectual than an Irish catholic; the banning of her work compounded her antagonism towards the Free State. She spent all the war years out of Ireland and was critical of neutrality.
Though her novels were generally well received, they did not sell as well as her debut, but she achieved both commercial and critical success with her seventh novel, That lady (1946). Set in sixteenth-century Spain and depicting the real-life figure of an aristocrat, Ana de Mendoza, it was a departure from her ‘Mellick’ novels in subject matter but similar in its theme of female independence. Translated into eight languages, it was a bestseller and finally brought O'Brien some financial stability. Back visiting Ireland after the war, she found the atmosphere more congenial and made friends with younger writers, including John Jordan (qv) and Lorna Reynolds (1911–2003), who persuaded her to invest in property. In 1950 she bought and moved into a house, The Fort, in Roundstone, near Clifden, Co. Galway. She lived there ten years and enjoyed the informal pace of local life and playing chatelaine to her many visitors. But the location was isolated, she missed city living, and she complained that the house was always full of chance acquaintances who prevented her from working. She also had unexpected financial problems since the play of That lady did less well in the US than hoped, and her drinking became a problem. During this period she completed two more novels, The flower of May (1953) and As music for splendour (1958), about two Irish girls working as opera singers in the late 1880s. The latter depicts the only full, consummated lesbian relationship in her fiction, but was perhaps too detailed and crowded to command popular attention.
In 1960 she sold her Roundstone house and divided the next three years between the homes of her sister in Limerick, Lorna Reynolds in Dublin, and Mary O'Neill in London, before settling in a cottage in Boughton, near Faversham in Kent. Her last years were unhappy; she had writer's block which prevented her finishing her last novel, though she did write a memoir of her aunts, Presentation parlour (1963) and contributed a column, ‘Long distance’, to the Irish Times. Her financial situation necessitated her living frugally and denying herself the small luxuries she loved, and her drinking remained a problem. In summer 1974 she was admitted to the Kent and Canterbury hospital suffering from pneumonia; her leg had to be amputated and she did not recover, dying on 13 August 1974. Though lapsed in her faith, she apparently received last rites and was buried in the public cemetery behind the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Faversham. The inscription on her tombstone reads: ‘Pray for the wanderer.’
Her books were mainly out of print and her reputation undistinguished at the time of her death, but revival of interest was rapid. In 1980 the Irish publishers Arlen House began reissuing her novels, and in 1984 the feminist press Virago brought out handsome editions of her best work, with critical introductions by writers and academics. Her omission from the first three-volume Field Day anthology of Irish writing (1990) was a serious oversight but her seminal place in Irish literature has since been made secure; she is the subject of two biographies, numerous essays, and the Kate O'Brien Weekend, held annually in Limerick. The feminist poet Eavan Boland termed her the Irish writer who has meant the most to her, and the writer John McGahern (1935–2006) called her a poet working in prose. Kate O'Brien's papers are in the University of Limerick and the McCormack Special Collection Library of Northwestern University in Illinois.