O'Brien, Kathleen Cruise (née Sheehy ) (1886–1938), teacher, suffragist, and Irish language enthusiast, was born 24 April 1886 in Loughmore, Co. Tipperary, the youngest in a family of two sons and five daughters (one of whom died in infancy) of David Sheehy (qv), nationalist MP, a native of Broadford, Co. Limerick, and Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Sheehy (née McCoy) (d. 1 January 1918), of Loughill, Co. Limerick. She was baptised Katherine Mary Joseph Sheehy in the church in Loughmore. In the year of her birth, and shortly after her father’s first election to Westminster, the family moved from Loughmore, where her father owned and operated a mill, to Dublin, residing initially on Hollybank Rd, Drumcondra, before living for many years at 2 Belvedere Place. A leading member of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), David Sheehy became a close associate of the anti-Parnellite leader John Dillon (qv). Kathleen’s uncle, Fr Eugene Sheehy (qv), was a prominent nationalist and agrarian activist, the so-called ‘land league priest’. Kathleen attended the Dominican convent school, Eccles St., then finished off her secondary education at a girls’ school in Amiens, France (1906–7), on a year’s exchange with a French student who lived with the Sheehy family in Dublin, and whose daughter, Andrée, would marry Kathleen’s nephew Owen Sheehy Skeffington (qv). She then entered University College, St Stephen’s Green, where she studied Irish. Devoted in a missionary sense to the propagation of the Irish language and Irish culture, upbraiding her parents and their generation for abandoning the national language, she perfected her command of Irish on the Aran islands, Co. Galway.
A founding member of the Irish Women’s Franchise League (Nov. 1908), she was active, along with her sisters Hanna (qv) and Mary, in the militant Young Ireland Branch (YIB) of the United Irish League (the only UIL branch to admit women), serving on the branch executive, and elected vice president (1910). From the latter 1890s, her mother hosted a lively monthly salon in the family home, frequented by the many brilliant friends of the two Sheehy brothers, Richard and Eugene (qv); the four Sheehy sisters, while expected by their parents to select suitable husbands from among the assembled, were also encouraged to shine equally with the young men in disputation, erudition, and wit. One regular frequenter of these ‘second Sundays’ was James Joyce (qv), whose biographer, Richard Ellmann (qv) (following the claim of Joyce’s brother Stanislaus (qv)), suggested Kathleen as the prototype of Miss Ivors, the Irish-language enthusiast of Joyce’s story ‘The dead’; the identification has been disputed by the more recent research of Peter Costello. The most pleasant tempered and biddable of the Sheehy sisters, Kathleen nonetheless possessed a steely inner resolve, prepared to comply on small matters, while holding firm on important issues. She married (7 October 1911) the nationalist journalist Francis Cruise O’Brien (qv), a college friend of her brothers, despite the strenuous opposition of most of her family, who objected to Cruise O’Brien’s religious agnosticism, indifferent career prospects, and stridently expressed politics; the match was defended only by the family’s most redoubtable feminists, Hanna and her husband, Francis Sheehy Skeffington (qv). Residing at 44 Leinster Rd, Rathmines, the couple had one son, Conor Cruise O’Brien (b. 3 November 1917), the noted politician, diplomat, and man of letters. After her marriage, Kathleen taught Irish part-time at Rathmines technical college. As Caitlín Níc Shíothaigh, she wrote an Irish grammar, and a textbook, and in the 1920s developed an Irish-language version of Gregg shorthand. With the extended family divided over support for Britain in the first world war, she dissuaded her husband from making recruiting speeches, on the grounds that a man medically unfit to fight should not urge others to do so. During the fateful year of 1916 she lost all three of her brothers-in-law: Bernard Culhane, husband of her second eldest sister, Margaret, died after a long illness; Francis Sheehy Skeffington, a pacifist and socialist republican, was summarily executed while in British military custody during the Easter rising; and Mary’s husband, Thomas Kettle (qv), a former nationalist MP serving in the British army, was killed at the Somme. Kathleen wrote several plays, one of which, ‘Apartments’, a one-act farce written under the pen name Fand O’Grady, was performed at the Abbey theatre (September 1923). After her husband’s death (December 1927), she suffered straitened financial circumstances, and fell heavily into debt to moneylenders. Now employed full-time at the Rathmines school, she also superintended the annual state examinations in Irish at convent schools in western counties. A practising catholic, she resisted clerical pressure and her own deep psychological anguish, and kept her son Conor in Sandford Park, the liberal protestant school selected by her agnostic husband. Shortly after suffering a stroke, she died in her home on 12 February 1938.