O'Brien, Richard Baptist (1809–85), catholic priest, social and political activist, and novelist, was born 30 September 1809 at Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary. He was educated locally and began to study for the priesthood at St Patrick's College, Carlow, in 1832 at the age of 23. The next year, however, he transferred to St Patrick's College, Maynooth. He was ordained for the diocese of Limerick in 1838. R. B. O'Brien, as he was generally known, volunteered for service in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and arrived there late in 1839. He spent the next six years teaching at St Mary's College, then a small diocesan seminary, where he came in for criticism for his involvement in local politics.
Returning to Ireland in 1845, O'Brien took up a position teaching English and French at All Hallows College, a Dublin seminary founded in 1842 to provide Irish priests for dioceses in missionary areas, especially within the British empire. In 1847 O'Brien was appointed curate at St Mary's parish, Limerick. In May 1848 he founded the Catholic Young Men's Society, which provided lectures, reading rooms, and libraries on the model of the protestant Young Men's Christian Association, founded in 1844. The organisation enjoyed widespread success and spread to Britain.
O'Brien spent some time in Rome in 1852–3, where he was deeply influenced by the prevalent ultramontanism of Pope Pius IX. As far as domestic Irish politics was concerned, though, he always reserved the right to take a politically independent line from the Irish bishops. He returned to Ireland in 1853 to spend five more years on the staff of All Hallows College before being appointed parish priest of Kilfinane and Ardpatrick. In 1862 he was transferred to Newcastle West and in 1866 additionally became dean of the chapter and vicar general of the diocese of Limerick.
In 1866 O'Brien resigned from the presidency of the CYMS so that he could become more actively involved in politics. This move resulted in his ‘Limerick declaration’ of December 1867, a petition of Limerick priests in favour of what was later generally to become known as home rule. O'Brien's political influence was largely dissipated, though, after the 1874 general election when he supported a candidate of dubious nationalist commitment over an undoubted nationalist with Fenian connections.
O'Brien wrote for several of James Duffy's (qv) magazines and for the Nation and the Irish Monthly. He published three novels which attempt to graft, mostly unsuccessfully, the theme of ultramontane catholicism's conflict with protestantism and modern agnosticism on to the more standard plots of Irish land conflict and its resolution. In Ailey Moore (1856) a well-off young catholic is falsely accused of the murder of a landlord. Jack Hazlitt (1875) combines ocean-going adventure, and even piracy, in the Americas with a cautionary tale of the deleterious effects of a non-religious education. In The D'Altons of Crag (1882), a servant is accused of murder by a member of the gentry who wants to disguise his own plot to murder his rich uncle. The novel's stated theme of the relationship between priests and people never really materialises. In spite of the limitations of his fiction O'Brien's interest in the conflict between catholicism and the modern world makes him at least an interesting forerunner of that more successful priest-novelist, P. A. Sheehan (qv). After three years of failing health, he died on 10 February 1885.