Irish Author, Journalist and Playwright
Born 1897 Died 1974

Katherine O'Brien was born at Boru House in Limerick on the 3rd December 1897, the sixth of nine children of Thomas O'Brien and his wife Catherine, née Thornhill. Her father was a successful horse breeder and the O'Briens were a wealthy Catholic middle-class family, but her mother died from cancer in 1903, and she was sent to board with the nuns at the Laurel Hill Convent in Limerick when she was five years-old. She remained at the convent until the death of her father in June 1916. With money now scarce, her family wanted her to find a nice safe job in a bank, but Kate won herself a scholarship to study at University College, Dublin, where she read English and French.

After graduation she left Ireland to work for the Manchester Guardian as a translator, and then moved to London where she spent six months teaching at St Mary's Convent in Hampstead. In 1922 she went to Spain as a governess to the Areilza family in Bilbao, and afterwards returned to London where she married a Dutch journalist, Gustaaf Johannes Renier, on the 17th May 1923. The marriage failed within a year and she found work as a journalist and reviewer for such periodicals as Time and Tide and The Spectator.

In order to fulfill a bet she made with the actress Veronica Turleigh, she wrote a play, Distinguished Villa, which was produced in London in May 1926. The success of this play led to further work as a journalist and reviewer and also led to her being commissioned to write a novel by the publishers Heinemann, although it was not until 1931 that her first novel Without my Cloak finally appeared. Sometimes described as an Irish Forsyte Saga, this novel told the story of a family of Catholic shopkeepers living in a fictionalised version of Limerick, known as Mellick over three generations and addressed the theme (as did most of her subsequent novels) of the struggle for personal freedom against the strictures of both Irish middle class society and the Roman Catholic Church. It won both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Hawthornden Prize and inspired a sequel, The Ante-Room (1934).

Both these novels were far more popular in Britain than they were in Ireland, where many disapproved of her critical attitude towards Irish society. In 1936 her novel Mary Lavelle, whose protagonist was a young Irish woman working abroad in Spain as a governess, attracted the attention of the Irish Censorship Board who banned the book for its references to extra-martial sex. A similar fate befell the Land of Spices, the story of another young Irish woman and her experiences living in convent between the years 1904 and 1914, which was again banned in Ireland thanks to one sentence that alluded to the existence of homosexuality. Kate also found herself in trouble with the Spanish government thanks to the criticisms of General Franco contained in her 1937 work Farewell Spain, and she was barred from entering Spain for the next twenty years as a result.

Her greatest commercial success was her 1946 work That Lady, an historical novel set in sixteenth-century Spain, which she later adapted into a play which was produced with some success on Boradway in 1949 with Katherine Cornell playing the title role and was later made into a film in 1955 starring Olivia De Havilland.

Kate felt able to return to Ireland in 1950 and lived first in Dublin, before she settled at Roundstone in Connemara, where she wrote a biography of Saint Theresa of Avila, together with two further novels The Flower of May (1953) and As Music and Splendour (1958), neither of which was particularly succesful. She returned to Britain in 1960 and lived at Boughton in Kent, where she wrote one further novel and a personal account of her homeland My Ireland (1962)

She died at the Kent and Canterbury Hospital on the 13th August 1974. She received the last rites despite not having been a practising Catholic for many years and was buried at the public cemetery near to the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Faversham. Since her death a Kate O'Brien Committee has been formed in her home town of Limerick which has organised the Kate O'Brien weekend since 1984.






Gifford Lewis, ‘O'Brien, Katherine (1897–1974)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004REFERENCES

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