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Kate O'Brien

Kate O'Brien

Pray for the Wanderer (1938) Limerick

'a pretty scene -tranquil and traditional, modestly civilized [. . .] for all the thoughtful world, a thing of ruins and archaisms.'


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Kate O’Brien was born on 3 December 1897 and died aged 76 on 13 August 1974. During her adolescence and early adulthood she experienced the Irish War of Independence, was a supporter of the embryonic Free State, but soon became one of its most incisive critics, as de Valera’s myopic vision of Irish social life unfurled itself during the 1930s.  She was the seventh child of Thomas and Catherine ‘Katty’ nee Thornhill who owned an equestrian business, and members of the affluent mercantile class which comprised the Irish Catholic bourgeoisiein Limerick at the turn of the century. After the death of her mother in 1903, O’Brien was sent to board at Laurel Hill Convent. Her upbringing in a school overseen by French nuns from the Faithful Companions of Jesus, insulated her against  ‘the usual conditioning of a patriarchal society’ (1).

 In 1916 her father died, and in the shadow of the Easter Rising, O’Brien won a scholarship, which allowed her to travel to the war torn colonial capital of Ireland to attend University College Dublin.  Embarking upon a liberal education which O’Brien remarked ‘allowed a corner of Lebensraum(2) intellectually. She received a B.A. degree with second honours in French and English, and in 1919 moved to England where she found employment as a journalist with The Manchester Guardian. By 1921, O’Brien was in Washington D.C. working for Eamon de Valera’s Bond Drive, to raise funds to support an independent Irish state. She then returned to London in 1923 and married Gustaaf Renier, a Dutch journalist, who remarked after the break-up of the marriage that O’Brien was ‘not made for matrimony and cannot live with me under false pretences’ (3). This observation of Renier’s leads us to an aspect of O’Brien’s life, which has been at times curiously avoided by academics, that of her lesbianism: 

‘Kate O’Brien, her family, her biographers, critics, and friends all colluded to keep her in the closet. Not so much covering up her bonds with women, as by denying that those partnerships were of any relevance to her work’ (4).

O’Brien emerged with a serious reputation as writer after the debut of her first play Distinguished Villa, in 1926. During the 1930s, O’Brien turned her pen from drama to prose, and published a series of novels rooted in a fictional provincial Irish city named Mellick. Framed by a cityscape of church steeples and castles, O’Brien’s novels Without My Cloak (1931) and The Ante-Room (1934), Mary Lavelle (1936), Pray for the Wanderer (1938),   Land of Spices (1941),  and  The Last of Summer (1943) were informed by her intimate knowledge of  Limerick’s culture, history and geography.


(1) J. Logan,  ‘Family and Fortune in Kate O’Brien’s Limerick’ in With Warmest Love: Lectures for Kate O’Brien, 1984-1993, (Limerick: Mellick Press, 1994) p. 115.

(2) Kate O’Brien,  ‘As to University Life’ in University Review: Official Organ of the Graduates Academy of the National University of Ireland, Vol. 1, No.6 Autumn 1955, p.5.

(3)  L. Reynolds,  Kate O’Brien: A Literary Portrait, (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1987) p. 38.

(4)  E. Donoghue,  ‘“Out of Order” Kate O’Brien’s Lesbian Fictions’, Ordinary People Dancing : Essays on Kate O’Brien (Cork: Cork University Press, 1993) p. 37.


The street where Boru House,  the home into which Kate O’Brien was born had expanded considerably during the nineteenth century due to the influx of rural migrants, and in the historic sense, proliferated chronotopic spaces reflecting an emerging  provincial urban modernity:

'The creation of Mulgrave Street provided the space for important new institutions such as the Artillery Barracks (1807), the County Infirmary (1811), the County Gaol (1821), the District Lunatic Asylum and the Mount Saint Lawrence Cemetery (1849)' (1). 

The modern institutionalisation of space in O’Brien’s early life milieu seems to have imbued her with and awareness of the centrality of place as a means to anchor essential themes in her writing. The biographical, historical, modernist and literary chronotopes emerging from O’Brien’s ‘literary geography’ are visualized above. The town of Mellick and its adjoining ‘Vale of Honey’ comprises an imaginary geography  in Kate O’Brien’s  1938 novel Pray for the Wanderer  and acts as a polemical metonym for her native Limerick and the increasingly binding relations between family, class, religion, gender and sexuality which emerged in southern Ireland and its provincial hinterlands in the two decades following the Irish War of Independence.

O’Brien’s audacious literary perspective dissected and critiqued  the social and political milieu of the Catholic petite bourgeoisie which supported Saorstát Éireann’s adoption of the 1937 Bunreacht Na hÉireann, a constitution that imposed a quasi-religious and patriarchal structure of political architecture upon the fledgling post-independent nation. Fianna Fáil’s social legislation of the 1930s was increasingly vetted by a Catholic hierarchy and clergy, and the 1937 Constitution bore their imprimatur. In tandem with cultural nationalism the State and Church had ‘anathematized everything from jazz to modern fiction’ (2),  in an attempt to assert the Catholic identity of the newly independent Irish state. Subsequently, writers such as O’Brien faced the ‘symbolic institution of the much reviled Censorship Board in 1929’(3)and consequently played the role of dissidents in the public sphere of post-independent Ireland.


(1)  J. Logan,  Family and Fortune in Kate O’Brien’s Limerick, 115

(2) Roy Foster,  Modern Ireland , 535.

(3) Ibid.

Last updated 8 March 2016 by Digital Literary Atlas of Ireland, 1922 - 1949 (Email).