Kathleen Mary Louise “Kate” O’Brien, novelist and playwright, is born in Limerick City on December 3, 1897. She becomes best known for her 1934 novel The Ante-Room, her 1941 novel The Land of Spices, and the 1946 novel That Lady.
Following the death of her mother when she is five, O’Brien becomes a boarder at Laurel Hill Convent. She graduates in English and French from the newly established University College Dublin, and then moves to London, where she works as a teacher for a year.
In 1922–23, she works as a governess in the Basque Country, in the north of Spain, where she begins to write fiction. Upon her return to England, O’Brien works at the Manchester Guardian. After the success of her play Distinguished Villa in 1926, she takes to full-time writing and is awarded both the 1931 James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Hawthornden Prize for her debut novel Without My Cloak.
Many of her books deal with issues of female agency and sexuality in ways that are new and radical at the time. Her 1936 novel, Mary Lavelle, is banned in Ireland and Spain, while The Land of Spices is banned in Ireland upon publication. In addition to novels, she writes plays, film scripts, short stories, essays, copious journalism, two biographical studies, and two very personal travelogues.
Throughout her life, O’Brien feels a particular affinity with Spain. While her experiences in the Basque Country inspire Mary Lavelle, she also writes a life of the Spanish mystic Teresa of Ávila, and she uses the relationship between the Spanish king Philip II and Maria de Mendoza to write the anti-fascist novel That Lady.
O’Brien writes a political travelogue, Farewell Spain, to gather support for the leftist cause in the Spanish Civil War, and it is believed that she is close to anarchism in the 1930s. A feminist, her novels promote gender equality and are mostly protagonised by young women yearning for independence. With several of her books including positive gay/lesbian characters, O’Brien’s determination to encourage a greater understanding of sexual diversity makes her a pioneer in gay literary representation. She is very critical of conservatism in Ireland, and by spearheading a challenge to the Irish Censorship Act, she helps bring to an end the cultural restrictions of the 1930s and 1940s in the country. She lives much of her life in England and died in Faversham, near Canterbury, on August 13, 1974.
The Glucksman Library at the University of Limerick holds an important collection of O’Brien’s writings. The Limerick Literary Festival in honour of Kate O’Brien, formerly the Kate O’Brien Weekend, takes place in Limerick every year, attracting academic and non-academic audiences.