seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Kate O’Brien, Novelist and Playwright

kate-obrienKathleen 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.


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Birth of Catholic Teetotalist Reformer Theobald Mathew

theobald-mathewTheobald Mathew, Irish Catholic teetotalist reformer popularly known as Father Mathew and “The Apostle of Temperance,” is born at Thomastown, near Golden, County Tipperary, on October 10, 1790.

Mathew receives his schooling in Kilkenny, then moves for a short time to Maynooth. From 1808 to 1814 he studies in Dublin, where in the latter year he is ordained to the priesthood. Having entered the Capuchin order, after a brief period of service at Kilkenny, he joins the mission in Cork.

The movement with which his name is associated begins on April 10, 1838 with the establishment of the Cork Total Abstinence Society, which in less than nine months enrolls no fewer than 150,000 names. It rapidly spreads to Limerick and elsewhere, and some idea of its popularity may be formed from the fact that at Nenagh 20,000 persons are said to take the pledge in one day, 100,000 at Galway in two days, and 70,000 in Dublin in five days. At its height, just before the Great Famine, his movement enrolls some 3 million people, or more than half of the adult population of Ireland. In 1844 he visits Liverpool, Manchester, and London with almost equal success.

His work has a remarkable impact on the condition of the people in Ireland. The number committed to jail falls from 12,049 in 1839 to 9,875 by 1845. Sentences of death fall from 66 in 1839 to 14 in 1846, and transportations fall from 916 to 504 over the same period.

Mathew visits the United States in 1849, returning in 1851. While there, he finds himself at the center of the Abolitionist debate. Many of his hosts are pro-slavery, and want assurances that their influential guest will not stray outside his remit of battling alcohol consumption. But Mathew has signed a petition encouraging the Irish in the U.S. to not partake in slavery in 1841 during Charles Lenox Remond‘s tour of Ireland. Now however, in order to avoid upsetting his slave-owning friends in the U.S., he snubs an invitation to publicly condemn chattel slavery, sacrificing his friendship with that movement. He defends his position by pointing out that there is nothing in the scripture that prohibits slavery. He is condemned by many on the abolitionist side, including the former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass who had received the pledge from Mathew in Cork in 1845.

Mathew dies on December 8, 1856 in Queenstown, County Cork, after suffering a stroke. He is buried at St. Joseph’s Cemetery, Cork City, which he had established himself.

Statues of Mathew stand on St. Patrick’s Street, Cork by John Henry Foley (1864), and on O’Connell Street, Dublin by Mary Redmond (1893). There is also a Fr. Mathew Bridge in Limerick City which is named after the temperance reformer when it is rebuilt in 1844-1846.