O’Brien is born Ellen Lucy O’Brien on June 4, 1864, at Cahirmoyle, County Limerick. She is the eldest child of Edward William O’Brien and Mary O’Brien (née Spring Rice). Her siblings are Lucy and Dermod, with Dermod also becoming an artist. Her father is a landowner, and her mother is a sculptor and painter and sister of Thomas Spring Rice. Her grandfather is William Smith O’Brien.
While a young child, O’Brien spends two years living on the French Riviera from 1866 to 1868. Her mother later dies of tuberculosis, and the three children are raised by their aunt, the writer and nationalist, Charlotte Grace O’Brien. Their father remarries in 1880, to Julia Marshall, with whom he has two sons and two daughters.
O’Brien attends school in England from 1879, and later enrolls to study painting at the Slade School of Fine Art. She meets Walter Osborne through her brother Dermod, and considers herself engaged to him, but Osborne dies on April 24, 1903. A portrait of O’Brien by Osborne is held in the Hugh Lane Gallery.
O’Brien returns to Ireland, and begins to paint miniatures on ivory using a magnifying glass. She also paints watercolour landscapes. Her first exhibition with the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) is in 1896, where she shows three works including Sketch near Malahide. She exhibits with the RHA on and off until 1922. During some of her time in Dublin, she lives with her half-brother, Edward Conor Marshall O’Brien, on Mount Street.
As part of an exhibition of Irish painters, O’Brien exhibits a number of portrait miniatures at the London Guildhall in 1904. The 1906 Oireachtas na Gaeilge features a number of her paintings, and in the same year she becomes honorary secretary of a newly established art committee. At the Munster–Connacht exhibition in Limerick of 1906, she exhibits a miniature of William Smith O’Brien amongst her 12 works on show. She produces many portraits, including one of Douglas Hyde, which is exhibited by the RHA in 1916.
O’Brien is an early member of the Gaelic League, being present at its first Oireachtas na Gaeilge in 1897, and founding the Craobh na gCúig gCúigí (Branch of the Five Provinces). In 1905, she writes a long letter in defence of Douglas Hyde and the Gaelic League in The Church of Ireland Gazette. She holds meetings of Craobh na gCúig gCúigí in her flat at 7 St. Stephen’s Green every Saturday night in 1907. In 1911, she founds Coláiste Eoghain Uí Chomhraí (O’Curry Irish College) in Carrigaholt, County Clare, which is named in honour of Eugene O’Curry, with the help of her cousin and friend Mary Spring Rice.
One of her ultimate goals is to create a national Irish church, which would unite Protestants and Catholics through the Irish language. To this end, she establishes the Irish Guild of the Church with Seoirse de Rút in 1914. The aim of the organisation is to provide a communal union for members of the Church of Ireland who are dedicated to “Irish Ireland” ideals.
Acting as a representative for the Gaelic League, she travels to the United States with Fionan MacColuim in 1914 to 1915, to fund raise and promote Irish art and industries. At Coláiste Eoghain Uí Chomhraí, she stresses the importance of the Irish language in the home, as well as the skills of housewives and those in domestic service in strengthening the language and Irish culture.
O’Brien notes that she initially thought that the 1916 Easter Rising was “in the nature a demonstration against conscription as it had been announced that the volunteers would resist disarmament.” She is staying with the Hydes at 1 Earlsfort Place during the Rising, as her flat at College Park Chambers had been destroyed. She protests the conscription bill in Ireland as a mass meeting of women at the Mansion House in 1918. She launches the Gaelic Churchman in 1919 as the official publication of the Irish Guild of the Church. In one article entitled A plea for the Irish services, she promotes her campaign for Irish language services in Protestant churches. In her capacity of vice-president of the guild, she invites Éamon de Valera to attend one of their meetings in 1921.
O’Brien dies suddenly on April 1, 1925 while visiting Dermod at 66 Elm Park Gardens, London. She is buried at the family plot in Cahirmoyle.
(Pictured: Nelly O’Brien by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1723-1792)