Identity Statement

Reference Code: P/12
Title: The Kate O'Brien Papers
Dates: 1918-1987
Extent: 10 Boxes


A pioneer in Irish fiction, Kate O'Brien was born in Limerick on 3 December 1897 to horse-dealer Thomas O'Brien and his wife, Catherine Thornhill O'Brien. One of ten children, O'Brien had three older sisters, Mary, Clare and Nance (or Anne), and six brothers, John (or Jack), Thomas, Eric, Michael, Michael Alphonsus and Gerard William. Tragedy struck the young family in 1903 when Catherine O'Brien, died of cancer. Kate O'Brien was just over five years of age at this time and was to become the youngest boarder at Laurel Hill, a French convent school in Limerick.

O'Brien's father passed away in 1916, and in that same year Kate received a county council scholarship to read French and English in University College Dublin.

Kate O'Brien graduated from University College Dublin with a B.A. degree in 1919, moving to England where she worked as a free-lance journalist for The Sphere, followed by a position in the foreign language department of The Manchester Guardian Weekly. In 1921, O'Brien moved to London, and taught at St. Mary's Convent in Hampstead for approximately six months before travelling to the United States as a companion to her sister Nance and her husband Stephen O'Mara. O'Brien returned from the States in 1922 but this did not mark the end of her travels, moving to Spain that same year to work as a governess in Bilbao. O'Brien taught the children of the Areilza family over a ten-month period, forming a deep attachment to Spain that was to remain with her for the rest of her days. Returning to London in 1923, she married a young Dutchman, Gustaff Renier. However, this union was only to last eleven months before the couple separated

Spanning nearly fifty years, Kate O'Brien's literary career commenced in 1926 with the play 'Distinguished Villa'. O'Brien's first work was the result of a bet with a friend that she could write a play within a number of weeks. It was performed at the Aldwych Theatre in London on 2 May 1926 and was met with wide acclaim. Several other plays followed in 1927, including 'The Silver Roan', 'The Bridge' and 'Set in Platinum'. It was her first novel, 'Without My Cloak' (published in 1931), however, that established O'Brien as a significant Irish writer. A chronicle of the Considine family, this work was awarded the Hawthornden Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. In 1934, O'Brien produced her second novel, 'The Ante-Room'. This was followed two years later by its unsuccessful adaptation for the stage in London's Queen Theatre, and in addition, the first of two works to be banned by the Censorship of Publications Board in Ireland, a novel entitled 'Mary Lavelle'. Also addressing the subject of Spain is the highly personal travelogue 'Farewell Spain' published in 1937, largely in response to the events surrounding the Spanish Civil War. This work was subsequently banned in Franco's Spain and the author was forbidden access to the country until 1957 with the intervention of the Irish Ambassador to Spain. O'Brien's play 'The Schoolroom Window' was performed that same year at the Manuscript Theatre Club in London.

In 1938, O'Brien's fourth novel, 'Pray for the Wanderer' was published, and followed two years later by 'The Land of Spices', her second work to be banned in Ireland. O'Brien spent the early years of the Second World War in Oxford and London, working for the British Ministry of Information. The writer moved to Devon in 1942 boarding in the house of novelist, E.M. Delafield, and over the next year published 'The Last of Summer', which was performed as a play at the Phoenix Theatre in London and the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin between 1944 and 1945. The publication 'English Diaries and Journals' was produced in 1943. O'Brien's seventh novel, 'That Lady', was published in 1946. A great success, this work was published in North America as 'For One Sweet Grape'. The novel was adapted for the stage in November 1949, directed by Guthrie McClintic and starring Katherine Cornell as Ana de Mendoza. The play opened in the Martin Beck Theatre on Broadway, and in 1955, the novel was made into a motion picture.

Kate O'Brien returned to live in Ireland in 1950, buying a handsome property in Roundstone, county Galway. O'Brien continued to be productive in her new surroundings publishing her biographical work 'Teresa of Avila' in 1951, followed by her eighth novel, 'The Flower of May' in 1953. The writer travelled to Rome in Italy in the early months of 1954 in preparation for what was to become her ninth and final published novel, 'As Music and Splendour'. A decade after her move to Roundstone, O'Brien returned to England, settling in Boughton, Kent. Whilst the 1960s did not yield any further fictional work, O'Brien produced another travelogue entitled 'My Ireland' in 1962. A collection of reminiscences of her early family life entitled 'Presentation Parlour', followed in 1963. In addition, the writer produced articles for different publications including her 'Long Distance' series in The Irish Times. O'Brien was involved with numerous literary organisations during her lifetime including P.E.N. and the Comunità Europea degli Scrittori (where she represented Ireland). Kate O'Brien died in Kent on 13 August 1974, aged 76, leaving behind a body of unfinished work including her memoirs and what would have been her tenth novel, 'Constancy'.

Content & Structure

Divided into six main sections, the collection has been arranged thematically and addresses O'Brien's personal life, literary life, media coverage, printed material, photographic material and death. The documents have been arranged chronologically within each section. Section A provides the researcher with a rare glimpse into O'Brien's personal life with official documentation including her birth and marriage certificates and passports. However, this part of the collection also contains more personal items such as correspondence with family, friends and admirers, diaries recording appointments and other news, and material relating to her financial affairs. O'Brien's long-term relationship with artist Mary O'Neill is reflected in a number of cards and postcards exchanged between the two women from the late 1940s until the year of O'Brien's death. Letters from José M. De Areilza, one of O'Brien's former students in Bilbao suggest how living and working in Spain influenced the writer. De Areilza states the following in a letter dated 26 May 1952, '...this year I went to London for a short trip...and found at last the famous "Mary Lavelle" which I was looking for since years ago. You can imagine with what a tremendous anxiety I went through that pages and the vivid scenes of life in "Casa-Pilar" at Cabantes, Altorno. The book is really fascinating. And for me it was still more, because a whole world which slept in my memories, for years, woke up and dreamt again as in the golden times of adolescence. Thank you, Miss Kitty, for bringing to life that dear shadows of my youth!' (P12/8).

O'Brien's diaries, dating from the early 1960s and covering just over a decade, record the writer's daily activities, appointments, travel plans, financial dealings and occasionally more personal information such as the state of her health or mood. Section A also focuses on O'Brien's financial affairs. Amongst other documents, a letter to the Collector of Taxes in London dated 5 June 1963 reveals O'Brien's on-going struggle to control her finances, '...I am not resident in the British Isles. It is my intention to live there, but since I sold my house in Ireland three and a half years ago I have been in very bad circumstances; have been living as the guest of friends and relatives in Ireland or in Spain, am unable to pay rent anywhere, and earn only pittances...I cannot afford to rent even a bed-sitting room' (P12/55).

The most substantial component of the collection is Section B which addresses O'Brien's literary life, covering her literary work and dealings with literary agents, publishers, and literary organisations. It also includes correspondence regarding the Civil List Pension and O'Brien's involvement with educational projects such as the Catholic Youth Encyclopaedia, Irish Week in the University of Valladolid in Madrid, Spain, and the Canadian Association for Irish Studies in McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Of particular interest, however, is O'Brien's literary work, which is mostly in draft format and often contains handwritten amendments. This body of material consists of travelogues, articles, essays and short stories, lectures, biographies, novels, and material for radio and film. Essays and short stories in draft format include 'Singapore has fallen' (1942), 'On Ballycottin Strand' (1945), 'Old Balls MacSweeney' (1956), 'Boney Fidey' (1956) and 'Manna' (1962). Also of interest are mostly typescript drafts of articles produced by O'Brien from her home in Kent as part of the 'Long Distance' series for the Irish Times, addressing a variety of issues from Northern Ireland to Charles de Gaulle. This part of the collection also includes drafts of lectures for different audiences including the Europea degli Scrittori, Sir William Gibb School for Girls in Faversham, Canterbury College of Art, and Association of Professional and Business Women.

Two drafts of 'Presentation Parlour', the author's reminiscences of her aunts, are contained in the collection. One of these documents reveals a selection of possible titles for the final publication including 'Presentation Parlour', 'Five Aunts' or 'My Aunts' (P12/170). One of the most interesting components of this section, however, is the body of material relating to O'Brien's last novel, 'Constancy', which remained incomplete at the time of her death. The collection holds both handwritten and typescript drafts of book one and two of the novel, each containing their own amendments. O'Brien's interest in poetry is also reflected in two handwritten drafts of a poem about Haverstock Hill executed by the author in 1964. The second section also includes O'Brien's dealings with her literary agents and publishers and includes contracts with publishers outlining conditions relating to copyright, royalties, publishing rights and payments, as well as financial material and correspondence. The author's involvement with broadcasting bodies such as British Broadcasting Corporation (B.B.C.), Radio Éireann and Radio Telefís Éireann (R.T.E.) is also represented in this section. A letter from Guy Vaesen from the Script Unit of the B.B.C. dated 12 October 1973 refers to the script for 'Pray for the Wanderer', stating 'It has not been the easiest novel in the world to dramatise and this final version is the fourth' (P12/217).

Section C focuses on media coverage of Kate O'Brien in Irish and British newspapers, magazines and periodicals. This section contains reviews and articles relating to the author's work dating from the 1920s to the middle of the 1980's, a scrapbook of press-cuttings from 1927 to 1934, and a number of articles on other subjects including the death of actress Katherine Cornell, the Burren in county Clare and politician Cecelia Lynch. In addition, the third section contains press-cuttings relating to the death of O'Brien in 1974 in the Irish and British Press. Section D addresses publications and other printed matter contained in the collection and includes publications by Kathleen Cunningham, copies of two of O'Brien's novels, 'Without My Cloak' (which contains the signature of Mary O'Neill's sister, Elizabeth Hall), and 'Mary Lavelle', a programme for a bullfight at Plaza de Toros de Madrid, and for the play 'That Lady' performed at Dipson's Erlanger Theatre in October 1949. In addition, is an essay by O'Brien entitled 'As to University Life' which includes a handwritten note on the cover of the volume which reads 'This may amuse you, pet - frightful misprints and all! It is causing uproar in the Governing Body of U.C.D. - which was my hope & purpose in writing it' (P12/259).

The photographic component of the collection is contained in Section E and provides a valuable record of O'Brien's family life growing up in county Limerick, school days in Laurel Hill Convent, graduation from University College Dublin, close relationship with her sister Nance, travels to Spain and other locations, brief marriage to Gustaff Renier, literary commitments, life at The Fort in Roundstone, county Galway, move to Kent, England, and passion for cats. Some of the more memorable images in the collection include a black and white photograph of O'Brien's mother Catherine as a beautiful young woman prior to her premature death from cancer (P12/273), two black and white images of schoolgirls from Laurel Hill Convent, some of the studio portraits of O'Brien (P12/390-411), and an image of O'Brien's husband, Gustaff Renier (P12/306).

Section F of the collection addresses the sickness and subsequent death of Kate O'Brien in August 1974, and includes documentation from Canterbury Hospital relating to her personal possessions, copies of her death certificate, and correspondence between family and friends. The administration of the writer's estate is also addressed and significant documents include O'Brien's last will and testament and a codicil of will. O'Brien's will appoints Mary O'Neill as Literary Executrix and the final part of this section focuses on her dealings in this capacity.

The majority of documents held in the collection are available for public access with the exception of four items (P12/34, P12/35, P12/479 and P12/480), which have been closed for set periods because of information that may be considered sensitive by other parties. The collection is a fascinating record of the life and career of writer Kate O'Brien, providing not only a cross-section of her literary output, but also an insight into the private world of one of Limerick's most prolific daughters. This body of material is an extremely valuable source for researchers in Ireland and abroad.

Austin Hall, the godson of Kate O'Brien and nephew of O'Brien's long-term friend Mary O'Neill deposited the papers in the University of Limerick Library in 2002.

Further material relating to O'Brien is contained in a collection in the Northwestern University Library's Special Collections Department, donated by a Chicago bookseller in 1970. This includes both manuscripts and published material, consisting of novels, plays, short stories, articles, talks and letters.

Róisín Berry

© Copyright 2003 Special Collections Library, University of Limerick

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