Kate O’Brien was born in Limerick on 3 December 1897. Her mother died when she was five, and she became a boarder in the Laurel Hill convent in Limerick. On graduating from University College, Dublin, she worked on the Manchester Guardian and as a governess in Spain. She returned to England to marry a Dutch jounalist, but they soon parted. Her play Distinguished Villa was well received in 1926, but she preferred the more solitary occupation of novelist.
Her first novel, Without My Cloak (1931), won both the Hawthornden and James Tait Black prizes. A chronicle of middle-class Irish life, it is, in effect, an Irish Forsyte Saga. Its theme would be constant throughout her novels, namely the sturggle (particularly the struggle of Irish women) for individual freedom and love against the constricting demands of family, bourgeois society and Catholic religion.
The heroine of The Ante-Room (1934) is torn between love and Catholic conscience, as is Mary Lavelle (1936). The latter was banned under the Irish Free State’s censorship laws, as was O’Brien’s novel of convent life, The Land of Spices (1941). Neither Mary’s sin or the reference to homosexuality in the later novel could reasonably be called ‘indecent and obscene’, the only grounds for a ban, and O’Brien responded with Pray for the Wanderer (1938) and The Last of Summer (1943), both critical of the smug puritanism of the Free State under Eamon de Valera.
O’Brien’s most successful novel was That Lady (1946), set in sixteenth-century Spain. Its heroine is Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli, an independent spirit martyred by the despotic King Philip II. O’Brien adapted it for Broadway, where it enjoyed modest success in 1949 with Katherine Cornell in the title role. A disappointing film version appeared in 1955.
O’Brien returned to Ireland in 1950. She settled in Roundstone, Co. Galway, where she wrote The Flower of May (1953). Neither it norAs Music and Splendour (1958), set in the world of nineteenth-century Italian opera, was a success. In 1962 she published My Ireland, an idiosyncratic pen-portrait not unlike her earlier Farewell Spain (1937), for which she was banned from Franco’s Spain. She also wrote a biography of the saint Theresa of Avila (1951). In 1965 she returned to England and died in Canterbury on 13 August 1974.