In praise of Kate O’Brien, by Frank McNally

Celebrating Irish women writers: ‘She’s on record somewhere as distrusting humour on principle. But her very seriousness now seems admirable’

Kate O’Brien: “She took on difficult subjects, and the State Censor, in a post-independence Ireland. And she also had a transcendent imagination when required.” Photograph: Sasha / Getty Images

Kate O’Brien: “She took on difficult subjects, and the State Censor, in a post-independence Ireland. And she also had a transcendent imagination when required.” Photograph: Sasha / Getty Images

 

I had to do a crash course in Kate O’Brien a while ago just after re-reading the works of another literary O’Brien: Flann. It was a jarring contrast. If the author of At Swim-two-birds had an artistic failing, it was that he couldn’t take anything seriously. Kate O’Brien (1897-1974) was almost the reverse.

She’s on record somewhere as distrusting humour on principle. But her very seriousness now seems admirable. She took on difficult subjects, and the State Censor, in a post-independence Ireland. And she also had a transcendent imagination when required. Her most successful book, That Lady, is set entirely in 16th-century Spain.

Besides, she may have underestimated her own wit. Late in life, she recalled a pre-1916 nationalist newspaper attack on her alma mater, Limerick’s Laurel Hill College, whose snobbish nuns were accused of educating girls “to be suitable wives for bank managers and British colonial governors”.

The criticism was only half right, O’Brien thought: “If this charge was brought to the attention of Reverend Mother – and almost certainly it was – she might have winced about bank managers, as they would have been a very low social target.”

“Being Irish, Teresa obviously couldn’t be Conservative, but being a woman she was spared the necessity of knowing for certain which party was which. In any case, political feeling never ran high in the Considine blood. The destiny of mankind, or any race of it, mattered only in so far as it furthered the interests of an established family. Teresa was inclined to regard politics as she regarded firearms - things that shouldn’t be left about the house.”

From The Ante-Room, 1934

Two other writers I like: Dervla Murphy (especially for Full Tilt: the most-thrilling travel book I’ver ever read); Honor Tracy (English-born, but she lived here for many years and wrote about Ireland a lot.)

Frank McNally writes An Irishman’s Diary in The Irish Times

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