In praise of Kate O’Brien, by Olivia O’Leary

Irish Women Writers: ‘She wrote of women who struggled against family and church to lead free and independent lives’


It was a world of heavy mahogany furniture and the smell of good dinners; of drawing rooms not unlike the convent parlours where they visited their aunts who were nuns. It was the world of the Irish Catholic bourgeoisie. Nobody caught it as Kate O’Brien did and nobody has caught it since. It is a world I know from my mother’s people who also came from Limerick and had land and a bit of money whereas my father’s people had neither.

O'Brien's style, like her furniture, can be Victorian but the message is modern. Against this canvas of solid houses and solid family lives, she lays on streaks of subversion: the passion and heartbreak of forbidden love, the whispers of freedom and colour picked up by those who had travelled in the great Catholic Empire of Italy and Spain and France. Most of all, for me as a young convent schoolgirl, she wrote of women who struggled against family and church to lead free and independent lives – and who sometimes succeeded.
Other favourites: Elizabeth Bowen and Kerry Hardie.

“They ate a fantastic supper, the kind they loved, as expensive and out of season as it could be. Mushrooms, plovers eggs, langoustines, and ridiculous strawberries that had no taste until dipped in Pol Roger.

“A remarkable supper, and no doubt the waiters thought that they were celebrating a remarkable event – as indeed they were. It isn’t every day that an Irish wife picks up her skirts and runs for it.”

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This quotation is from Without my Cloak, which is set in the latter half of the 19th century. It’s probably important to get the date in or Caroline’s escape won’t seem so daring. There are other quotations I love but this makes the point about her heroines being independent-minded women.

Olivia O’Leary is a writer and broadcaster