It's a publishing house that has pushed boundaries and set new standards in the Irish book world for 40 years, but O'Brien Press was founded in surprisingly unplanned circumstances. In 1974, Michael O'Brien was a graphic artist working at the print business owned by his father, Tom. Through it he published what was supposed to be a one-off book, The Liberties of Dublin. The volume, edited by Elgy Gillespie of The Irish Times, sold unexpectedly well and the O'Briens started receiving unsolicited manuscripts.
Two scripts grabbed the attention of Michael and, particularly, Tom, a poet and socialist who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. One was a biography of revolutionary and writer Peadar O'Donnell; the other was Me Jewel and Darlin' Dublin, a chronicle of the capital by Éamonn MacThomáis, who at the time was imprisoned in Mountjoy for editing An Phoblacht.
“When these came in, I said to dad, ‘This wasn’t the plan’, so then we started talking about maybe setting up a publishing company.”
The two books were duly issued under the auspices of the newly formed O’Brien Press. Then things went wrong.
“My father dropped dead,” says Michael. “At the time I wasn’t really 100 per cent convinced I wanted to be a publisher. I was trying to pursue my art. So it was a toss-up and I went, ‘Ah, I may as well’. I was the reluctant publisher.”
Since that initial reluctance, O’Brien has followed his path with determination and vision. These days, as he sits in the Rathgar headquarters he shares with 19 staff, his company is a long way from a one-man business, having published about 2,000 volumes over the past four decades. Along the way, O’Brien became one of the best-known figures in Irish publishing, famed as much for straight-talking as for his keen instincts.
Playwright Frank McGuinness – who will launch Surge, a new anthology of short Irish fiction at O'Brien Press's 40th anniversary celebration event on Saturday as part of the Dublin Book Festival – pinpoint's O'Brien's unvarnished honesty as his greatest strength.
“He doesn’t tell lies, and that’s extraordinary in the world of publishing,” says McGuinness, who also notes the publisher’s “extraordinarily accurate sense of what will sell”.
The latter characteristic has probably been the most important factor in his company’s longevity. The new anthology, which shares its name with a radical arts magazine edited by O’Brien’s father in the 1940s, is a comparatively rare foray into the world of literary fiction, under the auspices of the company’s Brandon imprint, which O’Brien acquired after the death of its founder Steve McDonagh in 2012, thus adding authors such as Alice Taylor and Gerry Adams to their stable. O’Brien Press has been largely built on discovering Irish subjects and genres otherwise neglected by other publishers and delivering books to fill the gap in the market.
A local hero
Down the years, the company has broken new ground for the domestic trade in the fields of culture, conservation and environment, true crime and, most strikingly, children’s literature.
"I think one of Michael's triumphs, in his energy and what he's brought through into a new generation, was a kind of realignment of sights, and a commitment to more local material," says Peter Fallon, founder of the Gallery Press and editor of several books for O'Brien.
From Des Lavelle's Skellig: Island Outpost of Europe, one of the first illustrated books on Irish culture by a homegrown publisher, to The General by Paul Williams, the bestselling biography of murdered criminal Martin Cahill, which opened the floodgates for the Irish true crime genre, O'Brien Press has tapped into hitherto overlooked audiences.
This is no accident. “At the time, it was either books about the IRA, religious books or very boring academic books of literary criticism,” says O’Brien. “There was very little there, and we were totally dominated by British firms.”
This domination was so complete in one area in particular that it prompted O’Brien and his editors to make a strategic decision in the late 1980s. “We decided . . . to create a new literature for Irish children that didn’t exist,” says O’Brien. “The area was dominated by the British, to the extent that they were reinventing Irish culture with very corny ‘Oirish’ things, while Irish writers, in order to get published, were becoming Anglophile.”
This strategy took off when author Marita Conlon-McKenna turned up with the manuscript for Under the Hawthorn Tree, a children's novel set during the famine. Despite its tricky subject matter, the book provided "the oxygen that started our serious children's list", going on to sell half a million copies in a dozen languages. Since then, young people's books have been a mainstay, from volumes such as Seamus Cashman's children's poetry anthology Something Beginning with P to more recent successes such as Anna Carey's award-winning Rebecca novels.
The company also put out the first books by Eoin Colfer, but he moved to Viking Press for his massively successful Artemis Fowl series, highlighting O'Brien Press's limitations in terms of international reach or lucrative deals. Paul Howard's Ross O'Carroll-Kelly books provide another example.
“It’s either a plus or a minus, depending on how you look at it,” says O’Brien, but he focuses on the positives. Publishing English-language books leaves the firm vulnerable to such poaching, but O’Brien feels that “English also gives us massive opportunities, as it’s the world language”; the sale of international rights is a key commercial plank.
"Our strength is: we have 22 worldwide rights agents selling for us, with 500 titles in translation in about 50 languages. But that took 20 years to develop," he says, citing the continued international sales of Brendan O'Carroll's 1994 comic novel The Mammy, which features an early incarnation of Mrs Brown (back then Mrs Browne) – as an example.
O'Carroll's book also highlights the lack of snobbery that has allowed O'Brien Press to thrive. Daniel O'Donnell's autobiography, Follow Your Dream, was as successful as it was unfashionable. "That taught me a lesson: that there are all sorts of culture – popular, elitist, obscure – which all have legitimacy. But it ill-behoves us to look down our noses at any of them." Given this, the move into graphic novels about Irish history and culture is unsurprising.
O’Brien doesn’t bemoan web publishing, but rather views it as a way of breathing new life into his company’s extensive backlist, an asset that already generates the majority of its income (the publisher sells more ebooks in Britain than in Ireland).
“As far as I’m concerned it’s the first time we can legitimately build an export market through something that we have some control of ourselves.” The fact that his son Ivan, the company’s managing director, has a technological background adds to his optimism.
Forty years on, the reluctant publisher shows no signs of quitting. “By some intuitive thing I found myself very at home in publishing,” he says. “I found it very exciting and I still do.”
Surge will be launched at the O’Brien Press 40th anniversary celebration in Smock Alley, Dublin, at 7pm on Saturday
DUBLIN BOOK FESTIVAL: THREE TO SEE
- Lines of Vision The festival opens with a stellar line-up of Irish novelists – Alex Barclay, Kevin Barry, John Boyne and Donal Ryan – talking about their stories and the works of art that inspired them. National Gallery of Ireland, Thursday, 6.30pm
- Women's Historical Fiction: Plotting History Novelists Martina Devlin, Lia Mills and Patricia O'Reilly talk about the challenges of writing stories from the past with RTÉ's Evelyn O'Rourke. Smock Alley, Friday, 1.05pm
- Dubliners 100 On the centenary of Joyce's classic work, Belinda McKeon, Peter Murphy and Donal Ryan discuss its legacy, which was explored in Dubliners 100, a recently published anthology of "cover versions". Smock Alley, Saturday, 4.30pm