Lara Marlowe on writer Kate O’Brien’s prophetic vision

An Irishwoman’s Diary

Novelist and playwright Kate O’Brien (1897-1974). Photograph: Sasha/Getty Images)

Novelist and playwright Kate O’Brien (1897-1974). Photograph: Sasha/Getty Images)


Most mortals wish to be remembered. The writer Kate O’Brien, who died in 1974 at the age of 76, has been fortunate. A handful of women, chief among them Eileen O’Connor, Marie Hackett and Vivienne McKechnie, have kept the flame of memory burning at the Limerick Literary Festival in honour of Kate O’Brien for 35 years.

Though O’Brien’s family are not involved in the festival, her nephew Donough has also done a great deal to perpetuate her memory.

The festival has attracted the crème de la crème of Irish letters, including the poets Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, the novelists Sebastian Barry, Emma Donoghue, Colum McCann and Colm Tóibín. The Pulitzer Prize-winning US novelist Richard Ford closed this year’s festival on February 24th.

I was asked to talk about Kate O’Brien as a journalist. But as one of my bosses used to say, if you dig deeply enough, every story falls apart.

Conversations with O’Brien’s biographer, the academic and novelist Eibhear Walshe, and Conor Brady, a former editor of The Irish Times, confirmed that O’Brien was not a journalist in the conventional sense of the word.

Her journalistic experience consisted of a short period on the foreign desk of the Manchester Guardian in the 1920s, and a column titled Long Distance, published by this newspaper in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when she was ill and ageing, living alone with her cats in Boughton, Kent.

O’Brien published nine novels. Five were set in Limerick, which she fictionalised as Mellick. Though some were financial successes, and one was made into a feature film starring Olivia de Havilland, O’Brien’s finances were precarious.

Terence de Vere White, then literary editor of The Irish Times, gave O’Brien a column as a kindness, to provide her with income. Conor Brady was the 22-year-old reporter assigned to sub-edit her column. “Towards the end of her life, her copy came in less frequently, and was less coherent,” Brady recalled. “We always tried to have a column in hand, in case it didn’t come in at all, which sometimes happened.”

Farewell Spain (1937) was O’Brien’s declaration of love for Spain and the most journalistic of her books. She sided with the leftist, anti-clerical Republic against the nationalists under the fascist leader Francisco Franco. It got her banned from Spain for 20 years.

José María de Areilza was 13 when O’Brien taught him English. He was 80 when he spoke to the Kate O’Brien Weekend in 1989.

Areilza described “Miss Kitty” as “a tall young woman, with very black, shiny hair, cut à la garçonne, with very white skin, light grey, almost blue eyes, a small expressive mouth, and a forceful, yet warm, voice. Her gait was athletic and decisive. Her clothes were nearly always a pleated wool skirt and a long casual jacket. She usually wore low-heeled shoes and grey stockings . . . You could tell . . . she had a considerable inner life.”

O’Brien based her second novel, Mary Lavelle, on the year she spent with Areilza’s family near Bilbao. He made a moving tribute to her in his 1989 lecture: “She was the one who revealed to me the essence of art, or rather, the understanding of the world, the meaning of life and the superiority of human love over other feelings.”

O’Brien supported the Spanish Republic from its inception in 1931 until its defeat by Franco’s forces in 1939. Areilza became mayor of Bilbao under Franco, and later served as the fascist dictator’s ambassador to Argentina, the US and France.

Their opposing political allegiances did not diminish their friendship.

Incredibly, writing in the 1930s, O’Brien foresaw globalisation. She alluded repeatedly to the future “uniformity” of the world. And she accurately saw that nationalism was the enemy of that uniformity.

Globalisation seemed to O’Brien a lesser evil than nationalism, but she nonetheless saw it as a soulless, levelling force.

“There will be no point then in going out to look for a reed shaken in the wind,” she wrote.

She predicted that science – information technology? – would become “the international dictator”.

She predicted that “air-travel, radio and television will have made all possible novelties into boring fireside matters-of-fact . . . Our descendants, should any records survive to catch their eyes, will marvel at our naïve interest in our neighbours, smiling to discover that once an Arab differed somewhat in his habits from a Dutchman, and a Tibetan from a Scot.”

O’Brien wrote the following description of the fascist leaders of the 1930s: “Their root inspiration is both idiotic and pernicious. It is the glorification of one silly nationalism above another. It is conceit and jingoism, and ‘look at me!’ It is the assertion of one bully’s ego, and his claim to patronise and allocate the destinies of millions of his fellows.”

Does that remind you of anyone?

Donald Trump? Viktor Orbán? Matteo Salvini?

Plus ça change...

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