Kate O’Brien and her Catholic Agnosticism, writing, and politics

Kate O’Brien was an Irish writer who was born in 1897. She was born into an bourgeoisie Catholic family in Limerick, though she was well-traveled by the end of her life in 1974. Most of her writing was banned in Ireland under the Censorship Act, and she was unique in her time for writing sex and sexuality into domestic romance novels.

O’Brien’s family was very political, though she herself had no particular political party leaning. There is a little more information on her family here. She was, however, quite left-wing, and was critical of the Catholic Church’s influence on the government, and the writing of the Irish Constitution in in 1937. She was very aware of the silencing of woman’s voices at that time, and asked critical questions about Ireland’s cultural construction as it was being formed. In her writing, she questioned, among other things;

  • Censorship;
  • Legislation;
  • Irish Catholicism;
  • Women’s place in society.


Mary Lavelle is the only novel of hers I’ve read so far, and though it’s the only one that is required reading for my Irish Literature module, I’m interested in reading more. Like Mary, the main character in the novel, she worked as an au pair in Spain, and grew to love the country. Mary Lavelle was banned in Ireland, and it’s not hard to see why, as [spoilers alert];

  • A lesbian character, Agatha Conlon, “has a crush” on Mary;
  • Mary falls in love with, seduces, and has an affair with a married man;
  • By doing so, she is cheating on her fiance in Ireland;
  • The pain the Irish Catholic Church can inflict on people is clear.

Kate O’Brien frequently writes about forbidden love, though the Irish Catholic Church  intensely disapproved of it. Her books were often banned, especially as O’Brien not only wrote about forbidden or passionate love, but about love vs Irish Catholic morality. In Mary Lavelle, the Spanish family Mary works for is Catholic, yet Spanish Catholicism does not have the repressive effect Irish Catholicism does. Kate O’Brien not-so-implicitly asks in the book what sort of identity Ireland offers women, implies that people cannot express themselves in Ireland, and her distaste for middle-class Ireland is clear as she describes the characters that are living in Ireland.

Kate O’Brien’s books were banned under the Censorship Act, but she was invited to write for The Bell, which I talked about last week. Although she had no particular loyalty to any political party, she was still acutely aware of politics – in Ireland and in Spain.. She described herself as a Catholic Agnostic, but actively criticised the Church in her writing, especially on the subject of censorship; she is quoted as saying that “[She sees] no story unless there is moral conflict”. I’m looking forward to learning more about her, and other Irish writers of her time, as the module progresses!

Are there any Irish female authors you like, or a particular era in Irish Literature? Let me know!

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