She was the seventh child of Thomas and Catherine O’Brien, who owned an equestrian business which meant that the family was a member of the affluent mercantile class in Limerick at that time. After the death of her mother in 1903, O’Brien was sent to board at Laurel Hill Convent giving her the dubious distinction of being the school’s youngest boarder. She won a scholarship to U.C.D. and having graduated in 1919, she went to work at the Manchester Guardian. In 1921, O’Brien move to London where she taught for 6 months before moving to Washington D.C. working for Eamon de Valera’s Bond Drive, to raise funds to support an independent Irish state. She returned from America in early 1922 but moved on to Spain where she spent the greater part of a year before returning again to London in 1923 at which time she married Gustaaf Renier, a Dutch journalist. This marriage did not stand the test of time and they were divorced within a year. She remained abroad until she purchased a house in Roundstone in Galway in 1950 where she spent about a decade before returning to England in 1960 where she set up home in Boughton in Kent and she lived there until her death in 1974.
After the success of her play Distinguished Villa in 1926, she took to full-time writing and was awarded the 1931 James Tait Black Prize for her debut novel Without My Cloak which was also awarded that year’s Hawthornden Prize. She is best known for her 1934 novel The Ante-Room, her 1941 novel The Land of Spices, and the 1946 novel That Lady. Many of her books deal with issues of female sexuality — several of them explore gay/lesbian themes — and both Mary Lavelle and The Land of Spices were banned in Ireland. She also wrote travel books, or rather accounts of places and experiences, on both Ireland and Spain, a country she loved, and which features in a number of her novels.
The Glucksman Library at the University of Limerick currently holds a large collection of O’Brien’s personal writings. In August 2005, Penguin reissued her final novel, As Music and Splendour (1958), which had been out of print for decades.
Without My Cloak; The Ante-Room; Mary Lavelle; Pray for the Wanderer;The Land of Spices; The Last of Summer; That Lady; The Flower of May; As Music and Splendour
Distinguished Villa: A Play in Three Acts; Farewell Spain; Teresa of Avila;
My Ireland; Presentation Parlour