#40Years40Books

Founded in 1974, The O'Brien Press has always been at the forefront of independent publishing in Ireland. From ground-breaking history titles, biography, true crime and tourist titles to children's novels of the highest international standards, we have continually innovated and explored new publishing ground.

The O'Brien Press has grown and has published over 1,500 books since then: here are some highlights, along with what we think made them special. It has been fascinating to delve into our back catalogue and see the evolution as it took place. We hope you enjoy the journey as much as we have!

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1974: Me Jewel and Darlin' Dublin – Éamonn MacThomáis

What a way to start a publishing house! The author was in Mountjoy Jail (he was editor of Sinn Féin's magazine An Phoblacht). The text was hand-written in school notebooks. I had been working full time in E&T O’Brien, my father Tom’s little printing works in Clare Street. I was editor, illustrator, indexer and designer – and also salesperson. I left E&T to follow my art.

In the middle of all this my father and I established The O’Brien Press – he was a writer, poet, socialist, activist, and Spanish Civil War veteran. I was an artist, graphic designer and environmental activist, married with three boys: Ivan, Eoin and Dara.

The book was launched in The Stag’s Head in November by Eamonn’s wife Rosaleen. A large wholesaler refused to distribute because the author was a Republican. However, Maura Hastings, the Eason O’Connell Street Manager, ordered 500 copies and put them all out at the main entrance. It sold out – and went into ten editions over the years.

Eamonn was also one of the sixteen authors of The Liberties of Dublin, edited by Elgy Gillespie (1973), a spin off from the annual Dublin Arts Festival. The book was turned down by many Dublin publishers – and reluctantly published by E&T O’Brien.

Tom O’Brien’s ambition was to publish a series of biographies of socialist activists, writers and leaders, the first of which, Peadar O’Donnell – Irish Social Rebel by Michael McInerney, was spectacularly launched in Kilmainham Jail. Sadly, on 6 December the same year my father dropped dead on Baggot Street, leaving the baby O’Brien Press in my inexperienced hands.

Michael O'Brien


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1975: Tinkers and Travellers – Sharon Gmelch.
Photos by Pat Langan and George Gmelch

How times change. When the Gmelchs, American anthropologists, were researching the lifestyle and traditions of Irish travellers, it was still common to see their horse-drawn covered wagons on the roadside.

Pat Langan was an acclaimed Irish Times staff photography. Sharon’s extensive research was condensed into the first popular illustrated book on the subject. It was part of our growing collection of illustrated cultural books, including Patrick Shaffrey’s The Irish Town – An Approach To Survival and (text needed)

This was the pre-computer era. Typeset pages were cut and stuck down with cow gum. Photographs were developed by hand, in trays (by me), and stripped into film.

Michael O'Brien


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1976: Skellig – Island Outpost of Europe – Des Lavelle

Visiting spectacular places in Ireland and meeting great people on their home turf (or surf) was a privilege then. Des is descended from three generations of lighthouse keepers and was the most qualified historian and inspiring guide to the monastic life and flora and fauna of the Skelligs. Almost all illustrated books in Ireland came from British publishers – so we were breaking the mould!

After a week of rejections on my first visit to the awesome Frankfurt Book Fair that year I had decided never to darken Frankfurt again: then thanks to some totally freaky good luck on the last hour of the last day  I sold USA/Canadian rights to both Tinkers and Travellers and Skellig – Island Outpost of Europe to McGill Queens University Press in Montreal. The rest is history.

Michael O'Brien

 
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1977: King Longbeard: A Fairy Story – Pauline Devine
Illustrated by Pat Walsh

Not many people knew that Longbeard was a million years old – next birthday! The 32 page hardback sold for £2.70 plus 27 pence VAT. VAT was later dropped from books for cultural reasons following a campaign.

This, our first children’s book, was partly full-colour and partly two-colour, due to the high costs of colour reproduction. It took us another 13 years to make a big decision to create a significant children’s fiction division at O’Brien Press. The original art was created as storyboards by RTE.

Michael O'Brien


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1978: Wild and Free – 100 Recipes and Folklore of Nature's Harvest Cyril and Kit O’Céirin

Love of the Irish language, literary traditions and nature’s bounty inspired this talented wife and husband team to create this original ground-breaking book. Cyril’s nature drawings are beautiful and, importantly, clearly identify the wild food to be picked in safety. This book was a basic reliable reference source for many years. We sold British rights to a small London publisher Skitton and Shaw in 1980.

Of course, we now have the beautiful Wild Food (2013) by Biddy White Lennon and Evan Doyle (of Brook Lodge), 256 pages in glorious colour of food in the wild and on the table. 

Michael O'Brien

 
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1979: Ireland’s Shop Fronts  Dee Parfit with text by Patrick Shaffrey

Dee, an American artist, was inspired by the bright colours and design of classic artisan village and town shop fronts in Ireland, whose special character were not fully appreciated at the time.

This foreign perspective helped focus our sights on the tourism market, which is a significant part of what we publish our range today, both in English and a range of languages: though I’m not sure a big portfolio like this would fit in modern air luggage!

Michael O'Brien

 
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1980: The Writers – A Sense of Ireland

Editors: Andrew Carpenter and Peter Fallon, Photographs by Mike Bunn

This dream team of literary, academic, poet, publisher and photographer – with inspiration from London’s showcase Sense of Ireland Festival – produced a literary masterstroke. Unpublished new work from 44 Irish writers – all alive and writing then. It included Banville, Beckett, Durcan, Heaney, Kinsella, Lavin, O’Faoláin, O’Flaherty, Plunkett, and Stuart. There was also a limited edition of twenty-four copies bound in full leather and signed by all 44. What an operation!

The launch, held in the Houses of Parliament at a time of huge political tension between the UK and Ireland, was a unique and bizarre occasion.

Michael O'Brien

For more information, or to buy this book, click here.

 
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1981: After the Wake – Brendan Behan

Peter Fallon uncovered, collected and introduced Behan’s lesser-known texts – some published for the first time. Peter was fiction editor for O’Brien Press at the time, and helped create a short series Classic Irish Fiction, which also included The Port Wine Stain by Patrick Boyle.

Of course, Peter continues to publish with Gallery Press Poetry. Behan was a friend of my father Tom, as young poets and active socialist campaigners.

Michael O'Brien

For more information, or to buy this book, click here.

 

 
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1982: Ireland 1982 Appointment Diary and Calendar

Published for a few years with Irish Books and Media, St Paul USA, this combined full colour photos of Ireland’s natural and historic highlights with anniversary dates and events – wire-bound for desk or bag. We changed the photos each year. It was hugely challenging financially and logistically, as it had to appear in May the year before!

There is a note in our file copy: Because of the postal dispute ‘all orders to go to Blackstaff Press in Belfast...’. We still have a relationship with Blackstaff, now representing their list around Ireland.

Michael O'Brien

 
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1983: The Big Windows: A Novel – Peadar O’Donnell

Peadar was ninety when we re-published this in our Classic Irish Fiction series (see 1981: After the Wake).

I can remember driving Peadar to RTE for an interview – his memory and sharp intellect were a bit intimidating. My father was involved with Peadar in the Republican Congress – an attempt to introduce a reforming social agenda to republican politics.

Peadar gave O’Brien Press first publication rights in 1975 to his novel Proud Island – it became our first ever translation in Russia, illustrated with a slight Oriental tone. Despite propaganda that we would never get paid, a Bank of Ireland cheque duly arrived. This sharpened our desire to sell translations for all our authors’ works. We now have over 400+ titles in 40 languages – and have twenty-two Rights Agents worldwide. Thanks Peadar!

Michael O'Brien

For more information, or to buy this book, click here.

 
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1984: The Lucky Bag – Pat Donlon, Patricia Egan, Eilis Dillan, and Peter Fallon

In the early 1980s, Peter Fallon became our Fiction Editor and with Ide Ní Laoghaire and myself. We developed ideas and formed partnerships with acclaimed artists and created an imprint Lucky Tree Books with three new children’s titles:

1. Jimeen was translated from Irish by Peter, Ide and Patricia Egan, a gifted historian. We asked Brian Bourke, acclaimed painter, to great gritty and quirky illustrations

2. Faery Nights – Oícheanta Sí, written and illustrated by dramatist Michael Mac Liammóir, with text in both English and Irish (facing pages) was originally published in 1922. Thse stories on Ancient Irish Festivals, echoed the work of Wilde.

3. The third Lucky Tree book was The Lucky Bag, classic stories suitable for children were selected by Pat Donlon, Patricia Egan, Eilis Dillan and Peter Fallon. What a team! Peter introduced us to Martin Gale, who’s beautiful sensitive pencil drawings illustrate the twenty stories.

Lucky Tree was introduced as ‘A major new series of illustrated masterpieces from the tradition of Irish children’s stories’. We took these three lovely books to a children’s book fair in the RDS, and found ourselves surrounded by big British publishers with their pyramids of children’s fiction.

The big surprise for us was the parents around our stand, demanding more books with an Irish cultural context – and not ‘children whose relations own islands and bobbies with funny hats and red letter boxes...’

After the fair, we came back and made a huge strategic decision that we would create new literature for Irish children that would have international appeal and find a new generation of creative writers for children.

History in the Making! The imprint Lucky Tree Books disappeared – readers preferred O’Brien – so the hunt was on for the new creative fiction talent...

Michael O'Brien

 
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1985: Seeds of Injustice – Fr Niall O'Brien

A real campaigning book, written by a socially-aware priest who had been doing some fantastic work in the Philippines, before being arrested with eight others on trumped-up murder charges: the Negros Nine. Fr Niall O’Brien (no relation!) was a larger-than-life character, and Ronald Reagan intervened with Ferdinand Marcos to get him released: rather than accept a pardon, which would imply guilt, however, Fr Niall held on until the charges were eventually dropped. The book was huge, but I particularly remember a dinner with Fr Niall where kept us entertained for hours with stories of the cultural differences between Ireland and his adopted home: in particular the challenges of having an Irish-style Christmas dinner cooked by someone who had never seen a turkey before!

So many memoirs have followed, from the story of presidents to people who have suffered horrible abuse: at the end of the day, what people find most engaging in a book is usually reading about other people, when the story is told with an authentic voice.

Ivan O’Brien

 
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1986: Phrases Make History Here: A Century of Irish Political Quotations Conor O’Cleary

Times have changed – so much reference material is available on the internet now. The quotation books are almost redundant – well almost!

1886-1986 was a century of massive change in Ireland. Parnell, Ulster Volunteers, Woman’s Suffrage, 1916 Rising, War of Independence, Free State, Civil Rights War in the North, Divorce, Churchill, Pearse, Collins, Yeats, Lenin, Hitler, Layley, Adams, and Garrett were all featured in Phrases Make History Here by the preeminent Irish Times journalist Conor O’Cleary. Conor made history too with his reports from London, Moscow, Washington, New York and Beijing.

In the same period, we published A Book of Irish Quotations by Sean McMahon, a literary collection from 1984 that went to four editions – the rights sold to Templegate, a US publisher.

Another research masterwork from Conor O’Cleary was Ireland in Quotes – A History of the 20th Century with a useful chronology and a rich index, which was published in October 1999.

Michael O'Brien

 
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1987: Irish Rock Mark Prendergast

Enya was huge, U2 were taking over the world and Van Morrison was on every radio channel. The early eighties were a remarkable period for Irish popular music, and Mark Prendergast buried himself in research to follow the lives of so many key musicians from traditional music roots to pop and rock. With Sweeney’s Men in the same book as Sinead O’Connor, it was exhaustive and a huge labour of love. In the days before the internet, checking facts was very hard, and I spend many hours in the vaults below RTE checking the record labels on old ‘78s, as well as making the odd phonecall to Dave Fanning, the man who knew everything there was to know! David Rooney’s amazing cover captures the sheer diversity of the Irish music scene to a tee. The book was published in America as “Isle of Noise”: I think we prefer our title!

Ivan O’Brien

 
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1988: Anna Liffey: The River of Dublin  Stephen Conlin and John De Courcy

Stephen Conlin, an architectural reconstruction artist of some genius, agreed to create two amazing projects at this time:

1. Anny Liffey, which incorporated huge full colour maps (176cm x 30cm) showing all the major buildings along the Liffey in the 1980s and incorporating views of Viking towns, medieval walls, St Mary’s Abbey, lost bridges and much more.

Stephen’s partner on the project, John De Courcy, additionally created about 70 drawings and a wonderful historical text on the history of Dublin life, trading, famous people, and structures all along the river.

All in an A4 book! Selling at £12.95 (old currency) we also printed 1000 copies of the map and sold them separately.

2. The same year we published the mini version of Dublin: 1000 Years – a tiny souvenir book illustrated with the magnificent series of colour drawings, showing Dublin as it looked over 1000 years.

Michael O’Brien

 
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1989: The Midnight Court – Brian Merriman

Translated by Frank O’Connor

Illustrated by Brian Bourke

An irresistible trio of talents created this award-winning edition of eighteenth-century erotic masterpiece. Frank O’Connor’s lively rendering of Brian Merriman’s work was teamed with drawings from the master of contemporary art, Brian Bourke. The book also had Frank O’Connor’s original preface from 1945. The cover illustration – a large painting modelled by a seductive Jay, Brian’s wife, hangs in O’Brien Press to this day.

To tempt you with a few sample words from the text:

‘Down with Marriage as ‘tis out of date,

It exhausts the stock and cripples the state’

And

‘An Old dead tree with its timber drained

And a twenty year old with her heart untamed’

And

‘Has the Catholic Church a glimmer of sense

That the priests won’t marry like anyone else?’

Michael O'Brien

For more information, or to buy this book, click here.


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1990: Mary Robinson A President with a Purpose – Fergus Finlay

When Mary Robinson, a campaigning human rights lawyer and senator, decided to run for president, she was regarded as a no-hoper. I got to know her well as our legal advisor on the occupations of the Viking Wood Quay Site. Nominated by the Labour Party, the early forecast was she would get 14% of the vote! I can remember Bride Rosney’s reaction to this at campaign meetings ‘she’ll win and she’ll be president!’ Bride gave up her job and campaigned with Mary in every town, valley and hill in the state – and against all the odds Mary won and Bride became her brilliant special advisor.

All had changed – all was to be changed.

Fergus Finlay, a brilliant advisor to Dick Spring in government – with extraordinary writing dexterity – created the text in record time. The new president’s stunning inaugural speech was edited from the live TV broadcast, including the last minute changes she made, and sent immediately to the printer. 12,000 copies were printed, though a reprint of 20,000 copies was needed in days.

Michael O'Brien