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!
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.
1975: Tinkers and Travellers – Sharon Gmelch.
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.
1977: King Longbeard: A Fairy Story – Pauline Devine
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.
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!
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.
For more information, or to buy this book, click here.
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.
For more information, or to buy this book, click here.
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.
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!
For more information, or to buy this book, click here.
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...
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.
1986: Phrases Make History Here: A Century of Irish Political Quotations – Conor O’Clery
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.
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!
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.
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’
‘An Old dead tree with its timber drained
And a twenty year old with her heart untamed’
‘Has the Catholic Church a glimmer of sense
That the priests won’t marry like anyone else?’
For more information, or to buy this book, click here.
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.
1991: Wildflower Girl – Marita Conlon-McKenna
In 1990 we published the first novel by a new children’s author called Marita Conlon-McKenna. Starting with the death of a baby in famine-struck Ireland, we were told by many people that it would never get an audience, but we had full faith in the story. What we hadn’t fully realised was the hunger Irish people had to read stories about our own history, having been raised previously on foreign books. By the time the sequel, Wildflower Girl, was published the next year, Marita was a star and a whole new genre had been born, and we again asked Donald Teskey to illustrate the cover and insides.
We quickly realised that there were huge numbers of stories that needed to be told about our own place and times, and rapidly worked with authors like Gerard Whelan (The Guns of Easter, A Winter of Spies) and Siobhán Parkinson (Amelia, No Peace for Amelia) to open the doors of Irish history to our children. With over 30 books now available covering pre-history to the northern Ireland conflict on the 1960s, Marita’s spark has led to a richness we are very proud to have brought to life.
For more information, or to buy this book, click here.
1992: Exploring the Book of Kells – George Otto Simms
George Otto Simms was the foremost scholar on The Book of Kells, Ireland’s most famous illuminated manuscript. This beautiful book examines the lives of the monks who made it, how the book was made and the amazing detail that has made the book such a beacon. George, appropriately, wrote the entire book in elegant handwriting in school copy books, while David Rooney’s soft pencil drawings and Eoin O’Brien’s tracings brought the world of the scribe vividly to life. The Long Library in Trinity immediately saw how useful this book could be and gave us their full backing. George was an absolute pleasure to work with, and also produced books about Brendan the Navigator and Saint Patrick.
1993: The Complete Wicklow Way – J.B. Malone (4th Revised Edition)
The idea of marked public walks across Ireland is normal today. This was not the case before this book was published.
J.B Malone a ‘legend among walkers’ campaigned for years and he succeeded in changing government policy. So the Wicklow way, right across Wicklow to Carlow, was created – to the plans J.B. helped create. He walked every inch and drew the 83 maps himself. We had to persuade him to mark the car parks – he saw cars as an unnecessary intrusion in nature’s wonderland.
James Plunkett, author of Strumpet City and a keen hill walker, wrote the introduction to the book.
1994: Fear of the Collar: My Extraordinary Childhood (2nd Edition) – Patrick Touher
In recent years, lots of books have been written about clerical sex abuse in Ireland but in the early 90s it was unheard of and highly risky. Priests, nuns and brothers clung on to a saintly image – an image the church and the Irish state conspired to maintain.
Patrick Touher was incredibly brave to even think about publishing a book that lifted the lid on this ‘protected species’ – the state-funded clerical-controlled industrial schools. At one time there were sixty industrial schools in Ireland, forty for girls. An image was cultivated that the ‘young inmates’ were child criminals whose lives would be made good by learning a trade under the caring, loving and skilful hands of priests and brothers.
Of course, Artane was extraordinary – self sufficient, grew all its own food and the boys baked, tailored and cobbled. You can imagine our shock at reading Patrick’s story of violence and sexual assault on the boys by members of the Christian Brothers.
Years after the book was published, two detectives arrived at O’Brien Press and said they were investigating child sex abuse in Artane and Patrick Touher told them about a particularly sordid account he wrote, which O’Brien Press left out of the book, of a sexual ordeal he suffered in the industrial school. I had forgotten about the chapter but found it and gave it to the detectives.
In 2007, we sold the publishing rights to Ebury in the UK. By then, of course, Ireland had changed; multiple scandals had been exposed by the media about nuns, priests, brothers, sisters, bishops, even a cardinal – the church-state conspiracy was blown open.
Patrick's honest and brave book helped in the light of truth. I always felt privileged to publish it. The book is still in print; you can find out more here.
1995: Amelia (2nd Edition) – Siobhán Parkinson
In 1990 we published Marita Conlon-McKenna’s breakthrough novel Under the Hawthorn Tree, which won the International Reading Association Award in the USA and was translated extensively. During this period, we were actively seeking new talent to write novels for young readers – Ide Ní Laoghaíre was the brains and the drive behind this project.
Siobhán was already contracted for All Shining in the Spring; we held this challenging project for a time and Ide suggested to Siobhan to write a historical novel. Siobhán began a novel about a Quaker family, the Pims, and Amelia was born: ‘The year is 1914. Amelia Pim will soon be thirteen. There are rumours of war and rebellion ...’
Siobhán went on to write twelve other children’s books, including: The Henny Penny Tree, The Leprechaun Who Wished he Wasn’t, Animals Don’t Have Ghosts, Sisters: No Way (which won the Bisto Award and was translated into thirteen languages), and Four Kids, Three Cats, Two Cows, One Witch (Maybe).
Siobhán is one of the gifted writers who helped us fulfil an almost impossible goal – to create a new literature for children in Ireland, with an international appeal. In the 1970s and 1980s, Ireland was almost totally dominated by British children’s books. Siobhán became Ireland’s first Children’s Laureate na nÓg, sponsored by The Arts Council of Ireland and Children’s Books Ireland.
1996: The General: Godfather of Crime – Paul Williams
The way that Ireland talked about crime and criminals was completely different in 1996. It is hard to believe now, but broadsheets and broadcast media simply did not cover the area at all. Paul Williams, then with the Sunday World, was the first journalist to realise that there was huge public interest. His coverage of crime, particularly in Dublin, started to drive public debate.
When The General was published it was a huge bestseller: within 5 months it was printed 5 times, a total of 45,000 books. It spawned a whole publishing genre, and showed the rest of the newspapers, TV and radio that there was a real appetite for more detail on the world of crime and criminals.
A huge second boost came when John Boorman directed a fantastic movie adaptation starring a young Brendan Gleeson in the title role, stylishly shot in black and white with a brilliant soundtrack by Ritchie Buckley. Our first ever cinematic adaptation, it came only three years after the book: remarkably quick. Of course, we did a movie tie-in cover (the one to the left is the original) while our foreign publishing partners (in the US, Croatia and Spain) all took different approaches.
1997: Irish Stone Walls: History, Building, Conservation – Pat McAfee
Pat McAfee is a talented stone mason and expert in traditional Irish Stone Walls, the type that every tourist in the west of Ireland can’t help taking pictures of! He saw that the ancient craft of building walls that would last centuries, without the need for cement or other renders, was fading, and was appalled by some of the restoration efforts which had actually made things worse! Pat’s first book Irish Stone Walls (he later followed it with Stone Buildings) is subtitled History, Building, Conservation and has become the bible for all who care about these beautiful structures. Nobody knew what the market would be for this, but after three printings within four months (and some very confused printers, who couldn’t believe we needed yet more copies of the book about stones!) it became clear that we had a hit on our hands. Ireland’s built heritage owes a big debt to Pat, and the quality of wall building and conservation has improved as a direct result of his books, training and consultancy.
1998: Between the Mountains and the Sea: Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County – Peter Pearson
Peter Pearson knows everything there is to know about the buildings and heritage of Dublin, and South Dublin in particular. A collector of photographs, paintings and ephemera, he had a wealth of visual material available. We thought it was time that all of this was brought together and one of our biggest ever projects was born! Weighing in at 384 pages and with over 700 images, as well as 30 new maps, it was an enormous challenge to produce with the tools available in 1998. Often running 3 computers simultaneously (one for scanning, one for image editing and a third for page layout), Peter would arrive with photographs that were damaged almost beyond use, maps of all shapes, sizes and vintages (“just blow up that TINY bit there”) and objects of all sorts to be scanned and added to the book. Peter followed with The Heart of Dublin (a similar book about the centre of Dublin) and Peter Pearson’s Decorative Dublin (concentrating on the details and decorations that adorn the city). Republished with a new introductory section in 2007, Between the Mountains and the Sea has sold over 16,000 copies.
1999: The Mammy – Brendan O’Carroll
Not the year of the book, but the year of the film! First published in 1994, The Mammy has been bigger than anybody ever thought. Brendan O’Carroll’s tale of a mother struggling to make ends meet and bringing up a gang of unruly kids felt quintessentially Irish: but it has been published in the US and Australia as well as Arabic, Chinese, Hungarian, Polish and Italian (where Brendan is huge) among others.
The full reach of Brendan’s characters first became clear when in 1999 Anjelica Huston chose to make her directorial debut with her movie Agnes Browne, casting herself in the title role with actors both Irish (Gerard McSorley, June Rogers) and international (Ray Winstone, Tom Jones): as well as Brendan O’Carroll himself a “Seamus the Drunk”. A movie tie-in cover and many sales followed. These days Brendan plays Agnes himself in the huge international hit TV series Mrs Brown’s Boys, and in Mrs Brown’s Boys; d’Movie.
2000: The Wish List – Eoin Colfer
Eoin Colfer’s first book, Benny and Omar, arrived unsolicited into our offices and drew us all into the world of his imagination and humour straight away. A real pleasure to work with, Eoin hoovered up knowledge and insights into the world of books wherever he could and his writing prowess grew rapidly. By the time we did his sixth book, The Wish List, he was a star of the Irish literary scene and one of the first authors we talked to foreign publishers about at book fairs. But when his first Artemis Fowl book (not with us, unfortunately!) was pitched as the Next Big Thing at the Frankfurt Book Fair, we leapt on the opportunity: fly-sheeting every stall in the whole fair took a few hours, but delivered results quickly. Everybody wanted to see the books that Eoin had already published and translations rapidly followed: The Wish List can be read in over 30 languages (you can see the covers here: it’s amazing how differently the same book can be presented in different countries). Eoin is Ireland's Laureate na nÓg, and one of the world’s most popular children’s authors.
2001: Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives from History – Marian Broderick
The issue of women being rubbed out of history was raised by our Editorial Board on different occasions over the years. Marian Broderick in her introduction says: ‘in amongst all the brave and fool-hardly deeds of long-ago, Ireland seldom hears of the women’.
Of course, don’t be mislead by the word ‘wild’. A quick peep at the contents shows there were ‘Women of Letters’ – Famous Writers, Wives and Lovers, ‘The Great Pretenders’ – women who pretend to be men to get on in the world, ‘Women on the Front Line’ – war and medicine, ‘Ahead of Their Time’ – revolutionaries and suffragettes, ‘Saints and Sinners’ – Grainne O’Mally and Kathleen Behan, ‘Stars of Stage and Screen’ – Hollywood to the Abbey Theatre, ‘Artistic Temperaments’ – artists like Sarah Purser and the Yeats sisters.
First published at a handsome hardback, it’s been in print in paperback ever since. The most recent cover visually merges Victorian gentility with a wild west poster theme.
2002 Crowning the Customer (4th Edition) – Feargal Quinn
The speed at which we went from signing Feargal to publishing Crowning the Customer was remarkable; the contract was finalised on the 11 September and the book published only two months later!
Feargal Quinn (now a Senator) is the founder of the Superquinn supermarket chain. He introduced the idea of putting customers first to Ireland. I was a fan and shopped in Superquinn when he phoned me about his book and asked was I interested. Wow, was I!
I arranged to meet him the next day. He explained that he had written a ‘customer driven’ manual for new employees and it was tiresome to keep copying it for each new employee. Anyway, it had messages for the world: the customer is king! He wanted it in book form with big type that any business person could read on a short flight.
We created a significant marketing plan – Feargal arranged for Don Keogh, head of Coca Cola Worldwide, to speak at a spectacular launch.
We printed six runs in the first three years – big retailers like Sainsburys bought it in bulk for their managers. Its messages were carried to the world with translations in Arabic, Chinese, Danish, German, Finnish, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Swedish.
Feargal created another book in 2013, Mind Your Own Business – Survive and Thrive in Good Times and Bad, following his TV series Retail Therapy. Topics included innovation, succession, changing with the times, and start ups.
Both books are available – and in ebook too!
2003: Ross O’Carroll-Kelly: The Orange Mocha-Chip Frappuccino Years by Paul Howard
Paul Howard was a sports journalist with the (late lamented) Sunday Tribune newspaper who O’Brien Press had published several times: boxer Steve Collins’ autobiography Celtic Warrior, The Joy (about life in Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail) and The Gaffers (Mick McCarthy, Roy Keane and Saipan). He was writing a short humourous column, The Diary of a Schools Rugby Player, which rapidly became the most-read element of the paper. It moved from inside the sports section to the back page of the sports section and then to the main paper. Paul had collected the early writings in two volumes which he had published with the Tribune (we later re-edited and re-published these as The Teenage Dirtbag Years and The Miseducation Years), but we saw that there was lots more potential there. With the superb new illustration talent of Alan Clarke the Ross phenomenon was born: over 50,000 copies of each book has sold, the column is a major feature of the Irish Times Saturday edition (surely Ross’s spiritual home!) with each new Ross book a guaranteed bestseller.
2004: Something Beginning With P: New Poems from Irish Poets – Edited by Seamus Cashman
Illustrated by Corrina Askin, Alan Clarke & Emma Byrne
We had a big dream: to create a children’s poetry anthology, like those we'd seen in other European countries. This would involve commissioning one hundred of our most acclaimed poets to write one children’s poem and have them specially illustrated.
Easy to say but difficult to achieve. I asked Seamus Cashman, poet, editor and founder of Wolfhound Press, and friend to edit it. Of course, this involved asking established poets, like Heaney, Higgins, Kennelly, Kinsella, Longley, Muldoon, and O’Driscoll to write specially for children and sometimes for the first time.
In his introduction, Cashman says: ‘I enjoyed commissioning the poems for this collection more than I could have imagined. That legendary standing army of Irish poets, famous, infamous and unknowns proved, much to my relief, to be more than a wild bunch, good humoured professionals, ready to have a go.’
For illustration, we wanted something wild, beautiful, original and child-centred – and boy did the three illustrators deliver! Alan Clark, mischievous, rude and brilliant. Corrina Askin, blazing colour, action-packed childish fun. Emma Byrne contributed illustration, brilliant typography and overall delicious design. Poetry Ireland helped with the books promotion and launch.
Two original editions, well-published, a hardback in a slipcase, and a trade hardback: the cost was huge. We were thrilled to receive funding from the Irish Arts Council and huge support from RTE Education, who bought a substantial number of copies for lucky schools in Ireland. In 2008, the first paperback was published.
‘A dream for parents hoping to inspire a love of poetry, and a book that will never be outgrown’ Irish Independent
2005: Alice Again – Judi Curtin
One of the first books I edited when I started working as an editor with The O’Brien Press was Judi Curtin’s Alice Again, her second book about best friends Alice & Megan. Judi was being described as ‘Ireland’s answer to Jacqueline Wilson’, probably because both writers deal sensitively with the issues facing young readers and are set in the everyday, modern world. I’d already read her first book, Alice Next Door, and loved it, so I was looking forward to working with Judi, and she didn’t disappoint – from discussions about just how madcap Alice’s next madcap scheme should be, conversations about Domino (Megan’s cat – and the only character in the series based on a real-life individual) and loads of back and forth about covers and briefing Woody, the illustrator, on what twelve-year-old girls in Ireland might wear to a disco – working with Judi on her eight ‘Alice & Megan’ books (nine including the cookbook) and her four ‘Eva’ books has been a real pleasure. Judi develops her characters and their relationships over the course of the series; she’s dealt with friendship issues, parental separation, bullying, seeing beyond outward appearances, the recession, the beginnings of boy/girl relationships – and handled them all with a really light touch so the books never risk becoming ‘issue’ books. And they’re funny – Eva and Megan are great narrators of the two series, and the cast of supporting characters bring a lot of humour to the books too.
This year, the Alice & Megan series got a makeover – both the newest title, Viva Alice!, and the older books in the series got a brand new look with gorgeous covers from young artist Nicola Colton.
Judi’s are the kind of books I would have loved to read as a child, and being Judi’s editor now has been a real high point in my working life. And I’m not the only one who loves them – the books have been bestsellers and Books of the Month, and are translated into many languages. This year Judi is the face of Specsavers Reading and Literacy Campaign which hopefully will spread her characters’ fame even further afield.
Helen Carr, Senior Editor
2006: History’s Daughter – Maire MacSwiney Brugha
It was a privilege to publish the autobiography of Maire MacSwiney Brugha, daughter of the Irish republican hero, Terence MacSwiney. Terence became Lord Mayor of Cork after the murder of Tomás Mac Curtain by the British, and later died on hunger strike in London’s Brixton Prison in 1920, creating a worldwide sensation. Maire was just three.
Her mother Muriel Murphy MacSwiney was from the wealthy Murphy brewing family who, uncharacteristically, became a socialist activist. Young Maire spent her early years in various European schools. She was fourteen years when she first came to Ireland where she later married Ruairí Brugha, whose father Cathal was a leader in The War of Independence.
When I met Maire she was eighty-five and almost blind. She had a feisty lively curiosity and was very engaged in the idea of creating her biography. Her daughter-in-law Catherine played a major role in opening up her dramatic story, and also arranging and selecting photos, museum artefacts and manuscripts from the family’s fabulous collection and elsewhere.
Maire’s description of Switzerland and Nazi Germany are graphic – a photo in the book shows Nazi soldiers and banners. Maire says ‘During the summer of 1938, I was able to roam freely around Berlin, the swastika was visible everywhere.’
The book was first published in a splendid hardback in 2005 and is now available in paperback. It was launched by the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
2007: The Story of Ireland – Brendan O’Brien
This was one of those mad big ambitious ideas that sounds so hard to get over the line. Just think of the pitch: “let’s do a history of Ireland for children from the Stone Age to now. It has to be both accurate and entertaining, really child-friendly and heavily illustrated with photographs and cartoons. Lots of funny cartoons. And it has to cover everything from the way people lived to the major historical characters, both North and South, including the Famine, 1916 and the Northern Troubles, in a fair and balanced way. And let’s do it as a large-format hardback.” The author, Brendan O’Brien, had written books before but never for children, so there was a huge learning curve for all of us.
This type of book takes a long time, and a huge team. The author’s contract was signed in 21 October 2003, and the book was published almost exactly four years later, in 2007. We commissioned the wonderful Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenny to do the illustration, where eight different artists took on different sections. And that’s before the maps and photographs were sourced and the complex pages designed, checked and checked again!
We are very grateful to the Dublin Airport Authority, the Heritage Council and the Arts Council, who all helped us to make this huge project a reality – and the time and energy invested was all worthwhile when the final, wonderful book won at the Irish Book Awards and went on to sell lots of copies! After a couple of years we even did a smaller version which is more suitable for tourists: the two editions have sold 30,000 copies between them, and are an essential stock item for all bookshops in Ireland. Sometimes it really pays to think big!
2008: Exploring the Book of Kells (Japanese) – George Otto Simms
Exploring the Book of Kells was first published in 1992 in hardback. This friendly introduction to one of Ireland’s main treasures was still selling strongly, but we felt it was time that it was available in paperback. We discussed the huge range of tourists who visited it and, with our experience of multilingual editions of The Golden Book of Ireland, decided that it was time that we made it available in a range of languages. After consulting with the Library Shop in Trinity College, we decided to aim for German, French and Japanese.
As English-language publishers, we are rarely faced with the challenges of translation. While most publishers in most countries in the world consider this a core part of their business, readers in English are generally more conservative, and works in translation are not so popular: thankfully this is now changing, but it does mean that the infrastructure is not present. Apart from anything else, we don’t have the experience in setting Japanese type!
Thankfully, I have a friend who has lived in Japan for many years (in Nagoya) who works for a translation company, so we were able to get the logistics dealt with: it would have been incredibly difficult to do this when the book first came out and we were taking hand-written pages from the author’s own hand, but the power of the internet meant it was pretty seamless. We have since added Spanish to the roster of languages for this unique celebration of Celtic art.
2009: Blood Upon the Rose – Gerry Hunt
As a graphic designer, and like many others, I was always drawn (forgive the pun) to comics and graphic novels. In college, my degree thesis was about graphic novels and their ability to communicate more than just ‘light funnies’.
I came across Street of Dublin by Gerry Hunt one day in Sub City, that beloved shop of the comic fan, and I loved the look and feel of it, the art, the production, the paper. I promptly bought a copy and I remember how impressed I was with the drawings of Dublin. Gerry Hunt really brought the place to life – and gave it fantastic atmosphere.
Anyway I brought the graphic novel into the office and Michael O’Brien was equally impressed so we asked Gerry to come in. From this meeting, the great idea came about to create a graphic novel version of the the 1916 rising. By taking an often sensitive episode from our history and retelling it through the media of the comic book, it takes on a different guise. It makes it more approachable to those reluctant to read weightier volumes – so it really appeals to kids. But the medium of sequential narrative also makes a difficult subject ‘appear’ more accessible, and it can be presented in a different light. This was innovative publishing.
BrenB did the colouring and Helen Carr worked as editor to complete the project and we have since worked on At War With the Empire, about the Irish War of Independence, and 1913: Larkins Labour War about the 1913 Lockout. Blood Upon the Rose not only proved to be a commercial success but the start of a line of documentary graphic novels that The O’Brien Press has become known for.
Emma Byrne, Design Manager
2010: A Coward if I Return, A Hero if I Fall – Neil Richardson
I first met Neil Richardson as a teenager at a creative writing project at Tallaght library in West Dublin. He was writing fiction and also interested in military history. When he discovered a family secret that his great grandfather was a soldier in World War I, he was amazed and he decided to research this grey area in Irish history.
Neil contacted newspapers and other media, asking for memorabilia, diaries, medals, and letters from the public relating to relatives who fought in the Great War. The overwhelming response convinced him to write a book that would become A Coward if I Return, A Hero if I Fall, reflecting the Republic of Ireland’s ambivalent attitude to their sons donning British uniforms. Of course, it coincided with the rise in Irish republican activity, including the historic 1916 Rising and the desire for independence from the British Empire.
Neil’s focus, research, eloquent writing, and dogged persistence resulted in a great book. At the prestigious Irish Book Awards, Neil was up against acclaimed names in his non-fiction category. When he won the award, he almost fell off his chair – but he managed to deliver a stirring account to the audiences at the venue and at home, watching on television.
2011: Sally Go Round the Stars – Sarah Webb
When this book came to me, I had great fun rereading all those rhymes I learned as a kid. Everything from ‘Three Blind Mice’ to ‘Are you Right there Michael’.
It was also great fun working with Sarah Webb and Claire Ranson, and trying to find an illustrator that would ‘rock the look’. I had different artists in mind, some that I had worked with before, but I wondered if it was possible to take these familiar stories and give them a completely fresh and non-traditional look. I put it to the in-house editorial group and they asked me to come up with some different illustrators and approaches.
There are different websites that I peruse for ‘new talent’ on a continuous basis, as well as getting illustrator's portfolios in through the post. I also search through blogs and it was here that I found Steve McCarthy. I found his work fresh, funny and innovative. I thought he could really re-invent these classic rhymes while still being true to them.
There was some trepidation in-house, as Steve hadn’t published illustrations for children. It would mean taking a big chance, so I got some samples and Steve came in to meet Sarah, Claire, Ide (the editor) and myself. The authors liked the sound of Steve and were generously willing to take a risk too. The rest is history; the gamble paid off in spades. These time-trusted stories had a whole set of new clothes, at times funny, sad, quiet, messy, colourful but always engaging. Favourites include the cutaway drawing for ‘There Was an Old Woman’, which should be disgusting but is fiendishly funny, the various characters, animals and superheroes that appear in ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ and the simple but dynamic drawing for ‘I’m a Little Teapot’.
Steve’s drawings had a touch of the surreal about them which made them fun for kids and adults alike, bringing in a new and old audience. Lots of people said nice things, including Ryan Tubridy on The Late Late Toy Show, who called the book ’a cracker'. It was justifiably nominated for the Bord Gáis Children's Book of the Year.
So we do always make an effort in house to look for new, unpublished illustrators and are willing to take a chance on new voices – as clearly it pays to do so!
Emma Byrne, Design Manager
2012: Dubliners – James Joyce
Dublin’s innovative One City, One Book festival is a city-wide celebration of reading and has been running since 2006. Selected by the city libraries, a single book is the focus for a month of readings, talks, music and a myriad of other events. We were immensely proud to be the first Irish publisher to feature when, in 2012, our edition of James Joyce’s Dubliners was chosen as the key title.
There are so many editions of Joyce’s works available that we felt we needed our edition to really stand out. So many “classic” editions have small, cramped type that we felt this was an opportunity to create a beautiful edition which would cry out to be read! Emma Byrne’s modern type design and the use of old photographs inside, as well as a great cover, make this an object to treasure. We were delighted when John Boyne agreed to write a new, and very personal, introduction.
Of course, all the events that were part of One City, One Book were wonderful, including a night of readings and music in the National Concert Hall. The support of our friends in the Dublin City Libraries was really strong.
Our Joycean adventure continued when, in 2013, we published a new edition of Ulysses (both in hardback and paperback, as well as a special limited edition) as well as James Joyce: Portrait of a Dubliner, a spectacular graphic novel biography of Ireland’s most famous writer.
2013: Arimathea – Frank McGuinness
Today, Frank McGuinness is a world-renowned playwright, a highly skilled adapter of plays by writers such as Ibsen, Sophocles, Brecht, and writer of several film scripts, including Dancing at Lughnasa, not to mention he has published several anthologies of poetry.
I first met the young Frank in the early 1980s when he worked as an editor in my good friend Seamus Cashman’s publishing company, Wolfhound Press. Both O’Brien and Wolfhound were founded in 1974 – forty years and still growing! Even then, Frank was impressive with his flaming orange hair, strong voice and incredible focus. During that period, his first play, The Factory Girls was produced in the mighty Abbey Theatre to great acclaim.
When Steve McDonagh, a friend and the publisher at Brandon, died in 2010 we acquired the list and began a new wave of fiction with Brandon as an imprint of O’Brien. Frank was (and still is) Professor of English in University College Dublin, engaged with their creative writing school, and I asked him to help me develop Brandon Fiction, to suggest authors and help create an ethos and strategy, which he generously agreed.
We met in his local pub and brainstormed for a couple of hours. However, something in my gut told me to ask Frank if he had written anything different lately. He, without any ceremony, said quietly that he had written a novel. I was immediately excited.
When I read the manuscript, I was entranced by his unforgettable voices, his dexterity, the wide cast of characters and his originality. The acclaim was immediate: Arimathea was shortlisted for both Eason Novel of the Year 2013 and the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2014.
We had a major launch of Brandon Fiction in Dublin’s National Gallery with Frank’s Arimathea and Mary Morrissy’s The Rising of Bella Casey, attended by an impressive literary and arts audience. Brandon Fiction was off to a perfect start!
2014: Surge: New Writing From Ireland – Editor: Frank McGuinness
My father, who founded The O’Brien Press with me forty years ago, also helped to found the New Theatre Group, in 1937. A radical theatre, it played in Dublin’s Peacock and other small theatres. The NTG’s magazine was Surge, and it published new fiction, poems, novel extracts, short stories and political and dramatic commentary and review.
In March 1943, my father wrote in Surge about the ideals of the NTG’s founders and its future: ‘There was an extraordinary spirit, a creative will-to-do … Its purpose was to give to its socialist progressive audience plays that no other Irish theatre dared produce … to play a serious role in the dramatic role of the nation.’ He continued: ‘It must find its own national playwrights and it must produce their plays in a theatre which is capable of paying royalties and wages.’ A similar spirit has surrounded The O’Brien Press since it published its first books in November 1974.
The idea of a short story collection showcasing the best emerging Irish talent was first raised at a board meeting of the Dublin Book Festival. Ireland has a great tradition for the short story, which flourished in the 1940s and 50s when The Bell magazine, edited by Sean O’Faoláin, Peadar O’Donnell and Anthony Cronin, discovered and published the creative talent of the era. As part of our Brandon Fiction programme, O’Brien Press wished to bring together new talent from all parts of modern Ireland, and found inspiration in the current work of the creative writing schools in the four green fields of our major universities. For the collection, we decided not to separate the authors into their individual colleges, nor to arrange them by alphabetical order of surname. By what logic or theme are the stories arranged? That is for the reader to work out.
It’s a joy to work with so many creative and inspiring people in the five universities: National University of Ireland, Galway (Adrian Frazier, John Kenny, Mike McCormack, Lionel Pilkington, Julia Kilroy); Queen’s University Belfast (Glenn Patterson, Darran McCann, Garrett Carr, Ciaran Carson); Trinity College Dublin (Gerald Dawe, Deirdre Madden, Gina Moxley); University College Cork (Mary Morrissy, Claire Connolly, Eibhear Walshe); and University College Dublin (Frank McGuinness, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, James Ryan). There is a real feeling of partnership in the writing, making and promoting of Surge. So thank you, writers, students, leaders and teachers, with a special thanks to Frank McGuinness for his fine introduction and for inspiring support for Surge, Brandon and The O’Brien Press - a true friend.
Launching Surge in November 2014 at Dublin Book Festival in Smock Alley Theatre marks forty years of O’Brien and the 100th anniversary of my father, Tom O’Brien’s, birth. I’m proud to hand on the Surge title to a new generation of creative writers, and I hope it truly carries forward the best of what we have achieved over forty years.