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Michael O’Brien, Founder and Publisher of The O’Brien Press Passes Away Suddenly

Publishing Ireland was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Michael O’Brien of O’Brien Press on Sunday 31st July. A founding father of Publishing Ireland in 1970 and tireless champion for independent publishing, Michael will be greatly missed by all who had the pleasure of working with him. His enthusiasm and commitment to building a membership organisation for Irish publishers will endure, representing just one element of his vital and lasting impact. O’Brien Press are a valued, long-standing member and we extend our heartfelt sympathy to all of Michael’s family and colleagues at this difficult time.

Michael O’Brien, Founder & Publisher of Ireland’s leading independent book publisher, The O’Brien Press, Passes Away

Photo of Michael O’Brien, Founder and Publisher, The O’Brien Press (photo credit: Courtesy O’Brien Family)

The death has occurred of Michael O’Brien, Founder and Publisher of The O’Brien Press. Michael passed away suddenly in St James’ Hospital on Sunday 31st July at the age of 81.

A hugely well-known and influential figure in Irish books and publishing, Michael O’Brien established The O’Brien Press in 1974 with his father Thomas. It evolved out of a family-run printing house, and for more than forty-five years has established a reputation for quality and excellence in publishing for adults and children.

The O’Brien Press launched its first publication in November 1974. Me Jewel and Darlin’ Dublin, written by Éamonn MacThomáis and published while the author was in jail, was an immediate success. It has been reprinted many times, and has become a minor classic. Since then, The O’Brien Press has published well over two thousand books.

Always innovative and regularly breaking new ground in publishing, under Michael’s visionary leadership, The O’Brien Press has always been at the forefront in exploring and developing new areas of publishing – in sport, true crime (The General by Paul Williams), humorous fiction (The Mammy by Brendan O’Carroll, Paul Howard’s Ross O’Carroll-Kelly), humour (Murphy & O’Dea’s Feckin’ Collection), graphic novels celebrating Irish history and legend (Gerry Hunt’s Blood Upon the Rose, Celtic Warrior by Will Sliney), and publishing books by important Irish writers such as Máire Mhac an tSaoi, Frank McGuinness and many more.  

Perhaps his most important legacy is seeing the importance of a native children’s literature and acting on this. He drove the creation, nurturing and growth of a list of quality Irish children’s authors and books for all ages, as well as setting up national organisations supporting children’s books, which led directly to the vibrant children’s books scene we see in Ireland today. Generations of young readers owe a debt to Michael’s vision to create authentic Irish children’s books and stories, from Marita Conlon-McKenna’s Under the Hawthorn Tree in 1991 to Eoin Colfer to Judi Curtin and many, many more.

In 2013, Michael fulfilled James Joyce’s wish to be published in Dublin with Ulysses: The Dublin Illustrated Edition in collaboration with the James Joyce Centre with an introduction by Bob Joyce and illustrations by Emma Byrne. Michael was very proud of this particular publishing adventure!

Michael leaves behind a rich publishing legacy – today, The O’Brien Press is Ireland’s leading independent publisher, with a diverse publishing programme covering many different areas including fiction (for both adults and children), architecture, humour, environmental issues, history, biography, autobiography, business, folklore, travel & tourism, photography, poetry, sport, music, politics, true crime, cookery, reference books and more.

Michael was born in 1941, the second child of Thomas and Anne O’Brien: two radicals who met in the communist New Theatre Group in Dublin. Together with his six siblings, his Catholic and Jewish heritage made him an outsider in a backward-looking, church-dominated Ireland.

His skill as an artist led to him being drawn into early campaigns for the preservation of Dublin’s architectural heritage: his drawings showing old buildings in a new light. He was one of the seven named people held responsible by Dublin Corporation for the campaign for the preservation of Wood Quay, the Viking heart of Dublin, when it was being destroyed to make way for the new Civic Offices. An inveterate organiser, he was regularly involved in a range of campaigns to modernise Ireland, from the referenda of the 1980s, to many arts, cultural and local campaigns.

Michael was a respected artist and illustrator, and enjoyed a love of painting throughout his life. He most recently illustrated On the Banks of the Dodder, written by Ged Walsh. Born in Bray, he lived much of his early life in Kimmage before moving to Rathgar in 1987. He was an enthusiastic participant in local business and community organisations. He was an active member of Bray Sailing Club, and then the National Yacht Club, for many years, and participated in one Round Ireland Race.

He is survived by his beloved wife Svetlana, his loving sons Ivan, Eoin, Dara and Ferdia, and his beloved grandchildren Alice, Killian, Art, Sally, Grace and Ruby. He will be sadly missed by his loving family, sisters Sonya, Priya and Miriam, brothers Dermot and Brendan, daughters-in-law Suzanna, Róisín and Sue, his first wife Valerie, nieces, nephews, extended family, and friends.

The O’Brien Press will continue Michael O’Brien’s legacy: to pursue a policy of excellence, diversity, cultural independence and ground-breaking publishing for adults and children in the years to come.

On the tragic passing of his father Michael O’Brien, Ivan O’Brien, Managing Director, The O’Brien Press, said: ‘for someone so utterly involved in so many organisations and groups, as well as family and our company, to be pulled so quickly away from us is shocking. His bravery and willingness to take real risks and follow his instincts was always so impressive. He built a fantastic team of creative and highly-skilled people at O’Brien Press – predominantly women from its earliest beginnings – which was a testament to his unwavering belief that talent will deliver. Michael believed in telling great stories, in equality and tolerance and in Ireland’s place in the world. He challenged everything, but also built so many things and committed his time and energy to national and international organisations because it was the right thing to do. We will take this legacy and do our best to maintain and build on it.’

Funeral Arrangements

Michael’s Funeral will take place on Tuesday (August 9) at 12 noon in Christ Church, Rathgar. A livestream link will be provided here shortly.

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