When a beloved figure in their eighties dies, family, friends and colleagues are left with a sense of loss and sadness. But when Michael O’Brien died last month, the publishing and children’s books communities in Ireland were not only bereft but were rocked by shock. Michael O’Brien simply wasn’t supposed to die. He was not so much driven by the life force like the rest of us — he seemed actually to embody the life force.
Michael was a towering figure in Irish publishing. He had great charm and he was driven by huge and generous passions. He gathered a talented, hardworking and loyal team of colleagues who worked alongside him over decades to make the company that bears his name one of the most successful and creative publishing houses in the country. Though always a shrewd businessman, Michael didn’t let business concerns get in the way of a good idea — or even of a mad idea — and paradoxically it was that commitment to the creative that in the end made him such a successful businessman. He had the courage to take risks for what he believed in and generally speaking those risks came good.
He was a seminal force in the development of Irish children’s publishing and consequently of Irish children’s literature. Until the last decade or so of the twentieth century, Irish children were growing up largely on British (and to a lesser extent American) children’s books. Even those few books for children that were written by Irish authors were published outside Ireland, and Irish authors who might have had an interest in writing for children had little chance of being published. This was a perfect O’Brien opportunity: a market ripe for development that would also meet an important and pressing cultural need. Along with some other publishers (notably Seamus Cashman of Wolfhound Press), Michael set out to develop an Irish children’s publishing industry — and the foundations were laid for the thriving children’s books scene that we have in Ireland today.
I was privileged to be part of that movement, and Michael O’Brien published twelve of my own books. Without The O’Brien Press’s support, my career as a children’s writer would never have taken off, and in turn Little Island Books, which grew out of that, would never have been founded. So we could say that in a way Michael O’Brien was a kind of grandfather to Little Island Books — though he may never have thought of it quite like that.
Michael’s fingerprints are all over the world of Irish children’s books. Having developed an interest in publishing children’s books, Michael went on, with characteristic passion and creativity, to set up, with colleagues, the Irish Children’s Books Trust, which later amalgamated with the Children’s Literature Association of Ireland to form what is now Children’s Books Ireland. So that makes him a grandfather there too.
Michael’s publishing endeavours were always underpinned by his radical political and social views, and when he came across the story of Jella Lepman, founder of the International Board on Books for Young People, who believed in working for world peace through children’s books, Michael was totally smitten. He became a founding member of IBBY Ireland, and The O’Brien Press went on to publish Lepman’s biography.
Michael could be volatile, and hardly anyone who had dealings with him got off without at least one good row; but once he could sense that you were on the side of the angels — not that he believed in such unlikely beings — Michael was prepared to listen and to consider even a point of view he found difficult to accept. That is a mark of moral courage, and that is something Michael O’Brien had in spades.
Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann.
Iar-Laureate na nÓg
Founder, Little Island Books