| Sarah O'Brien |
|Residence||Downton Abbey, Yorkshire, England|
|Family|| Brother (deceased) |
Mrs Nugent (sister)
Mr Nugent (brother-in-law)
Alfred Nugent (nephew)
|Occupation||Lady's maid at Downton Abbey (formerly)|
|Loyalty|| Thomas (formerly) |
|Behind the scenes|
|Portrayed by||Siobhan Finneran|
- O'Brien: "Friends! Who does she think she's fooling. We're not friends."
- Anna: "No?"
- O'Brien: "No. And you're not friends with the girls, neither. We're servants, you and me, and they pay us to do as we're told. That's all."
- — O'Brien after being reprimanded by Cora for insulting Matthew[src]
Sarah O'Brien who is mainly known as Miss O'Brien or simply O'Brien, is lady's maid to Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. She is never particularly happy, and although she sometimes flatters the ladies of the house, she rarely means it. On the other hand she has obtained a very high position and is a woman with a career, something many women were unable to have.
Sarah O'Brien was born into a farming family and would have followed tradition to go into service and send money back home to her family. She had a brother who was her favourite brother and who thought of her as his favourite. He suffered from shell-shock and was later killed in action. Her sister writes to her to find a position for her son, Alfred Nugent.. Perhaps due to being her brother's favourite siblings, Sarah seems to get along with the younger male servants more so than the female ones - becoming very friendly with Thomas Barrow, identifying with Henry Lang, whom she seems to particularly admire, and showing sympathy for William Mason in his frustration prior to his enlistment. Her nephew, Alfred, who is the child of her currently unseen sister, comes to work at Downton Abbey as first footman in 1920. Sarah O'Brien has never had children of her own, and that may have something to do with how protective she becomes of Alfred.
Due to her intelligence Sarah may have even been selected by the local chatelaine whilst still at school - being clever was certainly a advantageous feature for a lady's maid, especially one who intends to become indispensable to her mistress.
Some time between September 1921 and March or May 1922, she departed from Downton.
A master-manipulator, Sarah is not known for her sympathetic and cuddly nature. She is a prickly woman with a sharp tongue and a harsh word for practically everyone, particularly those who are subordinate to her in the pecking order below stairs, which luckily for her, is almost everyone. Sarah rarely shows any sympathy, instead either being the cause of misery or being unconcerned by the troubles of others. As such, she doesn't have many a friend above or below stairs--not that this troubles her. Sarah has no great investment in anyone except Thomas, but after a tragic event caused by Sarah in the summer of 1914 she's sworn to protect Cora. Her desperation to hold onto her job proved to be her weak spot.
Whilst not the most pleasant woman in the world she is certainly loyal to those she cares for. On numerous occasions, and with no real reason, she helps Thomas and later, declares that she will never again let anyone hurt Cora. Sarah O'Brien is, arguably, one of the most complex characters in the series.
In the beginning of the series, her friendship with Thomas had been long lasting and well known. Lord Grantham refers to them as "thick as thieves", and he voices surprise when he hears that they have had a falling out.
The basis of their friendship seems to be a general disdain for others in the household, and perhaps a fondness for manipulation. This friendship prompts her to help him get on in life in both Series 1 and 2. She chooses to aid him, putting her own job on the line, in constant plotting to get John Bates fired, so that Thomas may be instated as Robert Crawley, 7th Earl of Grantham's valet (although none of their schemes are successful). In the second series, through her subtle manipulation of Cora, Thomas is placed in the hospital under Dr. Clarkson and eventually runs Downton Abbey whilst it is a convalescence home. They share a darker sense of humour than the rest of the staff and are frequently to be found plotting and smoking in the yard, although with Thomas' newfound attitude, things may chill between them.
However by 1920, Thomas and Sarah become bitter rivals, triggered by Sarah's nephew Alfred Nugent coming to Downton to work as a footman. Sarah O'Brien is fond of her nephew, and very much wants to see him succeed. As she has considered Thomas a friend for so long, done favors to help him, and even told her secrets to him, she asks Thomas to teach Alfred to be a valet to Matthew Crawley. She is subsequently upset when Thomas absolutely refuses. Thomas had struggled, worked and schemed for 9 years to rise to the level of valet in a noble house. Alfred is a barely experienced footman, and Thomas sees it as a personal insult to himself that Alfred could just fall into the job in a matter of weeks. Thomas then sabotages Alfred's efforts to clean a spot off of Matthew's tailcoat, resulting in a hole being burned through it. Thomas convinces Lord Grantham that this is proof of Alfred's being not ready for the job. Thomas repeatedly insults Alfred, and this later results in Thomas and Sarah starting to insult each other. Sarah says that Alfred has a nice manner unlike Thomas. After Lady Edith is jilted at the altar, O'Brien remarks that if it had happened to her she could not live with the shame. Thomas says that it is lucky for her then that nobody has ever asked her. The situation escalates as they each then try to damage the reputation of the other. When Thomas starts a rumor that Sarah is going to leave Lady Grantham's service, it is the last straw, and O'Brien vows to get revenge.
When the series begins in 1912 Sarah greatly enjoys the authority her position gives her and tolerates Cora quite well, despite the odd remark to Thomas, until things turn sour when Cora publicly chastises Sarah for sharing her own remarks. Cora believes Sarah to be fond of her and calls them "friends", but all the while Sarah knows that there is a line between them she can never cross.
Later, Sarah overhears Violet and Cora talking and learns that Cora is advertising and receiving applications for a lady's maid. Believing her career is about to be ended without any regard for her, Sarah foolishly lashes out at the pregnant Cora, deliberately moving a piece of dropped soap from under the tub for Cora to slip on. Just as Sarah second guesses her action and calls out for Cora to wait, Cora exits the tub and falls badly, causing her to lose the little boy that she was carrying. Stricken by remorse, especially when she discovers that her job was always secure and Cora was trying to help Violet find a maid, Sarah presumably spends the years between 1914-1916 increasing her devotion and swearing to protect Cora.
When the series resumes the relationship between Cora and Sarah has progressed to the point Sarah is able to subtly ask Cora for favours and Cora still seems to hang on her every word. Other than Thomas, Cora is the only person toward whom Sarah ever displays any emotion. It seems the fondness now goes both ways. Sarah gets Cora to agree to hire her nephew Alfred over the head of Carson. When Thomas spreads the rumor that Sarah is leaving Cora's service, Lady Grantham feels betrayed and let down. Even when Sarah tells her that the rumor was false, Cora continues to believe that Sarah must have said something that was misinterpreted.
Whilst Ethel Parks flirts, Sarah immediately notices that Henry, the new valet, is suffering from shell-shock as a result of his time as a soldier. She sympathizes with him and remains quiet about his condition only to see him suffer when there is an accident at dinner that ends in disaster for Charles Carson. Afterwards Sarah admits to Henry that she had a brother with shell-shock and therefore recognises the symptoms and is the only instance of Sarah letting her guard down and talking about her home life to anyone. Whilst no romantic entanglement ever occurs, perish the thought for Sarah the career woman, she clearly cares for him, chastising Thomas for bad-mouthing him even a year later.
In 1920 Sarah successfully recommends her nephew, Alfred Nugent, as new footman. Mr. Carson refuses as the wedding is near, and he doesn't have time to train him. O'Brien, goes over his head to talk to Cora who after briefly talking to Robert, agrees to hire him. His aunt is protective of him, especially after Thomas starts to bully Alfred. She repeatedly tries to boost Alfred's confidence by telling him that he is skilled. And she says that he has a nice manner, unlike Thomas.
After one of Thomas' bullying actions towards her nephew Alfred, Sarah decides to get revenge. She notices that Thomas is attracted to Jimmy, so takes advantage of Jimmy's ambition to become a valet one day and tells him he needs to stay close to Thomas since Thomas worked his way from footman to valet and is close to Lord Grantham. Even though Jimmy feels uncomfortable with Thomas' over familiar behaviour towards him, Sarah continues her manipulation of the situation and initially dispels his concerns whilst also telling Thomas that his feelings are returned. Sarah's actions cause Thomas to make advances towards Jimmy, be forcefully rebuffed and at one point it looks likely that Thomas will lose his job in disgrace. However, Sarah finds that Thomas has a defender in John Bates who - with information he has gotten from Thomas - whispers "her ladyship's soap" in Sarah's ear. Afraid that her darkest secret is to be revealed, Sarah persuades Jimmy to let the matter drop.Crawley family visit the MacClare family at Duneagle Castle. Wilkins tells her is it nice to have a kindred spirit around, and they talk together on such things as Lord Flintshire getting a post in India. Wilkins is dreading having to go, though O'Brien does not think it would be too bad. Things turn sour when Lady Flintshire begins to favor O'Brien's skills over Wilkins's. O'Brien tries to remain nice, even complementing Wilkins's later efforts at the ball. Wilkins however is now jealous and bitter, to the point where she spikes a drink for O'Brien. Fortunately O'Brien does not drink it and tells Wilkins she is happy she does not need to feel any sense of loyalty to her.
- In "The Chronicles of Downton Abbey : A New Era" by Jessica Fellowes and Matthew Sturgis, Jullian Fellowes relates that the character of Sarah O'Brien was based on the lady's maid of a cousin of his grandfathers. She was like an axillary great-aunt. The woman who was her lady's maid, became a companion as the "old world disintegrated". He described her as, "On the surface, she was as polite as a courtier, but she had a black heart, cold and manipulative, and gradually forced all her mistress's family and friends away, until she ruled their Knightbridge home alone. Yet my aunt never saw it. As far as she was concerned, she had a faithful retainer who wanted nothing but her good, and she never made the connection of the absence of her family in the later years". He says that records of lady's maids show that, "As a breed, they were notorious for their complex and prickly nature, fraught with terrors about any possible challenge to their status. Siobhan Finneran gives us a wonderful example of this type; hard, calculating, and yet vulnerable when it comes to her own feelings". He says that O'Brien is his favorite character and he loves her.