Word for Word: the State should buy O’Brien’s old home

Ireland is happy to enjoy the cultural kudos – and tourism revenue – its once-shunned literary lions bestow on the country but the State is careless when it comes to preserving their homes

Mon, Jul 14, 2014, 10:57

The Property section of this newspaper recently reported that Edna O’Brien’s childhood home, in Co Clare, was withdrawn from auction after failing to meet its guide price and is now to be sold by private treaty. This showed, the piece said: “Not even an international literary reputation can bridge the Dublin-rural property divide.”

O’Brien was reported to be “a bit stunned” to hear it had gone for auction, “as she had loved the place”. Drewsborough, near Tuamgraney village in east Clare, featured prominently in Charlie McCarthy’s excellent 2012 documentary, Edna O’Brien: Life, Stories. Crumbling, the garden overgrown, it had a melancholy air – a place of shadows and ghosts.

O’Brien’s childhood there was not a happy one, as detailed in her 2012 memoir, Country Girl. Her father, a farmer, drank and gambled and was sometimes violent. But at a ceremony to unveil a plaque in her honour at the house, a few years earlier, she described it as “a font of inspiration”.

Like many of our 20th-century writers whom we now clasp to our collective bosom, O’Brien was pilloried in Ireland for years. Her early novels were greeted with the pulpit-thumping, book-burning and banning, and she lived abroad to have the freedom to express herself. In an interview with the Paris Review, in 1984, she described the Tuamgraney of her youth as “enclosed, fervid and bigoted”.

“I do not think that I would have written anything if I had stayed,” she told Philip Roth in the New York Times that year. But still, she loved the place.

Ireland is happy to enjoy the cultural kudos – and tourism revenue – its once-shunned literary lions bestow on the country but the State is careless when it comes to preserving their homes. We manage a plaque, but most of the preservation is left to private enthusiasts, albeit often later helped with Government funding.

This is an opportunity for the State to acquire the house of a major Irish writer and turn it into a writers’ retreat and museum, along the lines of the Heinrich Böll cottage on Achill Island, possibly with an emphasis on women writers, given O’Brien’s sterling work in paving the way for them. In this recession we can find money for bankers and their bonuses: why not spend €250,000 on something that will honour a writer and enhance the State – culturally and economically.

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