Warm welcome home for O'Brien


NOVELIST EDNA O’Brien said she did not know what crime she had committed after hearing the State had banned her debut novel, The Country Girls, in 1960.

The east Clare author (79) was giving her first public interview in her native place, with the chair of Anglo-Irish literature at UCD, Prof Declan Kiberd, at the weekend.

Marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Country Girlstrilogy, O’Brien told Prof Kiberd that after the banning “it was as if one had committed a crime and I did not know what the crime was”.

The novel was banned by the censorship board for its explicit sexual content.

In a packed Scariff public library on Saturday less than a mile from the home where she was reared, O’Brien added: “Maybe the crime was to do with the society and the strangulation and the silencing at that time.”

Receiving a standing ovation at the start and at the end of the interview, O’Brien remembered that at the time she “got a few scoldings and pretty ugly anonymous letters”, but pointed out that “glorious writers” in Russia “were all killed or sent to gulags”.

With her sister Eileen and other relatives in the audience, O’Brien said: “What this shows – and this still exists in the world – is an innate tension, if not to say conflict, between politics and art.”

She added: “There is something in the potential truth of art, the potential ferocity of art that can anger people . . . I’m not singling out Ireland as the only culprit at that time – it was certainly one of them to a much lesser degree.”

In Scariff as part of the town’s annual harbour festival, O’Brien also defended her novel In the Forest, which was based around the triple murder in east Clare by Brendan O’Donnell of Fr Joe Walsh, Imelda Riney and her young son, Liam, in 1994.

“I wrote about a very tragic triple murder here . . . which brought me great odium, but I am very proud to have written it.”

She added: “I didn’t write to show off something awful. I wrote it because it was something true that existed and I hope I wrote it with a compassion and a depth.”

O’Brien also said that “religion, to use one of the cliched words of the epoch, is dumbed down”.

Saying that she sometimes goes to Mass, O’Brien added: “But what I don’t like when I go to Mass are the sermons. Madonna had a song Papa Don’t Preach, but what I don’t like about the sermons is that they are very secular.”

In his introduction, Prof Kiberd described O’Brien as “one of the great stylists and storytellers of the modern English language”.

Explaining her love of language, O’Brien – who is writing her memoirs – said: “I thought words had inherent in them some potent or potentially magic ingredient.

When asked by Prof Kiberd if she could be reincarnated and given a choice to come back as a man or a woman, O’Brien said she would like to come back as a woman.