Edna O’Brien and the Troubles: ‘A savage writer with a savage eye’

Her writing has always been political despite an unwarranted reputation as a romantic novelist

Edna O’Brien  at her home in London in 2006. Photograph: Frank Miller

Edna O’Brien at her home in London in 2006. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

In our current moment at the fraught political juncture of the Decade of Commemorations, Northern Ireland’s centenary, Brexit, and the UK government’s plan for Troubles “amnesty”, it is timely to revisit Edna O’Brien’s neglected 1994 state-of-the nation novel House of Splendid Isolation.

O’Brien is a writer intent on exploding borders as artificial constructs, and in her book she traverses the geopolitical frontier of the border in Ireland, as well as the psychological border that exists in partitioned Irish mindsets. She also demonstrates how memory destabilises the borders between past and present, time and space. For O’Brien is interested in the ways that Irish history repeats itself. Her novel engages with Ireland’s “Troubles”: a euphemism applied to both the recent conflict from the late 1960s to 1998, as well as that which preceded it in the period from 1919 to 1922.

During an event in Belfast, O’Brien discussed her framing of the contemporary Troubles in the context of Ireland’s longue durée of past conflicts, stating, “People … have to know what that war was and why that war. Why? Why did you have … British soldiers on these streets? You have to go back and back.”

Despite taking widely studied Irish politico-historical events as its subject matter, O’Brien’s House of Splendid Isolation remains largely overlooked by critics and scholars more than 25 years after its publication. This is a grievous oversight, not least because it is an important example of a Troubles novel by a woman writer, and one which is told from the perspective of an elderly female protagonist.

O’Brien wrote House of Splendid Isolation when she was in her sixties. At the time of its release critics described the novel as a “departure” from her previous work, claiming that she was not a “political” writer. Yet O’Brien’s writing has always been more political than her unwarranted reputation as a romantic novelist would suggest. This book exhibits O’Brien’s longstanding preoccupation with how the individual is shaped by the idea of “Ireland”: a crucible of history, memory, religion and place. O’Brien emphasises that to write about this experience “means scraping away at the psyche – my own and Ireland’s.”

In particular, she seeks to explore the mindset of northern paramilitaries, as well as the conflicting conceptions of nationalism and national memory between Irish Catholics in the north and south. She remarks, “For many in the south, increasingly the IRA were ‘the mindless hooligans’ who brought shame on their fellow Catholics and a stain on the altar of the nation.”

On the other hand, O’Brien recognises that many northern republicans feel abandoned by their southern neighbours. In House of Splendid Isolation, the “aggrieved” gunman McGreevy laments, “The South forgot us”. As Sophia Hillan suggests, “O’Brien touches here upon a sore place in the Irish psyche,” and voices viewpoints of the situation from both sides of the border that are “generally unspoken” in Irish society.

O’Brien probes the often-unspoken sources of conflict in Irish life within her fiction – a daring approach that has often been met with the ire of critics. She states, “I have written about strife between mother and child, between husband and wife, and in House of Splendid Isolation, between two parts of a country.” Queen’s University Belfast has publicly acknowledged the importance of O’Brien’s work to the north of Ireland, awarding her an honorary doctorate in literature in 1999, five years after the novel’s publication.

In House of Splendid Isolation O’Brien depicts how the north/south divide is experienced by an octogenarian widow whose domestic life is impinged upon by masculinist republicanism, religious patriarchy and the cycles of history. Josie O’Meara is the ailing châtelaine of a crumbling Big House in the remote southern countryside. She lives as a pariah due to her past romantic liaison with a local priest. Her solitude is disrupted by McGreevy, a notorious republican gunman on the run from the north. He holds Josie hostage in her own home, which he has commandeered for his use.

Quoting WB Yeats, Josie tells McGreevy: “The Ireland you’re chasing is a dream … it doesn’t exist anymore … It’s gone. It’s with O’Leary in the grave.” The novel explores the notion of blood sacrifice and indicates that the dream of a romantic Ireland exists only in myth. This is a foundational myth of the Irish state that is resurrected continually in official national memory. Thus O’Brien recognises that state memory is a fiction, and it is one which she sets out to disrupt in her own counter-fiction.

The prologue of her novel issues a challenge to the tidy teleology of official history with a capital H. She writes, “History is everywhere. It seeps into the soil, the subsoil. Like rain, or hail, or snow, or blood. A house remembers. An outhouse remembers. A people ruminate. The tale differs with the teller.”

Accordingly, she deconstructs the metanarrative of Irish history by using postmodernist techniques to fragment it and expose its constituent parts, revealing it to be a pastiche. O’Brien enacts this formally by presenting a melange of quotations from Irish literature and song, unfinished letters, Josie’s personal diary entries, and her uncle’s Volunteer journal from the War of Independence, which are interspersed throughout the book.

In their review, the New York Times commended O’Brien for “trying new things” in the novel, “taking her lavish style apart to work with blunter, harsher tools”. Consequently, House of Splendid Isolation is a challenging but richly rewarding read, owing to its intertextuality and its generically complex structure, which fuses the Big House, political thriller and historical fiction modes.

It is her only book to engage with the north of Ireland. O’Brien’s personal link to the region began in the 1960s when her first six books were banned in the Republic and she publicly brought her books into the south across the border from Northern Ireland in protest. She resumed her visits to the north in the early 1990s when she conducted extensive research for House of Splendid Isolation, travelling back and forth over the militarised border to interview northerners, including paramilitary prisoners from both sides of the divide. She recalls, “When I was researching, I remember going to Long Kesh and talking to Protestants and Catholics, and actually people in prison are dying to talk to you.”

The character of McGreevy – nicknamed “The Beast” – is based on a near namesake, Dominic “Mad Dog” McGlinchey, former head of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), whom O’Brien interviewed while he was incarcerated. Despite its rigorously researched premise, however, her novel proved to be polarising. House of Splendid Isolation received mixed reviews and a number of critics questioned O’Brien’s authority to write about the north, sectarianism and political conflict.

Following a shoot-out with gardaí Dominic McGlinchey is handed over to the RUC at the border near Carrickdale outside Dundalk. Photograph: Tom Burke/ Independent News And Media/ Getty Images
Following a shoot-out with gardaí Dominic McGlinchey is handed over to the RUC at the border near Carrickdale outside Dundalk. Photograph: Tom Burke/ Independent News And Media/ Getty Images

O’Brien devotes Chapter 18 of her 2012 memoir Country Girl to the “North” and discloses that “to write about the North was to enter troubled waters, wrath and accusation from some, fractured friendships … I admired those who had written about war … But this was a different war, the ‘dirty war’, as it has been named.”

She composed and published House of Splendid Isolation during the precarious time of the peace process, when SDLP leader John Hume and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams conducted secret talks inside a Belfast monastery, while outside tentative ceasefires were broken repeatedly by eruptions of paramilitary violence. O’Brien followed the peace negotiations closely, and the same year the novel was published she interviewed Gerry Adams for a New York Times profile titled “Ulster’s Man of the Dark”. The following year in 1995 she wrote an open letter to British Labour Party leader Tony Blair, questioning his perceived “reticen[ce] about Ireland” and arguing that “[Gerry] Adams has a relevant place in the political caucus.”

Fellow Irish novelist Anne Enright marvels at O’Brien’s approach to writing about the conflict, noting her admiration for “the sensitivity of O’Brien’s cultural barometer”. Enright comments:

“In 1994 … liberal Ireland was deeply unsettled when O’Brien interviewed the Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams … This was a fabulously transgressive take on Northern Irish politics … The curious thing about the Adams article was the way it appeared at the darkest hour, two months before the surprising dawn that was the IRA ceasefire of April 1994. A secret tide had begun to turn in Northern Irish politics – how did O’Brien catch it so well?”

O’Brien wrote the profile on Adams because she viewed him as a figure who would be key to securing peace. However, she also sought to understand the rationale behind political extremism and paramilitary violence. She examines this difficult subject, and its effect on those compelled to live with it, in considerable depth via her portrayal of McGreevy’s relationship with Josie in House of Splendid Isolation.

The plot centring on the fraught dynamic between a paramilitary intruder and his reluctant host is recognisable. It is also depicted in two previous Troubles novels by northern Catholic writers: Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal (1983), and Brian Moore’s Lies of Silence (1990). Like O’Brien’s book, these novels explore the Troubles through the experiences of Catholic protagonists coerced into co-operating with republican paramilitary men. The difference is that MacLaverty and Moore received widespread critical acclaim for tackling the subject of the Troubles in their books, while O’Brien was frequently lambasted.

In stark contrast to the work of her male peers, House of Splendid Isolation was panned by a number of critics who made derisive and sexist personal attacks on O’Brien in their commentary on the book. In her review for the UK newspaper The Independent, Joan Smith dubbed O’Brien a “tragedy queen” whose fiction is characterised by an “obsession with the past” and “masochistic, erotic melancholy”. In a Guardian piece, Fintan O’Toole disparaged O’Brien for interviewing Gerry Adams and scoffed, “Edna O’Brien knows a strong, flawed and emotionally unavailable hero when she sees one”. In another scornful piece in the Guardian, reviewer Edward Pearce likened O’Brien to a romance novelist, calling her “the Barbara Cartland of long-distance republicanism”, and deriding what he termed her “silly novelettish mentality”. Fellow Irish writer Hugh Leonard took things even further by calling across a crowded Dublin restaurant “for all to hear” that O’Brien was “sleeping with [the] Provos”. The sexist nature of this criticism is cast into wider relief when we compare the reception of O’Brien’s novel with that of her Irish male contemporaries.

In her review of House of Splendid Isolation, Hermione Lee notes the thematic parallels between O’Brien’s political thriller and those of MacLaverty and Moore. She contends:

“This strong but familiar story, revolving around the tense relationship between the terrorist and his unwilling host, is something like Brian Moore’s Lies of Silence, but without his spare, driving pace; or like [Bernard MacLaverty’s] Cal, but without the sex. There is sex in the novel, of course, but it’s in Josie’s past, and all of it is bad. Her relationships follow the usual course of women’s lives in O’Brien’s fiction.”

Aside from the fact that Lee dismisses O’Brien’s depiction of rape as “bad sex”, it is also inaccurate to claim that Josie’s “relationships follow the usual course”, because her connection to McGreevy is that of a powerful mother-son bond.

House of Splendid Isolation is a very different treatment of familiar Troubles themes. The childless widow Josie has returned from the nursing home because she wishes to die in her own house, and she has given up on her life until McGreevy enters it. Their forced proximity fosters dialogue and gradually the two develop a closeness, and even a sense of familial tenderness. The Irish Times praised the book as “[an] ingeniously constructed and beautifully written Troubles novel” and asserted that “there is no denying the power of the O’Brien pen”.

At the time of its publication Irish crime fiction was a male-dominated arena, and the Troubles thriller was its main iteration. However, O’Brien’s hostage tale diverges drastically from MacLaverty’s and Moore’s in that the pivotal relationship is one of mother-son, and this intergenerational story is told from an elderly woman’s perspective. In addition, as Fiona McCann points out, O’Brien’s sympathetic portrayal of McGreevy counters the “dominant Troubles aesthetics”, which portrayed paramilitary men as “bloodthirsty, atavistic criminals”.

Moreover, House of Splendid Isolation differs from previous Troubles thrillers because it is also a Big House novel. The book’s title indicates that the Big House setting is central to its structure, as it provides a space in which to rewrite history. Nonetheless, the historical irony of McGreevy – a rogue republican and member of the north’s oppressed Catholic minority – occupying the Big House, a potent symbol of Protestant British dominance in Ireland, was surprisingly lost on a number of reviewers. In fact, some of them argued incorrectly that the book could not be classified as a Big House novel at all.

Edna O’Brien’s House of Splendid Isolation is a Troubles novel of substantial import which ought to be read alongside those of her male contemporaries. MacLaverty’s Cal was made into a film adaptation in 1984 starring Helen Mirren and John Lynch, and Moore’s Lies of Silence was shortlisted for the 1990 Booker Prize. O’Brien’s book also garnered recognition from major international literary awards: it won the European Prize for Literature in 1995, and the following year it was longlisted for the 1996 International Dublin Literary Award.

Nevertheless, while both MacLaverty and Moore’s novels have remained steadily in print for more than 30 years, O’Brien’s novel was reissued only once in 2002, and it has been out of print since then. Fortunately, I am delighted to report that 20 years after its last reprint, Picador in America is reissuing House of Splendid Isolation next year in early 2022. In addition, House of Splendid Isolation was made into an audiobook on CD in 2014, read by the renowned Irish actor Fiona Shaw. Shaw’s reading is terrific and the audiobook is now available in mp3 format on Audible.

A few weeks ago, I asked O’Brien about the origins of House of Splendid Isolation and she replied, “I did not set out to write a political novel: I never do. I am interested in how the political damages the human. … I suppose I have always picked themes and aspects of life that have latent or naked injustice. It often gets me into hot water.”

Indeed, a defining feature of O’Brien’s writing is her willingness to go where others fear to tread. As fellow Irish novelist Eimear McBride observes, it has “[led] O’Brien to be hailed as both cause célèbre and national pariah”.

At a reading of House of Splendid Isolation O’Brien pronounced, “I am seen as a genteel, romantic writer. Would this were so! But the reality of what I’m doing is this: I am a savage writer with a savage eye. I write about the things we are not supposed to speak about.”

It is this fearlessness and outspokenness which make O’Brien a powerful storyteller, and which have brought her unflinching depictions of modern Ireland to the attention of a global readership. Despite O’Brien’s prodigious output and international acclaim, the majority of critical and scholarly attention focuses on only a handful of her books. Much of her work deserves to be more widely known, and I would include House of Splendid Isolation on this list.

It is also noteworthy as it is the first book in O’Brien’s state-of-the nation trilogy from the turn of the 21st century, which includes Down by the River (1996) and In the Forest (2002). The critical furore over these novels echoed the rancour that O’Brien incurred for her previous trilogy, The Country Girls. As Maureen O’Connor discerns, “Discussions often focus on the sensational aspects of these novels – murder, incest, rape – but what is most remarkable about these stirring works is the new emotional depths O’Brien touches in a startling, troubling sympathy newly extended towards the most unsympathetic of characters”.

O’Brien speculates that her decision to portray a republican paramilitary figure from a humanised perspective was “politically unwelcome”. During an interview about the Troubles she acknowledged, “it is very hard for people on either side to forget, or forgive”. O’Brien stressed that the situation in Northern Ireland is “the story of all Ireland, not just of the North … That’s what I wanted people to understand through this book, that the North is an Irish story, not just a Northern problem.”

Reflecting on House of Splendid Isolation, she averred, “Although art may seem a luxury or elitist … I don’t think it is … Art can bridge some gap … between people of different divides.” That is precisely the aim of her novel, a remarkable work of Troubles art that refutes received knowledge of Ireland’s long history of conflict, gesturing towards what O’Brien terms in its concluding words “the future knowledge. The knowledge that is to be.”

Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is Visiting Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast and co-editor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island Books, 2017). Her research is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. She tweets @drdawnmiranda. This article is an edited version of a talk given recently for the Edna O’Brien Roundtable at the “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Catholicism in Ireland and Beyond” Conference at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.

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