Edna O’Brien at 90: ‘To read her is to know love; of words, of literature and of life itself’

Edna O'Brien in her London home in 1999. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times
Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Eimear McBride, Colm Tóibín, Eilís Ní Dhuibhne and more pay tribute to one of Ireland’s greatest and most influential authors

Eimear McBride
I’ve been lucky enough to know Edna O’Brien for most of my life. First, and far longer, from the page. Second, and only more recently, in the flesh. From both relationships, I have learned an awful lot. For my reader self, she is an absolutely defining writer. For my writer self, she is the bar I strive to attain as well as a model of perseverance in a world of fools.

As she arrives at her 90th birthday, I think all of these aspects deserve celebration. Right back at the start, with The Country Girls, Edna dragged women’s voices into a light that kicked and screamed against them. With her most recent novel, Girl, she proved she still remains unafraid of confronting that dark. In between there have been many books, and many battles, but always, always her wonderful, inimitable language. To read Edna O’Brien is to know love; of words, of literature and of life itself. No one does it the way she can so I’m hoping for 90 years more.
Eimear McBride’s latest work is Strange Hotel

John Banville
She was, and is, exemplary. Great talent, great charm, much fun—I can think of no other writer in whose company I have laughed more often or with more delight—and above all, fortitude. She might find this an altogether too masculine, muscle-bound word, but I hope not. Throughout her writing life she has stood up against censorship, petty-mindedness, envy, and simple—simple!—nastiness. She wrote at the start with honesty, seeing to the very heart of her characters, and deep into the murky undermind of a people; in recent work she took on international, and terrible, themes, and did not flinch. Gaiety always, beauty, and mischievousness, and simple love of the world, the world. not as we would have it but as it is. And ever young. How appropriate it is that the latest of her late novels should be called Girl.
John Banville’s latest novel is Snow.

John Boyne
Like the queen of England, Edna O’Brien seems to have always been with us. Her career began at a time when it was mildly scandalous for a woman to write at all, let alone to explore the themes that have dominated her work. She recalls an era when artists could be forced out of Ireland for daring to challenge the status quo but her public persona reminds us that it’s the writer’s job to stand up to the mob, defiant and unapologetic. Anyone who has ever heard her speak will recognise the poetry behind everything she says and the beautiful cadence of her language. For me, she is the consummate writer in that she has spent 60 years producing novels, short stories, plays, works of non-fiction, even some books for children, never resting on the laurels afforded by an early success, but always returning to her desk, pen in hand, ready to explore her next idea. And if Girl has taught us anything, it’s that she’s still at the very top of her game.
John Boyne’s latest novel is A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom

Lee Brackstone
At the risk of coming on like a fanboy, I’ve been lucky enough to work with a handful of people who have affected my life profoundly. From the music world, Julian Cope and Andrew Weatherall were hugely inspiring; on the literary side there was Ted Hughes then, most significantly, Edna O’Brien.

The times I have shared with Edna over the past decade and a half or so have always been intense. They have sometimes been mystical, and often mischievous. Her reading of the world and character, in life and fiction, has the occult quality of second sight. She is a born rebel with a rigour that would shame the Taliban. I have never seen any writer agonise over a word choice like Edna. She needs to get it right because she knows that literature is a calling and a gift, and a gateway to better worlds. In this respect her method of both creating and communicating is like that of a shaman, just like the three aforementioned artists who also passed through my life.
Lee Brackstone is publisher at White Rabbit Books and was for many years Edna O’Brien’s editor

June Caldwell
I was a teenager in 1986, the year The Country Girls trilogy came bound as a single volume. A gaggle of us turned up stoned at a contraceptive clinic off Gardiner Street to get the newly-available morning after pill. A moment of shared hysteria, where one girl thought she might’ve got laid at a late-night party – we all jumped in on the act – though none of us had.

It was also the year our shy school friend returned to fifth class, after being banished to a Magdalen in Cork to have (and give up) her baba.

Later, it was in self-imposed exile in London I read Edna properly, realising how brilliantly she had unbound the delirious and berserk sexuality of young women in fiction. Unfettered women purposely perceived as girls until they are married (in bliss?). Girls who were not free to express desire in its maggoty forms. Wives who would presumably move on to motherhood briskly and without fuss. Aulones who towed the line and kept the engine of a sanctified country going.

In reality, Edna’s word-punk got us young girls on the pill thinking out loud, if not shouting. For me, she was a Kate Bush parachuted into a punk rebellion – how glamorous, how otherworldly – a proper kick against the pricks: yes raw, primitive, fervid, but also instinctive, female, full of passion, truth and feeling. And that’s without even speaking about her masterpieces: Night and August Is A Cruel Month.
June Caldwell is author of Room Little Darker

Edna O’Brien in June 1968. Photograph: Len Trievnor/Daily Express/Getty Images
Edna O’Brien in June 1968. Photograph: Len Trievnor/Daily Express/Getty Images

Evelyn Conlon
There are many reasons to be delighted with and about the work of Edna O’Brien. The joy is of particular relevance to those who stayed with the fight to pull up the blinds, and get some air for work beyond the cliched. And what fun that was, despite occasional brutal put-downs, which never last as long as the work. Overcoming them can be held high as trophies where writers meet. I have personal reasons to be grateful to Edna, I mention one. When putting together Cutting the Night in Two, with Hans-Christian Oeser, it would have been dreadful not to be able to secure rights to a story from her; Edna graciously overrode all obstacles so we could relish her journey with life the gaffer. Long may it continue. As a participant in this bouquet of salutations may I wish her the grandest of days.
Evelyn Conlon’s latest work is Not the Same Sky

Amanda Craig
Few authors have been as brave as O’Brien in confronting illiberalism. She understood how small communities, shame, the prohibitions of religion, male power and female oppression are universal subjects, and has lived long enough to move from being excoriated for writing about her own lived experience in 1950s Ireland to being condemned for daring to write about what she has imagined and researched in modern Nigeria.

Few would have predicted that the comical, lyrical writer of The Country Girls would mature into the magnificently comfortless author of Girl. She is an international heroine of literature, who paved the way for writers from Elena Ferrante to Sally Rooney. The starry new generation of Irish women writers owe everything to her courage, her dauntless spirit and her artistic brilliance.
Amanda Craig’s latest novel is The Golden Rule

Anne Enright
There is such a glow about Edna O’Brien in her role as Grande Dame of world literature. Interviewers think she make the flowers on the vase open just by looking at them (and perhaps she does), sad, angry men still take the time to insult her. She lives in a swirl of the projections of others; increasingly indescribable and iconic. But beyond all this are the words on the page. The prose, in her late style, is more assured and surprising, supple and fresh than it ever was. The books get better. She has found a freedom in what must be tactfully called her old age, that women should enjoy all their lives, but don’t. She is history in motion.
Anne Enright’s latest novel is Actress

Elaine Feeney
I became enchanted by Edna O’Brien as a teenager in the nineties. Intrigued by this writer whose work had been banned and burned, I asked the local librarian for The Country Girls. I was a little way through reading To School Through the Fields by Alice Taylor before realising I was duped. But the censorship, down to this over-protective librarian, remained strong.

When I eventually read The Country Girls, I wasn’t struck by the (in)famous salaciousness, I was struck by a familiar interior frustration, difficult father figure and isolation in a wild rural landscape, all of which I recognised. Legislation on women’s rights had changed by now, with more change afoot, but rural Ireland was unhurried in its cultural shifts. As I read the trilogy, Ireland remained a place where I could work the family farm, but never own it.

I went on to read all of Edna’s oeuvre. She remains my greatest influence for that revolutionary act of a woman writing complex women. Her work gave permission to write the internal landscape, dispute repeated narratives, to lust (even as a mother). I love her lyricism, sentence-spin, creative speed and mostly, her courageous capacity to keep going. Happy Birthday, Edna.
Elaine Feeney is a poet whose debut novel, As You Were, was shortlisted for this year’s Irish Novel of the Year Award.

Richard Ford
The saying goes that nobody wants to be 90 who’s not already 89. Which might be true of Edna, but only because she’s never really cared, inasmuch as she lives, writes, thinks, provokes, dares, thrills and thrives in the present more than anybody I know – more than any writer, for sure. No need, then, to dwell on the already. She’s put that to rest, you could say, in her memoirs.

Most good writers prefer to be regarded not for who they are but for what they write. Think, then, of Girl, O’Brien’s astonishing tour de force of only last year – at age eighty-whatever – an audacious, imaginative leap into the impossible, recessive life of a kidnapped Nigerian school child, wrenched from her life by brutes and murderers. It is a transporting, deeply empathetic and illuminating experience to know this novel. Read it! When I did, I didn’t wonder how some Irish woman of a consequential age could ever think to do this; I wondered how anybody could ever think to do this. It’s a pure wonder.

Generally (and wrongly) it’s thought that after 70 or so, we novelists tend to shove over into the break-down lane. But Edna apparently missed that communique (though, true, she hasn’t missed many). She still leaves us breathless and amazed in the here and now. Your birthday, then, dear Edna, marks only a brief, celebratory pause ahead of what you’ll do next. We’re all of us eager for it. Happy Birthday.
Richard Ford’s latest work is Sorry for Your Trouble.

Sinéad Gleeson
At the 2012 Irish Book Awards, Edna O’Brien and Katie Taylor were seated at the same table. It was hard not to draw parallels: two very different women, decades apart, both pugilists in their own ways. Battling sexism and male criticism, but utterly committed to their chosen fields.

I read The Country Girls trilogy as a teenager and up to that point, had never encountered writing about the lives of Irish women in such a way. It was transgressive, and courageous of O’Brien in misogynistic, uber-Catholic Ireland to address sexuality and to challenge the idea of what an Irish women could be (for her trouble, she was accused of “corrupting the minds of young women”). In 2018, after Ireland repealed the 8th amendment, The Country Girls was announced as Dublin’s 2019 One City One Book choice. It felt like an important link: of conversations around autonomy and women’s bodies, subjects that O’Brien foreshadowed in her work, along with money, marriage and the role of women in Irish society.

O’Brien was at the 2012 Book Awards to receive a Lifetime Achievement award. It was already long overdue. But at 90, let’s continue to celebrate Edna: her fearlessness, experimentalism and for pushing open the door for generations of Irish writers.
Sinéad Gleeson’s latest work is the anthology she edited, The Art of the Glimpse: 100 Irish short stories

David Keenan
I’ll never forget my first encounter with Edna O’Brien. It was the story Oft in the Stilly Night from her 1990 short story collection, Lantern Slides, and a single image in particular, an image that has haunted me so much that I sometimes wonder if I dreamed it or imagined it or if it actually happened to someone in my past. All of Edna’s writings exist somewhere in my brain like this, teetering between repression and epiphany, barely within verbal reach. Such are the archetypal depths that her writing presents. But I just checked, and there it is: the image of a woman f***ed by a flower. A woman gone half-mad with religious devotion and repressed sexual longing f***s herself to helpless insanity with a lily – “the flower of Mary” – and tears her thighs to pieces in the process.

Edna is one of the great transgressive voices of her century, up there with visionary modernists like Jean Genet. God has no style, Picasso claimed, and as evidence he presented the elephant and the mouse, both of God’s handiwork, but neither with a single identifiable fingerprint. Edna O’Brien has no style (although truly, she has exquisite style), I claim, and as evidence I present The Country Girls, August Is A Wicked Month, Night, Girl, Lantern Slides. Just like God.

Her transgressing of her own background, of her own country’s repressions and norms, of the way that women could write and talk and live their own sexuality, of a single novelistic voice, indeed her serial transgressing of what it was to live your life as an author – glamorously, dangerously, seriously, utterly seductively – make Edna O’Brien a literary rock star and our greatest living writer.
David Keenan’s latest novel is Xstabeth

Edna O’Brien with Prof Augustine Martin at Newman House, Dublin, before delivering a lecture in 1993. Photograph: Joe St Leger
Edna O’Brien with Prof Augustine Martin at Newman House, Dublin, before delivering a lecture in 1993. Photograph: Joe St Leger

Louise Kennedy
When I was 14 I was lent a copy of The Country Girls. I read it in a single sitting, keen to get to the dirty bits I presumed had led to its banning by the Irish Censor. I loved the story, but where was all the sex? It wasn’t until I reread the book in my twenties that I understood that Edna O’Brien had done something much more subversive; she had shown that women - Irish women, if you don’t mind - have inner lives. And she had to be stopped.

But they didn’t stop her, did they? During the summer, O’Brien said in this paper that she hopes to write one more book. I hope she does, but look what she has given us already.

Happy Birthday, Edna O’Brien. There is no one like you.
The End of the World is a Cul de Sac, Louise Kennedy’s debut collection, will be published next April

Edna O’Brien in September 1964. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images
Edna O’Brien in September 1964. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images
Edna O’Brien, circa 1968. Photograph: Stefan Tyszko/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Edna O’Brien, circa 1968. Photograph: Stefan Tyszko/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Michael Longley
I hope that a poem from my recent collection Angel Hill will indicate the depth of my love and admiration for this great writer:

INGLENOOK
for Edna O’Brien

Who call yourself ‘the other Edna’,
Come visit me at Carrigskeewaun
And help me count the barnacle geese
And whooper swans. Take my hand,
Balance on slippery stepping-stones
Across the channel at Thallabaun,
Walk with me along the yellow strand
Looking out for dolphins in Clew Bay
(A bitch otter may lope from the waves,
Her whiskers glittering with sea water),
Over the stile in your green wellies
Follow me to the helleborines
At Dooaghtry. Later at Corragaun
We’ll make a moth-trap for tiger moths
And cinnabars and wait in darkness
For inspiring wings. I imagine
For you, dear Edna, ‘the other Edna’,
This inglenook in my landscape.
Michael Longley’s latest collection is The Candlelight Master

Danielle McLaughlin
In an interview with Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times some years ago, O’Brien said: “I take in my little corner of experience and I register and retell it.” Part of the great power of O’Brien’s writing may be attributed to its independence of thought and language. Her stories are her own faithful record. She’s a genius at bringing to the page the impact of Ireland’s social stratifications on the lives of women, writing about them truthfully and unswervingly. Her writing captivates with the beauty of its imagery and language while also delivering a punch to the gut. O’Brien once remarked in an interview in the Guardian: “It’s very hard to get the truth in it and the sheen on it.” Getting the truth in and the sheen on is exactly what Edna O’Brien has always done, and she does it magnificently.
Danielle McLaughlin’s debut novel, The Art of Falling, is published next February

Louise Nealon
Edna O’Brien wrote The Country Girls in three weeks. She says that the book wrote itself. When her husband at the time read it, he told her, “You can write and I will never forgive you.” He was jealous of his wife’s ability. She was supposed to be this pretty little thing that he plucked from behind the counter of a pharmacy and dressed up to show his literary friends. Edna O’Brien had to continually fight with those closest to her in order to validate her own view of the world. She once had an argument with her ex-husband over her description of a blue road: “He erupted saying there was no such thing as a blue road, but I knew that there was. I had seen them, I had walked on one.” In her life and work, Edna O’Brien has persisted down that blue road and made other people – men and women – see it too. As an Irish woman, I am indebted to Edna O’Brien for seeing that blue road and for writing words before we realised that they needed to be written.
Louise Nealon’s debut novel, Snowflake, will be published by Manilla Press next year.

Edna O’Brien and Bernadette McAliskey at the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin Castle in 1995. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Edna O’Brien and Bernadette McAliskey at the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin Castle in 1995. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Eilís Ní Dhuibhne
Around 1930, three outstanding Irish writers, at least, were born: John McGahern, William Trevor and Edna O’Brien. In rich and vivid prose, they wrote about the lies and secrets, the beauty and joy, comedy and tragedy, and of “ordinary” life in Ireland (and elsewhere, sometimes.) Each of them mastered the short story form, still a dominant Irish genre in the mid-20th century .

McGahern and Edna O’Brien rekindled the link with the Joyce of Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist – Edna O’Brien frequently acknowledges the importance of Joyce as an influence. Her first novel was a bildungsroman, a portrait of the artist as a young girl. Her short stories are, like Joyce’s, as much about interior epiphanies as external action.

And she writes luminous prose – the boundary between poetry and prose melts away in her fiction. For a novelist, though, it’s not enough to write lyrical prose. She has to have many strings to her bow, and Edna O’Brien has all the gifts. The most serious of issues are explored in her fiction, but she balances solemnity with humour, and has a marvellous talent for creating characters who explode into life on the page – especially minor characters, of Dickensian eccentricity, generally blessed a talent for a memorably original turn of phase.

Edna O’Brien is serious and lighthearted, solemn and witty, a poet and a storyteller. She is deeply emotional and intellectually brilliant. Wise, courageous, and honest. A genius.

How lucky we are to have had her in our midst, and to have her still!

Lá Breithe Shona Duit, dear Edna O’Brien!
Eilís Ní Dhuibhne’s latest collection is Little Red and Other Stories.

Doireann Ní Ghríofa
Having grown up in rural Clare in the 1980s, I was in awe of Edna O’Brien, who was, by then, spoken of in reverential tones. I looked up to her. I still do. I’ve often composed poems to her; to me, she is both hero and muse. This one dawdles outside a window, spying on the words she wrote before her books came into being.

The Ledger
for Edna O’Brien

This chapter begins in a pharmacy.
You find her smoothing prescriptions
on a polished counter, smiling
at customers, filling tins with pills,
blending tonics and medicines.

Outside, leaves loosen. One spins to the path,
a slow dance, as rain rises to rap knuckles
on the glass. Beyond the bus stop, the city winks,
but she can’t go; her shift won’t end for two hours more.

Bored, she straightens the ointments, then yawns.
A customer enters, and again, she lifts the ledger.
Between her fingers, the pencil moves with care.
Name – Ailment – Payment,
each letter she writes is a step elsewhere.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a poet and essayist. A Ghost in the Throat is the Irish Book Awards Book of the Year.

Seamus Heaney presents Edna O’Brien with the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award at the Irish Book Awards in Dublin’s Mansion House in 2009. Photograph: Alan Betson
Seamus Heaney presents Edna O’Brien with the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award at the Irish Book Awards in Dublin’s Mansion House in 2009. Photograph: Alan Betson
Edna O’Brien in The Gaiety Theatre, Dublin with actor Brenda Blethyn during a photocall for her play Haunted in 2010. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Edna O’Brien in The Gaiety Theatre, Dublin with actor Brenda Blethyn during a photocall for her play Haunted in 2010. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Joseph O’Connor
Edna O’Brien has been an inspiration to generations of Irish writers and readers, the very model of a writerly life lived with courage, commitment and passion. When I was growing up there were many paperbacks by Irish writers in the house, and I was fortunate, as a young teenager, to happen across Edna’s novels. The particular atmosphere of the work struck you, its mixture of beauty, high lyricism, a sort of playfulness and strangeness, but there was something intensely recognisable in her pages too. They had the extra attraction that the priest, a very nice man, who taught me English when I was twelve had warned us in class against Edna. There was a scene in a book on the course, John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, in which a woman undresses (in my memory by moonlight). The priest counselled us that it was morally acceptable to read that scene in a group, here in class, but if you were to read it home, by yourself, it would be sinful, and re-reading it would be particularly dangerous. Other writers, too, should never be read alone, among them Harold Robbins, Jilly Cooper, James Joyce and Edna O’Brien. I remember mentioning this to my father one morning before school. He said “you should ask the priest how he knows”.

Edna’s work shattered silences, broke open new ground, stirred deep recognitions, as it still does. Her sentences are beautiful, her stories need telling, and her artist’s heart is mighty, still defiant and strong. At a gala evening in the Gaiety Theatre a few years ago, put together by her friends, I was privileged to be MC and to witness, from that stage, the extraordinary waves of applause and sheer love for Edna, a champion, a legend, a fighter. Writing is why she was put here, and how fabulous for all of us that she still rages and writes, still sets out the words, finding beauty.
Joseph O’Connor’s latest novel is Shadowplay

Maureen O’Connor
The truth and beauty of Edna O’Brien’s often painfully honest prose have, finally, achieved something like universal recognition. The timelessness of her observations about human emotion and relationships is rarely connected to another distinguishing quality of her writing, her astonishing powers of description of the natural world.

Few understand O’Brien’s experience of writing as a communal project, of the writer as working in creative collaboration with the nonhuman, a sense of shared creativity that retains a humble, respectful awareness of and receptivity to the powers beyond the human and the mystery of our place in the world.

She once, several decades ago, observed that “We have botched the planet.” The virus currently killing hundreds of thousands, the result of, among other abuses, heedless destruction of wild animal habitats, provides grim evidence not only of our inescapable embeddedness in the natural world, but also of our willingness to damage that world and our place in it for capital gain, a reality always legible to O’Brien.

Once thought of as a “dirty” woman and writer, marginalized and pilloried, O’Brien recognises true obscenity, the real sources of the irredeemable filth of the world.
Maureen O’Connor lectures in English at University College Cork. Her most recent book, Edna O’Brien and the Art of Fiction, is forthcoming from Bucknell University Press in 2021.

Edna O’Brien in her London home in 1999. Photograph: Frank Miller
Edna O’Brien in her London home in 1999. Photograph: Frank Miller

Andrew O’Hagan
There’s a line of William Faulkner’s that reminds me of Edna. “You can’t swim for new horizons,” he wrote, “until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” That just about sums up the intrepid character of this passionate artist. Just pause for a second and consider what she has done. In a grey time, she introduced to the Irish novel a consciousness of young female desire, and could have driven her prose around Co Clare for the rest of her career. But that’s not what she did – she looked to other territories, she tested her talent, she wrote books and short stories and plays that show a deep commitment to the language, looking at loyalty and betrayal, tribalism and violence, inside and out. A decade or so ago, I sat beside Philip Roth watching a play of hers in New York. ‘She’s a great part of the world, isn’t she?’ he said, and it’s a truth about Edna that just gets truer.
Andrew O’Hagan’s latest novel is Mayflies

Stephen Page
A New York Times review of Edna O’Brien’s selection of short stories, The Love Object, commented that “her sentences ring and ring again.... echoes of James Joyce...but the sound is unmistakably her own”. The sound of her stories, novels, memoir and plays, alone would place her as a great writer whose craft is extraordinary. Yet the true greatness is that the beauty and precision of her prose is in service to her fearlessness and authority in tackling the complexities of human experience. To publish her is both the proudest of tasks, and also an inspiration to Faber’s staff and to our community of writers.
Stephen Page is CEO of Faber & Faber, Edna O’Brien’s publisher

Rosita Sweetman
I’m forever falling in love with Edna O’Brien. First in 1965 reading The Country Girls. Oh my god oh my god oh my god! Somebody gets it! Somebody understands! Ireland. Mothers. Fathers. Boarding School. Priests. Men. Hypocrites. Liars. Men. Women. Oh Women. She gets it: how fragile we are. How perceptive. How greedy for life. For love.

Then John Minihan’s 1970s Chelsea photo. Hurt. Defiant. Beautiful. Author now of seven novels all she remembers from Ireland is “bile, odium and outrage”. It wasn’t the sex that annoyed, secretly everyone loved that, it was the honesty, her “quite searing little eye” that saw us for what we were: liars and hypocrites.

Next it was her 1999 biography of James Joyce. Edna swallowed James, and Nora, and wrote them brilliantly, beautifully, from the inside out.

In the noughties came a surreal meeting in The Merrion Hotel. Sharpshooters lined the street. Hello? Salman Rushdie was inside. Would I be shot dead if I reached for ciggies? Edna drank from a china cup, tiny, erect, fearless, and incidentally, a far better writer. She once wrote how her former husband, Ernest Gebler, found pages of The Country Girls. You can write, he said. And I will never forgive you.

Jealous men have been ever present. The literary snobs who deemed her “a lady novelist”, to Kevin Myers wanting to “stick a hatchet in her head”, to that brutal hatchet job in the New Yorker last year. I’ll not dignify the misogynistic b*****d with his name, he’s one of many.

Still, she’s outdone them all and given us so much: her honesty, her femaleness, her truth. And made it to 90.

Happiest of happy birthdays from me so to the birthday girl.
Rosita Sweetman’s latest book is Feminism Backwards

Colm Tóibín
I admire Edna O’Brien’s restlessness, her fearlessness and her high ambition. But, perhaps more important, I love the intimate tone in her novels and stories, the sense of undercurrent and whisper, her interest in nuance. She uses language sonorously, the complexity of her diction matching what she seeks to explore in character, in perception and in the very act of experiencing the world.

If I had to choose one passage, it would be the scene in Time and Tide when Nell decides to go to look at the courtroom in which her fate will be decided the next day. In these pages, Edna O’Brien creates a subtle drama from fear, expectation, unease, all within the mind of her protagonist. While she writes superbly about open conflict, it is these private dramas that occur within the mind that she renders with such exemplary care and skill.
Colm Tóibín’s latest novel is House of Names

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

Ed Vulliamy
The email arrived out of the blue, from an electronic address suggesting someone called Edna O’Brien. It sought counsel towards a book based on Bosnian Serb génocidaire Radovan Karadžic, whose murderous handiwork I knew better than I wanted to.

I dared not believe this could be the Edna O’Brien, whose novels I had devoured, in awe and admiration, since my teens. I contrived a reply in the event that it probably wasn’t, but might be.

It was.

Now, Edna at 90, Ye Gods and Goddesses: “Older with years, but newer every day” (Emily Dickinson). For the Observer of London, I tried once to describe Edna’s “quietly electrifying charisma, apparently frail but indomitable”, while Rachel Cooke wrote of her as: “Queenly beautiful… resplendent in velvet, fur at her cuffs”, like a John Cale-Lou Reed heroine.

But being with Edna in her wonderland-home of books and dusty-musky-furniture is more like jazz. You think you’ve found the key and theme on which to vary but then there’s a switch in tempo, and some melody – new but rich in heritage – throws the conversation forward. Whether talking war or wine, literature or love, you never know what’s coming, and you better not miss a beat.

Edna’s immersion is total. She is a novelist in the great Irish tradition and a “method” writer, like Emile Zola prowling coalfields to write Germinal. Edna’s research in Nigeria during her mid-80s, fighting cancer, speaks for itself. Perhaps that’s why she tolerates war reporters – Ancient Mariners who make people “sadder and wiser” – because in a way she is one. No journalist who knew Karadžic conveyed his cruel megalomania like Edna when she recounts Fidelma McBride’s visit to his cell.

Edna beguiles, astounds and confounds, with determination to succeed on her own terms, to excel without compromise, and with understanding of both beauty and atrocity. She came to mind looking at paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi, currently in London: a woman determined to make her mark on a man’s world, One Italian, one Irish – same difference.

Artemisia bedazzled the courts of Florence and Naples, as Edna did swinging London. Yet like the painter, Edna was never herself bedazzled: “I was excited by this galaxy of visitors,” she recalled, “but I was never carried away”. Edna was assailed at the outset, and she’s assailed – as well as adored – still. Hers is a “singular voice, which is at once fierce and tender, conscientious and visionary”, wrote critic Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado, defending Edna in this newspaper against a recent, churlish and misogynist profile in the New Yorker.

And like Artemisia, Edna is intimate with violence.

I was once in a park in Warsaw, two books in my bag. One was Jean Hatzfeld’s A Time For Machetes, about the Rwandan genocide, the other, Down By The River, which I was reading. I reached the bit when the incestuous-rapist father advances towards the daughter he has impregnated, with a broom – oh please, Edna, NO! I turned to Hatzfeld’s machetes for light relief.
Ed Vulliamy’s latest book is Louder Than Bombs: A Life with Music, War, and Peace

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

Francesca Wade
In 2015, I found myself sitting at Edna O’Brien’s fireside, simultaneously mesmerised by the surroundings - bookshelves floor-to-ceiling; an array of intriguing objects; stray notebooks filled with purple ink, the same as Virginia Woolf – and the legend herself. I was there to interview her about her extraordinary novel The Little Red Chairs, in which a Balkan war criminal turns up in an Irish pub; an eloquent discourse on the nature of evil led the newspaper’s editor, to my mortification, to headline the resulting piece “O’Brien: Stalin could totally magnetise people”, accompanied not by a picture of the author but one of the dictator himself. Despite this, I returned a few times to help catalogue her archive, during the period when she was planning the trip to Nigeria that would inform her novel Girl; in the face of numerous alluring invitations, she was adamant that she was not there to hobnob with cultural attaches in upmarket hotels, but to spend all her time with the young women who had experienced untold trauma in captivity by Boko Haram. There are few novelists who could summon the depth of empathy required to write so far beyond their own experience so powerfully, but this is Edna O’Brien: a writer once pigeonholed for her gender and Irishness, who has demonstrated across her work the universality of her insight and clarity of her vision, her ability to reach so deep into herself and so far out into the world. O’Brien’s memoir, Country Girl, is a wonderful testament to a life lived with all the courage, verve and vitality reflected in her writing. I will always treasure the handbag she gave me, and only aspire to anything like her sumptuous elegance, sharp wit and kindness.
Francesca Wade is the editor of The White Review and author of Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars (Faber).

Edna O’Brien’s TS Eliot Lecture, in association with the Abbey Theatre, premieres at 7.30pm this evening. Watch it here.