Edna O’Brien honoured with France’s highest cultural distinction
90-year-old author joins Bono and Heaney as Commandeur of Ordre des Arts et Lettres
Edna O’Brien, in Paris in Novembre 2019, where she received a special Prix Femina for her novel Girl. Photograph: Sophie Bassouls/Sygma via Getty Images
Irish author Edna O’Brien will be named Commander of the French “Ordre des Arts et Lettres” by Roselyne Bachelot, France’s minister of culture, on Sunday, March 7th, during an online ceremony on the eve of International Women’s Day
The Order of Arts and Letters citation declares that it honours the talent of O’Brien, a woman of letters, and the struggle of a committed feminist who offered a voice to women around the world, and recognised by many as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
During the ceremony organised by the Cercle Littéraire Irlandais, the French embassy to Ireland, the Irish Embassy to France and the New-York Irish Centre, Minister for Culture, Catherine Martin, Irish writer Colum McCann, Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, and Georges Heslin, director of the New-York Irish Centre, will pay tribute to the author, whl turned 90 last December.
O’Brien has built a special relationship with France and the French public both for her writing but also for her own personal story. In 2020, she opened the Avignon Theatre Festival in partnership with France Culture with the reading of her latest novel Girl, a moving story about violence against women, one of her lifelong concerns.
Born and raised in Tuamgraney, Co Clare, O’Brien has received numerous accolades, including the Irish PEN Lifetime Achievement Award, the American National Arts Gold Medal, the Frank O’Connor Prize, the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature whose work “broke down social and sexual barriers for women in Ireland and beyond”.
In 2019, she was awarded the prestigious Prix Femina special, by an exclusively female jury, in honour of her entire body of work, making her its first ever non-French recipient.
Her first novel The Country Girls, was banned in Ireland when it was first published in 1960. Since then she has written more than 20 novels, five plays and four works of non-fiction including her memoir, Country Girl. Translated in French from her first novel in 1960 by Juilliard, by Presses de la Cité in 1962, she was then published by Gallimard in 1968 and 1973. About fifteen titles were published by Fayard between 1986 and 2003 before she formed an exclusive relation with her current French publisher Sabine Wespieser in 2010.
The Order of Arts and Letters (Ordre des Arts et des Lettres) is awarded each year by the French minister of culture to significant figures in the arts and literature. The order has three grades, increasing in prestige from Knight, to Officer, and to Commander. Up to 20 people can receive the title of Commander each year, making Edna O’Brien one of an exclusive list of cultural figures including Bono (2013) and Seamus Heaney (1996).