Edna O’Brien was first woman to commit to paper anything that made any sense to me
Edna O’Brien was the first woman to lambast my country’s constraints on women and she flung the door wide open on what it means to be yourself
Edna O’Brien at home in London in 2006. Photograph: Frank Miller
I recall an argument with my brother some years ago. He had the temerity to tell me he didn’t like Edna O’Brien’s books. Indignant, I tore into him, taking us both back to 1974, the two of us in the back seat of our father’s yellow Honda Civic, cushions strategically stacked in the middle to stop us from hitting each other on the way to a campground near Loch Lomond. He didn’t seem to understand that Edna O’Brien was the first woman to commit to paper anything that made any sense to me. I loved her. He told me that if I planned to write a blog post about her, I should also add a “Dislike” button. The very thought!
Edna O’Brien stands out for me as the first woman to lambast my country’s constraints on women, and in her own over-the-top life, she has flung the door wide open on what it means to be yourself. Live. In Person. Out loud. At 87, she still makes me want to stand up and cheer her on, even more so because there’s part of me that worries about how lonely she might be at the end of a day. Maybe that’s because of the poignancy of Kate’s mother waving goodbye.
“She was waving. In her brown dress, she looked sad, the farther I went, the sadder she looked. Like a sparrow in the snow, brown and anxious and lonesome.”
I’m projecting, of course. Edna O’Brien has always been lonely, less so when she is writing, and as she pointed out before her 85th birthday and the release of The Little Red Chairs, “Old age just increases loneliness, because your options are less.”
To be fair to my brother, he finds this kind of writing grim, too grim in a life that’s too short. And, that’s the point. Ireland was grim, and both he and I have at times been beneficiaries of its parochial, provincial grimness. Perhaps this is why he avoids being reminded of it. And perhaps this is why, having left it, I find myself missing it, the way we might return to a relationship that’s bad for us. When Patrick Freyne tells her how The Country Girls made him think of Ireland as a prison and that she eventually got out of it, she laughs and tells him – “Ah, I only got half out.”
So my brother reads for pleasure, avoiding the likes of Edna O’Brien, and also, as it turns out, Thomas Hardy, whose women were the subject of his dissertation. He describes The Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D’Urbervilles as “a triptych of misery” and tells me that out of Hardy’s entire body of work, my brother likes only one sentence, the one in which Tess’s mouth is compared to “snow-filled roses”. Edna O’Brien could have written that. It is beautiful and spare as that sparrow in the snow. Mind you, I still lean towards the melodrama of the last line: “The Great President of the Immortals had ended his sport with Tess.” That, as Mr Jones, my English school teacher, would have said, is “great stuff!”
While it was hard for me to argue against the drudgery of a dissertation on the Hardy women that most likely required a stiff drink at some point, I decided to, instead, point out that my brother was also the same youngster who read all Enid Blyton’s books, including the ones bereft of any boys. In his defence, he said that at least Enid could spin a yarn and get out while the getting was good. Edna O’Brien, however, is more apt to keep an argument going, coming back in the room, more than once, with, “Oh, and another thing …”
Well, of course Edna O’Brien would do that. It’s what we do. It’s what she did when, to the chagrin of many back home, she wrote a particularly effusive New York Times piece about Gerry Adams, talking to him before it was hip to do so, determined to convince people that he was “trying to rein in his army”. I’m still conflicted about this, but then I remind myself that she also recognized that “Stalin could magnetize people . .. Stalin could make a woman feel so important and then, that same night, order some executions.”
I own everything Edna O’Brien has written and even some things written about her, the latter not always favourable. I still have the seven-page hand-written paper I wrote about her in 1982 with the nice comment in red ink deeming it “A very perceptive, well presented and documented survey.” Mind you, I only got 75/100, which I swear was very good at the time, but by today’s standards, wouldn’t that be considered terribly mediocre? A “C” by any other name?
For a while, I was just grateful anything had been written about Edna O’Brien at all. Until only recently, she was critically ignored in Irish literary history, as she was in 1982, when I informed my college tutor that O’Brien would be the subject of my dissertation on Irish Fiction Since James Joyce. He pointed out that it was entirely up to me, and good luck of course, but to bear in mind that, unlike Joyce’s body of work and that of other dead Irish male writers, O’Brien’s fiction had not been the subject of “substantial critical inquiry”.
Well, that was a bit unfair, but it was true, and Mr Baird did not seem happy about it. So while everybody else was checking out dusty hardback books about bloody Samuel Beckett and Sean O’Casey, I spent hours in the Stranmillis Library when it would have been easier to go to the Errigle Inn to hear Kenny McDowell and Jim Armstrong play than find a handful of words in a tattered periodical about Edna O’Brien suffering the same indignity as James Joyce and Frank O’Connor of having had her books banned.
The Country Girls, published in 1960, was banned for its “explicit sexual content”, content that offended a Catholic Church that has, for most of my adult life, offended me infinitely more than Edna O’Brien ever did, and she was driven into exile. For words published in a book! Banished– as were all the very best Irish writers. What were they all so afraid of? Were they afraid of women or music or sex? Around the time O’Brien was born, in 1927, the Bishop of Ardagh had this to say about the danger to the “Irish” character:
“In many respects, the danger to our national characteristic is greater now than ever. The foreign press is more widely diffused among us; the cinema brings very vivid representations of foreign manners and customs, and the radio will bring foreign music, and the propagation of foreign ideals.”
Add to that the novelty of television and a new kind of popular press in the 1950s when a young Edna O’Brien began writing, and the same speech applies. To be Irish was to cleave to a certain set of values, to heed your elders, hold your tongue and mind your manners. O’Brien wasn’t having any of that. She was a different kind of woman, stepping up and out of her loneliness to challenge the Irish establishment that had so many of us tied in knots with our parents, priests and politicians. I would never have encountered this woman from Co Clare, had it not been for Brian Baird who, in addition to reading the six o’clock news with gravitas on UTV every night, was my tutor at Stranmillis University College Belfast. I will never forget him.
Some years later, I sent him a letter to say thank you, because we should thank great teachers. Too, I was about to teach an Irish literature class at a community college in Phoenix, and I was hoping Mr Baird would share with me his course outline and a reading list. He obliged, and to this day, his letter and the list of works, remain carefully folded between pages 186 and 187 of the Collected Poems of Patrick Kavanagh.
It angers me to know that cancer took my Mr Baird eight years after he sent me this letter. Cancer. There’s just no getting away from it. I hate it.
Oh, Mr Baird, I would give anything to run in to you, just one more time, at The Lyric Theatre on Ridgeway Street, just a few doors down from where I lived as a student. Before a play perhaps, as you are enjoying a cigar and a laugh with local playwrights, your thick gold bracelet chinking against a brandy glass as you raise it to one of your students on the other side of the lobby. This time, I would say hello and ask if he thought the play was going to be all it was cracked up to be. I would be like Edna O’Brien, unafraid and confident, with the voice she helped me find so I could move in a world where women are still struggling.
Mr Baird, I am still learning. When I wrote that essay for him, I included something Edna O’Brien had shared in an interview, and it resonates with me still:
“You cannot escape the themes of childhood . . . the bulk of the rest of our lives is shadowed or coloured by that time.”
Edna O’Brien, unlike Yeats and Joyce and various other dead men, made me pay attention to my lot in life, the child I had been, and the young woman
You see, Edna O’Brien, unlike Yeats and Joyce and various other dead men, made me pay attention to my lot in life, the child I had been, and the young woman, the first in the family to “go away” to university. For years, our heads had been turned by the Troubles in Northern Ireland, our schools and the literature and history we studied, all segregated. Then in college, our heads were turned by Joyce, Beckett, and O’Casey, and I was sick of memorising the poetry, although beautiful, of WB Yeats and sicker of all the pseudo-intellectuals who tried to sparkle and enchant their way through lectures with ill-placed ironies by Oscar Wilde. But Mr Baird also introduced us to Seamus Heaney, whose poetry has saved me every day of my adult life, and to Brian Moore. I loved Moore’s books as well – The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne comes to mind, The Emporer of Ice Cream. Moore even tried his hand at writing as a woman in The Doctor’s Wife in the early 1970s. He did a good job too and received critical acclaim for his portraits of women “on the edge” as he did for his dead-on depiction of and disillusionment with the Belfast I loved. Still, I remember wondering why Moore’s books seemed were more “acceptable” than those of O’Brien, who didn’t have to “get into character” to be a real Irish woman writing about real Irish women, about the unwavering parochialism of Irish Catholicism and the oppressive constraints of hard life in rural Ireland. She breathed it.
With both caustic wit and trademark humour, O’Brien held up to the light the limitations of a repressed Irish society that oppressed its women. At 21, I don’t pretend that I knew anything about being a feminist or being a grown-up woman. But I knew that O’Brien’s voice was at once new and familiar. Finally, we could find in our libraries and bookshops the words of a woman speaking about the constricting despair that holed up in the hearts of Irish women trapped in their own country. I remember how excited I was to share The Country Girls with my mother, telling her, “Read this, ma!” and knowing it would make her weep with sorrow and joy in equal measure, as she nodded her head in pure recognition. Edna O’Brien knew who my mother was, a country girl from rural south Derry. She knew who I was. I understood more about rural Ireland from those books than anything else I learned in college. Finally, I understood who I was, and something about my mother and hers before her.
“Such women weep, accepting their lot, knowing no other, for Ireland – lost for so long in struggles with invaders, with poverty, and with the land, has had too little time for the delicacy of polite society and leisurely relationships.”
Too little time indeed. A Scandalous Woman, published in 1974, is a collection of nine short stories, the title story ending with the author’s comment on the lot of Irish women, “I thought that ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of strange, sacrificial women.”
Looking back from where I sit in 2018 America, I wonder if this was perhaps more about the sacrifices of the first Irish feminists and today it looks as though we are finally embracing this country girl and her critique of the repressive Ireland that produced her. This week, at a ceremony in New York, far from the fields of Tuamgraney, Co Clare, Edna O’Brien was recognised with the PEN/Labokov award for “the absolute perfection of her prose” which broke down “social and sexual barriers for women in Ireland and beyond.”
And another thing she wants us to know: “Nabokov, genius that he was, was quite scathing of women.” Mr Baird would be delighted, but he might also remind me that in the almost 90 years since Edna O’Brien’s birth, we are still fighting for equality, for education and empowerment for women. In Ireland. Africa. India. America. Everywhere. But we are increasingly defiant, some might say scandalous, and we are quicker to act, to say #MeToo.