In praise of Kate O’Brien, by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

Celebrating Irish women writers: ‘Kate O’Brien is a master of classic realism. And that’s okay now. Mount Parnassus has many mansions’

 Kate O’Brien: Master of the middle-class  Irish woman’s existence. Photograph: Sasha/Getty Images

Kate O’Brien: Master of the middle-class Irish woman’s existence. Photograph: Sasha/Getty Images

 

Kate O’Brien is one of UCD’s best-known graduates. When I was studying English there, in the 1970s, she wasn’t mentioned. But only two or three woman writers were.

Virago reissued her works in the 1980s, and this brought her to attention once again. By now she has a firm foothold in the Irish literary canon, although some establishment writers still sniff at her.

She is an immensely skilful novelist who writes enthralling stories mainly about middle-class Irish women – from the kind of background she came from. Few have written as expertly, with such compassion and insight, as she, about conventual life. Her masterwork, Land of Spices, gives the most excellent portrait of a pleasant civilised Irish convent and convent school in existence. She was lesbian, but her exploration of heterosexual love in Mary Lavelle and That Lady have seldom been surpassed in Irish fiction.

Why was she left out for so long? First, she was a woman. Second, some of her books had been banned, for too open an analysis of sexuality. O’Brien is a master of classic realism. And that’s okay now. Mount Parnassus has many mansions.

Other favourites Edna O’Brien, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Patricia Lynch.

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s works include The Dancers Dancing

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