Edna O’Brien says she is ‘increasingly astonished’ by Yeats

Writer the guest of honour at Nobel dinner, at start of Yeats festival in Sligo to mark 150 years since his birth

For her last significant birthday the writer Edna O’Brien generated headlines stating “still hot at 80”, which arguably made her the ideal person to yesterday explain the continued appeal of WB Yeats at 150.

The poet is so hot that the anniversary of his birth is being celebrated in more than 40 countries this week. O’Brien is in Sligo for a four-day party that runs until Sunday. The Clare-born writer was guest of honour at last night’s Nobel dinner, which kick-started the Yeats festival in Sligo.

“Like everyone I have learned from Yeats,” said O’Brien, now 84. “I revere Yeats. Increasingly I am astonished by Yeats.”

Yeats, one suspects, would also be astonished at the feverish excitement his significant birthday has generated, with Hollywood actors, literary giants and the political elite lining up to pay homage.


Next Monday in the House of Lords in London, Baroness D'Souza will host a celebration with Irish ambassador Daniel Mulhall at which the politicians will be entertained by Dublin-born actor Michael Gambon reading The Song of Wandering Aengus and actor Eva Birthistle reading The Wild Swans at Coole.

Other birthday honours include a newly minted Yeats coin, a Yeats rose and a Yeats garden, which took gold in the Bloom garden competition in Dublin this month. An architectural interpretation of The Lake Isle of Innisfree is being unveiled on the island as a special birthday gift .

As she surveyed Benbulben mountain from the gardens of the Radisson Blu hotel on the Rosses Point road before last night's Nobel dinner, O'Brien said she realised the truth of the expression "he couldn't make it up". "I feel a medley of things," she said. "To see this landscape, the mountains, the sea, the hawthorn, in this weather, it is so Yeatsian."

Stressing the importance of the Sligo landscape to Yeats, she pointed out that he had holidayed there for 10 years during his boyhood with his “admittedly very eccentric” relatives.

"But for every writer, the first places are the defining places. They colour and inform every writer. It is there in all the literary giants." O'Brien is still writing. "I think I have still what Philip Roth, my friend, calls my tenacity. I love language . . . I feel its deterioration very much in the world around me. But there are still great works to be read."

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports from the northwest of Ireland