From the Archives: December 13th, 1980

Journalist Maev Kennedy describes the impact of Edna O’Brien on her life and on the public in this excerpt from an article, one of a series on the ‘Spell of the Sixties’ in the 1980s

Edna O'Brien was born in Scariff, Co Clare, but came to Dublin to work in a chemist's. She met and married Ernest Gebler, and they lived for a while in Wicklow. Then they moved to Dublin, eight doors up the road from me.

My memories of her are disappointingly banal. Her sons are my age and two years younger respectively, and I remember her intervening in a most bitter nursery dispute over who owned a rag doll; other than that I can only remember her in the kitchen, cooking splendid nursery high teas. She made us runny eggs, with toasts with the crusts cut off and cut into “soldiers”. My mother never cut off crusts, and I’d never heard of soldiers of toast, but I came across the term in an English children’s book soon afterwards and was grateful for her civilising influence.

She was the only writer I knew – she was already writing short pieces although she only started on the novels when she left the country. My father taught me to charm visitors by standing up in my cot and lisping “when I grow up I’m going to be a wealthy scribbler like Edna”.

I was only six when The Country Girls came out, and it was a bit beyond even my precocity. But I followed intently reports of the divorce proceedings [between O'Brien and Gebler] – written up with gleeful scurrility by the English papers – and even the more unpleasant suit for custody of the children that followed. I first remember trying to read the books when she was hauled into court sometime around 1965 and made to promise she would keep August is a Wicked Month out of the hands of her children.


I had a strong feeling that if I asked for permission it would be refused, so I took the books one by one. I could only get at them by standing on the arm of a wooden chair – left to us, a pretty literary touch, by Ernest Gebler – and I read them standing on the chair, so they could be returned at high speed.

I was exceedingly shocked, because I could identify so clearly with the characters. They were too real: there were too many details that tied in with the facts I knew about her background. O'Brien was enraged, and quite correctly, at people all through the 1960s taking her work as a particularly verbose autobiography. I was genuinely upset by August is a Wicked Month and spotted instantly that it preached that the wages of sin was death, or worse.

Even in 1970, when I was 16, I was dismayed by A Pagan Place, by its violence and darkness, by the feeling of claustrophobia, and to the point of nightmare, by the scene in which a young priest masturbates on the body of the teenage girl. We were undergoing a series of religion classes at the time which would prove a treasure trove for psychiatrists which taught, with irresistible force and many apocryphal (I hope) anecdotes that an unspeakable chain linked the first clasped hands with the pregnant syphilitic heroin addict in the London gutter. A Pagan Place was the last straw.

Like many good liberals, I might not have gone near the books if the banning, and all the subsequent publicity hadn’t associated them so firmly with reform of all kinds. [...]

The inclusion of Edna O’Brien in so many chat shows and panel discussions, in so many interviews, rammed home the point. Obviously she was cited when any question of censorship of books came up, and by association when censorship of plays or films was at stake. Obviously, too, when Church versus State was under discussion, or infant women’s liberation movements, divorce, contraception, pot smoking, long hair (remember the rows?), jeans. [...]

Fine, then, if you were for Edna O'Brien, you were against the banning of Ulysses, for The Rose Tattoo, furious at Harry Clarke's Geneva windows never leaving the country, in favour of the GAA playing rugby – cricket if they felt like it – for the Communist Party of Ireland. It was for the shedding of a whole way of life that she was seized as a figurehead, since she was the one who had pointed out that it was uncomfortable, badly cut, itchy, impossible to move in, and had never really suited us in the first place.

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Selected by Joe Joyce; email