An Irishman’s Diary on Edna O’Brien and some fiery critics

A meeting to remember

Edna O’Brien. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/Getty Images

The fact that Edna O’Brien, now aged 85, has just published her 17th novel – to considerable acclaim – will surprise only those who are still unaware of her prodigious talent, work-rate, and old-fashioned dedication to her craft.

Her first book, The Country Girls, was published in 1960, and promptly banned. Three novels later, she was living in London and the object of (depending on your point of view) high-pitched moral outrage, or passionate support.

Considerable public interest was therefore aroused when almost half a century ago, in April 1966, the Limerick branch of Tuairim, under the expert guidance of John Dillon – until his recent retirement professor of classics in TCD – invited her to address a meeting of that organisation in the city. The excitement was enhanced by the news that the other main speaker at that meeting would be Fr Peter Connolly, professor of English at Maynooth.

Moral fibre

Peter Connolly’s courage on that occasion was notable. He was later to suffer for other demonstrations of the same moral fibre: an article he published in the


Irish Ecclesiastical Record

on the difference between obscenity and literature – illustrated by some quotations from works he believed had literary merit and were not obscene – raised episcopal blood pressure to a point at which his critical commentaries were subsequently rather ruthlessly curtailed.

I was sent to report the Limerick meeting and my editor, Douglas Gageby, told me to call into Scarriff, in Edna O’Brien country in east Clare, to see if I could find evidence for the allegation that the local parish priest had supervised a public incineration of her work. I did so. Asking about O’Brien in Scarriff in that era was like trying to sell fridges to Eskimos, and I proceeded to Limerick with that aspect of my commission unachieved.

The meeting itself was extraordinary. The hall was full to overflowing half an hour before the starting time: if you could have bottled and sold the atmosphere, it would have generated as much income as the royalties from any of her books. Inevitably she was asked how much of her life she had put into her novels.

“I have always thought”, she replied gently, “that people’s interest in this side of a book is vulgar and speculative. What they feel at the moment they are reading it is the only important thing.”

She was criticised by some of those present for "vulgarity", and one of her audience described a passage in The Country Girls as objectionable. She replied, disarmingly: "The fact that there are certain passages in my book which you think ought not to be there has much more to do with you than it has with me . . . There are easier ways of being in dirt and making money. Writing is very arduous."

Peter Connolly’s commentary on her work was, in its own quiet way, electrifying in the context of mid-1960s Ireland. Although he had some criticism of her third and fourth novels as “uneven”, he praised the first two for their high spirits, their “cheerful, natural, rural ribaldry”, and for “solid, substantial, and serious” writing.

“Whatever she produces”, he concluded, “I will be more interested in her work than in any other novels appearing at the moment in Ireland.”

A few days later, The Irish Times editorially praised his "warm and welcoming sponsoring of one of the most maligned groups of people in Ireland . . . Irish writers who have so long been mangled by their own."

O’Brien herself made it clear that her move to London was not a rejection of Ireland. “I think I do need Ireland very much. It is rooted in me: it is part of me. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that the country of the mind is what is important. Love of country is not nationalism or patriotism, If I come back to write a book it will not be as important as it might seem.”

Her commitment to Ireland was, and remains, real, wherever her domicile. Not long after the Limerick meeting, she was invited by Kerry Kehoe, a Tralee man and a graduate student at Cambridge, to be patron of the University of Cambridge Gaelic Football Club, which he had recently helped to establish. She not only accepted, but came up to Cambridge to watch some of the games.

Recently, when she was writing her memoir, I was in touch with Edna O'Brien about that Limerick meeting and my report (truffle-hunters in the archives will find it in The Irish Times of April 23rd, 1966), and I asked her about the supposed burning of the books episode in Scarriff, explaining that I had been unable to confirm that it had ever actually taken pace.

“It wasn’t in Scarriff”, she said cheerfully. “It was in Tuamgraney”.

Tuamgraney and its parish are about 1,500 yards from Scarriff . The distance can be traversed by car in about two minutes.

So near, and yet so far.