Writers & Company

Edna O'Brien: from Ireland's outcast to celebrated icon

The legendary writer is the 2018 winner of the prestigious PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. Listen to her conversation from 2009 with Eleanor Wachtel.
Edna O'Brien, 87, is one of Ireland's most revered writers. (Eleanor Wachtel)

Legendary Irish writer Edna O'Brien is the 2018 winner of the prestigious PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. The committee recognized O'Brien for her "powerful voice and... absolute perfection of prose," and for her acclaimed body of work, which "broke down social and sexual barriers for women in Ireland and beyond."

Starting in 1960 with her first novel, The Country Girls, O'Brien's writing opened up a new chapter in modern Irish literature. Following the intimate lives of two young women, the book was banned in Ireland for sexually explicit content and was burned by O'Brien's parish priest. Despite the controversy, she continued to write provocative, passionate literature, all of it infused with the texture and atmosphere of Ireland. 

In 2009, Eleanor Wachtel spoke to Edna O'Brien about her first novel and the backlash that followed its publication, as well as The Light of Evening, which revisits her connection to her country and her mother. They also discussed O'Brien's portrait of English Romantic poet Lord Byron, called Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life.

The origins of The Country Girls

"I had left Ireland, a country that at the time I had very much wanted to leave, and yet a grief of having been separated from my own country possessed me. I didn't know how much I would miss things I wasn't even fond of. I didn't know I'd miss fields and roads and winds and trees and dogs and donkeys. I didn't know how deep and indelible an impression my parents and my childhood, youth, adolescence and so on, had left upon me. It was as if I was able to see that landscape, both the physical and emotional landscape, more clearly, more trenchantly than I ever had when I was living there. 

"The Country Girls is an elegy to one's roots — parents, place, religion, all that — as well as a song of rebelliousness of two girls, Cait and Baba. Cait on the surface was very obedient, right and pure and all those words the Catholic church instills. And Baba was her counterpart, her friend and enemy, the rebellious one."

Backlash over The Country Girls

"I had no fear whatsoever in writing it. All the fears and upset and brouhaha came after the publication of the book. It was deemed, in my own country, a smear on Irish womanhood. It was banned. There were letters between the Irish cultural minister of that time and the archbishop of Dublin and the archbishop of Westminster. All this over a little book that was really not that bawdy or agnostic or any of the big words.

"I think the reason it created such a furor was that there hadn't been a tradition of women writers in my country, or perhaps in many countries. That was one reason. The other was the nature of the style... it seems as if it's a diary or a confession. As we all know, there's more to a book than just slinging down a letter or a diary, but it seemed like that and everybody in the parish where I come from were scandalized. They were outraged. They felt I had put them up as a laughingstock to the world.

"My mother was very upset by the book. She didn't read it. I found the copy I'd given her after her death in an outhouse in a bolster case and she had, with black ink, gone through and erased any of the offending words. She was upset because the people in the parish were upset and there was a little burning in the chapel grounds. The priest asked those who bought the book — not many, two or at most three people — to bring in their copies, so the book was burned. Nothing illustrious, not like the Bonfire of the Vanitiesbut my mother said to me that it was terrible this burning and women fainted and it was obviously a kind of hysteria."

Powers of resistance

"I had dreamed all my life of being a writer. I would say the words to myself out in the fields: 'I will be a writer.' And then I became a writer and sticks and stones were what happened. That doesn't mean I'm not glad and ever thankful that I can write, but I didn't contemplate or even think what would happen on publication. When I was writing my book Byron in Love, Byron says in a letter to [English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe] Shelley, 'In the career of writing, a man should calculate upon his powers of resistance before he goes into the arena.' And I would put a post-script to that, I'd say, 'A woman should calculate ten times over upon her powers of resistance before she goes into the arena.'"

Edna O'Brien's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast program: "Planxty Fanny Power" composed by Turlough O'Carolan, performed by Kirk Elliott.