Edna O'Brien's Ireland

December 15: Edna O'Brien turns eighty today, and her first novel, The Country Girls turns fifty this year. For her style and her unrivalled insight into relationships—among contemporary writers, says the New York Times, she is "the major cardiologist of broken hearts"—O'Brien has won virtually every literary prize Ireland has to offer, but The Country Girls and other earlier books provoked outrage at home when they first appeared.

 

The two, opposite sisters in The Country Girls reflect O'Brien's ambivalent relationship with her upbringing in rural County Clare. In a 2008 newspaper article she recalls that she wrote the book while living in London, in three weeks and in an outpouring of love-hate for "the country I had left and wanted to leave, but now grieved for, with an inexplicable sorrow":

Images of roads and ditches and bog and bog lake assailed me, as did the voice of my mother, tender or chastising, and even her cough when she lay down at night. In the fields outside, the lonely plaint of cattle, dogs barking and, as I believed, ghosts. All the people I had encountered kept re-emerging with a vividness: Hickey our workman, whom I loved; my father, whom I feared; knackers; publicans; a travelling salesman by the name of Sacco, who sold spectacles and sets of dentures; and the tinkers who rapped on the door demanding money in exchange for mending tin pots. …There was no library in the local town and hence no books. One copy of Rebecca had reached us and pages were passed from one woman to the next, though alas not consecutively.

The novel's irreligion, sexual frankness, and social criticism provoked some in Ireland to book-burnings and hate mail, and even O'Brien's mother censored it, in country fashion. "She erased with black ink any of the offending words," recalls the author, "and the book was put in a bolster case and placed in an outhouse." The reception given The Country Girls and other novels is reflected in O'Brien's 1976 memoir, Mother Ireland, which is a double tale told in a double tone. The book interweaves the author's recollections of her youth and exodus with her profile of the country and its people, and though much of it is fond and empathetic, it has this quotation from Samuel Beckett's Malone Dies as epigraph:

Let us say before I go any further, that I forgive nobody. I wish them all an atrocious life in the fires of icy hell and in the execrable generations to come.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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