Edna O'Brien

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Edna O'Brien
Born (1930-12-15) 15 December 1930 (age 88)
Tuamgraney, County Clare, Ireland
Occupation Novelist, memoirist, playwright, poet, short story writer
Notable works The Country Girls,
Girl with Green Eyes,
Girls in Their Married Bliss,
August Is a Wicked Month,
Casualties of Peace
Biographies of Joyce and Byron,
House of Splendid Isolation,
Down by the River,
Wild Decembers,
In the Forest,
The Light of Evening,
Saints and Sinners,
Country Girl,
The Little Red Chairs
Notable awards Kingsley Amis Award
Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Fiction)
Premio Grinzane Cavour
Writers' Guild Award
European Prize for Literature
Irish PEN Award
Ulysses Medal
Lifetime Achievement Award in Irish Literature
Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award

Edna O'Brien (born 15 December 1930) is an Irish novelist, memoirist, playwright, poet and short story writer. Philip Roth has described her "the most gifted woman now writing in English",[1] while former President of Ireland Mary Robinson has cited her as "one of the great creative writers of her generation."[2]

O'Brien's works often revolve around the inner feelings of women, and their problems in relating to men, and to society as a whole.[3] Her first novel, The Country Girls, is often credited with breaking silence on sexual matters and social issues during a repressive period in Ireland following World War II.[4] The book was banned, burned and denounced from the pulpit, and O'Brien left Ireland behind.

O'Brien now lives in London. She received the Irish PEN Award in 2001. Saints and Sinners won the 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, the world's richest prize for a short story collection. Faber and Faber published her memoir, Country Girl, in 2012.


Edna O'Brien was born in 1930 at Tuamgraney, County Clare, Ireland, a place she would later describe as "fervid" and "enclosed". According to O'Brien, her mother was a strong, controlling woman who had emigrated temporarily to America, and worked for some time as a maid in Brooklyn, New York, for a well-off Irish-American family before returning to Ireland to raise her family. O'Brien was the youngest child of "a strict, religious family". In the years 1941–46 she was educated by the Sisters of Mercy – a circumstance that contributed to a "suffocating" childhood. "I rebelled against the coercive and stifling religion into which I was born and bred. It was very frightening and all pervasive. I'm glad it has gone."[5] She was fond of a nun as she deeply missed her mum and tried to identify the nun with her mother.[6]

In 1950, she was awarded a licence as a pharmacist. In Ireland, she read such writers as Tolstoy, Thackeray, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.[3] In 1954, she married, against her parents' wishes, the Irish writer Ernest Gébler and the couple moved to London – "We lived in SW 20. Sub-urb-ia."[5] They raised two sons, Carlo (a writer) and Sasha, but the marriage was dissolved in 1964. Gébler died in 1998.

In London, she bought Introducing James Joyce, with an introduction written by T. S. Eliot, and said that when she learned that James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was autobiographical, it made her realise where she might turn, should she want to write herself. "Unhappy houses are a very good incubation for stories," she said.[5] In London she started work as a reader for Hutchinson where, on the basis of her reports, she was commissioned, for £50, to write a novel. She published her first book, The Country Girls, in 1960.[citation needed]

This was the first part of a trilogy of novels (later collected as The Country Girls Trilogy), which included The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964). Shortly after their publication, these books were banned and, in some cases burned, in her native country due to their frank portrayals of the sex lives of their characters. In the 1960s, she was a patient of R.D. Laing: "I thought he might be able to help me. He couldn't do that – he was too mad himself – but he opened doors", she later said.[5] Her novel, A Pagan Place (1970), was about her repressive childhood. Her parents were vehemently against all things related to literature; her mother strongly disapproved of her daughter's career as a writer. Once when her mother found a Seán O'Casey book in her daughter's possession she tried to burn it.[3]

O'Brien was a panel member for the first edition of the BBC's Question Time in 1979. She is one of two surviving panel members, the other being Teddy Taylor.[citation needed]

In 1980, she wrote a play, Virginia, about Virginia Woolf and it was staged originally in June 1980 at the Stratford Festival, Ontario, Canada and subsequently in the West End of London at the Theatre Royal Haymarket with Maggie Smith and directed by Robin Phillips. It was staged at The Public Theater in New York in spring 1985. Other notable works include a biography of James Joyce, published in 1999, and one of the poet Lord Byron, Byron in Love (2009). House of Splendid Isolation (1994), her novel about a terrorist who goes on the run (part of her research involved visiting Irish republican Dominic McGlinchey, later shot dead, whom she called "a grave and reflective man"), marked a new phase in her writing career. Down by the River (1996) concerned an under-age rape victim who sought an abortion in England, the "Miss X case". In the Forest (2002) dealt with the real-life case of Brendan O'Donnell, who abducted and murdered a woman, her three-year-old son, and a priest, in rural Ireland.[5]


According to Scottish novelist Andrew O'Hagan, her place in Irish letters is assured. "She changed the nature of Irish fiction; she brought the woman's experience and sex and internal lives of those people on to the page, and she did it with style, and she made those concerns international." Irish novelist Colum McCann avers that O'Brien has been "the advance scout for the Irish imagination" for over fifty years.[5]

Awards and honours

O'Brien's awards include a Kingsley Amis Award in 1962 (for The Country Girls), the Yorkshire Post Book Award in 1970 (for A Pagan Place), and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1990 for Lantern Slides. In 2006, she was appointed adjunct professor of English Literature in University College, Dublin.[7]

In 2009, she was honoured with the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award during a special ceremony at the year's Irish Book Awards in Dublin.[8] Her collection Saints and Sinners won the 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award,[9] with judge Thomas McCarthy referring to her as "the Solzhenitsyn of Irish life". RTÉ aired a documentary on her as part of its Arts strand in early 2012.[10][11]

List of works


Short story collections


  • A Pagan Place
  • 1980: Virginia. A Play
  • Family Butchers
  • Triptych
  • 2009: Haunted

Non-fiction books

Poetry collections

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 O'Brien, Edna. "Watching Obama". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 27 September 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Robinson, Mary (29 September 2012). "A life well lived, well told". The Irish Times. Retrieved 29 September 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Liukkonen, Petri. "Edna O'Brien". Books and Writers. Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on 10 February 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Lewis, Peter (11 October 2012). "Paying the Price for Passion". London: Daily Mail Online. Retrieved 27 January 2013. n the Ireland of the decades just after the war, feelings were there to be repressed, like sin...Then along came Edna, giving rebellious voice to the feelings of women, who had always kept the place going while the men drank themselves helpless, and who had always kept quiet as they were expected to.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Cooke, Rachel (6 February 2011). "Edna O'Brien: A writer's imaginative life commences in childhood". The Observer. London, UK. Retrieved 6 February 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Kenny, Mary (29 September 2012). "Edna's passions: the literati, the film stars and the nun". Irish Independent. Retrieved 29 September 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "UCD bestows Ulysses Medal on Edna O'Brien". 9 June 2006. Retrieved 9 June 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "O'Brien to be honoured at awards". The Irish Times. 5 June 2009. Retrieved 5 June 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 "Edna O'Brien wins Frank O'Connor Award". Irish Examiner. Thomas Crosbie Holdings. 18 September 2011. Retrieved 19 September 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "RTÉ launches Spring Season on TV". RTÉ Ten. RTÉ. 16 January 2012. Retrieved 16 January 2012. There will also be a number of major Arts commissions throughout Spring including profiles of Edna O'Brien and Finbar Furey and "Ballymun Lullaby", the award-winning musical documentary that follows music teacher Ron Cooney on a journey of creating a collection of music that aims to bring the community of Ballymun together.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Edna O'Brien". RTÉ Television. RTÉ.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Boland, Rosita (23 November 2012). "Banville wins novel of year at awards". The Irish Times. Retrieved 23 November 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Colletta, Lisa; O'Connor, Maureen (2006). Wild Colonial Girl: Essays on Edna O'Brien. University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0-299-21633-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Eckley, Grace (1974). Edna O'Brien.
  • Laing, Kathryn; Mooney, Sinéad; O'Connor, Maureen (2006). Edna O'Brien: New Critical Perspectives. Peter Lang. ISBN 978-1-904505-20-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • O'Connor, Theresa (ed.) (1996). The Comic Tradition in Irish Women Writers.
  • Plimpton, George (ed.) (1986). Writers at Work.
  • Schrank, Bernice (1999). Edna O'Brien.
  • Serafin, Steven R. (ed.) (1999). Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3.
  • Staley, Thomas F. (ed.) (1982). Twentieth-century Women Novelists
  • Trevor, William (1976). "Edna O'Brien", in Contemporary Novelists

External links