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Country girl - A Selective guide to the work of Edna O'Brien

Updated on January 3, 2008

Ireland's 1st lady of literature

Born in 1930, Edna O'Brien is perhaps one of Ireland's most important literary exports. Hailing from Tuamgraney, County Clare, a traditional small town in the west of Ireland, she, like so many others, found her birthplace repressive and stifling.

Educated at the Convent of Mercy at Loughrea, she went on to pursue higher education at the Pharmaceutical College in Dublin. While studying for her pharmaceutical license, she wrote small pieces for the Irish Press and read the greats such as Tolstoy and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It's said that the first book O'Brien ever bought was Introducing James Joyce by T.S. Eliot. Fitting, then, that Joyce's masterpiece, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man would encourage her to devote her life to literature and, much later on, write what some might call the most revealing biography of Joyce to date.

O'Brien's first novel, The Country Girls, was published in 1960, and received everything but the critical acclaim it deserved. Rife with the feeling of an autobiography, and dealing with many issues so descriptive of the times, her book was deemed socially unacceptable and banned in Ireland. An embarrassment to her family, and an instant target for the church, and the rest of Irish society, O'Brien became a notorious example, while enjoying literary success in other parts of the world.

Married to Czech writer Ernest G├ębler, O'Brien moved to England. The couple had two sons, Sasha and Carlo, but divorced in the 1960s. She chose to return to Ireland only in her work, which throughout the years has painted one of the most vivid pictures of the country in our time. Her stories are heartbreaking tributes to Ireland, filled with vibrant characters. Often focusing on young women abandoned by their upbringing, her work has delved into the social and political issues facing Ireland and fearlessly taken on great national debates such as abortion. This particular issue is the center of one of her greatest novels, Down by the River, which tells the true story of a 14 year old rape victim seeking an abortion in England.

After writing so many stories, plays, screenplays and non-fiction works about her homeland, one wonders why Edna O'Brien chose to live in England. In a quote reminiscent of so many Irish authors, she said "I left Ireland because my first books were banned, I was frightened; and the climate of censorship was strangulating. But although you physically leave the country, mentally you bring it with you."

Edna O'Brien at Prague Writers Festival

Selected Works

The Country Girls

The Lonely Girl

Girls in their Married Bliss

August is a Wicked Month

A Pagan Place

Zee & Co

Mother Ireland

Johnny I Hardly Knew You

House of Splendid Isolation

Down by the River

James Joyce

Wild Decembers

In the Forest

Recommended Reading

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