The Troubles with Edna
Her first book, The Country Girls, shocked many in Ireland and, as Jane Hardy finds out, Edna O’Brien, whose new play is on in Belfast this week, is still every bit as controversial
The voice on the phone has a west of Ireland accent, is low in a manner that suggests cigarettes or sensuality, and belongs to the most famous female Irish writer of the last 50 years. In other words, Edna O’Brien.
Plato wrote that poets and storytellers should be banned from his Republic because of their tendency to disseminate dangerous information. In a way, Edna is proud to be a troublemaker if not entirely happy that she has been regarded as a thorn in the side of aspects of the Irish establishment since her first novel, The Country Girls, reached an unsuspecting public in 1960.
Its depiction of a rural and, in some ways, backward society which forces heroine Caithleen Brady and her best friend Baba to rebel against their convent upbringing and escape to Dublin, where they are introduced to the ways of the world, was considered shocking.
There are, after all, some fairly explicit scenes, including one moment when Mr Gentleman, the older man in Caithleen’s life, gives her an unsentimental education in sex.
The Irish reaction was instant and disapproving, from Dublin to Tuamgraney, the village in Co Clare where Edna grew up. One church demanded members of the congregation hand in their copies for a public burning. She says now, with wry understatement: “It made a little hubbub in its time and I was accused by all sorts of people, including Charles Haughey and the Archbishop of Dublin, of wickedness. Laughable, really, but it did hurt me. But the main thing I was worried about was my mother’s reaction — I was terrified of what she would say.”
The other aspect of people’s obsession with Edna’s major bestseller that she dislikes, in spite of the fact that Country Girls became a moneymaking film and a trilogy, is the sense of being defined by it.
“When people say they know my writing and I ask them which books they’ve read, they always say The Country Girls. I suppose I should be glad that they’ve read anything.”
Her latest work, Haunted, opened last night at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, and the author will be on tour with it. Its chief characters, Mr and Mrs Berry, who find themselves on the sharp edges of an emotional triangle, originally appeared in one of six TV plays that Edna O’Brien wrote in the 1960s.
“Well, there are only so many stories in the world and a writer has to think up new devices,” she says.
“But Haunted is alive and fresh and new. It’s a memory play seen through Mr Berry’s memories of his wife and Hazel.”
Clothes are significant in the drama, as Mr Berry woos the younger woman with outfits removed from his wife’s extensive wardrobe. “Yes, clothes are important. I included this detail partly because all women love clothes, but also because Hazel’s work is running a vintage clothes stall at World’s End down the end of the Kings’ Road.”
Famously glamorous, Edna O’Brien reveals that in English literary circles her beauty hasn’t always worked to her advantage. “If you have, let’s say, less than awful looks, it can generate spite as I found when I first came over. It’s absurd ...”
Ms O’Brien is still able to shock and retains strong views about Ireland, the country she still regards as hers after five decades living in Chelsea, London’s grandest postcode.
She has, like everyone else, been following the recent moves on the board as the DUP and Sinn Fein struggled to negotiate an agreement over the devolution of justice and policing from London to Stormont.
Edna says: “Although I am not privy to government thinking I think it’s right that the English government should get involved. Although Mrs Thatcher sent people to their deaths, this government, despite obvious failures elsewhere, is playing equal broker and has been as fair to nationalists as unionists.”
She goes on to say that in her view the unionist politicians didn’t seem to be supporting the joint position. “Although I have only met a few unionists, intransigence is in their DNA — it’s in their history and geography.
“I don’t want to sound off but there is on their part a reluctance to concede anything, an ingrained sense of superiority.”
Edna, who conducted a notorious interview with former INLA leader Dominic McGlinchey in the early 1990s as background to her novel, In the Forest, still likes to be controversial.
Like many, she feels that Ireland should be one country, but unlike the majority, she also thinks that there is some justification for the republican armed struggle.
“I feel there was a justification, yes, and I believe Ireland is one country but my human side is relieved that the guerrilla war, conducted by the UDA and the UVF as well as the IRA, is over. The war is over, congratulations on that.”
Although the novelist is approaching 80, she has no intention of giving up the writing habit that has kept her in the public eye for the last five decades.
She explains: “I’ve never stopped writing, it’s in my heart and is the way I’ve made my living. I educated my children quite grandly through my writing.” Edna laughs.
Her sons Sasha, an architect, and author and Belfast Telegraph’s Weekend magazine columnist, Carlo Gebler, both went to the progressive English boarding school, Bedales.
With passion, their mother adds: “Being a writer is not a romp, but I would continue even if overnight I fell into a fortune.”
Recently, Edna has been working on a book that is bound to contain incident, emotion and enough passages to provide something sensational to read on the train — her autobiography. So does she write a certain amount every day like Graham Greene, who famously produced 500 impeccable words each morning? She produces a nice anecdote. “Graham told me that when we met in Paris. He took me out for dinner one evening and was very nervous. There was no enmity, but we didn’t have a laugh. He couldn’t have a drink because of some medication which cast a bit of a pall over things.”
So that episode won’t feature largely in the O’Brien memoir. Edna won’t reveal which passage of her eventful life she’s committing to paper first, but says she has written about 25,000 words over the past few days and is tired.
“I write by hand, using violet Zig pens I get in New York. I’m not writing my life story chronologically, although it will be published in sequence. I’m starting with the urgent, vivid passages.”
Faber will be publishing the autobiography, whose provisional title is The Country Girl.
Edna has known most of the literary great and good in the UK and elsewhere, from Philip Roth to Harold Pinter. On the playwright who died before Christ
mas, she says: “He was a great friend for 40 years, I will miss him. Harold was an individual voice and a very arresting person.”
Reading is part of her writer’s discipline. “It’s like an athlete warming up — I read a scene or so of Shakespeare before I start work. It’s so rich and complex. When people say Shakespeare isn’t Shakespeare but Marlowe or someone, I think it’s a load of cod.”
Her reading list is catholic with a small c. “I love reading and re-read Samuel Beckett whom I revere. Also Joyce, the 19th century Russians for feeling, including Chekhov — they seem almost Irish. And poetry.”
If the woman who memorably described Mother Ireland in her 1976 memoir as woman, womb, cave, cow, rosaleen, sow, bride, harlot and “the gaunt hag of beare” were starting out to write about her homeland now, would she do it differently?
“There are two different things, the portrait of a land and the psyche of a land,” she says. “But the situations and feelings would still be true.”
On ageing, Edna is brisk, saying that she doesn’t appreciate what is happening to her joints but that there are benefits.
“The heart is more open, although some would dispute that, and I’m more tolerant.”
Strangely, she notes, her recent work, Byron and Love, and the short fiction, Old Wounds, have been moving and quite sad. “I’ve got to revive my comic instincts,” she says.
One of the benefits of age, of course, is meeting the next generation. Edna’s five grandchildren live in Enniskillen with younger son Carlo, which is a source of some regret.
“They’re not down the road, but that’s life.” Her youngest grandson, Euan, had celebrated his twelfth birthday the day before and in the evening he got a phone call from London.
“I am quite an indulgent grandmother. I forgot Euan’s birthday until the evening, then phoned him and asked what would he like, short of a motor car.”
She offered him a jacket, a jumper or a watch and he opted for the watch. “So I have to find him a very stylish watch.”
She sounds happy. “I thank the gods every day of my life to have been allowed to be a writer.”
Haunted runs until February 20 at the Grand Opera House, Belfast. Box Office, tel: 9024 1919
The writers story
- Edna O’Brien was born in Tuamgraney, Co Clare, in 1930, a place she later described as “fervid ... enclosed ... and catastrophic”
- In 1950, Edna became a licensed pharmacist and in the summer of 1954 married the Czech/Irish writer Ernest Gebler (author of The Plymouth Adventure) against her parents’ wishes. The couple moved to London and raised two sons, Carlo, the novelist, and Sasha
- Edna’s marriage was dissolved in 1964, and Gebler died in 1998
- As a mother, she has said she allowed her sons one cocktail at a young age — “with a flower in to disguise the alcohol”
- The first book O’Brien ever bought was Introducing James Joyce by TS Eliot. She said that Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man made her realise she wanted to pursue literature
- Edna O’Brien published her first novel, The Country Girls, in 1960. Shortly after publication, it was banned and, in some cases, burned in Ireland because of its erotic honesty
In 1979, Edna O’Brien was one of the panellists on the first ever Question Time
- She has written biographies of James Joyce and Byron and a play about Virginia Woolf, Virginia (1981), which starred Maggie Smith and went to New York
- Edna O’Brien lives in London, but was made professor of English Literature in University College, Dublin in 2006
- She has five grandchildren who live in Enniskillen
- Edna O’Brien’s current writing project is her autobiography, to be published by Faber in 2011, with the provisional title, The Country Girl