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Edna O'Brien

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Edna O'Brien

O'Brien in 2016
O'Brien in 2016
Born (1930-12-15) 15 December 1930 (age 93)
Tuamgraney, County Clare, Ireland
  • Novelist
  • memoirist
  • playwright
  • poet
  • short story writer
LanguageEnglish (Hiberno-English)
Years active1960–
Notable works
Notable awardsThe Yorkshire Post Book Award (Book of the Year)
Los Angeles Times Book Prize for 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
Saoi of Aosdána
David Cohen Prize
Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres

Josephine Edna O'Brien DBE (born 15 December 1930) is an Irish novelist, memoirist, playwright, poet and short-story writer. Elected to Aosdána by her fellow artists, she was honoured with the title Saoi in 2015 and the biennial "UK and Ireland Nobel"[1] David Cohen Prize in 2019, whilst France made her Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2021.

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.[2] Her first novel, The Country Girls (1960), is often credited with breaking silence on sexual matters and social issues during a repressive period in Ireland following the Second World War. The book was banned, burned and denounced from the pulpit.[3] Faber and Faber published her memoir, Country Girl, in 2012. O'Brien lives in London.

O'Brien has been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.[4][5] Philip Roth described her as "the most gifted woman now writing in English",[6] while a former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, cited her as "one of the great creative writers of her generation".[7] Others to hail her as one of the greatest writers alive include John Banville, Michael Ondaatje and Sir Ian McKellen.[5] O'Brien 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.

Life and career[edit]

Josephine Edna O'Brien was born in 1930 to farmer[8] Michael O'Brien and Lena Cleary at Tuamgraney, County Clare, Ireland, a place she would later describe as "fervid" and "enclosed". The family lived at "Drewsborough" (also "Drewsboro"), a "large two-storey house", which her mother kept in "semi-grandeur".[9] Michael O'Brien, "whose family had seen wealthier times" as landowners,[10] had inherited a "thousand acres or more" and "a fortune from rich uncles", but was a "profligate" hard-drinker who gambled away his inheritance, the land "sold off in bits ... or bartered to pay debts";[11] Lena "came from a poorer background".[12] 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". From 1941 to 1946 she was educated by the Sisters of Mercy at the Convent of Mercy boarding school[13] at Loughrea, County Galway[14] – 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."[15] She was fond of a nun as she deeply missed her mother and tried to identify the nun with her.[16] In 1950, having studied at night at pharmaceutical college and worked in a Dublin pharmacy during the day,[17] O'Brien was awarded a licence as a pharmacist. In Ireland, she read such writers as Tolstoy, Thackeray, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.[2]

In Dublin, O'Brien 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.[15] 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.[18] 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. O'Brien herself was accused of "corrupting the minds of young women"; she later said: "I felt no fame. I was married. I had young children. All I could hear out of Ireland from my mother and anonymous letters was bile and odium and outrage."[19]

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.[15] 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.[2]

Alongside Teddy Taylor (Conservative), Michael Foot (Labour) and Derek Worlock (Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool), O'Brien was a panel member for the first edition of the BBC's Question Time in 1979 and was awarded the first answer in the programme's history ("Edna O'Brien, you were born there", referring to Ireland).[20] Taylor's death in 2017 left her as the sole surviving member. 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.[21] It was staged at The Public Theater in New York in 1985. Also in 1980 O'Brien appeared alongside Patrick McGoohan in the TV movie The Hard Way. Other 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 underage 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.[15]

In September 2021, it was announced that O'Brien would be donating her archive to the National Library of Ireland. The Library will hold papers from O'Brien covering the period of 2000 to 2021[22] and includes correspondence, drafts, notes, and revisions. O'Brien's papers from 1939 to 2000 are held by Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.[23]

Awards and honours[edit]

O'Brien's awards include 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.[24]

In 2009, O'Brien was honoured with the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award during a special ceremony at the year's Irish Book Awards in Dublin.[25] Her collection Saints and Sinners won the 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award,[26] 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.[27][28] On 10 April 2018, for her contributions to literature, she was appointed an honorary Dame of the Order of the British Empire.[29]

In 2019, O'Brien was awarded the David Cohen Prize for Literature at a ceremony in London. The £40,000 prize, awarded every two years in recognition of a living writer's lifetime achievement in literature, has been described as the "UK and Ireland Nobel in literature". Judge David Park said "In winning the David Cohen Prize, Edna O’Brien adds her name to a literary roll call of honour".[1]

In March 2021, France announced that it would be awarding O'Brien Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France's highest honour for the arts.[30]


According to Scottish novelist Andrew O'Hagan, O'Brien's 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.[15]

Emory University (Atlanta, Georgia) holds her papers up to 2000. More recent papers are at University College Dublin[31]

Personal life[edit]

In 1954, O'Brien met and married, against her parents' wishes, the Irish writer Ernest Gébler, and the couple moved to London, where, as she later put it, "We lived in SW 20. Sub-urb-ia".[15] They had two sons, Carlo, a writer, and Sasha, an architect, but the marriage ended in 1964. In 2009, Carlo revealed that his parents' marriage had been volatile, with bitter rows between his mother and father over her success. Initially believing he deserved credit for helping her become an accomplished writer, Gébler came to believe he was the author of O'Brien's books.[32] He died in 1998.[33] Her great nephew Frank Blake is an actor.[34]

Other honours and awards[edit]

List of works[edit]


  • 1960: The Country Girls (ISBN 0-14-001851-4)
  • 1962: The Lonely Girl later published as Girl with Green Eyes (ISBN 0-14-002108-6)
  • 1964: Girls in Their Married Bliss (ISBN 0-14-002649-5)
  • 1965: August Is a Wicked Month (ISBN 0-14-002720-3)
  • 1966: Casualties of Peace (ISBN 0-14-002875-7)
  • 1970: A Pagan Place (ISBN 0-297-00027-6)
  • 1972: Night (ISBN 0-297-99541-3)
  • 1977: Johnny I Hardly Knew You (ISBN 0 -297-77284-8); in US, "I Hardly Knew You" (ISBN 0-140-04772-7)
  • 1987: The Country Girls Trilogy with new epilogue (ISBN 0-14-010984-6)
  • 1988: The High Road (ISBN 0-297-79493-0)
  • 1992: Time and Tide (ISBN 0-670-84552-3)
  • 1994: House of Splendid Isolation (ISBN 0-297-81460-5)
  • 1996: Down by the River (ISBN 0-297-81806-6)
  • 1999: Wild Decembers (ISBN 0-297-64576-5)
  • 2002: In the Forest (ISBN 0-297-60732-4)
  • 2006: The Light of Evening (ISBN 0-618-71867-2)
  • 2015: The Little Red Chairs (ISBN 0-316-37823-2)
  • 2019: Girl (ISBN 0-374-16255-7)

Short story collections[edit]



Nonfiction books[edit]

Children's books[edit]

Poetry collections[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Doyle, Martin (26 November 2019). "Edna O'Brien wins the 'UK and Ireland Nobel award' for lifetime achievement: Country Girls author receives £40,000 David Cohen prize which is seen as Nobel precursor". The Irish Times. Dublin. Archived from the original on 28 November 2019. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  2. ^ a b c Liukkonen, Petri. "Edna O'Brien". Books and Writers. Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on 1 April 2004.
  3. ^ "The Country Girls at 50". The Gloss Magazine. 7 February 2019. Archived from the original on 20 July 2020. Retrieved 20 July 2020.
  4. ^ Scott-Hainchek, Sadye (27 November 2019). "Irish author Edna O'Brien receives prize seen as possible Nobel preview". Archived from the original on 25 September 2022. Retrieved 25 September 2022.
  5. ^ a b Cain, Sian (26 November 2019). "Irish novelist Edna O'Brien wins lifetime achievement award". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 25 September 2022. Retrieved 25 September 2022.
  6. ^ O'Brien, Edna (17 January 2009). "Watching Obama". The Daily Beast. Archived from the original on 21 October 2016. Retrieved 27 September 2012.
  7. ^ Robinson, Mary (29 September 2012). "A life well lived, well told". The Irish Times. Archived from the original on 29 September 2012. Retrieved 29 September 2012.
  8. ^ Guppy, Shusha (31 August 1984). "The Art of Fiction No. 82". The Paris Review. Vol. Summer 1984, no. 92. Archived from the original on 27 October 2020. Retrieved 12 April 2020 – via www.theparisreview.org.
  9. ^ "Edna O'Brien: from Ireland's cultural outcast to literary darling". The Guardian. 10 October 2015. Archived from the original on 8 November 2020. Retrieved 31 August 2020.
  10. ^ Wilson, Frances (8 October 2012). "Country Girl: a Memoir by Edna O'Brien: review". Archived from the original on 12 April 2020. Retrieved 12 April 2020 – via www.telegraph.co.uk.
  11. ^ Country Girl: A Memoir, Edna O'Brien, 2012, p. 4
  12. ^ "Who's still afraid of Edna O'Brien?". independent. 11 February 2019. Archived from the original on 12 April 2020. Retrieved 12 April 2020.
  13. ^ Sulcas, Roslyn (25 March 2016). "Edna O'Brien Is Still Gripped by Dark Moral Questions". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 12 April 2020. Retrieved 12 April 2020.
  14. ^ Conversations with Edna O'Brien, ed. Alice Hughes Kernowski, University Press of Mississippi 2014, p. xvii
  15. ^ a b c d e f Cooke, Rachel (6 February 2011). "Edna O'Brien: A writer's imaginative life commences in childhood". The Observer. London, UK. Archived from the original on 9 December 2018. Retrieved 6 February 2011.
  16. ^ Kenny, Mary (29 September 2012). "Edna's passions: the literati, the film stars and the nun". Irish Independent. Archived from the original on 3 November 2012. Retrieved 29 September 2012.
  17. ^ Conversations with Edna O'Brien, ed. Alice Hughes Kernowski, University Press of Mississippi 2014, pp. xvii, 56
  18. ^ O'Brien, Edna. The Country Girls, Hutchinson, 1960.
  19. ^ "Edna O’Brien: 'I was lonely, cut off from the dance of life'" Archived 9 September 2019 at the Wayback Machine by Patrick Freyne, The Irish Times, 7 November 2015.
  20. ^ "Review: First Ever Question Time". 13 August 2020. Archived from the original on 25 September 2022. Retrieved 25 September 2022.
  21. ^ "Stratford Festival Archives | Details". archives.stratfordfestival.ca. Archived from the original on 8 April 2019. Retrieved 8 April 2019.
  22. ^ Crowley, Sinéad (10 September 2021). "Edna O'Brien archive acquired by National Library of Ireland". RTÉ Culture. Archived from the original on 16 September 2021. Retrieved 16 September 2021.
  23. ^ O'Riordan, Ellen (10 September 2021). "Papers of Edna O'Brien find lasting home at National Library of Ireland". The Irish Times. Archived from the original on 10 September 2021. Retrieved 16 September 2021.
  24. ^ "UCD bestows Ulysses Medal on Edna O'Brien". University College, Dublin. 9 June 2006. Archived from the original on 17 November 2017. Retrieved 9 June 2006.
  25. ^ "O'Brien to be honoured at awards". The Irish Times. 5 June 2009. Retrieved 5 June 2009.[permanent dead link]
  26. ^ "Edna O'Brien wins Frank O'Connor Award". Irish Examiner. Thomas Crosbie Holdings. 18 September 2011. Archived from the original on 15 July 2018. Retrieved 19 September 2011.
  27. ^ "RTÉ launches Spring Season on TV". RTÉ Ten. RTÉ. 16 January 2012. Archived from the original on 16 November 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.
  28. ^ "Edna O'Brien". RTÉ Television. RTÉ. Archived from the original on 27 May 2016. Retrieved 11 December 2012.
  29. ^ Baker, Sinead. "'It is an incentive, at 88, to keep going': Irish author Edna O'Brien made a DBE". TheJournal.ie. Archived from the original on 10 June 2019. Retrieved 12 April 2018.
  30. ^ "Edna O'Brien to receive France's highest honour for the arts". The Guardian. 3 March 2021. Archived from the original on 3 March 2021. Retrieved 3 March 2021.
  31. ^ a b "UCD Library Special Collections holds the papers of Edna O'Brien". Archived from the original on 3 October 2022. Retrieved 3 October 2022.
  32. ^ "Son reveals Edna O'Brien's rows with jealous husband" by Lynne Kelleher, Irish Independent, 19 July 2009.
  33. ^ "Ernest Gebler; Irish Author of Novels, Plays and Films". Los Angeles Times. 19 February 1998. Archived from the original on 25 September 2022. Retrieved 25 September 2022.
  34. ^ "East Clare inspiration for 'Normal People' actor Frank Blake". Clarechampion.ie. 16 May 2020. Retrieved 22 April 2024.
  35. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Alberge, Dalya (12 April 2020). "Scholars hit back over New Yorker 'hatchet job' on Edna O'Brien". TheGuardian.com. No. such.
  36. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". www.achievement.org. American Academy of Achievement. Archived from the original on 15 December 2016. Retrieved 17 August 2020.
  37. ^ Boland, Rosita (23 November 2012). "Banville wins novel of year at awards". The Irish Times. Archived from the original on 20 January 2013. Retrieved 23 November 2012.
  38. ^ "2018 PEN American Lifetime Career and Achievement Awards". PEN America. February 2017. Archived from the original on 5 October 2018. Retrieved 7 February 2018.
  39. ^ Hickling, Alfred (25 May 2009). "Secrets and ties". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 6 September 2013. Retrieved 25 May 2009.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]