Edna O'Brien

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Edna O'Brien
O'Brien at the 2016 Hay Festival
O'Brien at the 2016 Hay Festival
Born (1930-12-15) 15 December 1930 (age 91)
Tuamgraney, County Clare, Ireland
OccupationNovelist, memoirist, playwright, poet, short story writer
LanguageEnglish (Irish English)
Notable worksThe 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 awardsLos 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
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. Philip Roth described her as "the most gifted woman now writing in English",[1] while a former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, 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 (1960), is often credited with breaking silence on sexual matters and social issues during a repressive period in Ireland following World War II. The book was banned, burned and denounced from the pulpit.[4]

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. Faber and Faber published her memoir, Country Girl, in 2012. In 2015, she was bestowed Saoi by the Aosdána. O'Brien lives in London.

Life and career[edit]

Josephine Edna O'Brien was born in 1930 to farmer[5] 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".[6] Michael O'Brien, "whose family had seen wealthier times" as landowners,[7] 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";[8] Lena "came from a poorer background".[9] 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[10] at Loughrea, County Galway[11] – 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."[12] She was fond of a nun as she deeply missed her mother and tried to identify the nun with her.[13] In 1950, having studied at night at pharmaceutical college and worked in a Dublin pharmacy during the day,[14] O'Brien was awarded a licence as a pharmacist. In Ireland, she read such writers as Tolstoy, Thackeray, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.[3]

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.[12] 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.[15] 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."[16]

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.[12] 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. In 2017 she became the sole surviving member.[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.[17] It was staged at The Public Theater in New York in 1985. Also in 1980 O'Brien appeared alongside Patrick McGoohan in 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 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.[12]

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[18] and includes correspondence, drafts, notes, and revisions. O'Brien's papers from 1939 to 2000 are held by Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.[19]

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.[20]

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.[21] Her collection Saints and Sinners won the 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award,[22] 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.[23][24] On 10 April 2018, for her contributions to literature, she was appointed an honorary Dame of the Order of the British Empire.[25]

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". Previous winners who went on to win the Nobel proper are Harold Pinter, VS Naipaul and Doris Lessing. Judge David Park said "In winning the David Cohen Prize, Edna O’Brien adds her name to a literary roll call of honour".[26]

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.[27]


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.[12]

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."[12] They had two sons, Carlo Gébler, a writer, and Sasha Gébler, 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.[28] He died in 1998.

Other honours and awards[edit]

List of works[edit]


Short story collections[edit]



Nonfiction books[edit]

Children's books[edit]

Poetry collections[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ O'Brien, Edna (17 January 2009). "Watching Obama". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 27 September 2012.
  2. ^ Robinson, Mary (29 September 2012). "A life well lived, well told". The Irish Times. Retrieved 29 September 2012.
  3. ^ a b c Liukkonen, Petri. "Edna O'Brien". Books and Writers. Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on 1 April 2004.
  4. ^ "The Country Girls at 50". The Gloss Magazine. 7 February 2019. Archived from the original on 20 July 2020. Retrieved 20 July 2020.
  5. ^ Guppy, Shusha (31 August 1984). "The Art of Fiction No. 82" – via www.theparisreview.org.
  6. ^ "Edna O'Brien: from Ireland's cultural outcast to literary darling". The Guardian. 10 October 2015.
  7. ^ Wilson, Frances (8 October 2012). "Country Girl: a Memoir by Edna O'Brien: review" – via www.telegraph.co.uk.
  8. ^ Country Girl: A Memoir, Edna O'Brien, 2012, p. 4
  9. ^ "Who's still afraid of Edna O'Brien?". independent.
  10. ^ Sulcas, Roslyn (25 March 2016). "Edna O'Brien Is Still Gripped by Dark Moral Questions" – via NYTimes.com.
  11. ^ Conversations with Edna O'Brien, ed. Alice Hughes Kernowski, University Press of Mississippi 2014, p. xvii
  12. ^ 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. Retrieved 6 February 2011.
  13. ^ Kenny, Mary (29 September 2012). "Edna's passions: the literati, the film stars and the nun". Irish Independent. Retrieved 29 September 2012.
  14. ^ Conversations with Edna O'Brien, ed. Alice Hughes Kernowski, University Press of Mississippi 2014, pp. xvii, 56
  15. ^ O'Brien, Edna. The Country Girls, Hutchinson, 1960.
  16. ^ "Edna O’Brien: 'I was lonely, cut off from the dance of life'" by Patrick Freyne, The Irish Times, 7 November 2015.
  17. ^ "Stratford Festival Archives | Details". archives.stratfordfestival.ca.
  18. ^ Crowley, Sinéad (10 September 2021). "Edna O'Brien archive acquired by National Library of Ireland". RTÉ Culture. Retrieved 16 September 2021.
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ "UCD bestows Ulysses Medal on Edna O'Brien". University College, Dublin. 9 June 2006. Retrieved 9 June 2006.
  21. ^ "O'Brien to be honoured at awards". The Irish Times. 5 June 2009. Retrieved 5 June 2009.
  22. ^ "Edna O'Brien wins Frank O'Connor Award". Irish Examiner. Thomas Crosbie Holdings. 18 September 2011. Retrieved 19 September 2011.
  23. ^ "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.
  24. ^ "Edna O'Brien". RTÉ Television. RTÉ.
  25. ^ Baker, Sinead. "'It is an incentive, at 88, to keep going': Irish author Edna O'Brien made a DBE". TheJournal.ie. Retrieved 12 April 2018.
  26. ^ "Edna O'Brien winds the 'UK and Ireland Nobel award' for lifetime achievement". The Irish Times. 26 November 2019. Retrieved 2 June 2020.
  27. ^ "Edna O'Brien to receive France's highest honour for the arts". The Guardian. 3 March 2021. Retrieved 3 March 2021.
  28. ^ "Son reveals Edna O'Brien's rows with jealous husband" by Lynne Kelleher, Irish Independent, 19 July 2009.
  29. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". www.achievement.org. American Academy of Achievement.
  30. ^ Boland, Rosita (23 November 2012). "Banville wins novel of year at awards". The Irish Times. Retrieved 23 November 2012.
  31. ^ "2018 PEN American Lifetime Career and Achievement Awards". PEN America. February 2017. Retrieved 7 February 2018.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]