A Scandalous Woman, Arts & Entertainment, Awesome Women, Belfast, Books, Edna O'Brien, Errigle Inn, Feminism, Girl rising, International Women's Day, Irish fiction, Kenny McDowell and Jim Armstrong, Letter Writing, Library, Memoir, Mother daughter relationship, Northern Ireland, Reading, religion, Sexism, Stranmillis Library, The Country Girls, The Stories of Frank O'Connor, Themes of childhood, William Trevor, Women and Careers, Writing
It is International Women’s Day, and I am mad at my brother. It might as well be 1974, the two of us in the back seat of our father’s yellow Honda Civic, cushions strategically stacked in the middle to stop us from hitting each other on the long drive to a campground near Loch Lomond in Scotland. In passing this morning, with an entire stretch of Atlantic ocean and a sizable chunk of the North American continent between us, I casually mentioned to him that I might just sit down and write a sentence or two about Edna O’Brien, my favorite writer.
She was the first woman to commit to paper anything that made any sense to me, and I love her. My brother scoffed at me and said if I planned to do so, I should also add a “Dislike” button to my blog. The very thought! For me, Edna O’Brien stands out as the first woman to lambast my country’s constraints on women, and in her own over-the-top life, she has flung the door wide open on what it means to be yourself. Live. In Person. Out loud. She makes me want to stand up and cheer her on, even more so because there’s part of me that worries about how lonely she might be at the end of a day. There is a poignant scene in The Country Girls, when she describes Kate’s mother as she waves goodbye, and I don’t like to think of Edna O’Brien sad and lonely at 83:
She was waving. In her brown dress, she looked sad, the farther I went, the sadder she looked. Like a sparrow in the snow, brown and anxious and lonesome.
When my brother reads this, I imagine he will find it very dismal and depressing. Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? Knowing exactly which of my buttons to push, he went on to explain that he has little time for Thomas Hardy either, having written his dissertation on the women of Hardy’s novels. He had the nerve to describe The Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude the Obscure, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles as “a triptych of misery.” Out of Hardy’s entire body of work, my brother likes only one sentence, the one in which Tess’s mouth is compared to “snow-filled roses.” I, on the other hand, prefer the last line where he says something very melodramatic like “The Great President of the Immortals had ended his sport with Tess.” And that, as Mr. Jones, my English school teacher would have said, is “great stuff!”
While it was hard for me to argue against the drudgery of a dissertation on the Hardy women that most likely required a stiff drink at some point, I decided to, instead, point out that my brother was in fact the same youngster who read all Enid Blyton’s books, including the ones bereft of any boys. In his defense, he said that at least Enid could spin a yarn and get out while the getting was good. Edna O’Brien, however, is more apt to keep an argument going, coming back in the room, more than once, with, “Oh, and ANOTHER thing …” Well, of course Edna O’Brien would do that. I mean I do that. It’s very Irish as well as consistent with a perfectly natural and even charming forgetfulness. Right? What’s wrong with him? I may need smelling-salts before this is over.
As I was saying, I love Edna O’Brien. I own everything she has ever written and even some things that written about her, the latter not always favorable. I even saved the seven page hand-written paper I wrote about her in 1982 with the nice comment in red ink deeming it “A very perceptive, well presented and documented survey.” Mind you, I only got 75/100, which I swear was very good at the time, but by today’s standards, wouldn’t that be considered terribly mediocre? A “C” by any other name?
I suppose I should be thankful anything had been written about Edna O’Brien at all. To this day, she remains critically ignored in Irish literary history, as she was in 1982, when I informed my college tutor that Ms. O’Brien would be the subject of my dissertation on Irish Fiction Since James Joyce. He pointed out that it was entirely up to me, and good luck of course, but to bear in mind that, unlike Joyce’s body of work, Edna O’Brien’s fiction had not been the subject of “substantial critical inquiry.” Well, that was a bit unfair, but it was true. So while everybody else was checking out dusty hard-back books about bloody Samuel Beckett and Sean O’Casey, I spent hours in the Stranmillis Library when it would have been easier to go to the Errigle Inn to hear Kenny McDowell and Jim Armstrong play than find a handful of words in a tattered periodical about Edna O’Brien suffering the same indignity as James Joyce and Frank O’Connor in having had her books banned. Her Country Girls, published in 1960, was banned for its ‘explicit sexual content,” content that offended a Catholic Church that has, of late, offended me infinitely more than Edna O’Brien ever did, and she was driven into exile. For words published in a book! Banished – as were all the very best Irish writers. What were they all so afraid of? I suppose we could take a look back to around the time O’Brien was born. In 1927, then Bishop of Ardagh had this to say about the danger to the “Irish” character:
In many respects, the danger to our national characteristic is greater now than ever. The foreign press is more widely diffused among us; the cinema brings very vivid representations of foreign manners an customs, and the radio will bring foreign music, and the propagation of foreign ideals.
Add to that the novelty of television and a new kind of popular press in the 1950s when a young Edna O’Brien began writing, and the same speech applies. To be Irish was to cleave to a certain set of values, to heed your elders, hold your tongue, and mind your manners. Edna O’Brien wasn’t having any of that. She was a different kind of woman, stepping up and out to challenge the Irish establishment that had so many of us tied in knots with our parents, priests, politicians. I would never have encountered this woman from County Clare, had it not been for Brian Baird who, in addition to reading the six o’clock news with gravitas on UTV every night, was my Tutor at Stranmillis University College Belfast. I will never forget him.
Some years later, I sent him a letter to say thank you. We should thank our great teachers. Too, I was about to teach an Irish literature class, and I wondered if Mr. Baird would share with me his course outline and a reading list. He obliged, and to this day, his letter and the list of works, remain carefully folded between pages 186 and 187 of the Collected Poems of Patrick Kavanagh.
It angers me to know that cancer took my Mr. Baird eight years after he sent me this letter. Cancer. There’s just no getting away from it. I hate it.
Mr. Baird, I would give anything to run in to you, just one more time, at The Lyric Theater on Ridgeway Street, just a few doors down from where I lived when I was a student. Before a play perhaps, as you are enjoying a cigar and a laugh with local playwrights, your thick gold bracelet chinking against a brandy glass as you raise it to one of your students on the other side of the lobby. This time, I would say hello and ask if he thought the play was going to be all it was cracked up to be. I would be like Edna O’Brien, unafraid and confident, with the voice she helped me find so I could move in a world where women are still struggling. Oh, Mr. Baird, I am still learning. When I wrote that essay for him, I included something Edna O’Brien had shared in an interview, and it resonates with me still:
You canot escape the themes of childhood . . . the bulk of the rest of our lives is shadowed or colored by that time.
You see, Edna O’Brien, unlike Yeats and Joyce and various other dead men, made me pay attention to my lot in life, the child I had been, and the young woman, the first in the family to “go away” to university. For years, our heads had been turned by The Troubles in Northern Ireland, our schools and the literature and history we studied, all segregated. Then in college, our heads were turned by Joyce, Beckett, and O’Casey, and I was sick of memorizing the poetry, although beautiful, of W.B. Yeats. Sicker of all the pseudo-intellectuals who tried to sparkle and enchant their way through lectures with ill-placed ironies by Oscar Wilde. But Mr. Baird also introduced us to Seamus Heaney whose poetry has saved me a time or two, and to Brian Moore. I loved Moore’s books as well – the Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne comes to mind, The Emporer of Ice Cream. Moore even tried his hand at writing as a woman in The Doctor’s Wife in the early 1970s. He did a good job too and received critical acclaim for his portraits of women “on the edge” as he did for his dead-on depiction of and disillusionment with the Belfast I loved. Still, I remember wondering why Moore’s books seemed were more “acceptable” than those of Edna O’Brien who didn’t have to “get into character” to be a real Irish woman writing about real Irish women, about the unwavering parochialism of Irish catholicism and the oppressive constraints of hard life in rural Ireland. She breathed it.
With both caustic wit and trademark humor, O’Brien held up to the light the limitations of a repressed Irish society that oppressed its women. At twenty-one, I don’t pretend that I knew anything about being a feminist, being a woman. But I knew that O’Brien’s voice was at once new and familiar. Finally, we could find in our libraries and bookshops, the words of a woman speaking about the constricting despair that holed up in the hearts of Irish women trapped in a paradigm of provincialism and parochialism. I remember how excited I was to share The Country Girls with my mother, telling her, “Read this, ma!” and knowing it would make her weep with sorrow and joy in equal measure, as she nodded her head in pure recognition. Edna O’Brien knew who we were. I understood more about Ireland from those books than anything else I learned in college. Finally, I understood who I was, and something about my mother and hers before her.
Too little time indeed. A Scandalous Woman published in 1974 is a collection of nine short stories, the title story ending with the author’s comment on the lot of Irish women, “I thought that ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of strange, sacrificial women.”
Such women weep, accepting their lot, knowing no other, for Ireland – lost for so long in struggles with invaders, with poverty, and with the land, has had too little time for the delicacy of polite society and leisurely relationships.
Looking back from where I sit in 2013 America, I wonder if this was perhaps more about the sacrifices of the first Irish feminists and if finally, we are embracing this country girl and her critique of the repressive Ireland that produced her.
On this International Women’s Day, it is sobering to realize that in the eighty years since Edna O’Brien’s birth, we are still fighting for equality, education, and empowerment for women. In Ireland. America. Africa. India. Everywhere.
When we make life better for our girls, we make life better for everyone.
When girls have equal opportunities to education and health; when they are safe and provided opportunities; the trajectories of their lives change in ways that can lift an entire community out of poverty. Think about it.
Invest in a Girl.
We are harming ourselves as a global community, men are harming themselves, by not investing in women.
Edna O’Brien, The Art of Fiction No. 82, Paris Review 1984 Interviewed by Shusha Guppy
Edna O’Brien, Reluctant Memoirist, The Times Literary Supplement 2012, Patricia Craig