Tuamgraney-born author Edna O’Brien celebrated her 90th birthday this week to huge plaudits from the global literary world.
President Michael D Higgins described the novelist as one of the finest chroniclers of Irish life.
Widely regarded as Ireland’s greatest living writer, Ms O’Brien marked her birthday with the delivery of the TS Eliot lecture on Eliot and James Joyce for The Abbey Theatre. The piece was recorded at the Irish Embassy in London and broadcast on Tuesday evening (December 15).
Ms O’Brien’s debut novel The County Girls convulsed 1960s Ireland with its honest representation of female sexuality and small town communities. Despite the reaction, Ms O’Brien in an interview in 1970 with RTÉ expressed warm feelings fro the county. “I would not want to have come from anywhere else despite certain inconveniences which I haven’t omitted to remember,” she said.
In more recent years, The Country Girls trilogy has taken its rightful place in the canon of 20th century Irish literature. Speaking, on her birthday, to Newstalk’s Pat Kenny, Ms O’Brien said she hoped modern Ireland was a less judgemental place than it had been for her heroines, Kate and Baba.
“I’m so glad The Country Girls, that little foundling, is still in print and still exists,” she said. “It has retained its vigour and kept in print. Ireland is a freer country now and hopefully less judgemental, but ultimately passion stays. The spirit of a nation doesn’t vanish overnight. Sure, there’s more modernity and less censorship and many good things have happened, but also a few we could have lived without.”
Among the tributes made to Ms O’Brien was one from another award-winning author with a Clare link. Doireann Ní Ghríofa said, in tribute, that Ms O’Brien was a major influence. “Having grown up in rural Clare in the 1980s, I was in awe of Edna O’Brien, who was, by then, spoken of in reverential tones,” she said. “I looked up to her. I still do. I’ve often composed poems to her; to me, she is both hero and muse.”
The multi-award winning author now lives in Chelsea in London. Ms O’Brien is the author of more than 20 books. Her latest novel Girl recently took the South Bank Sky Arts Award for Literature as well as the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year.
The book deals with the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. Ms O’Brien travelled to Nigeria as part of the research for the novel.