20 Great Interviews:
Edna O’Brien

Susan O'Grady Fox, Contibutor
October / November 2005

From the publication of her very first book, The Country Girls (1960) to her most recent books, Edna O’Brien’s works have gained wide acclaim, particularly among American readers. One of Ireland’s most influential writers, she is famous for her rich and sensuous prose, and her books often deal with disappointments in love.

In 1986, she talked to Susan O’Grady Fox about growing up in Taumgraney, County Clare, and her early influences.

My life in Ireland as a young girl was quite lonely and was devoid of anything literary. There were no books at all in my house. My mother was most mistrustful of the written word.

But for some reason I always had this total vocation to writing. I loved writing compositions. I would actually ask the other girls to let me write theirs.

Our house was about a mile from the village, and it’s kind of pathetic, but on the way home from school I was so excited about doing these essays that I used to sit down on the road, or on a wall, and start writing.

The Traveling Players were the other big excitement in those days. They came about twice a year and put on melodramas, always melodramas: “East Lane,” “Murder in the Old Red Barn,” and those sorts of plays. I thought they were the most truly vivid, wonderful people I had ever seen.

I dreamed of going away with them, so I wrote a little play called “Dracula’s Daughter” in which the girl went to Dracula to see if she could go away with him. When I think of it in retrospect, obviously it was complete romantic masochism.

So these were the sort of excitements of my youth.

The biggest stimulation was nature. The landscape was utterly and randomly beautiful — the bog lilies, wild irises, oak trees, ash trees — all the different trees. Then there’s the light; the evening light in Ireland seems to me to be the most beautiful thing I have ever known, and as a child I sort of imbibed it. I spent so much time out of doors, as much as I could. That was the sort of love of, and if you like, companionship of nature, I had.

Away from nature, literature and the inner self, I felt that nearly everything one did back then was wrong. I had a sense of sin and a sense of guilt just drummed into me by people who had had it drummed into them. I’m not blaming them as much as saying, just tough luck.

Religion was vitally important. Holy pictures hanging in the kitchen and every night the rosary said. I remember the kneeling down, it was a tiled floor and it was very cold, there was just one fire and just one lamp — no electricity — and there were mice. They used to come out of the shoe closet. We’d be kneeling, praying and my mother would jump up screaming because of the mice.

Then we went to Mass, of course, Holy Communion and Confession. The religious life wasn’t as in other countries where people pray and wear medals and all that — it was, so to speak, part of one’s fears, and feelings and fantasies and everything about sexual desires were all smothered over.

I remember once seeing a couple who had been courting for five or ten years. They never met except on Sunday in the afternoon, they would go for a walk — she was quite fat, this woman, she had a kind of bustle — and I remember once hearing the man, he sort of touched her on the back and said, “You have a big backside.” I thought it was the most sinful thing I had ever heard. I did not think it was crude though. I thought it was sinful. That’s how regressive it was.

The women — I can remember them all very clearly in my mind. I can go up the street of the village I lived in and think of them all swathed in clothes and knitted stockings. I think that’s where I must have conceived some love of glamour, because there was no glamour at all. Glamour was a ticket to “you know what,” to sin. So that formed part of my character and part of my fear.

I think that a lot of people who leave Ireland, and indeed many who stay there, have that [love-hate] syndrome. Love-hate seems to apply more to Ireland than to any other country. It’s amazing because it does haunt you. You do want to go back and at the same time, when you go back, you realize that you feel constrained and constricted ♦

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