The First Word: The Grip of Mother Ireland

The Light of Evening, by Edna O'Brien

Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
February / March 2007

“Like Joyce she has lived in exile but never forgotten a single thing.”  – Professor Declan Kiberd, UCD School of English and Drama, speaking about Edna O’Brien. UCD awarded O’Brien the Ulysses Medal in 2006.

To start the New Year off right, we bring you our “Arts Special” issue, featuring a plethora of interviews (and feathers in the case of hatter Philip Treacy), books, movies, and music. For what better way to while away the winter hours than by listening to some good music, reading a book or watching a great film or two?

Join NetFlicks or visit your local video store and rent any movie that features Brendan Gleeson (see Lauren Byrne’s interview page 58) and you will not be disappointed. For other movie favorites with Irish themes, and recipes to enjoy them with, read Edythe Preet’s Sláinte column (page 70).

While movies are certainly one of my favorite pastimes, there is nothing that quite measures up to a good book (well, maybe a good story told around a fire, followed by a song!). My mother enrolled me in the local library when I could barely read and I will always be grateful.

I have read, and appreciated, the work of all four authors featured in this issue – two Irish-Americans and two Irish-born – great storytellers all.

Let’s start with Peter Quinn, the author of Poor Banished Children of Eve, a historical novel about the post-famine Irish in New York. If you haven’t read this book (published in 1995) you have a treat in store – one that may last you through the winter (it’s 683 pages!). If you have read it, you will be glad to know that Quinn has a new book out, a remarkable collection of essays called Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America. And, once again, he delves into the role that Irish immigrants, his own ancestors included, have played in American history and culture (see review by Tom Deignan on page 78).

Meanwhile, Michael Patrick MacDonald explores the world of his childhood in South Boston in Easter Rising: An Irish-American Coming Up from Under, which picks up where his earlier memoir, All Souls: A Family Story From Southie, leaves off. In Easter Rising, MacDonald tells of escaping Southie, where he lost four siblings to violence and poverty, and traveling to Ireland, which helped him see his heritage as a source of pride rather than shame. (See Lauren Byrne’s interview with MacDonald on page 62).

Irish-born writer Colum McCann also explores the past, but not his own. In an interview with Bridget English (page 52), Colum, who lives in New York, comments that he finds his inspiration in writing about what he doesn’t know.

The author of six novels, including the international bestseller, Dancer, based on the life of Rudolf Nureyev, Colum (who was once featured as “The Next Great Novelist” in Esquire magazine’s “America’s Best and the Brightest”), explores the world of the Gypsies in his latest book, Zoli.

Loosely based on the true story of the Romani poet Papusza, the novel vividly depicts how far one gifted woman must journey to find where she belongs. Which brings me to our cover story, and Irish author Edna O’Brien, whom I interviewed for this issue.

Like all good Irish conversations, O’Brien’s latest work is really five stories in one – and as close to a memoir as she’s written.

The Light of Evening centers around the author’s relationship with her own mother, and Mother Ireland, and the grip they both had on her. And, as always with O’Brien’s work, it’s the everyday, and sometimes what’s left unsaid, that is so evocative, especially when it comes to – as Van Morrison would say – the inarticulate speech of the heart.

“Ye needn’t have come,” Dilly (the mother) says to her husband Con when he finally gets around to visiting her in the hospital. The character of Dilly is so finely drawn that this tiny pebble of a phrase dropped in at just the right moment, has a ripple effect that reverberates throughout the book.

Though O’Brien’s work has universal appeal (I’ve discovered of late just how many people I know are O’Brien fans), no other writer so perfectly places me in my own landscape.

It’s not just the physicality of the rural Irish countryside, which she evokes beautifully, but her insights into the Irish psyche, family dimensions, and the ordinary (but extraordinary) characters that one encounters in her work: Hickey the day laborer in The Country Girls, and Jerome the Faith Healer in The Light of Evening, who, though he makes but a brief appearance, months after reading the book, I remember, “He never studied . . . the books he reads are the people that come to him,” and that “a fella has a gift for one thing but not another.”

I regret that I never got to read O’Brien’s books growing up in Tipperary, just on the other side of the Shannon from O’Brien’s County Clare. Her books were banned.

It wasn’t until I was in New York that I encountered her work (Night, of 1972, the first O’Brien’s novels that I read, remains a favorite), and learned the extent to which this gifted woman had been persecuted for her work – not unlike Zoli in McCann’s novel.

Through it all – the book bannings and the burnings – O’Brien kept writing in a voice uniquely her own – probing and examining the Irish psyche in all its manifestations, and producing a long chain of splendid books, which cannot be defined but must be experienced, a quality she shares with all other great writers.

O’Brien hasn’t gotten the credit she deserves, either for her writing, or for the swath she’s cut for modern Irish writers by her brave insistence that as a writer you are answerable to no one (“The minute you feel you are answerable, you’re throttled,” she says). But the presentation of the Ulysses Medal (by Univeristy College Dublin) to her last summer is a start. Professor Declan Kilberd in introducing O’Brien at the ceremony said, “Like Joyce she has lived in exile and never forgot a thing.”

Thank God for that. ♦


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