A Night for Saints and Sinners

Irish writers Edna O'Brien and Colum McCann at NYU's Glucksman Ireland House

By Kathleen Rockwell Lawrence, Contributor
August / September 2011

An Evening with Edna O’Brien at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House

Edna O’Brien threw down the gauntlet straight away. In discussing her latest collection, Saints and Sinners, at Glucksman Ireland House on May 31, she explained that Miss Gilhooley, the romantic librarian in the story “Send My Roots Rain,” had tried to organize literary evenings but found that “people only came because of the wine and the canapés after.”

There was a burst of sheepish laughter as her audience recognized the meta-ness of the scene. Members of Ireland House always look forward to the conviviality of its generous post-lecture wine and cheeses – and some nights with considerably more fervor than others. She announced her plan for the night.

“I’ll read you two little bits of the stories, and then we’ll have questions, which are always more interesting.” Really? Q&As interesting? Isn’t that what happens just before the canapés, with yawns and posturing on both sides of the lectern?

O’Brien – tempting as it is to say Edna, as we all were after, because of her tremendous warmth, I will call her O’Brien, as one would Roth or Updike – O’Brien held us rapt on this last night of her tour for Saints and Sinners, which The New York Times Book Review called “sublime…a wonder, shimmering with her matchless prose…To read O’Brien is not only to succumb to her sibyl’s vision of other people’s fates, it’s to fall under the spell of her singular, potent language.” Alice Munro, herself no slouch in the short story department, cut to the chase: “Edna O’Brien writes the most beautiful, aching stories of any writer, anywhere.” And here we were in the parlor chatting with the Sibyl. Why not just tell you what she said?

On exile.
Why had she left Ireland? Why did she so often write about Ireland, if she didn’t live there?
O’Brien spoke of the burnings of her first book, The Country Girls, and the early accusations by critics that “I had shamed my country. There are always castigations that I don’t know Ireland. [Because she hasn’t lived there since the 1960s]. But Ireland is my landscape – Mother Ireland is a fertility to me. It’s the place of my childhood and one feels the loss of it.

“The old matter of exile…it concerns us all. The going back; the half-going back; the not-going back…There’s a sense of exile in every single person.”

On her writing.
What’s next?
“I’d like a ghost writer. Writing takes all you have and a little bit more. It requires a determination and a solitude that cuts you off from life.” Nonetheless, she plans to keep on writing: “If I’m any good, some of it will leak out.”
How do her mother-daughter stories reflect her relationship with her own mother?

“Now you’re asking a lot!” Her mother lived in Brooklyn as a young woman, then returned to Ireland.

“She wanted to return, for me to take her back to Brooklyn, but I knew that it wouldn’t be the same for her. I regret that I didn’t ask her details about her life, her time there, and now it’s too late.”

The Catholic Church?
“Ah, the beleaguered Catholic Church!”  Though she professes to be devout, O’Brien said, “There is great anger. Ireland’s people feel betrayed.” Even though things seem different in Ireland, “with people walking around half naked, with nose rings…there is still inside the fear and guilt.”

Do you keep a journal?  
She said she’d tried, like Dylan Thomas, on little bits of paper. “Thomas went to Puck Fair, a bibulous fair in Kerry, and left scraps of paper and jottings in all the pubs.” She kept notes for awhile, “but they were so melancholy…! I suppose maybe I should have kept them and cheered them up a bit.”

And, speaking of bibulosity: “Prohibition ended and the ban on Ulysses was lifted on the same day. Minds and bottles opened simultaneously.”

Ireland after the Celtic Tiger?
“Despite being buoyed by two recent visits, the Queen and Obama, the spirit of the Irish people is bleaker. There are half-built houses, windows criss-crossed with tape. Places with no electricity.

“There was the story on the radio of grown children, who after their father’s death, turned their stepmother out, only sticking her heart pills through the mail chute. Greed! Before, that wouldn’t have happened; there was much more compassion. Maybe humanity will find its way back…In the new Ireland, people don’t love poetry, they love their 

The Queen’s visit?
“It cannot but have done some good. It did not do harm. It was beyond symbolism. She went there in her shoes. Much was made of the fact that she wore green. But it was not emerald green, now was it? It was more of a blue green.”

After, there was a snake line of autograph supplicants. O’Brien took time with each of us and the spelling of our names, the hearing our anecdotes. She graciously autographed dog-eared books that shameless ones had snatched up half-price at the nearby Strand Book Store. Though we hoped she would join us belowstairs for the canapés, this was not to be. Alas, with her final penstroke, others claimed her and she was spirited off. It was a great after-party, nonetheless, everyone so buoyant because, for a while, Edna O’Brien, our queen, had been there in her shoes.

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