Deservedly, A National Treasure

A gala tribute to Edna O’Brien is altogether deserved.

Since the Republic of Ireland doesn’t award national honours – almost alone in Europe in that respect – other ways have to be devised to honour those who have shown themselves to be an adornment to the nation. And so, there’s been a gala evening of tributes arranged to the writer Edna O’Brien at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre on 24 April: a fitting honour for a person whom the writer Philip Roth has described as “the most gifted woman now  writing in English”, and perhaps the best-known living Irish writer.

The soiree has been conceived by theatrical producers Moya Doherty, John McColgan and Pat Moylan and featuring musicians, singers, actors and writers.

As I’ve mentioned in a memoir, I was once, for a short time, Edna O’Brien’s secretary, and like a lot of jobs I did in my life, I seem to have been hopeless at it. She was an extremely indulgent employer – far too soft, really, to be anyone’s boss – and I seem to remember that not a lot of secretarial letters got written. But the experience gave me something of an insight into her warm, feminine personality: such a mixture of guileless vulnerability and determined steeliness: always attentive to her appearance and presentation, and yet, entirely without frivolity or shallowness.

It’s hardly necessary to repeat why Edna O’Brien, now 85, deserves all honours that come her way: you just have to examine that canon of work, from the 1960s to the present day. Her early novels, ‘The Country Girls’ and ‘The Lonely Girl’ have become classic texts, and her memoir ‘Country Girl’ is an indispensible guide to the true events which sparked the fictional narratives.

Her use of language remains indelibly fresh, and though Mary Robinson, in a review in the Irish Times, thought Edna’s account was ‘name-dropping’, she did, after all, know a lot of famous names in the course of her celebrity life: Paul McCartney, Lord Snowdon, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Samuel Beckett, Marlon Brando, Lord and Lady Olivier, Harold Pinter, Harold Wilson, Robert Mitchum and Ingrid Bergman were among the many names who passed through her home in Carlyle Square, Chelsea. Her memory of a day spent with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in Manhattan is a masterly piece of descriptive writing.

Edna’s work, in any form, should be study texts for all creative and descriptive writers.

People have admired Edna O’Brien, over the past five decades, for her beauty, charm, talent and candour: her stories about women’s feelings about love, and particularly about loss and disappointment in love, are matchless.

But I think she should also be admired for her ceaseless sense of discipline and dedication to work. Philip Roth praised her natural gifts: but natural gifts alone are not enough. The artist has to keep at it, in season and out of season, working, working, working, constantly honing and burnishing the art.

The artist also has to exclude distractions: seldom has Edna involved herself with political or social questions, unless they were connected to her work. She expressed some admiration for Dominic “Mad Dog” McGlinchey of the INLA terrorist group. But that was connected to a book she was writing at the time.

Edna has worked ceaselessly, because she has ambition for her art: and the strict convent education which in part she deplores (but which she also evokes with great sensibility in her short story “Sister Imelda” – a nun on whom she had an intense crush, as a schoolgirl): yet it probably helped to develop that sense of focus. Nothing like cold showers and early morning prayers to get you started on a lifetime’s practice of self-mortification for a greater cause.

But I think she has also worked – and continues to work – because although she has been always been successful, she is not rich, and she has never accumulated much wealth. She’s the kind of person who, if you shared a taxi with her, would insist on paying the fare, and tipping the driver extravagantly as well. She’s probably too generous to be prudent with money.

Indeed, she told me a few years ago that one of the most regretful decisions she made was to sell her beautiful Chelsea home, to help out family finances. The Chelsea house would have been sold for several hundred thousand pounds: it would now probably exchange hands for more than several millions.

She still lives in Chelsea – it’s her spiritual home, rather more, I think, than Scarriff – but her house there is rented, and the cost of renting in London SW3 is something I would rather not think about.

As a legendary Irishwoman, legends have developed around her, not all of them verifiable. Most biographical notes about her life claim that her first, ground-breaking novel, The Country Girls, was ritually burned by a priest for its ‘scandalous’ content. But recently, Professor John Horgan, former senator and media academic, wrote about his experience  in fact-checking this famous book-burning episode. He had combed through every available source in Scarriff and Tuamgraney but could find no witnesses or evidence of it ever happening. So whether it is fact or urban legend is still unproven.

In her own memoir, Edna writes that it was Charles J. Haughey who described her early novels as “filth”; and it was a liberal and literate priest, Father Peter Connolly, who was her champion, (when a raft of Co Clare women called her a “hussy”).

Politicians’ judgements don’t always last, nor their reputations endure.  But Edna O’Brien is one of the immortals and the event at the Gaiety will surely mark her further elevation to the national pantheon. @MaryKenny4