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Digital Subscriptions > Writing Magazine > September 2017 > The style & technique of EDNA O’BRIEN

The style & technique of EDNA O’BRIEN

Tony Rossiter looks at a writer whose creative imagination is rooted in her Irish childhood


Geraint Lewis/Writer Pictures

Few first novels have made as big a splash as Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls (1960). A huge critical and popular hit in London and New York, it was banned in Ireland, where her family’s parish priest publicly burned copies of the book. She has written short stories, plays, biographies of Joyce and Byron, and an acclaimed memoir, but she is known, above all, for novels which draw on her Irish roots.


Edna O’Brien grew up in a farming community in County Clare, in the west of Ireland. In her memoir Country Girl (2012) she describes her childhood as ‘at once beautiful and frightening, tender and savage’. Her family had once had money, but her father had spent it on drink and horses, with intermittent cycles of binge-drinking followed by remorse. In an interview for the Observer in 2011 she said: ‘Money troubles, drink troubles, all sorts of troubles… There were the relics of riches. It was a life full of contradictions. We had an avenue, but it was full of potholes; there was a gatehouse, but another couple lived there; we had lots of fields, but they weren’t all stocked or tilled. I remember fields high with ragwort. I remember my father giving them to other people. There was a prodigality… People’s lives were so hard. My mother worked like a demon: feeding animals, carrying buckets.’

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