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O'Brien brings 'sadness and joy' to writing program celebration at Carlow

| Thursday, April 3, 2014, 6:37 p.m.
Charles Sykes/Invision/AP
Author Edna O'Brien

Edna O'Brien is often lauded as one of the leading figures in the history of Irish literature. Born in County Clare in 1930, she's received numerous awards for her work.

When asked about the greatest honor she's received, however, O'Brien selects a personal moment: the reaction of her son, Carlos Gebler, after reading her memoir “Country Girl,” published in 2012.

“He wrote a letter saying many nice things, but concluded with these lines: ‘And the end is devastating,' ” O'Brien says via email in advance of her appearance April 5 at Carlow University. “Not everyone saw that, but he did and I felt perhaps we knew each other that bit better.”

O'Brien's visit is the highlight of 10th anniversary celebrations for the university's master of fine arts creative-writing program. The international low-residency program features classes at Carlow and Trinity College in Dublin, and has attracted award-winning novelist and short-story writer Kevin Barry, and Gebler, an author and playwright.

According to the program's director, Ellie Wymard, hosting O'Brien “is a tremendous honor and it speaks to the success that the program has had in Ireland. ... I think she's written movingly and tellingly about mothers and children of mothers, about love and the landscape of Ireland. Her narratives are always poetic.”

O'Brien first gained notice when her debut novel, “The Country Girls,” was published in 1960. It was banned, as were her next five books, because of their frank portrayals of the sexual and social lives of women. While works by Thomas Mann and Alberto Moravio were similarly barred by Irish censors, O'Brien felt no kinship with those writers. There was no satisfaction of striking a blow for truth when her books were burned in churches across Ireland.

“The difference was that I was a young woman who came from a small parish and everybody seemed to know of and vituperate against my scandalous books,” she says. “It was, if you like, more personal, because what happened in Dublin filtered out into the countryside and I read, many years later, of a sheep farmer in Connemara who boasted of the fact that they ran that woman (meaning me) out of Ireland. It was not particularly a badge of honor, there was shame attached to it and a covert feeling of having betrayed my own people. With time, however, that also lessened.”

If many countrymen initially disowned her, O'Brien's work has stood the test of time. Writers including Philip Roth and Seamus Heaney have praised her work, and the novelist Colum McCann calls O'Brien “the advance scout for the Irish immigration.”

O'Brien is gratified by the commendations, but does not think her stories focus on average, rather than exceptional, people.

“Human beings are both (average and exceptional),” she says. “What I try to get to is the pith of the person, with all the manifold feelings explored and set down. Chekov, for me, is the writer who does this most miraculously.”

In the 1960s, O'Brien was part of the London social scene, attending parties where the guests included Jane Fonda, Sean Connery, Judy Garland and Robert Mitchum, who became her lover for one night. Paul McCartney walked her home one evening and wrote a short song for her. Heady times, but it was the flip side of those occasions that fueled her writing.

“It is perhaps a paradox, but we are more sensitive to life and its vicissitudes in times of unhappiness or unease,” O'Brien says. “When happy, things wash over us. What I am trying to say is, life and people and incidents touch us more when we are vulnerable. It is as if they have impressed themselves on our consciousness without even our knowing it. Virginia Woolf said that if Jane Austen had sat on a stairs night after night, overhearing her parents rowing, the timbre of her fiction would be quite different. As for my own stories, they stem from a mixture of emotions, including sadness and joy.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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