Authors: Edna O’Brien

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Irish novelist and short-story writer

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Country Girls, 1960

The Lonely Girl, 1962 (also known as Girl with Green Eyes, 1964)

Girls in Their Married Bliss, 1964

August Is a Wicked Month, 1965

Casualties of Peace, 1966

A Pagan Place, 1970

Zee and Co., 1971

Night, 1972

Johnny I Hardly Knew You, 1977 (pb. in U.S. as I Hardly Knew You, 1978)

The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue, 1986 (includes The Country Girls, The Lonely Girl, and Girls in Their Married Bliss)

The High Road, 1988

Time and Tide, 1992

An Edna O’Brien Reader, 1984

House of Splendid Isolation, 1994

Down by the River, 1996

Wild Decembers, 1999

In the Forest, 2001

Short Fiction:

The Love Object, 1968

A Scandalous Woman, and Other Stories, 1974

Mrs. Reinhardt, 1978 (pb. in U.S. as A Rose in the Heart, 1979)

Returning, 1982

A Fanatic Heart, 1984

Lantern Slides, 1990


A Cheap Bunch of Nice Flowers, pr. 1962

A Pagan Place, pr. 1972 (adaptation of her novel)

The Gathering, pr. 1974

Virginia, pr. 1980

Flesh and Blood, pr. 1985


Girl with Green Eyes, 1964 (adaptation of her novel)

Time Lost and Time Remembered, 1966 (with Desmond Davis; also known as I Was Happy Here)

Three into Two Won’t Go, 1969

X, Y, and Zee, 1971 (also known as Zee and Company; adaptation of her novel)


The Wedding Dress, 1963

Nothing’s Ever Over, 1968

Mrs. Reinhardt, 1981 (adaptation of her short story)

The Country Girls, 1983 (adaptation of her novel)


On the Bone, 1989


Mother Ireland, 1976

Arabian Days, 1977

James and Nora: A Portrait of Joyce’s Marriage, 1981

Vanishing Ireland, 1986

James Joyce, 1999

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

The Dazzle, 1981

A Christmas Treat, 1982

The Expedition, 1982

The Rescue, 1983

Tales for the Telling: Irish Folk and Fairy Stories, 1986

Edited Text:

Some Irish Loving, 1979


Josephine Edna O’Brien is a prolific Irish writer in several genres. In general, she is more esteemed in the United States than she is in the British Isles, where the “Irishness” of her work is less of a novelty. O’Brien is either much admired as an archetypal fighting Irishwoman or much scorned for her melodramatic posturing; responses are rarely lukewarm. Writing almost always from a female point of view, she is a splendid illustrator of the Irish scene in the 1940’s and 1950’s. It is when her women grow up and join the cosmopolitan world of London and the jet set’s Europe, with its glitz and promiscuity, that some readers find her work less satisfactory.{$I[AN]9810000996}{$I[A]O’Brien, Edna[OBrien, Edna]}{$I[geo]WOMEN;O’Brien, Edna[OBrien, Edna]}{$I[geo]IRELAND;O’Brien, Edna[OBrien, Edna]}{$I[tim]1930;O’Brien, Edna[OBrien, Edna]}

Edna O’Brien

(©1990, Terry O’Neill)

O’Brien was born on a farm in County Clare, in the western region of Ireland, on December 15, 1930 (some sources say 1932). Her strict Roman Catholic upbringing in a household dominated by a tough, hard-drinking, improvident father and a passive-aggressive, long-suffering mother is central to all of her best work. The backdrop of this “pagan place” and the people in it, to whom she seems bound even as an adult, is best shown in her Country Girls trilogy and in the autobiographical Mother Ireland. From the oppressively close-knit village community of Scarriff, O’Brien first broke away to become a boarder at the Convent of Mercy, Lough Rea, County Galway. From there she moved to Dublin. In the capital she met and in 1954 married the established novelist Ernest Gebler, with whom she had two sons. The marriage was dissolved in 1964 after a bitter custody battle.

O’Brien’s relationship with Gebler was important in getting her started as a writer. They have disagreed in print about just what, or how great, his contribution to her early novels was, but the fact is that in England, to which they had moved, O’Brien began publishing at a furious pace, a pace which she maintained for almost twenty years. The Country Girls brilliantly introduced readers to the two female figures who would subsequently represent O’Brien’s concern for love and connection among people in hostile family, religious, and social environments. Cait is the first-person narrator and a sensitive romantic; Baba is her alter ego and a volatile scapegrace. The Lonely Girl continues their saga two years later. Cait is again the narrator. She describes her involvement with the cultivated snob Eugene Gaillard (whose initials, it has been noted, are those of O’Brien’s former husband) and her subsequent sailing alone to England. Girls in Their Married Bliss addresses the two women’s problems with the stresses of married life.

This trilogy would indeed present a bleak picture of a woman’s lot in a world of parental, male, and Church repression were it not for O’Brien’s increasingly successful experiments with technique and style; in these she follows James Joyce, whom she greatly admires. Her saving grace is an ironic humor. O’Brien supplies tangible, sensory details and variations in perspective. Her prodigious recall is a feature remarked upon by her critics, including Philip Roth, who wrote a preface to her short-story anthology A Fanatic Heart. In her early trilogy are present in microcosm all the themes of her subsequent work: loneliness, the longing for escape and adventure (often sexual), the repression of the Church, strangling family ties (the brutal father, the martyrlike mother), and the courageous hope with which life must be lived.

Night is O’Brien’s most Joycean novel and perhaps her best work. Here the whining Cait figure is abandoned, and the Baba figure (Mary) is given full rein. Beginning with the first paragraph, the unconciliatory tone of her monologue is established. “I am a woman,” Mary affirms, and she proceeds to weave together the threads of her (and O’Brien’s) story. An outsider, merely house-sitting in London, she reviews her pilgrimage to “the higher shores of love.” The details are familiar: the vicious father, the ignorant peasantry, the cold husband, the love for children (particularly maternal love for a son).

This resolving of the divided self in O’Brien’s work does not, however, continue in an uninterrupted line. I Hardly Knew You features a predatory female figure, in prison for murder and isolated from all productive interaction with society. There are flirtations with incest and an explicit lesbian encounter. O’Brien’s search for a resolution of the quest for love is evidently an uneasy one. After about ten years during which she wrote no long fiction, she kills off Cait (now Kate) by suicide in the epilogue to The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue. In The High Road, however, Kate reappears. In late middle age now, she is as much a hopeless dreamer as ever, looking in all the wrong places and predictably finding all the wrong people, never to become a part of a genuine, lasting, loving relationship.

With the 1990’s came more serious novels. In House of Splendid Isolation, O’Brien returns to strictly Irish themes, this time dealing with the politics of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republican Army. An aging and reclusive Irishwoman in the Republic finds herself harboring a terrorist and confronting the issues that have produced such spiraling tragedy. In Down by the River, a young Irish girl is raped by her father and further abused by her society. Wild Decembers is a romance set in the wild Irish mountains and charged with conflicts between tradition and progress, gossip and truth, vengeance and forgiveness. In the Forest, which takes place in and around a forest in western Ireland, re-creates the circumstances of a multiple murder committed by a tormented young man.

Divided critical reaction toward O’Brien’s work seems to rise from her own ambivalence about her characters, ambivalence which may stem from her own uncertainties about herself and her past. Some readers find her later work, especially when it is set outside Ireland, too predictably pessimistic. Given the immature choices of her central characters, such readers assert, happy relationships seem to be impossible for women in her fiction. On the other hand, her unsympathetic narrators are acclaimed by others as perceptive, searing analyses of a very real, all too common, human condition. In the middle, perhaps, are the majority of O’Brien readers who enjoy most her fresh, lively, and detailed depiction of adolescent life in Ireland in the 1950’s, when separation from parents and society was neither possible nor desirable.

BibliographyColletta, Lisa and Maureen O’Connor, eds. Wild Colonial Girl: Essays on Edna O’Brien. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006. Collection of critical essays examining O’Brien’s works.Dunn, Nell. “Edna.” In Talking to Women. London: Macgibbon and Kee, 1965. In this thirty-eight-page, wide-ranging talk with O’Brien, the topics discussed range from the difficulties facing a single-parent writer to aging. O’Brien in this revealing, autobiographical interview, shares her thoughts on family, love, and relationships. Contains no bibliography, index, or chronology.Eckley, Grace. Edna O’Brien. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1974. This excellent, eighty-eight-page study is the first such on O’Brien. The themes perceptively discussed in O’Brien’s extremely personal work include preeminently love and loss.Gillespie, Michael Patrick. “(S)he Was Too Scrupulous Always.” In The Comic Tradition in Irish Women Writers, edited by Theresa O’Connor. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996. Discusses how O’Brien’s humor is distinguished from that of Irish male writers; shows the relationship between her humor and that of James Joyce, particularly the relationship between her short stories and those in Dubliners (1914).Guppy, Shusha. “The Art of Fiction: Edna O’Brien.” The Paris Review 26 (Summer, 1984): 22-50. The topics discussed include how O’Brien got started on her writing career; the writers, such as James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Anton Chekhov, whom she admires; feminism, into which O’Brien fits uneasily; religion; Ireland; and other areas, such as theater and film, in which O’Brien has worked. At fifty-four, O’Brien affirms that she is putting the themes of love, loss, and loneliness behind her. She recommends A Pagan Place as her best book.L’Heureux, John. “The Terrorist and the Lady.” The New York Times Book Review, June 26, 1994, 7. A mixed review remarking, perhaps too harshly, on O’Brien’s use of symbolism and metaphoric language in House of Splendid Isolation. Although L’Heureux praises the novel, he considers much of Josie O’Meara’s past life irrelevant to the central conflict with the terrorist McGreevy.O’Brien, Edna. “Interview.” Paris Review 26 (Summer, 1984): 22-50. O’Brien discusses the influence of Chekhov on her stories, the animosity of feminists to much of her writing, the theme of Ireland in her stories, and her focus on sexuality in many of her stories.O’Brien, Edna. “The Pleasure and the Pain.” Interview by Miriam Gross. The Observer (April 14, 1985): 17-18. A provocative interview, interesting also in that, two weeks later, it draws from Ernest Gebler, O’Brien’s former husband, a detailed rebuttal of her statements about him (The Observer, April 28, 1985) and an incendiary interview with him (Sunday Independent, April 28, 1985, 7).O’Brien, Edna. Publishers Weekly 239 (May 18, 1992): 48-49. O’Brien discusses her relationship with her mother, her calling to become a writer, her interest in the Gospels and the writings of Catholic mystics, and her relationship with her editors.O’Brien, Peggy. “The Silly and the Serious: An Assessment of Edna O’Brien.” The Massachusetts Review 28 (Autumn, 1987): 474-488. An overview of O’Brien’s work, discussing her central themes and critiquing critical reception of her stories. Argues that her obsession with a father figure makes her portray sexually insatiable women in disastrous relationships with hurtful men.O’Hara, Kiera. “Love Objects: Love and Obsession in the Stories of Edna O’Brien.” Studies in Short Fiction 30 (Summer, 1993): 317-326. Discusses O’Brien’s characters’ obsession with love, which stands in the way of love’s attainment. Discusses “Irish Revel” from her 1969 collection The Love Object as the birth of the obsession and the title story of her 1990 collection Lantern Slides as the epitome of it.Shumaker, Jeanette Roberts. “Sacrificial Women in Short Stories by Mary Lavin and Edna O’Brien.” Studies in Short Fiction 32 (Spring, 1995): 185-197. Examines sacrificial women in two stories by Lavin and two by O’Brien; claims that in the stories, female martyrdom engendered by the Madonna myth has different forms, from becoming a nun to becoming a wife, mother, or “fallen woman.”Woodward, Richard B. “Edna O’Brien: Reveling in the Heartbreak.” The New York Times Magazine (March 12, 1989): 42, 50, 52. An up-close and unsympathetic portrait, with a color photo, of O’Brien, whom Woodward, after several meetings and much research, calls “a poet of heartbreak.” This careful essay shows an off-putting, publicity-hunting, and difficult side of the deliberately apolitical O’Brien. Woodward does not find that The High Road breaks any new ground, in contrast to the affirmation of Shusha Guppy; he finds her short fiction more accomplished.
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