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Josephine Edna O'Brien, DBE (born 15 December 1930) is an Irish novelist, memoirist, playwright, poet and short story writer. Philip Roth described her as "the most gifted woman now writing in English",[1] while the former President of Ireland Mary Robinson cited her as "one of the great creative writers of her generation".[2]

Edna O'Brien
Edna O'Brien at the 2016 Hay Festival
Edna O'Brien at the 2016 Hay Festival
Born (1930-12-15) 15 December 1930 (age 88)
Tuamgraney, County Clare, Ireland
OccupationNovelist, memoirist, playwright, poet, short story writer
LanguageEnglish (Irish English)
Notable worksThe Country Girls,
Girl with Green Eyes,
Girls in Their Married Bliss,
August Is a Wicked Month,
Casualties of Peace,
biographies of Joyce and Byron,
House of Splendid Isolation,
Down by the River,
Wild Decembers,
In the Forest,
The Light of Evening,
Saints and Sinners,
Country Girl,
The Little Red Chairs
Notable awardsKingsley Amis Award
Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Fiction)
Premio Grinzane Cavour
Writers' Guild Award
European Prize for Literature
Irish PEN Award
Ulysses Medal
Lifetime Achievement Award in Irish Literature
Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award

O'Brien's works often revolve around the inner feelings of women, and their problems in relating to men, and to society as a whole.[3] Her first novel, The Country Girls, is often credited with breaking silence on sexual matters and social issues during a repressive period in Ireland following World War II.[4] The book was banned, burned and denounced from the pulpit.

O'Brien now lives in London. She received the Irish PEN Award in 2001. Saints and Sinners won the 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, the world's richest prize for a short story collection. Faber and Faber published her memoir, Country Girl, in 2012. In 2015, she was bestowed Saoi by the Aosdána.


Josephine Edna O'Brien was born in 1930 to Michael O'Brien and Lena Cleary at Tuamgraney, County Clare, Ireland, a place she would later describe as "fervid" and "enclosed". According to O'Brien, her mother was a strong, controlling woman who had emigrated temporarily to America, and worked for some time as a maid in Brooklyn, New York, for a well-off Irish-American family before returning to Ireland to raise her family. O'Brien was the youngest child of "a strict, religious family". From 1941 to 1946 she was educated by the Sisters of Mercy – a circumstance that contributed to a "suffocating" childhood. "I rebelled against the coercive and stifling religion into which I was born and bred. It was very frightening and all pervasive. I'm glad it has gone."[5] She was fond of a nun as she deeply missed her mother and tried to identify the nun with her.[6] In 1950, O'Brien was awarded a licence as a pharmacist. In Ireland, she read such writers as Tolstoy, Thackeray, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.[3]

In Dublin, O'Brien bought Introducing James Joyce, with an introduction written by T. S. Eliot, and said that when she learned that James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was autobiographical, it made her realise where she might turn, should she want to write herself. "Unhappy houses are a very good incubation for stories," she said.[5] In London she started work as a reader for Hutchinson, where on the basis of her reports she was commissioned, for £50, to write a novel. She published her first book, The Country Girls, in 1960.[7]

This was the first part of a trilogy of novels (later collected as The Country Girls Trilogy), which included The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964). Shortly after their publication, these books were banned and, in some cases burned, in her native country due to their frank portrayals of the sex lives of their characters. O'Brien herself was accused of "corrupting the minds of young women"; she later said: "I felt no fame. I was married. I had young children. All I could hear out of Ireland from my mother and anonymous letters was bile and odium and outrage".[8] In the 1960s, she was a patient of R.D. Laing: "I thought he might be able to help me. He couldn't do that – he was too mad himself – but he opened doors", she later said.[5] Her novel, A Pagan Place (1970), was about her repressive childhood. Her parents were vehemently against all things related to literature; her mother strongly disapproved of her daughter's career as a writer. Once when her mother found a Seán O'Casey book in her daughter's possession, she tried to burn it.[3]

O'Brien was a panel member for the first edition of the BBC's Question Time in 1979. In 2017 she became the sole surviving member.

In 1980, she wrote a play, Virginia, about Virginia Woolf, and it was staged originally in June 1980 at the Stratford Festival, Ontario, Canada and subsequently in the West End of London at the Theatre Royal Haymarket with Maggie Smith and directed by Robin Phillips.[9] It was staged at The Public Theater in New York in 1985. Other works include a biography of James Joyce, published in 1999, and one of the poet Lord Byron, Byron in Love (2009). House of Splendid Isolation (1994), her novel about a terrorist who goes on the run (part of her research involved visiting Irish republican Dominic McGlinchey, later shot dead, whom she called "a grave and reflective man"), marked a new phase in her writing career. Down by the River (1996) concerned an under-age rape victim who sought an abortion in England, the "Miss X case". In the Forest (2002) dealt with the real-life case of Brendan O'Donnell, who abducted and murdered a woman, her three-year-old son, and a priest, in rural Ireland.[5]


In 1954, O'Brien met and married, against her parents' wishes, the Irish writer Ernest Gébler and the couple moved to London – "We lived in SW 20. Sub-urb-ia."[5] They had two sons, Carlo (a writer) and Sasha Gebler, an architect, but the marriage was dissolved in 1964. In 2009 Carlo revealed that his parents' marriage had been volatile, with bitter rows between O'Brien and Gébler over his wife's success. Initially believing he deserved credit for helping her become an accomplished writer, he came to believe he was the author of her books[10]. Gebler died in 1998.


According to Scottish novelist Andrew O'Hagan, O'Brien's place in Irish letters is assured. "She changed the nature of Irish fiction; she brought the woman's experience and sex and internal lives of those people on to the page, and she did it with style, and she made those concerns international." Irish novelist Colum McCann avers that O'Brien has been "the advance scout for the Irish imagination" for over fifty years.[5]

Awards and honoursEdit

O'Brien's awards include a Kingsley Amis Award in 1962 (for The Country Girls), the Yorkshire Post Book Award in 1970 (for A Pagan Place), and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1990 for Lantern Slides. In 2006, she was appointed adjunct professor of English Literature in University College, Dublin.[11]

In 2009, she was honoured with the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award during a special ceremony at the year's Irish Book Awards in Dublin.[12] Her collection Saints and Sinners won the 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award,[13] with judge Thomas McCarthy referring to her as "the Solzhenitsyn of Irish life". RTÉ aired a documentary on her as part of its Arts strand in early 2012.[14][15] On April 10, 2018, for her contributions to literature, she was appointed an honorary Dame of the Order of the British Empire.[16]

List of worksEdit


Short story collectionsEdit


Non-fiction booksEdit

Children's BooksEdit

Poetry collectionsEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b O'Brien, Edna (17 January 2009). "Watching Obama". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 27 September 2012.
  2. ^ Robinson, Mary (29 September 2012). "A life well lived, well told". The Irish Times. Retrieved 29 September 2012.
  3. ^ a b c Liukkonen, Petri. "Edna O'Brien". Books and Writers. Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on 1 April 2004.
  4. ^ Lewis, Peter (11 October 2012). "Paying the Price for Passion". Daily Mail Online. London. Retrieved 27 January 2013. In the Ireland of the decades just after the war, feelings were there to be repressed, like sin... Then along came Edna, giving rebellious voice to the feelings of women, who had always kept the place going while the men drank themselves helpless, and who had always kept quiet as they were expected to.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Cooke, Rachel (6 February 2011). "Edna O'Brien: A writer's imaginative life commences in childhood". The Observer. London, UK. Retrieved 6 February 2011.
  6. ^ Kenny, Mary (29 September 2012). "Edna's passions: the literati, the film stars and the nun". Irish Independent. Retrieved 29 September 2012.
  7. ^ O'Brien, Edna. The Country Girls, Hutchinson, 1960.
  8. ^ "Edna O’Brien: ‘I was lonely, cut off from the dance of life’" by Patrick Freyne The Irish Times 7 November 2015
  9. ^
  10. ^ "Son reveals Edna O'Brien's rows with jealous husband" by Lynne Kelleher Irish Independent 19 July 2009
  11. ^ "UCD bestows Ulysses Medal on Edna O'Brien". University College, Dublin. 9 June 2006. Retrieved 9 June 2006.
  12. ^ "O'Brien to be honoured at awards". The Irish Times. 5 June 2009. Retrieved 5 June 2009.
  13. ^ a b "Edna O'Brien wins Frank O'Connor Award". Irish Examiner. Thomas Crosbie Holdings. 18 September 2011. Retrieved 19 September 2011.
  14. ^ "RTÉ launches Spring Season on TV". RTÉ Ten. RTÉ. 16 January 2012. Retrieved 16 January 2012. There will also be a number of major Arts commissions throughout Spring including profiles of Edna O'Brien and Finbar Furey and "Ballymun Lullaby", the award-winning musical documentary that follows music teacher Ron Cooney on a journey of creating a collection of music that aims to bring the community of Ballymun together.
  15. ^ "Edna O'Brien". RTÉ Television. RTÉ.
  16. ^ Baker, Sinead. "'It is an incentive, at 88, to keep going': Irish author Edna O'Brien made a DBE". Retrieved 12 April 2018.
  17. ^ Boland, Rosita (23 November 2012). "Banville wins novel of year at awards". The Irish Times. Retrieved 23 November 2012.
  18. ^ "2018 PEN American Lifetime Career and Achievement Awards". PEN America. February 2017. Retrieved 7 February 2018.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit