Inspiring Change is the theme for International Women’s Day 2014 a day when we celebrate the social, political and economic achievements of women while at the same time underscoring those issues that need more global attention and action. When I think of women who have challenged the status quo in my lifetime, women who have inspired change, invariably Edna O'Brien, is at the top of my list.
She was the first woman to commit to paper anything that made any sense to me, and I love her for that. For my money, O'Brien stands out as the first woman to lambast my Ireland’s constraints on women, and in her own over-the-top life, she has flung the door wide open on what it means to be yourself, to live, out loud. She makes me want to stand up and cheer her on, even more so because there's part of me that worries about how lonely she might be at the end of a day. There is a poignant scene in The Country Girls, when she describes Kate's mother as she waves goodbye, and I don't like to think of Edna O'Brien sad and lonely at 84:
“She was waving. In her brown dress, she looked sad, the farther I went, the sadder she looked. Like a sparrow in the snow, brown and anxious and lonesome.”
I own everything she has ever written and even some things that have been written about her, the latter not always favorable. I even saved the seven page hand-written paper I wrote about her at Queen’s University Belfast in 1982 with the nice comment in red ink deeming it "A very perceptive, well presented and documented survey." Mind you, I only got 75%, which I swear was very good at the time, but by today's standards, wouldn't that be considered terribly mediocre? A "C" by any other name?
I suppose I should be thankful anything had been written about Edna O'Brien at all. To this day, she remains critically ignored in Irish literary history, as she was in 1982, when I informed my college tutor, that Ms. O'Brien would be the subject of my dissertation on Irish Fiction Since James Joyce. He pointed out that it was entirely up to me, and good luck of course, but to bear in mind that, unlike Joyce's body of work, Edna O'Brien's fiction had not been the subject of "substantial critical inquiry." Well, that was a bit unfair, but it was true. So while everybody else was checking out dusty hard-back books about bloody Samuel Beckett and Sean O'Casey, I spent hours in the Stranmillis Library when it would have been easier to go to the Errigle Inn to hear Kenny McDowell and Jim Armstrong play than find a handful of words in a tattered periodical about Edna O'Brien suffering the same indignity as James Joyce and Frank O'Connor in having had her books banned.
Her Country Girls, published in 1960 - before The Beatles released their first album and before Lady Chatterly's Lover had been banned - was banned for its 'explicit sexual content," content that offended a Roman Catholic Church that has, in recent years, offended me infinitely more than Edna O'Brien ever did, yet she was driven into exile. For words published in a book! Banished - as were all the very best Irish writers. What were people so afraid of? I suppose we could take a look back to around the time O'Brien was born. In 1927, then Bishop of Ardagh had this to say about the danger to the "Irish" character:
“In many respects, the danger to our national characteristic is greater now than ever. The foreign press is more widely diffused among us; the cinema brings very vivid representations of foreign manners an customs, and the radio will bring foreign music, and the propagation of foreign ideals.”
Add to that the novelty of television and a new kind of popular press in the 1950s when a young Edna O'Brien began writing, and the same speech applies. To be Irish was to cleave to a certain set of values, to heed your elders, hold your tongue, and mind your manners. Edna O'Brien wasn't having any of that. She was a different kind of woman, stepping up and out to challenge the Irish establishment that had so many of us tied in knots with our parents, priests, politicians. I would never have encountered this woman from County Clare, had it not been for Brian Baird who, in addition to reading the six o'clock news with gravitas on UTV every night, was my Tutor at Stranmillis University College Belfast. I will never forget him.
Some years later, I sent him a letter to say thank you. We should thank our great teachers. Too, I was about to teach an Irish literature class, and I wondered if Mr. Baird would share with me his course outline and a reading list. He obliged, and to this day, his letter and the list of works, remain carefully folded between pages 186 and 187 of the Collected Poems of Patrick Kavanagh.
It angers me to know that cancer took my Mr. Baird eight years after he sent me this letter. Cancer. There’s just no getting away from it. I hate it.
Mr. Baird, I would give anything to run in to you, just one more time, at The Lyric Theater on Ridgeway Street, just a few doors down from where I lived when I was a student. Before a play perhaps, as you are enjoying a cigar and a laugh with local playwrights, your thick gold bracelet chinking against a brandy glass as you raise it to one of your students on the other side of the lobby. This time, I would say hello and ask if he thought the play was going to be all it was cracked up to be. I would be like Edna O'Brien, unafraid and confident, with the voice she helped me find so I could move in a world where women are still struggling. Oh, Mr. Baird, I am still learning. When I wrote that essay for him, I included something Edna O'Brien had shared in an interview, and it resonates with me still:
“You cannot escape the themes of childhood . . . the bulk of the rest of our lives is shadowed or colored by that time.”
You see, Edna O'Brien - unlike Yeats and Joyce and various other dead men - made me pay attention to my lot in life, the child I had been, and the young woman, the first in the family to "go away" to university. For years, our heads had been turned by The Troubles in Northern Ireland, our schools and the literature and history we studied, all segregated. Then in college, our heads were turned by Joyce, Beckett, and O'Casey, and I was sick of memorizing the poetry, although beautiful, of W.B. Yeats. Sicker of all the pseudo-intellectuals who tried to sparkle and enchant their way through lectures with ill-placed ironies by Oscar Wilde. But Mr. Baird also introduced us to Seamus Heaney whose poetry has saved me a time or two, and to Brian Moore. I loved Moore's books as well - the Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne comes to mind, The Emporer of Ice Cream. Moore even tried his hand at writing as a woman in The Doctor's Wife in the early 1970s. He did a good job too and received critical acclaim for his portraits of women "on the edge" as he did for his dead-on depiction of and disillusionment with the Belfast I loved. Still, I remember wondering why Moore's books seemed were more "acceptable" than those of Edna O'Brien who didn't have to "get into character" to be a real Irish woman writing about real Irish women, about the unwavering parochialism of Irish Catholicism and the oppressive constraints of hard life in rural Ireland. She breathed it.
With both caustic wit and trademark humor, O'Brien held up to the light the limitations of a repressed Irish society that oppressed its women. At twenty-one, I don't pretend that I knew anything about being a feminist, being a woman. But I knew that O'Brien's voice was at once new and familiar. Finally, we could find in our libraries and bookshops, the words of a woman speaking about the constricting despair that holed up in the hearts of Irish women trapped in a paradigm of provincialism and parochialism.
I remember how excited I was to share The Country Girls with my mother, telling her, "Read this, ma!" and knowing it would make her weep with sorrow and joy in equal measure, as she nodded her head in pure recognition. Edna O'Brien knew who we were. I understood more about Ireland from those books than anything else I learned in college. Finally, I understood who I was, and something about my mother and hers before her.
"Such women weep, accepting their lot, knowing no other, for Ireland - lost for so long in struggles with invaders, with poverty, and with the land, has had too little time for the delicacy of polite society and leisurely relationships."
Too little time indeed. A Scandalous Woman published in 1974 is a collection of nine short stories, the title story ending with the author's comment on the lot of Irish women, "I thought that ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of strange, sacrificial women."
Looking back from where I sit in 2014 America, I wonder if this was perhaps more about the sacrifices of the first Irish feminists and if finally, we are embracing this country girl and her critique of the repressive Ireland that produced her.
Edna, I am forever in your debt.