After stints living in Galway and Dublin, O’Brien moved to London with her husband, novelist Ernest Gabler, where she gave birth to two children and began her career in the letters. O’Brien is credited with changing the face of Irish fiction by introducing a new narrative to the pantheon of writing: the uncensored, truthful experience of women’s inner lives.
O’Brien is best known for her revolutionary first novel The Country Girls, which included realistic portrayals of intimacy and sex, and has been hailed as an indispensable text in the evolution of Irish writing. At the time of publication, The Country Girls, along with the second and third books in the trilogy, were promptly banned in Ireland and many instances, burned. This visceral reaction to O’Brien’s writing was typical of the regressive, deeply conservative Ireland of the day.
Over the next five decades, O’Brien would continue to challenge the commonly held assumptions on what women should write about. The topics of her work regularly deal with the relationship between the sexes from a female perspective, how women are changed by their relationships with men and how they can retain their personhood in a male-dominated world.
O’Brien first came to prominence as a novelist, but over the decades since her 1960 debut, she has become a playwright, a poet, a short story writer, and most recently, a memoirist. In 2012 her memoir ‘Country Girl’ was released to widespread critical acclaim. A new collection of her stories, The Love Object: Selected Stories, a fifty-year retrospective, was published in 2013.
O’Brien is one of Ireland’s most celebrated writers, counting among her rewards the Irish PEN Award, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, an Irish Book Award, and the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award for Irish Literature. Edna O’Brien is not known just for her tremendous literary career, as she has been an active participant in social issues throughout her life. Most prominently of these has been the issue of women’s rights. Never one to hold her tongue, O’Brien has been a powerful persona in advocating for women’s rights in Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Indeed, for O’Brien, her esteem among her peers and the general public has only grown with age. Philip Roth has called her the “most gifted woman now writing in English”. She continues to write to this day, and she has managed to keep her wry sense of humor - in a recent interview with the Independent, Edna O’Brien said
"I think I had to get old. I had to have my hip surgery before they would give me the credit."
* Originally published in 2016, updated in December 2021.
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