Last week, Irish novelist Edna O’Brien was announced as this year’s winner of the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in Literature.  

Named after the famed author of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, the award is given to writers “whose works evoke to some measure Nabokov's brilliant versatility and commitment to literature as a search for the deepest truth and the highest pleasure, what Nabokov called the 'indescribable tingle of the spine.’" 

In recognizing O’Brien, the award judges said her writing shattered “social and sexual barriers for women in Ireland and beyond.” 

Perhaps it’s fitting that the same week O’Brien’s career was being celebrated, a man by the name of John Francis Kelly chose to celebrate the career of a man named Rob Porter.   

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Kelly is President Donald Trump’s chief of staff.  Porter, up until last week, worked closely with Kelly, until Porter resigned amidst allegations that he had physically abused his two ex-wives for years.  A photo of one of the women with a black eye circulated worldwide.   

And what did John Francis Kelly have to say about Porter before his resignation under these circumstances? 

Kelly called Porter "a man of true integrity and honor and I can't say enough good things about him." 

Kelly added, ”He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.”  

And so O’Brien, now 87 years old, could be excused if she looked around and got an uneasy feeling that not all that much has changed since 1960 when she published her novel "The Country Girls" and became public enemy number one in Ireland. 

O’Brien’s Country Girls trilogy ("The Lonely Girl" and "Girls in Their Married Bliss" were published a few years later) was, of course, a scandal.  Why?  It depicted the inner lives, the sex lives, the tortured lives, of Irish women.  No one -- well, none of the men in positions of power -- wanted to hear about such things. 

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That was nearly 60 years ago.  I’m not going to pretend things have not changed since then.  Of course, they have.  Radically.  Thanks in no small part to bold women like O’Brien. 

But there is something strange going on.  Back in November, Farrar, Straus and Giroux released a new edition of The Country Girls trilogy with an introduction by young, acclaimed Irish author Eimear McBride.  This seemed like a really important moment to revisit O’Brien’s novels.   

At a time when women all over the world were stepping forward and outlining in grim detail the humiliations and the violence they experienced on a daily basis, O’Brien’s books seemed to contain the roots of what had blossomed into a revolution.  It would also seem a good time to explore not just what has changed since O’Brien wrote these novels, but also what has not changed. 

And yet, the re-release of The Country Girls trilogy more or less passed without much of a peep. 

This even though, as McBride writes, the novels “gave voice to the experiences of a previously muzzled generation of Irish women.” 

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McBride, with a flourish, adds, “Into bodies raised to the expectation of violence, rape, forced pregnancy, innumerable dangerous childbirths, domestic bondage, and the ever-present risk of institutionalization for intentionally or unintentionally bringing social shame on male relations, she breathed the radical oxygen of choice, desire, and sensual delight.” 

Which leaves just one question: When are the fine folks in Sweden going to come to their senses and give O’Brien the Nobel Prize in literature she has earned? Need we point out that in the last 50 years exactly seven women have claimed that award? 

But if O’Brien does not win the Nobel, can we at least reward her with a world in which an accused wife-beater not be showered with lavish praise? 


Tom Deignan is a contributing writer for the forthcoming book Nine Irish Lives: The Fighters, Thinkers, and Artists Who Helped Build America  (Algonquin). Contact “Sidewalks” at

Edna O'Brien