Edna O’Brien’s removal from Irish society was no isolated act. Indeed, over the past hundred years exile has become the norm rather than the exception for the Irish creative. Ahead of her series of talks at this week’s Merriman Summer School, Andrew Hamilton speaks with Ellen McWilliam’s about the important place the East Clare writer holds in the cannon of Irish art, social history and feminism.
From her earliest dalliances with the work of Edna O’Brien, Cork woman Ellen McWilliam’s was hooked. As she thumbed intently through the pages of ‘The Country Girls’ while at college in the 1990s, she knew that she was experiencing something that would have a major impact on her own life. And so it proved.
“I first came across O’Brien’s work when I was an undergraduate in University College Cork, when I was actually lucky enough to be one of Patricia Coughlan’s [director of this year’s Merriman Summer School] students in the mid-1990s. That’s where I had my first encounter with ‘The County Girls’,” she said.
“It was the first book that I encountered that seemed to speak in so many important ways to my mother’s generation. Since then I have encouraged my mother to reread it and she now appreciates it with an even greater clarity. This was a book that, when first published, spoke to Irish women’s lives in a way that was unprecedented. It is a really important document of Irish history at a very specific moment, as indeed is so much of O’Brien’s writing. If you think about how some of the more recent novels are so in tune with contemporary Irish life even though she herself has spent so much of her life away from Ireland. She is so engaged with the material and historical realities of the past 50 years, and in particular Irish family life and the interior of the Irish family, in many ways she takes up where Joyce left off.
“For O’Brien, Joyce is almost a patron saint. In many ways he (Joyce) led the way and she (O’Brien) went on to create a body of work that is a testament to Joyce’s enterprise while also standing on its own terms. She broke new ground, particular for the Irish women writer, but also provided these really searing insights to the Irish rural life, into what John McGahern would call the ‘small intense community’.”
Ellen, who is a Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Exeter holds Edna O’Brien’s as one of the most influential Irish writers of her generation, and an artist whose body of work will be judged well by history.
“I would be very comfortable with having her on a pedestal. I think, certainly in her early writing life, there was too much distractions surrounding the publishing history of ‘Country Girls’. That was something that gave a distracted fascination and prevented people from thinking of O’Brien in those [high] terms. But I think that readers and critics of O’Brien have come to a consensus that she is somebody who will hold her own in the Irish literary cannon for generations to come and will be looked back on as this extraordinary innovative writer – both in terms of her innovation of form but also in the content of her writing. She brought something new to Irish literary tradition but she also has a very important place in Irish culture more broadly – and that is an unusual place for a lot of writers to find themselves,” continued Ellen.
“There is a history of the Irish writer who is separated from home – more often than not because they pose a challenge to the centres of power. But at the same time they return to Ireland in imaginative ways. That really does speak to O’Brien as a writer. This is something that she has been quite open about – Ireland remains the crucible of her imagination. It’s where he work always travels back to.
“I think exile brings about a sort of fearlessness [in writers], and along with that comes a sort of fierceness in the work. But, it has to be said, there is also a amazing tenderness in their work for the Ireland that they look back to. Joyce called it holding up a ‘nicely polished looking glass’ to the place left behind. So often exiled writers can have this great sympathy and concern. It is such an interesting conundrum – that they would be exiled or exile themselves, but they would remain so fascinated with the place that they are exiled from.”
Ellen will give three talks at this years Merriman Summer School. The first will concern family in O’Brien’s writing; the second will look at migration in her writing and the third will examine the literary and social connections that exist between O’Brien and James Joyce.
Dr Ellen McWilliams reads at the Merriman Summer School today (Saturday). She is the author of ‘Women and Exile in Contemporary Irish Fiction (2013)’, ‘Margaret Atwood and the Female Bildungsroman (2009)’, and essays and articles on writers including Edna O’Brien, William Trevor, McGahern, and Alice Munro. See merriman.ie for more.