DOCTOR OF LETTERS
In Edna O'Brien's 1976 travelogue Mother Ireland, she surmised:
"Ireland has always been a woman, a womb, a cave, a cow, a Rosaleen, a sow, a bride, a harlot, and, of course, the gaunt Hag of Beara."
As both literary architect and personification of these words, Edna O'Brien is honoured by the University of Limerick today as the foremost contemporary daughter of a narrative lineage that resides in and advances through a specifically Irish and ardently feminized conflation of land and memory, language and love. O'Brien is a prolific wordsmith of psychological and descriptive precision. The genesis of her imaginative power rests in an awareness of the clash of maternal mythologies of Mother/Daughter Ireland with the indelible paternalism of Irish lived experience. This understanding is carried through in her Irish bildungsroman and enduring infatuation with language and idiom in a sustained and epochal scrutiny of Irish feminine identity and selfhood. Fuelled by an indomitable urge to seal the gravestone of redundant myths of prescribed gender roles and roused by the literary exuberance of James Joyce, O'Brien's oeuvre originated in scandalising evocations of female erotic narcissism immortalized in The Country Girls trilogy. However, latterly she has increasingly engaged in brooding interrogations of the Irish social and political canvas typified in the reflections of Mother Ireland, the nationalist ironies of House of Splendid Isolation, and most recently, in the provocatively fact-driven novels Down by the River and In the Forest.
"Life is not a placid pool; it's a raging storming sea, which we're all in" O'Brien reminds us. And she should know. First-hand experience of the dramaturgical prerequisites of rural Irish girlhood, repressive religiosity and domestic conflict have forged in her a profound and enduring respect for the silenced maternal. An immanent consciousness of feminine suffering and exclusion that informs much of her work. In the Ireland of O'Brien's girlhood, and perhaps more vigorously in the remote rural areas, the confluence of archetypal female associations of biological essentialism and the national and private histories of Irish women ensured that feminine physical, sexual and psychological development was often fatally subsumed beneath the obligations of family, church or state. Certainly the experiential conflict of O'Brien's inner and outer worlds was devastatingly evident to her during her Tuamgraney childhood and as an adolescent boarder at the Mercy Covent in Loughrea. Her earliest writings speak directly to religious and sexual angst, an urgent need of rescue women from ignorance and oppression, and the possibility of subjective redemption. An acclaimed feminist pioneer, the intellectual and moral toughness and artistic intelligence convergent in her narratives is epitomised by candid portrayals of Irish women that amplify her unflinching integrity and visionary story-telling, and form the basis of a celebrated international literary reputation.
A consummate stylist of rich and earthy prose, O'Brien has described language as 'more extraordinary than any nuclear weapon'. And with this weapon she musters a synergy of the ceaseless currents of violence and love, superstition and terror, memory and the latent longing for human interconnectedness, in volatile cadences of resounding intensity. Acute observational and descriptive powers, chiselled textuality and pulsing rhythms combine to mirror the individuated and mythic complications of primal female existence. And while O'Brien's extensive prose corpus frequently originates in autobiographical or factual events, the texture of these realities is meticulously excavated and psychically remoulded within the verbal and visual acuity of the author. Whether in elusive epiphanies of plangent solipsism, or the most fragile and evanescent moments of subjective consciousness, O'Brien's characterisation of emotional extremity is nuanced in palimpsests of word and image that ultimately overlay quotidian realities with the prescience of the poet. As this excerpt from The Lonely Girl illustrates:
"I felt no pleasure, just some strange satisfaction that I had done what I was born to do. My mind dwelt on foolish, incidental things. I thought to myself, so this is it; the secret I dreaded, and longed for.... All the perfume, and sighs, and purple brassieres, and curling pins in bed, and gin-and-it, and necklaces has all been for this. I saw it as something comic and beautiful"
The Lonely Girl
Love in its many guises, predominantly in the contexts of ecstasy and despair, sexuality and shame, maternity and reproductive autonomy, remain the churning core of Edna O'Brien's creative process and literary product. Controlled, by turns implacable and tender, but always committed, always passionate, she deftly interlaces place and person with local histories and the ancient lore of the Celts to anatomise the ethical turbulence of internal conflicts within the external dilemmas of intimacy. Defiantly raw in terms of sexual language and content, O'Brien's narratives are seldom, if ever, the exclusive realm of romantic or sexual love. Rather, through clustering motifs that include duty to home and land in a divided, post-colonial Ireland, religious faith and sensitivity towards cultural tradition, the psychological corollary of child/parent dependency, and the traumatic ritualisations of youth and maturity, the efficacy of individuated and conflictual loves are hollowed out of every possible scenario. Like Joyce, like Heaney, she digs down ever-deeper and with increasing confidence into the darkest substrata of Irish life. Like them, she sometimes unearths much to discomfort, to threaten, to alienate. Like them, she is not to be deterred by archaic regulation or throttled by answerability. In the opening line of In the Forest, for instance, O'Brien presages the sinister revelations to come:
"The road silent, somnolent yet with a speech of its own, speaking back to them, father and child, through trappings of the sun and fretted verdure, speaking of the old mutinies and a fresh crime mounting in the blood."
In the Forest
As author, playwright, polemicist, Edna O'Brien's writing unites forensic projections of the self with searing authorial judgement. Physically apart but never psychically far from Ireland, from across the water she continues to cast a sharp eye on the Irish particularities of madness and hope, and to weigh evocations of nationalised or gendered collectivities against the integral exceptionality of all lives and all histories. Exile, loneliness, betrayal, survival - these themes, at once primordial and contemporary, continue to seduce her readers. As paradigms of suffering, delicately wrought in the soft fluent language of Clare, they barely conceal the unquenchable fantasy of the fanatic heart.
Woman, womb, harlot, bride, cave, cow, Rosaleen or hag, Ireland has brought forth a bold and eloquent daughter to speak the unspeakable; an author whom in striving to enunciate her land and her people is moved to provoke, to innovate and to challenge the limits of Irish and international literature.