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The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien

country girlsThe Country Girls sent shock waves through rural Ireland when it was published in 1960. Across the sea, London was about to enter the Swinging Sixties but in Eire, sex was seldom mentioned openly and especially not when it involved unmarried girls.  Edna O’Brien’s novel about two girls who leave their convent upbringing and small village life in search of life and love in city, was castigated for daring to break the silence.  O’Brien, who was living in London at the time, found her novel banned in her home country and her parents so ashamed that they refused to speak to her.

Reading the book now, the elements that were considered so startling in the 1960s, seem creepy rather than shocking.

This is essentially a coming of age story of Caithleen and Baba, two young country girls on the verge of womanhood who leave the sheltered environment of their convent school for the city in search of life, love and fun. Before they get to Dublin however we learn about their childhood, about drunken fathers, and impoverished families, of convent education and schoolgirl acts of rebellion and misbehaviour..

All of this would make for a novel that is nothing remarkable, those themes and events having been played out in many other works already. O’Brien signals that something is different however when she introduces a figure known only as Mr Gentleman. Although he is decidedly older and also married, he begins to take the 14-year-old Caithleen out in his large black car; first on a shopping trip to Limerick and then dinner where he encourages her to drink wine (she decides she prefers the taste of lemonade). Each time they meet, he edges across the barrier of acceptability, hand holding turns into kisses of her hand then all the way up her arm. By the time she’s in Dublin, they’re  spending the whole night kissing and canoodling in his car watching the sun rise over the sea. Our Caithleen isn’t exactly reliable – there are lots of gaps in her accounts of what really happens between them – but it’s not difficult to fill in the blanks. Is she really as innocent as she seems? She’s an intelligent girl but she doesn’t seem to realise that she is slowly being groomed and that there really is no happy ending possible.

O’Brien brings the spirit of Eire vividly to life through two characters who make you laugh one moment and make you cringe the next as yet another example of their naivety is revealed. On the whole though I found it a bit so-so. The story of how O’Brien actually came to write this book and the repercussions on her marriage (as revealed in her 2013 memoir Country Girl), is far more interesting than the book itself.

Book Review: The Country Girl by Edna O’Brien

One night in their [her sons’] bedroom with all their clutter and paraphernalia, painted soldiers laid out on trays for battle yet to be, Paul McCartney entered.

EdnaO'BrienThis is just one of the wonderful examples of understated prose found in Edna O’Brien‘s memoir The Country Girl, published last year. Many lesser writers would have changed the order of words in the anecdote to put the emphasis on McCartney rather than banal domestic details. But such was Edna’s life while in Swinging Sixties London; a life so replete with encounters with the great and the good that she can treat individual episodes with  nonchalance.

There are many examples of this nature in the middle of the book as famous names from stage, screen and the literary world flit into her world and onto the pages. She cooks dinner for Len Deighton, Richard Burton recites Shakespeare in her kitchen, Lee Marvin is a guest at her son’s birthday party and she dances with the then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

The names are not there to impress. These people were simply part of an ever-extending circle of friends and acquaintances who gravitated to her home in Chelsea and more particularly gravitate to this vivacious young woman from southern Ireland. A party girl she may have been but The Country Girl is no kiss and tell memoir. In fact she is remarkably silent on the identity of some of the men who played a part in her life, including someone who seemed to have been an eminent British politician.

The memoir is instead a warm and frank account of a life that was anything but carefree. O’Brien’s early years in County Clare, Ireland were lived in fear of a father who had drunk away the family’s wealth and in the stultifying atmosphere of a strict Catholic community serviced by the church and 27 pubs but no library. “There was only one book in the village apart from the Bible — du Maurier’s Rebecca,” she told an audience at the 2013 Hay Literary Festival. “We used to share it around but you only got one or two pages at a time and they didn’t always come in the right order.”

It wasn’t until she broke away and moved to Dublin to work as an assistant in a pharmacist’s shop that she discovered literature along with pierced earrings and men. Finding T. S. Eliot’s “Introducing James Joyce” in a quayside stall marked the beginning of what she calls the “two intensities”  of her life — writing and reading. Freedom came at a price — her family tried to kidnap her when they learned of her affair with a married man, forcing the pair to flee the country.  In London, married to  a poet and the mother of  two boys, she began to write. The Country Girls was completed in just three weeks. Her tale of two girls who leave their small Irish village and  convent education for the bright lights of Dublin  met with critical acclaim everywhere except in Ireland and by everyone except her mother and her husband.

In Ireland it was considered immoral and its publication banned. “Filth” proclaimed the Archbishop and the Minister of Justice. Even the local postmistress in her home village weighed in – she should be made to run naked through the street as a punishment she claimed. O’Brien was summoned to a public meeting in Limerick to defend her book against accusations that it was little more than hard-core pornography.

Her husband’s response was more personal:

 Yes he had to concede that despite everything, I had done it, and then he said something that was the death-knell of the already-ailing marriage —You can write and I will never forgive you.

What follows is one of the darkest periods of Edna O’Brien’s life. Separated from her children, she finds herself portrayed in a custody battle as a harlot, the writer of obnoxious and obscene literature and an uncaring mother.

Country Girl was a book O’Brien swore she would never write.  She did so at the age of 78 in order to set the record straight about this and other episodes in her life including a published interview with Gerry Adams the Sinn Fein leader which led to accusations she was promoting the cause of the IRA.

There is a sense though there is much more to this memoir than simply recording the truth for posterity. There is a sense that in turning to the past, she found a reconciliation not just with the land of her birth, the land that never rated her as greatly as Joyce or Yeats and fought her attempts to build a home on its shores, but with herself. After a return visit to her childhood home  that is now in ruins behind a screen of ivy and bramble she reflects on

“… for ever the need to go back,the way animals do, the way elephants trudge thousands of miles to return to where the elephant whisperer has lived. We go back for the whisper.”

My verdict

Elegaic, moving and funny.  A perfect example of how memoirs should be written.

Wowed by Hay


It took me years to get to the Hay Literary Festival but the wait was definitely worth it. There was always a risk that my expectations were too high but my day proved better than anything I could have imagined.

Of course the sunshine helped enormously. Hay on Wye is a delightful town at the best of times but under an almost cloudless blue sky and bedecked with banners, it fizzed with festive spirit. Everywhere you looked there was something happening – a craft fair in the market square, pop up food stalls and music in the castle grounds and some earnest discussions in the parallel philosophy festival.

This sign caught my eye… you can understand the sentiment in a town which thrives on people buying real books.

hay photo

mattchairOn the festival site itself, the grassy areas were packed with picnic groups and families or people lounging and reading (not a Kindle in sight!) in one of the special deck chairs; a welcome break from all that queuing at the book shop to get a personally signed copy.

But the real highlights for me were the four sessions I attended. Not a dud among them though they were vastly different in topic and style. I ‘d never expected the audiences to be so big – 700 people for Edna O’Brien; about 500 for a discussion on the experience of women in Lebanon and Egypt. Every event was a sell out apparently.

I loved the low key conversational tone of the interview with John Banville who came on stage clutching a glass of wine rather than the pint of Guinness you’d have expected from a true born Irishman.  Edna O’Brien was in superb form, one moment teasing her editor who was conducting the interview; tantalising us with stories of parties involving copious amounts of champagne and film stars and the next, revealing the dark experience of her LSD therapy. And the discussion hosted by Dame Joan Bakewell introduced me to two truly remarkable women authors— Joanna Haddad from the Lebanon and Sereen El Feiki from Egypt who have both fought to be heard and to express the unthinkable in societies which place enormous pressures to conform on its women citizens.

I’ll be posting about these events separately since each speaker had so many interesting insights that I couldn’t possibly do justice to them in a general article.

Will I go back to Hay? Absolutely – and if you can’t get to this event, don’t feel too disappointed. The festival has spread its wings enormously since its first year in 1988 when it was a few people gathering in a local bookshop and a local school. Now it has events in places as far afield as Segovia, Mexico; Turkey, Bangladesh and Kenya. There’s sure to be one not too far away from you… get booking.


Sunday Salon: Hay Festival beckons

sundaysalonPosting this early so I can set off in good time for my first ever visit to the Hay Literary Festival.  A day talking about books in a town which boasts more second hand book stores than anywhere else in the world. It’s in an idyllic spot too – on the banks of the Wye River in the heart of the Golden Valley, one of the most glorious parts of Wales. Luckily the forecast is for sunny skies which will make the drive through the valley even more delightful.

There are so many sessions it’s been really tough making a choice but in the end I plumped for four,

Sex and the Citadel: Joanna Haddad and Sereen El Feiki in conversation with Joan Bakewell. 

These two authors have both published novels which look at how patriarchal attitudes are entwined in all aspects of life in the Middle East.  I chose this one as part of my quest to read more world literature. And also because I am a fan of Joan Bakewell who was a superb interviewer and host of some flagship cultural programs on the BBC for many years.

John Banville : the 2005 Booker Prize winner discusses obsessive young love and the power of grief as portrayed in his novels. We get to see some early clips from the forthcoming film of The Sea (his winning novel).

Edna O’Brien : the Irish-born novelist, playright and poet talks about her autobiography. She’s seen plenty of drama in her life . Her first novel  The Country Girls, is often credited with breaking silence on sexual matters and social issues during a repressive period in Ireland following World War 2.  The book was banned, burned and denounced from the pulpit, causing O’Brien to leave her native land.

Google Debate: The Future of News: in a digital world of instant information, what and who is the future of news. This is a debate between senior editors from BBC World and the Daily Telegraph, an expert on China and some Google executives.

It will be a packed day but I may just be able to squeeze in some time to buy a few books….

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