‘Inventing a Woman’s Ireland: Edna O’Brien’
In her 1995 book, The Gender of Modernity, Rita Felski suggested that the modern era has both a masculine and a feminine face.
Becoming modern – breaking with the past and inherited traditions – seems to be the achievement of people who are rational, daring and transgressive. Such qualities have conventionally been associated with men. By contrast, women are supposed to be inherently traditional. As mothers and care-givers, they are more concerned with preserving the status quo than plotting revolutions.
The advent of the modern is linked to the upheavals of industrialization and the marvels of technology. However, a later capitalist era of consumerism, with all its cultivation of the pleasures of self-adornment, fantasy and mass culture, is in some senses more attuned to other dimensions of stereotypical ‘femininity’. Some women are therefore potentially more at ease than men in navigating the ‘dreamworlds’ of modernity – the term used by Walter Benjamin to describe the culture of the modern metropolis, especially Paris in the 1920s and 30s, in his Arcades Project (1927-40). Certain female figures, including the shopper, the feminist, the hysteric and the prostitute, appear everywhere in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European popular culture, cinema, literature and journalism. So ‘woman’ – now taken to be a narcissistic, unstable creature, but one quite at home in the marketplace of commodities – is, in Felski’s words, ‘a powerful symbol of both the dangers and promises of the modern age’.
Since the 1960s, Ireland has produced its variants on such figures. Some of the biggest battles between Catholic Ireland and its liberal critics were waged over sex and reproduction. Issues such as contraception and divorce were also bound up with a more permissive attitude to sexuality in general and so feminist campaigns in some regards were an extension of earlier protests against the puritanical regime of the independent state. Feminist journalists and activists from the late 1960s on were at the forefront of such debates, entertaining and scandalizing a wide audience with their wit and flamboyance.
Long associated with the national territory and with the forces of tradition in Ireland, women now began to be viewed as agents of modernization. The appeal of a number of vibrant women to mass media audiences was crucial to effecting this change, whether or not they themselves had any ambition to become celebrities.
Bernadette Devlin’s youth and gender inevitably meant that she was able to attract enormously increased press and television attention to the movement for civil rights in Northern Ireland. A powerfully telegenic Edna O’Brien became a literary star in Ireland and the UK even as her local parish priest in Clare was burning copies of her banned first novel. Sinéad O’Connor’s tearing up of a photograph of Pope John Paul II live on US television in 1992 was probably the pivotal moment of her entire career. Nuala O’Faolain is perhaps better remembered for two viscerally powerful interviews in the Irish media than for any of her works in print: the first with Gay Byrne on The Late Late Show on the eve of the publication of her memoir in 1996, and the second with Marian Finucane on RTÉ radio a few weeks before her death in 2008.
O’Faolain stated in 1983 that ‘Edna O’Brien has had a more immediate and sustained impact on her native audience than any other writer of the twentieth century’. O’Brien’s media presence and the authority ceded to her on Irish affairs in Britain and the US made her the pathbreaker for many Irish women artists and commentators who have since been recognized as exemplary victims of independent Ireland and as newly-articulate critics of the Irish state, of the Catholic Church and of their alliance. O’Brien’s idea of Ireland was the first to which women, not men, had privileged access. Overnight, with the success of The County Girls (1960), the first novel in her famous trilogy, she became the herald of an Ireland that seemed to be overcoming its joyless, misogynist repressions. Her taboo-breaking narratives about sex, marriage and women’s lives were nourished by the apparently inescapable but still neuralgic experience of exile which had been intensified rather than assuaged in independent Ireland.
O’Brien introduced a new sensibility and idiom into the national narrative. It was the very fact that these exiles or escapees were women that resonated. They were, in addition, members of that group that had been most aggressively policed by the Church; now, astonishingly, it was they who were negotiating the modern sexual culture of the metropolis, the London of the ‘Swinging Sixties’.
The portrayal of luxury consumerist gratifications in O’Brien’s work was part of the attraction of such stories for a curious Irish audience fed up with puritanism and poverty. Sex was included as one of those gratifications; in the eyes of many of her readers and of her heroines, it was the defining experience. But it did not always deliver on expectations. After losing her virginity to her sophisticated, previously-married lover, Kate Brady in The Country Girls feels little pleasure, but instead thinks: ‘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 had all been for this.’
Ireland had been only marginally affected by the changes in the status of women that the Second War had produced. But the emigration of these women, especially to the England of the 1950s, when almost two decades of post-war economic boom had begun, was in effect for them a kind of time travel. Born to be colleens, they suddenly found themselves among increasingly self-aware women for whom such liberation was the necessary first step in what was to become feminism; as Clair Wills puts it, they were ‘on the threshold of a new understanding of themselves’. That sexualized world would become the new world of gender.
O’Faolain concluded that ‘because Edna O’Brien existed, we are able to imagine a certain kind of Irish girl and Irish woman, one of exceptional and vigorous melancholy, one of terrible dependence on love, but a woman, nevertheless, from a recognisable landscape’. That is to say that O’Brien invented a place that was inescapably associated with an author (as in ‘Joycean’ or ‘Yeatsian’), yet that was also, as with her illustrious predecessors, a communal world (‘Ireland’) – and in this case, with impeccable historical timing, a woman’s Ireland.
Emer Nolan was educated at University College Dublin and the University of Cambridge. Her main teaching and research interests lie in the fields of Irish writing (especially fiction), modernism, and literary/cultural theory. Her publications include James Joyce and Nationalism (Routledge, 1995) and Catholic Emancipations: Irish Fiction from Thomas Moore to James Joyce (Syracuse University Press, 2007). She is Professor of English at Maynooth University.