ROSE MARY ROCHE reflects on the legacy of Edna O’Brien’s iconic novel and on the changes in Irish women’s lives in the intervening half century …
The forthcoming production of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls at the Abbey Theatre (February 23 to April 6) will revive interest in the infamous story about two young women seeking love and romantic adventure in 1950’s Ireland. The play, adapted by O’Brien from her novel, coincides with the novel’s impending 50th anniversary. Coincidentally, The Country Girl’s Trilogy has also been chosen as Dublin City Council’s “One City One Book” title this year. The initiative, which encourages everyone to read a book connected with the city during April, will also focus attention on what is one of the most poignant stories about female friendship and loss of innocence.
The novel follows the intertwined fate of Cathleen (Kate) Brady and Bridget (Baba) Brennan as they negotiate the transition from girlhood in rural Co Clare to womanhood in Dublin. The two are diametrically opposed – Kate is dreamy, romantic and pensive while Baba has a shrewder, more cynical approach to life and love.
The backdrop is 1950s Ireland – depicted as stern, insular and utterly unforgiving. O’Brien’s (then) sexually explicit content was considered sacrilegious and she suffered both public shaming and was derided as “a bargain basement Molly Bloom”. The Country Girls became a cause celebre internationally with O’Brien symbolising the struggle for Irish women to voice their experiences and aspirations in an ultra-conservative culture. The more acclaim the title received abroad (it won the Kingsley Amis Award in 1962), the greater the public outrage at home. O’Brien was a “scarlet” woman who was condemned by censor, church and cabinet – Archbishop McQuaid and Charlie Haughey even corresponded about the novel, declaring it “filth”. O’Brien’s parish priest denounced her from the pulpit and her mother wrote to Edna of “the shock, the hurt and the disgust” of their Clare neighbours.
In that era, both State and Church colluded to deny women their rights regarding freedom of expression, their financial independence, access to contraception and physical autonomy. Many women were trapped in domestic servitude to large families, expected to be the submissive partner in marriage and largely had no status outside the home. Those who transgressed could disappear into a life of institutionalisation, never to enjoy personal freedom again.
O’Brien’s heroines defied these limitations to express female sexual desire, ambition and a wry intelligence expressed in vivid language and earthy humour. Her lyrical prose, full of longing, was raw and intense. She conveyed the obsessive nature of first love, the shame about sexual ignorance and the frustrations engendered by limited horizons. No Irish female voice had spoken with such ardour, honesty and clarity before.
The legacy of The Country Girls and the other titles in the trilogy, permeates the variety, breadth and success of Irish women writers who followed. O’Brien’s candid, powerful prose opened the door to the Irish women’s movement and gave voice to Irish women who didn’t accept the status quo. The moral pandemonium on publication may now seem archaic, especially as O’Brien is regarded the mother of modern Irish female literature.
Kate and Baba still resonate; they evoke empathy, affection and admiration. Their emotions are our emotions and 50 years on, their story still squeezes our hearts. The book is a vivid joy.
Rose Mary Roche
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