Edna O'Brien: Country Girls and me

Irish novelist Edna O'Brien, known for her 'Country Girls' trilogy. (Photo by Brian Wharton/Getty Images)

As the stage version of Edna O’Brien’s classic novel tours to Cork and other centres, Marjorie Brennan hears from well-known figures about their experiences of the iconic book.

SAM NEILL

The Country Girls [film version in 1983] was a curious job for me; it was shot in an Ireland that is hardly recognisable today; the Irish economy was barely alive, the Catholic Church was at its most powerful, and you felt its influence for good or ill everywhere.

It was something of a fraught job as far as I was concerned. My son Tim was born nine weeks premature in London during the filming of The Country Girls and it was touch and go as to whether he would survive; so that was something of a major distraction.

In addition, the director Desmond Davis, for some reason that is not clear to me to this day, took something of a dislike to me and was barely talking to me almost as soon as we started shooting. That was a very unpleasant experience for me, and hurtful. However, the two girls were a great deal of fun.

Sam Neill attends the Photo Call for Ovation at 2019 Winter TCA at The Langham Huntington, Pasadena on February 08, 2019 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)

Maeve (Germaine, who played Baba) was delightful, and I thought really talented for someone her age. Jill (Doyle, who played Kate) was a barrel of laughs, and the rest of the cast included some of the best Irish actors of the day, like Niall Tóibín. And I was particularly pleased to work with the great John Kavanagh. Years later, we worked again together on The Tudors. Wicklow was so unspoilt then, and having been born myself in Ireland it felt like coming home in a strange way.

I had read the book and I liked it very much; and I suspect the same would be true today. It’s very charming and brave. I remember Edna O’Brien

talking about finding the copy of The Country Girls she had given to her mother on publication. All the ‘naughty bits’ had been scrupulously excised by her mother. That tells you a lot. Ireland was pretty grim back then, and I can only give thanks that those dark days are long gone.

In hindsight, the role of Mr Gentleman is much creepier than I realised at the time. Now that I give it some thought he’s actually a deeply repellent and manipulative man, but then again I’ve played a lot of dark characters.

I met Edna again after filming in London. She was charming. She gave me a silver-plated kind of cup as a memento which I still have. It has only just occurred to me that it is something like a chalice you’d drink communion wine from.

Perhaps this was some kind of churchy thing unconsciously, I don’t know. There were many many undercurrents in the process of making this film, and so many unspoken things in Ireland. I think the film stands up quite okay today, although the music dates it rather.

Sam Neill was born in Omagh, Co Tyrone, and moved to New Zealand as a child. He has had a hugely successful career as a screen actor, starring in films including The Piano, Jurassic Park and most recently, the TV series Peaky Blinders. He also owns a farm and vineyard in New Zealand which produces Two Paddocks wine. He played Mr Gentleman in the 1983 screen adaptation of The Country Girls, which was filmed in Wicklow.

Sam Neill as Mr Gentleman in the 1983 screen adaptation of The Country Girls

DANIELLE McLAUGHLIN

I would have been in my 20s when I read The Country Girls but I really got into her short stories. Her Saints and Sinners collection came out around the time that I began developing my own obsession with reading short stories.

She is an absolute genius at bringing to the page the social hierarchy of rural Ireland and the small Irish village and town. Within that, she is so good at writing relationships between mothers and daughters, between women and the predicament that women found themselves in in society, where everyone was watched to see who did or didn’t step out of their place.

She is really good at capturing that sort of frustration, the claustrophobia of it.

Danielle McLaughlin

O’Brien drew those social hierarchies and class structures in rural Ireland with such a light touch and with such beautiful language. She could take an ordinary household thing like a jug or a bowl and she could imbue it with beauty and music.

I do have a tiny homage to her in one of my own short stories, where a young woman is moving from the countryside to the city, and I have her coming from Tuamgraney [O’Brien’s childhood home] to Dublin. I admire her so much.

Danielle McLaughlin lives in Cork. Her debut collection of short stories, Dinosaurs On Other Planets , was published in 2015. She was recently awarded a Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction and is currently writer-in residence at UCC.

COLUM McCANN

I first read The Country Girls when the books were re-released in the mid-1980s. The books were 20 years old, but they were still nothing short of a great surprise to me. They sort of took the oxygen from the air. I wasn’t aware that Irish writers had been tilting at change all that time. Here were these books and they still felt fresh as bread, not so much from an oven but from the ground itself.

I realised quite early on in my writing career that Edna had blazed a path for many of us. She was the advance scout for so much that happened in the Irish imagination. In this sense she sometimes bore the brunt of breaking down frontiers.

Colm McCann. Picture: Nick Bradshaw

Things were so much easier for younger writers because they had been quite difficult for Edna. But her books didn’t have any sense of resentment for the tough times that she had to shoulder. On the contrary, they were celebratory. And they were a call for reconsideration of who we were, nothing less than an incision into the Irish soul with all its wounds and desires and psychoses.

In all her work, Edna has helped reinvent the Irish character. She has invited inside those things which others have wanted to leave outside, even that which is uncomfortable. She’s strong. She’s fierce. She opposes ease. And she restores that which is devalued by others.

Colum McCann is the author of three short story collections and six novels, including the international bestseller Let the Great World Spin. He lives in New York, where he teaches at the MFA programme in Hunter College.

RACHAEL ENGLISH

I just started rereading The Country Girls and I had forgotten that it was so overwhelmingly sad. I read it for the first time in the mid-1980s, when I was in school; I got it in the library in Shannon town. I was aware it was supposed to be a big deal.

As a teenager, you’re reading Jackie Collins and so on, and I couldn’t understand why this book had been banned. I can totally see now though why certain people thought the public shouldn’t be allowed to read it — because it is so honest.

It ties in with that whole time when people didn’t discuss things — girls were sent to mother and baby homes and everyone was told, ‘She’s gone to help her sick aunt’, or ‘She’s working in Dublin’. People were so scared to be honest even though those were common experiences.

Rachael English in the Morning Ireland Studio, RTE. Picture: Nick Bradshaw

Edna O’Brien was so brave to write in those terms, especially coming from a small rural place. You can just imagine people saying ‘Where did she get those ideas from’ or searching for themselves in the books. It was incredibly courageous and it’s only now in hindsight that I can appreciate that in a way I didn’t see in the mid-1980s.

Also, her writing is so beautiful and doesn’t seem dated — her descriptions of nature and the local people, the incredibly sad details I hadn’t noticed before, like the mother’s room with the jewellery put away. It does transport you, even if you didn’t live through it, you can experience it.

Rachael English presents Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio 1 and is the author of several novels, her most recent is The Night of the Party. Like Edna O’Brien, she grew up in Co Clare.

LOUISE O’NEILL

The first introduction I had to Edna O’Brien was actually with her 14th novel, Down by The River. There was a copy in my grandparents’ house, and it must have belonged to my aunt, all the raciest books did. I found it harrowing and searingly honest and I went to my local library to see if I could find more books by this ‘Edna O’Brien’ person. That was when I discovered The Country Girls. I loved it immediately.

It was my mother who told me that it had been banned and it seemed nonsensical to me. I was probably 16 or 17 and The Country Girls wasn’t any more shocking than the Maeve Binchy or Marian Keyes novels I’d read. It’s only in recent years that I’ve begun to understand how subversive a work it was, even more so because it was written by a woman.

Louise O'Neill, author. Photograph Moya Nolan.

I went to the opening night of the stage adaptation at the Abbey Theatre, and Edna O’Brien came out on stage afterwards and the whole audience got to their feet to applaud her. And I thought how strange and wonderful it must have been for someone, at 88 years of age, to see such change in your lifetime that you would go from having your work censored to standing on the national stage in front of a rapturous crowd.

In my own writing, Edna O’Brien has had a huge influence. Because I write about topics that are deemed ‘controversial’ — rape culture, sexual politics, gender, the female body, etc — I have often encountered criticism from people who would rather I stay quiet. It’s so much easier for me, in 2019, to keep talking and to keep writing and that is due to Edna O’Brien.

I will never face the sort of disapprobation that she did when The Country Girls was released and I know that’s because she blazed a trail for the rest of us to follow. I feel immensely grateful to her for that.

Louise O’Neill, from Clonakilty in Co Cork , is a columnist and author of several acclaimed books, including Asking For It, also adapted for stage last year. Her most recent book is The Surface Breaks, a reimagining of The Little Mermaid.

GRACE COLLENDER

I read the book when I was about 15, I got it in the library in Trim. I remember reading it and thinking, oh my God, she is talking about sex, domestic violence, it’s like there’s no sugar-coating anything, nothing is taboo.

I went to my grandparents and asked them why it was banned, and then I realised how brave Edna was to write it. I think that telling the story now, on stage, is still really important, that girls my age and younger see their history, what women went through.

I have also seen a huge reaction from people who were around when the book came out. I was speaking to a lady outside the theatre the other day, and she was really emotional. She said she remembered reading the book under the covers, literally, afraid that someone was going to find her. I can’t imagine what that shame was like.

As a character, Kate has this yearning for truth the whole time, and Edna is like that as a person and a writer. I am really grateful that I read it when I did, it opened up a whole new language for me.

Grace Collender plays Kate in the Abbey Theatre production of The Country Girls. She is from Trim, Co Meath and is currently studying a BA in Drama (Performance) at TU Dublin.

The Country Girls is at Cork Opera House, Apr 16-20, Town Hall Theatre, Galway, Apri 23-27 and the Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick, Apr 30-May 4; a new version of The Country Girls trilogy has been released by Faber

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