Literary pursuits: Offspring of two famous writers discuss family life at UCC

The offspring of two famous writers will discuss their family lives at UCC next week, writes Colette Sheridan.

Edna O’Brien’s son, Carlo Gebler and Molly Keane’s daughter, Sally Phipps, will take part in a conversation with Dr Eibhear Walshe at UCC on the theme of literary offspring.

While Phipps’s biography of her novelist and playwright mother, Molly Keane: A Life, was published last year to critical acclaim, Phipps, now aged 78, was reluctant to take up the pen.

Carlo Gebler on left with his parents Edna O’Brien and Ernest Gebler, and younger brother Sasha, in 1961. Picture courtesy of Carlo Gebler

Although her mother told her that she would be a good writer and the novelist, Jennifer Johnston, spotted her talent, Phipps felt that writing would be like joining the family firm.

“I sort of avoided it a great deal,” she explains.

After I married, two Cork-based poets, Seán Dunne and Thomas McCarthy, encouraged me. Seán used to send me books to review for the literary pages of the Cork Examiner and told me to get on with it. If he were still alive, he’d have been very annoyed that it took me so long to write a book.

(Phipps also co-wrote Molly Keane’s Ireland with her mother).

Growing up in the Waterford area and now based in Cloyne, Phipps says being the child of a writer was both rewarding and difficult. “I suppose it’s like growing up with any artist. My mother was a very paradoxical person, enormously kind — and quite sharp.”

The life of a writer didn’t seem glamorous to Phipps. On the contrary, she observes that “artists are very sensitive and liable to depression as well as having a wonderful gift for life. My mother had that. She was brilliant at overcoming depression but I think it was in her as it is in so many writers.”

Sally Phipps.

Phipps was just six years of age when her farmer father died. Her sister, Virginia, was only a year old.

“It was a terrible blow. My mother had always been writing to make a living. Like so many Anglo-Irish people, my parents lived very generously, rather beyond their means.

So when my father died, writing became even more important. And certainly, finances were difficult, there were ups and downs. When my mother had a book or a play out, she was immensely generous and lent money to people who needed it. Then it would run out and she had to start again.

These days, Phipps says there is nothing she wants to do but write. She is currently “tinkering with a novel.”

Asked what delayed her, Phipps says: “I’m very bad at keeping lots of balls in the air at once. Then my husband was ill at one point, and later died. But long before that, I think I didn’t have a lot of energy - or you could call it laziness. I always felt I would write but I’m very bad about time.”

Molly Keane.

Keane wanted Phipps to write her biography although the author of Good Behaviour (Keane’s late-in-life big success), feared that her daughter wouldn’t be “nasty enough”.

In writing her mother’s biography, Phipps was influenced by other writers. “Alexander Waugh wrote a wonderful book about his literary family (his father, the journalist Auberon Waugh and his grandfather, novelist Evelyn Waugh).

Alexander didn’t try to hide how awful they were but he treated them with love and respect.”


Carlo Gebler and his writer father, Ernest Gebler were estranged for many years.

In his memoir, Father And I, Carlo Gebler paints a picture of an emotionally abusive father who was strict and joyless, while his mother, Edna O’Brien, was the source of treats and a more relaxed parenting style. (O’Brien celebrated the news that her debut novel, The Country Girls was accepted for publication by collecting the young Gebler from school and buying him a double 99 ice-cream — verboten in the family home.)

Carlo Gebler.

The couple divorced in 1968, having been apart for years, sharing the parenting in London.

Gebler — “always a scribbler”— was neither encouraged nor discouraged from being a writer by his parents. Both parents influenced his writing.

They both shared a sense that the most important virtue in literature is clarity and truthfulness. The text had to be accessible.

Gebler says his parents liked “high-end writers” such as Chekov, Tolstoy, Pushkin and Fitzgerald.

When Ernest Gebler moved to Dublin in the 1970s, Carlo and his younger brother, Sasha, saw their father “less and less, because he didn’t want to see us. We would occasionally take the bus out to Dalkey to see him. But he felt very sure that our purposes were malign. He thought we had our eye on his house and that we were trying to steal from him.”


Gebler’s 2014 biography of his father, The Projectionist: The Story of Ernest Gebler, is based on diaries and notes which Gebler inherited on his father’s death in 1998.

“When I read his papers, hundreds and hundreds of them, a lot of them were new to me. In his autobiography, my father was going to change the story of his life to fit what he wanted people to believe.

He wanted to pay back everybody whom he felt had done him a disservice. My book is a biography but it’s also an exploration. When I read his unfinished autobiography, which he wrote when he had Alzheimer’s, it was completely bonkers and was chronologically skewed.

Gebler says having both parents as writers was a strange situation. “You’re an alien. You long for a normal family. Children are wonderful but they are such little conformists.”

Gebler has five children but doesn’t think the writing tradition will be continued by them. “They realise there’s no more money in it. The cake has gone — to JK Rowling. My youngest son is at art college in Belfast doing photography. He may enter the creative arts but the others have chosen a different path.”

Given the experiences of previous generations, perhaps they really are doing the right thing.

‘Writing Parents’ will feature Carlo Gebler and Sally Phipps in conversation with Dr Eibhear Walshe next Tuesday, March 20 at 6.30pm in the Creative Zone, Boole Library, UCC.

Admission is free and all are welcome.

    My dad’s a writer

  • Kingsley Amis, highly regarded for his comic novels, was the father of the very famous Martin Amis, twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Amis, a love-him or loathe-him writer, is known for his controversial remarks.
  • Joseph Heller, who coined the term ‘Catch-22’ with his novel, upset his daughter, Erica Heller, who wrote a memoir about her father. On reading the manuscript of her father’s second novel, Something Happened, she wrote that she felt hurt by a character she assumed was based on her. Her father replied by saying: “What makes you think you’re interesting enough to write about?
  • Arthur Miller, who astutely dramatised the neuroses of the American middle-class, was the father of novelist and screenplay writer, Rebecca Miller, who is married to Daniel Day-Lewis.

Arthur Miller and his wife, actor Marilyn Monroe.

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