Declan Kiberd, ‘Growing Up Absurd: Edna O’Brien and The Country Girls’, in Munira H. Mutran & Laura P. Z. Izarra, eds., Irish Studies in Brazil [Pesquisa e Crítica, 1] (Sao Paolo: Associação Editorial Humanitas 2005), pp.143-60.

Irish writers born in the later decades of the nineteenth century had a habit of equating their childhoods with that of the nation, before the fatal fall into political violence and civil rancour. In their narratives, a young boy or girl began as a subject in a crown colony, clashed with overweening authority, and ended life as a free citizen of an independent land. A nonentity to begin with, the protagonist blossomed into a person. In these accounts, a childhood was often seen as a privileged zone, populated by colorful characters and doting relations.

Edna O’Brien was born in 1930 at Tuamgraney, County Clare, into the ambiguous world of a new state still soured by the bitter aftermath of a civil war. For her there would be no idyll of a national childhood: the girls and young women of her novels are worldly-wise and sardonic from the outset, and in ways thel r predecessors never dared to be. In The Country Girls (1960) - her first, best and most popular novel - childhood ends abruptly on page 53, with the death by drowning of a beloved mother. The brutal father left by the dead woman is a hopeless, heedless alcoholic: his inadequacy as a parent being a clear indication of a society unsure of its direction. His daughter Caithleen Brady has lived in fear of his [143] beatings from the beginning. Her childhood is a prolonged worry as to whether he will complete the ruin of the family estate begun when the Black and Tans burned the ancestral home.

The book was banned by the censors. In a rural Ireland which piously urged young women to treat their father as a kind of god, it may have seemed highly subversive to depict scenes of family violence and paternal failure as quite routine. In the America of the 1880s, Mark Twain had been similarly castigated for his presentation of he drunken “Pap” in Huckleberry Finn : but the author of The Country Girls added further layers of complication by virtue of being a woman. Young women in the new Irish scheme of things were not supposed to write books, least of all stories in which they divulged their innermost thoughts and sexual desires. Rather, they were expected to prepare for motherhood and defer to the clerical authorities. The secret unofficial life of communities might, of course, be known to the more perceptive among them, but such knowledge was to be maintained at the level of local gossip and certainly not published for the condescending amusement of the outside world.

To write, in that charged context, was an act of rebellion, a satanic pact which might place the writer outside the community forever. Although the state authorities effected the ban, the real source of censorship was the Catholic church, for as O’Brien has explained, “the Russian censorship has always been political, and the Irish has always been religious”. (Carlson, 79.)

Some women in her native place who read her book felt possessed by a devil and called in the local priest: and there were also reports of copies of her novel being burned in church grounds.

The Irish long viewed childhood as a holy state, a zone for the protection of spiritual values often put in jeopardy by the modern world. They believed that unless people became as little children, they would not enter the kingdom of heaven. The need for such a [144] comforting illusion grew all the greater in the messy years after political independence, but O’Brien effectively questioned it. In The Country Girls her account of a raffle during the interval in a performance of East Lynne stresses how even prize-winners were so timid as to be “ashamed” to collect their winnings. She is even more corrosive, however, about the use of children to draw the winning tickets, “as they were supposed to be honest” (The Country Girls, 1963, p.46).[1]

Critics of her writings have lamented their confinement to the emotional problems of women and their apparent indifference to social forces or to wider cultural traditions: but such readings can be myopic, responding only to the textual surface. [2] By the 1930s, the intensification of the family as the locus for all Irish destinies had become extreme. It was, after all, coded into the 1937 Constitution which was passed into law under the guiding hand of Eamon de Valera. This was perhaps an inevitable consequence of the old colonial regime, under which the family had become the largest social institution with which many people could identify. Yet the stresses left by that system had created many dysfunctional families and disrupted childhoods. Hence the poignancy of the child as image in the writings of such revivalist artists as Patrick Pearse and W B. Yeats: their poems and plays emphasise the redemptive strangeness of the child who bears to fallen adults messages from a purer and more imaginative world. [3] Hence also the desire of the Valera to write into the statute-book an ideal version of the family which he had never known in his own insecure, earlier years. Yet O’Brien revises such gestures in a novel which [145] consistently questions the notion that childhood exists as a state of unspoilt nature outside of the culture in which it is produced. There is no cordon sanitaire around Caithleen Brady’s home, which is rather a place which accurately reflects the corruptions of the outside world. She is not even innocent to begin with, merely inexperienced: and her desire is to gain experience as fast as possible.

Nervous adult males like Pearse and Yeats indulged the ancient hope that children might preserve for adults a set of values which stood in danger of imminent collapse: and by a kind of ventriloquist’s trick they caused the children in their texts to provide such reassurance. By casting her tale in the first person singular, Edna O’Brien attempted, like Twain before her, to counter the projection of adult desire upon the image of the child. In the process, she also managed to question all the older colonial stereotypes of a childlike Hibernian peasantry, for the adult characters in her book are as knowing and as cynical as the children who derive from them.

Which is not to say that The Country Girls is lacking either freshness or charm. In fact it oozes with both. The prose is simple, direct, seemingly guileless, yet often super-subtle in its effects. Short, honest sentences imply a great deal more than they bother to say, and the dialogue, though natural and easy, is similarly resonant. O’Brien was from the start a clipped and concentrated stylist. “Foliage is very nice”, she once observed, “but I like sentences to be spare”. (Eckley, 84) For her grace is a movement engaged in with the least necessary effort. That notion of style as thrift is an aesthetic preached by Caithleen Brady’s mother at the beginning of the book. Although her daughter owns a good pair of slippers, they are kept out of commission and used only on special occasions, such as visits by relations. Those things which must be put to daily use are often damaged, like the lavatory which doesn’t flush: “In our house things were either broken or not used at all” (CG, 7). In the local sweetshop, the blinds are kept down at all times, lest the sun’s rays damage the [146] sweets and jams: and children sneak-read the magazines because they have no money with which to buy them.

What is depicted in this Clare world is not so much a functioning economy as its caricature, not so much a thriving society as its botched simulacrum. For months, mother and daughter wait fruitlessly for a man to come to fix the toilet, much as they wait fearfully for the nightly return of the man who is the house’s head. Even the hired hand Hickey is owed a large amount of back-money and must, therefore, be allowed to give away the occasional pullet to Mrs O’Shea, his favourite barmaid at the local hotel. Besides, the family of the same Mrs O’Shea are owed even more money by Caithleen’s father who always puts bills behind the family crockery and promptly forgets them: and the result is that ten of the O’Sheas’ cows have been grazing on the Bradys’ land for life. The style in which such manoeuvres are described is both innocently direct and sardonically observant. The child who isn’t allowed to wear her own slippers very often can’t help noticing what happens to those worn by Mrs O’Shea every day:

Her bedroom slippers looked as if the greyhounds had chewed them. More than likely they had. The hotel was occupied chiefly by greyhounds […] (CG, 18)

All this talk of slippers evokes the story of Cinderella, of which this is to be a modern version. The young girl’s first love is Hickey and so Mrs O’Shea, with those damaged slippers, becomes her unlovely rival. (Slippers were, of course, a rare commodity in rural Clare, where some children still went barefoot, as did many tellers of the original fairy-tale). Hickey is poor, friendly, unaffected: “thinking is pure cod” (CG, 10), he tells Caithleen. The four hundred acres of the farm are falling into ruin, despite his hard work, because of the father’s neglect: and even Hickey for all his reliability seems to bring out her fear of being abandoned. Each night she listens closely for him “to come home” (CG, 7). The impression is of an entire community whose [147] women’s main function is to wait for men to return. But Hickey is a less than polished swain. On each return and before going to bed, he pees into a peach tin and pours the content out of his window, imperilling the life of the shrubs beneath. Caithleen’s only real solace is her mother, who tries to make the ruined house into the semblance of a home by the subtle placement of lampshades and firescreens. She is the sort of instinctual sage who “knew things before you told her” (CG, 10) I rather like the narrator of this novel who seems to intuit things before they are fully understood. Caithleen, so afraid in the dark that she leaves her bed six or seven times a night to say aspirations, has one great fear: that her mother might die while she is at school. Mrs Brady is admired by all the local men. One shopkeeper, Jack Holland, manages to complete the Cinderella motif by conflating it with the Kathleen Ni Houlihan paradigm, when he tells Caithleen that her mother “has the ways and walk of a queen”’ (17). This feeds a pet revivalist theory of his:

You know how many Irish people are royalty and unaware of it. There are kings and queens walking the roads of Ireland, riding bicycles. (CG, 16)

Perhaps Caithleen is such an inheritor, the awkward but quietly gifted girl who will some day come into her inheritance.

The fairy-tale element is compounded by the account of the second love of Caithleen’s life, Mr Gentleman: “a beautiful man who lived in the white house on the hill” (15). This was not his real name (which is never given, because he exists more as a site of Caithleen’s desires). The critic Grace Eckley has written of the “thoroughness with which one’s choice of someone to love defines the entire range of one’s personality; it exposes a streak of masochism, describes one’s pathetic ideals, or reflects conditions of loneliness”. (Eckley 10-11.) Eckley finds such forces at play in the heroines of O’Brien’s books. Mr Gentleman remains a rather shadowy figure through The Country Girls, his grey hair, satin waistcoats and slightly French intonation [148] (“as if there was a damson stone in his throat”, CG, 16), holding out to Caithleen not just the promise of romance but also a stylish surrogate for her own inadequate father. He seems to embody all the worldly experience which she lacks but deeply wishes she had.

In her last days at the local primary school, Caithleen notes how the poorer girls are given all the dirty, menial jobs. She is above such things, but only by virtue of her cleverness, which has helped her to win a scholarship to a convent school. Her scapegrace friend Baba is also to go there, but as a fee-payer: and she sends Caithleen a note which insists “it’s nicer when you pay” (21). Its postcript will sound right through the novel: “You’re right looking eejit” (CG, 21).

Baba is extrovert, headstrong, confident, whereas Caithleen is thoughtful, hesitant and troubled. If Baba seeks sex, Caithleen wants romance. Together the duo might be thought to have the makings of a whole person and it would be possible to interpret Baba as Caithleen’s alter ego, her shadow side. O’Brien has suggested as much in an interview:

I had a streak of submerged rebellion in me always, which I never let out, unfortunately; I was really too frightened, too meek. And I don’t think that the meek should inherit the earth, really, because I don’t think agriculture or productivity of any kind would get done. (Carlson, 71.)

In her encounters with Caithleen, Baba works in a manner which anticipates the promptings of Private Car in Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964). There the corrosive commentaries by the materialistic and pushy Private on his timid Public counterpart have the effect of further immobilizing the already self-conscious youth. Friel’s play, which appeared just a few years after O’Brien’s novel, also deals with the flight of rural youth from a life which seemed tedious and undistinguished.

At the local primary school, the teacher Miss Moriarty looks perpetually cross, her eyes locked into a frown brought on by “overreading”. A distracted specialist in books, she can express but has [149] forgotten how to feel, unlike her students who know how to feel but not yet how to express. Caithleen, her star pupil, will run similar risks in due course: and O’Brien guards against an excessively literary feel to her prose by a regular resort to colloquialisms (’twas, &c). Baba never does any work, preferring to wear a white cardigan draped over her shoulders with unfilled sleeves, rather in the manner of a cloak worn by one of Cinderella’s sisters. She is careless of the good opinion of others and, when offered a box of biscuits in Caithleen’s home, takes all the chocolate-covered ones. Her own mother Martha, though beautiful, is cold. She beats the family servant Molly and hides the choicest cuts of food from both Molly and her husband, with whom she lives on terms of barely suppressed rage. She is coldly manipulative, like her daughter, seeking only two things in life: drink and the admiration of men. Yet such is the complexity of O’Brien’s narration that she also emerges as another possible Cinderella, a lost neglected princess. When Mr Brennan, ill-fed and ulcerous as ever, gently chides her (“Better look up how to cook peas, Mammy”, CG, 40), this seems like a reference to that famous scene in many versions of the legend when Cinderella is told to sift the peas from the cinders into which they have fallen. (Warner, 204) Yet the class hatred which smoulders beneath the surface of the Brennans’ marriage erupts under such provocation: “I was eating peas when his thick lump of a mother was feeding them nettle-tops. Jesus” (CG, 40). The relations between the unhappily wed parents of the story (in which there appear no contented couples) may provide some advance evidence to Caithleen that the agendas of sex and romance will not be easily reconciled. In that narrow world, a woman’s fulfillment as a sexual being may involve her annihilation as a person, or vice-versa.

This is the sad lesson of Mrs Brady’s defection. Caithleen had always feared losing her mother to illness, but not to a lover. Yet the woman leaves the loveless, violent marriage, taking her rosary beads form the nail above the dresser, as proof that “She was gone. Really gone” (CG, 31). Her escapade ends in a drowning with her man [150] in a nearby lake: and Caithleen is left even more directly at the mercy of Baba, decamping to her house and her softer bed, sleeping with her in one of her night-dresses. The earliest versions of the Cinderella legend involved such a moment: in the words of Marina Warner, “the good mother often dies at the beginning of the story”. (201) Tales which chronicle a good mother’s return, such as The Winter’s Tale, have never been as popular as those “in which she is supplanted by a monster”. That monster’s role is discharged by various women, from Martha Brennan to the Mother Superior of the convent school, who will prolong the humiliation of this Cinderella. In most modern versions, “the absent mother no longer returns”, (Warner, 205) but in The Country Girls Caithleen, who has lamented the lack of a grave on which she might lay flowers, actually fears that her mother might come back:

What is it about death that we cannot bear to have someone who is dead come back to us? I wanted Mama more than anything in the world and yet if the door had opened and she had entered I would have screamed. (CG, 52)

Lacking a marked grave, she is “more dead. than anyone I had ever heard of”. (CG, 53)

Baba jokes that Mama might return to pass on to her all her wonderful jewellery: but to Caithleen the loss is like the loss of a lover, whom she had wooed away from her brutal father’s side:

I could see Mama on the pillow beside him. Reluctant and frightened as if something terrible were being done to her. She used to sleep with me as often as she could and only went across to his room when he made her. He wore no pyjamas in bed and I was ashamed even to think of it. (58-9)

Her own developing relationship with Mr Gentleman is quite different, compounded of high courtesy and mutual consideration. On an expedition to Limerick in order to buy her school uniform, Caithleen has lunch with the great man, whose cheese “smelt like [151 Hickey’s socks” (CG, 65) but who confessed she was “the sweetest thing that ever happened to me” (CG, 65). She has worn lipstick, but he prefers her to go without it.

Caithleen has no sorrow in leaving her father, who bangs doors in a way to make all neighbours wince. At the convent, however, everything is forbiddingly clean and tidy: “Dirt can be consoling and friendly in a strange place, I thought” (CG, 74), just as Cinderella hugged the ashes so that she might stay close to her lost mother, so does she seek to embrace the dirt of death: and she is rewarded for that steadfastness by many images. As the girls sing a hymn “Mother, Mother, I am Coming”, she recalls the day on which they both watched a skylark carry specks of sheep’s wool from a wire fence to make a homely nest. In a school regime where each girl begins by crying for her missing mother, that is a comfort far greater than is to be had from any the pseudo-mothers among the nuns. Confronted by their resolute anonymity, Caithleen wonders “if I could ever get to know them from their backs” (81). The nuns simply pre-open and preread Caithleen letters from Hickey and her father, who tells of how he (like the last of the Rackrents) was happy to move into the gatelodge now that the big house is too large for his purposes.

School disciplines offer no delivery from the Cinderella role, however. Having come first in the examinations (for which the prize was a statue of Jude, patron saint of hopeless causes). Caithleen knows the stress of having to maintain that position by endless work. Befriended by a charismatic older girl named Cynthia, she learns to live without Baba (who implores her to cut out the new friend). But her nights are tortured with the fear that sins committed by her mother after her final confession (like the failure to return excess change in the grocer’s shop) may be exposing her to the fires of perpetual punishment. Where Joyce’s hero Stephen had gone in fear of eternal pain for himself, Caithleen dreads it for her mother. [152]

The comic potential of convent school life is hilariously emphasized - everything from tossing bad, inedible meat into a nearby lake on a school walk to the contortionist art of undressing in dormitories beneath the cover of a dressing-gown. A talk on sex education by a local priest prompts the nuns to ask Caithleen to hang a notice outside: “Do not enter - Lecture on here”. However, she places it (whether by accident or design is unclear) on the nuns’ lavatory. Even less appreciated by the nuns (whom the girls suspect of sleeping in their own coffins) is a note circulated by Baba and Caithleen which offers a graphic description of what Father Tom may be doing to Sister Mary, whose features are permanently distinguished by an enraptured, ecstatic smile. For this they are summarily expelled. “Poor Caithleen”, laments Mr Brady after their return, “you’ve always been Baba’s tool” (118). In saying as much, he may have also been thinking of himself as the tool of Baba’s mother: the impression conveyed is that Mama and Caithleen were the sort of wife and daughter he would have liked but never had. However, Caithleen will not hear her pal traduced:

“I like Baba, Mr Brennan. She’s great fun and she doesn’t mean any harm.” It was true.
“Ah, if one could only choose one’s children.” (CG, 118)

The fact that one can’t is what leaves Caithleen finally telling her vengeful father that she hates him. His absurd stage-play with his false teeth, which he inserts to impart a greater sense of solemnity to his utterances, may be another influence in the portrayal of S. B. O’Donnell by Friel in Philadelphia, Here I Come!

In many versions of Cinderella, “a persecuted heroine must flee home in order to escape a parental oppressor”. (Tatar, 127) [B]ut before she leaves the bad father must be punished (much as Mr Brady is in the Brennans’ home). The unhappy daughter seeks a better parent, on the Nietzschean principle that if you haven’t had a good father, you should go out and invent one. So the thwarted love [153] for Mr Brady must be transferred to Mr Gentleman. Such a trajectory had always characterized the fairy-tale as deeply subversive of patriarchal values.

Caithleen has little room for manoeuvre. Already, another problematic older man, Jack Holland, has set his cap at her and only the presence of Mr Gentleman allows her to extricate herself from his clutches. As she prepares to leave the village, and as she buys some last items at the market, she studies intently some grunting pigs as they stick their snouts through creels from which they can never hope to escape. She isn’t one bit sorry to quit the place: “there seemed to be fewer geraniums in the upstairs windows than there had been when I was a child” (130). The west of Ireland is dying on its feet.

By contrast, Dublin is the true “fairyland” (the word being deliberately used in this resolutely unYeatsian fashion to celebrate its flashing neon lights). “I loved it”, Caithleen wickedly adds, “more than I had ever loved a summer’s day in a hayfield” (CG, 141). As she and Baba trail through its streets, they marvel at passing women with large painted eyes, who seem to search the night for something poignant. To Caithleen these women seem beautiful in their stylized grace: to Baba they appear like “something dug up” (CG, 141). The implied comparison to those nuns who seek the spiritual beauty of the corpse in its appointed coffin may not be wholly accidental: the whores “in their underwear here” may have more in common than anyone might suspect with the holy nuns. Baba senses the potential of life in a major modern city: “I’m going to blow up this town” (CG, 141). However, the avowal is somewhat undercut by the fact that she can dramatise that aspiration with nothing more portentous than a brown-paper chip-bag which she inflates and then bursts.

Living in “so what” mode, the country girls take on the city. People there are not quite so nice as their rural counterparts. Established in their lodgings, the girls are amused by a foreign gentleman who sits [154] at table “holding an egg in his lap as if he weren’t supposed to be eating it” (CG, 133). At once Baba starts to play the lady-of-the-manor: “Oh, lady supreme, will you pass me the cream?” Then, turning to the gent now hidden behind his newspaper, she says: “You bald-headed scutter, will you pass me the butter?” (CG, 134). A hand comes out from behind the newspaper and slowly pushes the dish to the mortified girls.

They adopt black underwear, which is racy, and Caithleen even favours black stockings, which are literary - though one can’t help reading them also as a mark of her unconscious but continuing mourning for her dead mother. She is by now writing verse (but Baba says she has encountered superior samples in mawkish mortuary cards): and she has encountered the writings of the city’s greatest chronicler and mortician, James Joyce.

“Will you for Chrissake stop asking fellas if they read James Joyce’s Dubliners? They’re not interested. They’re out for the night. Eat and drink all you can and leave James Joyce to blow his own trumpet.” (CG, 159).

Yet Joyce’s Dubliners holds the key to the meaning of the girls’ experience. They have the long-threatened assignation with two wealthy, older men, but the encounter is terrifying and banal by turns, and quite wanting in any ecstatic climax. Baba ends up succumbing to tuberculosis and having to abandon her nightlife for a sanatorium. Caithleen is rescued on her return from the frightening encounter by the ever-timely intervention of Mr Gentleman, who sweeps her away to safety in his car. She feels herself safe in his loving presence, as if someone were tickling her stomach from the inside, which is to say as if he were already inside her. But he never effects entry, failing to appear for a promised date on which they were to fly away to Vienna for a consummation of their love. He exists only in his need for her and, even more, in her need for someone like him: but “no one would ever really belong to him. He was too detached” (CG, 178). In the end, Dublin simply lives up to the reputation given it by Joyce as the centre [155] of paralysis, the site of arrested impulses, summed up in this terse telegram:

Everything gone wrong. Threats from your father. My wife has another nervous breakdown. Regret enforced silence. Must not see you. (CG, 187).

Caithleen’s condition at the close is reminiscent of that experienced by Eveline or by the anonymous boy-narrator of “Araby” in Dubliners: a moment of possible glamour has been held out before the protagonist, only to be taken away, as the futility of all attempts at escape is revealed to yet another victim. If this had been a novel by BaIzac or Stendhal, it might have ended with a protagonist from the provinces looking across the rooftops of the capital and asserting a sense of centrality and triumph: but that isn’t how things work out here. Dublin is just a fake Vienna, and Mr Gentleman a pseudocontinental. Shops are visited less often by people making purchases than by boys seeking “boxes” with which to equip their makeshift games and routines. If this had even been a true story of Cinderella, it might have concluded with the heroine’s triumph over adversity and her sinking into the arms of a princely youth: but it is not really that either. The dress with which Caithleen is supplied to go to the “ball” with Mr Gentleman is borrowed from her fat landlady Joanna. In storage since the older woman’s wedding, it smells of mothballs and camphor, though it might have been the fashion in Mr Gentleman’s distant youth. At any rate, Caithleen never gets to wear it and returns limply to her bedsit world.

There she has already experienced something like a Joycean epiphany. At breakfast, she has noted the date on the newspaper, 15th May:

There on the very first page under the anniversaries was a memorium for my mother. Four years. Four short years and I had forgotten the date of her death; at least I had overlooked it! I felt that wherever she was she had stopped loving me, and I went out of the room crying. It was worse to think that he had remembered. (CG, 181) [156]

The ending is neither Balzac nor Cinderella, but pure Joyce: and the entire novel might be re-read from this point of the narrative in that light. Dubliners, O’Brien has gratefully conceded, “was the first time in my whole life that I happened on something in a book that was exactly like my own life. I had always been a stranger from [114] what had been my life up to then.” [4]. What had marked Caithleen off from Baba from the outset was her ability to find moments of beauty even in humble persons (like Hickey) or settings (like the fields around the farmhouse).

Even deeper than that, however, was her capacity to transcend the maternal tie, a capacity shared with Joyce, of whom O’Brien has written:

There is one thing in Joyce’s life which defies belief. Never in all the years since her death did he allude to his mother. It is hard to think that she who had such a vast influence on him was not mentioned in any of his letters home and not referred to after his father’s death or his daughter’s breakdown. It is a fierce and determined repudiation. Her death he had described as “a wound on the brain”. (James Joyce, 1999, p.170; henceforth JJ.)

At the time of the death, Joyce showed no grief: but later, after the “fierce repudiation”, his mother returned “as persecutor”. The Country Girls seems to feed off a similar ambivalence toward a beloved mother. The wicked stepmothers (nuns) and stepsisters (Baba) take all the anger and bile, preserving below the level of consciousness the image of the perfected mother. Joyce in Ulysses had called a mother’s love the only true thing in life, yet he had also caused Stephen to accuse his mother of being a ghoul and a chewer of corpses: “No, mother. Let me be. Let me live!” [5] So it is in The Country Girls, a book in which Caithleen fears being haunted by the spirit ~of the being whom she most greatly loved. Of such an ambivalence Bruno Bettelheim has written:

So the typical fairy-tale splitting of the mother into a good (usually dead) mother and an evil stepmother serves the child well. It is not only a means of preserving an internal all-good mother when the real mother is not all-good, but it also permits anger at this “bad” stepmother without endangering the good will of the true mother who is viewed as a different person […] The fantasy of the wicked stepmother not only preserves the good mother intact, it also prevents having to feel guilty about one’s angry thoughts and wishes about her - a guilt which would seriously interfere with the good relation to Mother. [6]

Edna O’Brien’s study of Joyce might indeed be read as a marginal set of commentaries on the issues and themes raised by The Country Girls. The fear of loss felt from the beginning by Calthleen is projected onto Joyce’s mother in the book of criticism:

But already from the mother he so loved he was distancing himself. When making his confirmation at Clongowes and being allowed to choose a saint’s name he chose Aloysius, the saint who, in imitation of Pascal, would not allow his mother to embrace him because he feared contact with women (JJ, p.6).

O’Brien’s interpretation of May Joyce’s letters to her dissident son in Paris portrays them not as long-distance attempts to enforce parental control so much as pleas for some sort of spiritual companionship. Her son behaves as if he were an only child rather than the first of many: and she never questions his lofty arrogance, seeking only to shield him and to ensure his success. O’Brien, who regards the protection of the young as a moral obligation [7], might well understand such motives. The spiritual longing which she attributes to May Joyce and Caithleen Brady was also something which James Joyce himself felt: although his brother Stanislaus sourly commented that “if James longed to copulate with a soul, he ought to get himself born anywhere other than Ireland”. (JJ, 36.) W. B. Yeats [158] put the same underlying idea somewhat differently when he remarked that the tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul. [8] O’Brien has added a gloss of her own in declaring that “it is only with our bodies that we ever really forgive one another; the mind pretends to forgive, but it harbours and remembers in moments of blackness”. (Eckley, 43)

Edna O’Brien has reserved particular praise for the quality of James Joyce’s letters to his partner Nora Barnacle, which deal with “her own sexual prowess, no small thing for a convent girl from Galway and a radical thing in defiance of that male illusion whereby women were expected to maintain a mystique and conceal their deepest sexual impulses.” (JJ, 74-5) Once again what is notable in her commentary is not just her insistence that sexuality and maternity are not contradictory, but also a pained recognition (shared with Joyce) that sexual and personal fulfillment may be considered irreconcilable in a pornographic culture which sees a woman’s full involvement in sexual activity as conditional upon her erasure as an individual (and even, in some extreme cases, as conditional upon her death). [9] What attracted Joyce to Nora Bernacle may have been what interested Caithleen in Mr. Gentleman: the sense of “a hazy and sensual” disposition [10], which might be remoulded upon the lines best pleasing to the remoulder. Bringing such awesome expectations to the sexual relation, such persons were bound for disappointment, and for the search for some type of compensation in the more trivial pleasures of daily existence.

Like O’Brien, Joyce never fully escaped the net of Roman Catholicism. He shared the conviction of his Jesuit teachers that if [159] you gave them the child, they might answer for the man. Childhood, says O’Brien, “occupies at most twelve years of our early life […] and yet the bulk of the rest of our lives is shadowed or coloured by that time”. (Eckley, 75) She is, she says, rooted in the idea of original sin, although even in accepting the Roman Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins, she allows herself the freedom to reformulate it, in a revised moral system which lists cruelty, killing and injustice as serious offences, and accords a more minor status to lust, adultery and covetousness. Being a Tory Anarchist, Edna O’Brien camouflages her rebelliousness in a rather decorous exterior. This was also the view of Joyce taken by that philandering suburban radical, H.G. Wells, who said accusingly in a letter to the Irishman “you really believe in chastity, purity and the personal God and that is why you are always breaking out in cries of cunt, shit and hell.” (O’Brien 1999, 75).

If the test of a literary work is the question as to from how deep a life it springs, both Joyce and O’Brien had one inestimable advantage over Wells: the sheer joy and terror of an Irish Catholic childhood. As adolescents, both often found themselves withdrawing suddenly from social gatherings in order to jot down the notes and, phrases by which people gave themselves away: and both, in restoring to sex its proper weighting in the continuum of a full life, were accused by puritans of writing about sex and sex only. Compared with her later books, The Country Girls would eventually be described to an amused O’Brien as “almost a prayer book” by scandalised readers. Some of these readers may have been the same sort of people who dubbed Joyce a smutmonger. Yet the whirligig of time brings in his revenges. Joyce is now one of the major marketing ploys of the Irish Tourist Board: and it can only be a matter of time before a summer school is convened in Clare to honour the life and work of Edna O’Brien. [160]


1. Edna O’Brien, The Country Girls, London 1963; henceforth CG.
2. Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, 12 February 1972 and Pater Wolfe, Saturday Review, 17 February 1968 : cited by Grace Eckley, Edna O’Brien, Lewisburg, New Jersey 1974.9.
3. See Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland : The Literature of the Modern Nation, London 1995. 101-04.
4. Barbara Bannon, ‘Authors and Editors’, in Publishers’ Weekly, 197 (25 May 1970), pp.21.22.
5. James Joyce, Ulysses, 1992, p.11 [sic].
6. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Power and Importance of Fairy Tales, Harmondsworth 1978, pp.68-69.
7. Nell Dunn, “Edna” Talking to women, London 1965. 69-107.
8. A. N. Jeffares, A Commentary on the Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (California 1968), p.372.
9. On this see Susan Sontag, ‘The Pornographic imagination’, in Styles of Radical Will (New York 1968); and Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman (London 1974).
10. The phrase is William Blake’s, reused by both Joyce and O’Brien: see her James Joyce, 89. [?Recte ‘lazy’]

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  Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: the Power and Importance of Fairy Tales, Harmondsworth 1978.
Carlson, Julia. Banned in Ireland . Censorship and the Irish Writer, London 1990.
Eckley, Grace. Edna O’Brien, Lewisburg, New Jersey 1974.
Jeffares, Norman. A. Commentary on the Collected Poems of W B. Yeats, California 1968.
Joyce, James. Ulysses. Students’ Annotated Edition, ed. Declan Kiberd. London 1992.
O’Brien, Edna. James Joyce, London 1999.
——The Country Girls. London : Penguin, 1963.
Tatar, Maria. Off With Their Heads: Fairy Tales and The Culture of Childhood, Princeton, New Jersey, 127.
Warner, Marina, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairytales and their Tellers, London 1994.

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