Opinion: both are strong, independent women unafraid to tell the truth in their writing

By Madeleine Taylor,  Mary Immaculate College Limerick

Edna O’Brien is the woman who paved the way for many Irish women writers. Novelist, poet, playwright, and short-story writer, her well-known work The Country Girls is currently running as a stage adaption at the Abbey Theatre and has been chosen as Dublin's One City One Book choice for 2019. She's a woman who saw this particular novel burned by priests and banned by the Irish state, a state that was almost indistinguishable with the Catholic Church at the time.  

Due to the novel including various sexual references and "inappropriate" behaviour by its main characters, who happen to be women, the book was dubbed "a smear on Irish womanhood" by Charles Haughey. O’Brien’s own mother was ashamed of her daughter’s writing and inked out every offending word in the book. O’Brien obviously did not let this prevent her from writing as she wrote 16 more novels, eight short story collections, seven plays and a variety of non-fiction, children’s stories and some poetry.

From RTÉ Radio 1's News at One, RTÉ Arts and Media Correspondent, Sinead Crowley speaks to Edna O'Brien after The Country Girls' became this year's Dublin One City One Book choice

Many critics and interviewers also attempted to mute her success by focusing on her physical appearance and good looks, describing her hair as "tousled immaculately". while noting that her "pale" skin was "flawless" and mentioning her "clear green eyes". O’Brien was constantly undermined through the use of her gender as she attempted to be thought of as a serious writer and take a seat at the Irish literary table that was mainly male focused.

Despite this, she created a whole new type of writing, especially Irish women’s writing, by being honest. O’Brien herself says that she did not go out purposefully to create chaos in the world of Irish women’s literature but it was the fact that she was honest in her novels about Irish women’s lives that made it so revolutionary. Award-winning author Eimear McBride says that "O’Brien was not only giving voice to the voiceless but also washing the nation’s dirty laundry in public – laundry that has indeed proved so dirty that, more than 50 years after The Country Girls’ momentous publication, it is still proving in need of a rinse". 

From RTÉ 2fm's The Collective, Louise McSharry interviews Louise O'Neill

This rinse that McBride speaks about is currently also being given by Louise O’Neill. The 33 year old, originally from Clonakilty in Co. Cork, has certainly made waves since she published her first novel Only Ever Yours in 2014. She has since received numerous awards and national recognition as a writer and has published four more books, her most recent being The Surface Breaks, a rewriting of the fairy-tale The Little Mermaid from a feminist perspective.

Classic fairy-tales such as Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella are male-centered and contain an unrealistic portrayal of women’s values. As these stories are popular amongst children, O’Neill is keen to counteract this in The Surface Breaks. She has a history of aiming her writing at young people as Only Ever Yours was originally published for a Young Adult audience. She has recently had her novel Asking For It adapted for the stage and it was performed in 2018 in both Cork's Everyman and Dublin’s Abbey.

Unlike O’Brien, O’Neill’s reception at the beginning of her career was positive, but the issues discussed by the latter are those that would not have surfaced publicly without the former. As O’Brien was 50 years ago, O’Neill is liberal with her opinion on the issues embedded in Irish society today. While O’Brien was criticising the 1937 Constitution by Eamon De Valera that centred around women being mothers and staying in the home, O’Neill is addressing the controversial topic of rape culture. Even 50 years apart, both are as revolutionary as the other as they discuss and focus on the topic of sexual desire in women and how it is demonised.

From RTÉ Archives, a 1975 episode of My Own Place sees Edna O’Brien returning to Co Clare

While highlighting that both authors are of similar opinions, it also shows how little our culture  has evolved in 50 years. While women now have the choice to spend their days as they please, the inequality of the sexes has moved to mainly sexual politics as O’Neill is keen to highlight.

"It’s time as a society that we look at male sexuality versus female sexuality." said O'Neill on The Late Late Show, "how aggressiveness is encouraged in the former and passivity in the latter". O’Neill is blatant in her discussion about sexual politics, a topic still shied away from by many people. Her honesty is refreshing, similar to O’Brien and she is not afraid of the repercussions, while making many interviewers, especially men, quite uncomfortable.

The similarities between both authors are explicit: both are strong, independent women unafraid to tell the truth in their writing. Ireland needs more of this type of writer but, more importantly, Ireland needs more of these women.

Madeleine Taylor is a PhD student in English Language and Literature at Mary Immaculate College Limerick

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ