A Woman in Transit
by Edna O’Brien
This is not a meditation on either nostalgia or alienation. I left Ireland willingly, but I doubt that I would have found the freedom to write if I had stayed there, as the obstacles and scrutiny were oppressive. I wanted to write and in my marginalised situation as a chemist’s apprentice in Cabra, I learnt of a literary coterie who nightly convened in the Pearl Bar, the talk and banter grandiloquent, and including at least two geniuses, Flann O’Brien and Patrick Kavanagh. However, in a cartoon of that time, these literati are depicted standing shoulder to shoulder, an all-male phalanx guarding their secrets of the Holy Grail. The giants that hovered over every would-be poet and penman, were of course Joyce, who was dead, and Beckett the Blasphemer, as good as dead, having fled to Paris. He was called the Blasphemer in an Irish paper, because he had defamed the name of Jesus Christ. The myths were receding. Yeats had foretold that a crowd would gather and not know there was that thing ‘that seemed a burning cloud’. He was referring to Maud Gonne McBride. In fact, and I took it to be most auspicious, I saw Maud Gonne myself one day, outside the Unicorn Restaurant, all in black with a black veil, so tall she had to stoop to hear her listeners, her bearing like that of an ancient queen.
As for alienation, I did not, as so many exiles have had to do, start again with a nascent language, even if it was soon clear to me that the Irish and the English grapple with it in a different way.
I arrived, with my small sons Carlo and Sasha, at Waterloo Station on November 9th 1958. The boys were in their element, having no school for at least a week and in the buffet on the train journey, down from Liverpool, the waiter presented them with several little pots of jam and marmalade. The glass dome that covered the vast purlieu of Waterloo Station was sooted, and the pigeons beyond also seemed black and divested of nature. Though choosing to live in a city, I missed nature and I still do. In my room in London, where I work, when I sometimes hear the clip-clop of horse hooves going by, I am immediately transported to County Clare and a picture of horses in a sudden and unaccountable maraud, galloping as if to some great challenge.
Our new home was in outer suburbia, genteel though not affluent and there were no Irish people that I knew of. Camden Town and Cricklewood was where they converged, most of the men working on building sites and the young women either training to be nurses or chambermaids. The Bohemian London that I aspired to seemed to centre around two bars, one in Soho and one next to the BBC in Langham Place, where Louis MacNiece, Dylan Thomas and Seamus Ennis were often engaged in heated rapport. In those early days, feeling stranded as I was, I had this notion that one day I would be initiated into the literary echelons of London, the hidden Ithaca. Meanwhile, I brought my sons to the local school and began to write The Country Girls, which seemed to be waiting in the wings, a tale of longing and defiance and for which I had received and already spent the sum of fifty pounds.
I had already decided that the English were somewhat cold-hearted and with a dismaying ignorance of Irish humour and I was both seeking and avoiding reminders of home. I went to Mass of course and fled on the way out, in case the priest would collar me. I sought out markets and stalls that were reminiscent of Moore Street in Dublin, where high-spirited women sold tablecloths, lace runners and sprigs of white heather for luck. My favourite market and by far the most exotic was on Portobello Road, a whole street of treasures and people much friendlier and lackadaisical. Around St Patrick’s Day, I thought it was tantamount to a miracle if I happened to be sent shamrock from home, with the clay still stuck to it. It brought to my mind the spell that had been put on Saint Columba, who, when banished from Ireland and told he could never set foot on it again, had the soil of Iona adhered to his boots. I did not much care for the more raucous St Patrick’s Day shenanigans, too much sentimentality, too brash.
I’d had one epiphany, as they are called, by reading a chapter from Portrait of the Artist in a bookshop in Bachelor’s Walk in Dublin—I was gripped by not only the genius of it, but by its truth and simplicity. The second epiphany happened when I attended a lecture on Ernest Hemingway at London University, given by Arthur Mizener. He read the first pages from A Farewell to Arms and those spare words, with so much narrative and feeling within them, were a further whet to the work I had begun. With publication, there was some small acclaim in England, anger and repugnance at home. The literary hoopla I had envisaged did not occur. What I did not know was that a brisk correspondence had started up between the then Catholic Archbishop of Westminster and Charles Haughey, both attesting to the depravity of the book and the fact that it should not be allowed in any decent home. As with Synge (one of my abiding heroes), I was accused of having brought ‘a smear on Irish womanhood’. To this day, London taxi drivers, who marvel that I have not lost my Irish accent, assure me that their mothers, or maybe by now it is their grandmothers, have read the ‘dirty book’. If as many people had read that book as claim to have done, then I would be a rich woman indeed.
So it was on to the next book, Girl with Green Eyes, while secretly rebelling against the constraints of my marriage and lonely suburbia. Two years later and in gothic fashion, I left my husband and after some vicarious times in various lodgings, wrote the third book of the trilogy, Girls in their Married Bliss. I would meet my children at railway stations or at the school gates and so began a long and ugly battle for custody, in which local doctor, school headmaster and other notables attested to my unsuitability as a mother. So Ireland wasn’t the only place with a big stick.
In that grim time I had one encounter with an Irish man, which has stayed with me, because his loneliness mirrored mine. I was on the top of a double-decker bus, coming back from White City (where I had gone to do a BBC interview), when a man came and sat next to me. Without ado he said, in a voice that was surely Tipperary, ‘Wouldn’t it be great now to be out the fields at home hunting ferrets?’ I could not invite him in for a cup of tea at the lodgings, as visitors were not allowed, but we sat on a park bench and, as they say, ruminated.
With the money from Girls in their Married Bliss I bought a little house, number 9 Deodar Road, and started giving parties, which got more lavish with time. These generated great interest, were sometimes written about in gossip columns, envied and of course derided. It was imagined that I was now part of a swinging sixties group, with ne’er a care on me. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is in no way a reflection on the English, but at my parties the guests were always from elsewhere—Canadian, American, European, Scottish. The guest of honour was always and would always be Sean Kenny, the theatre designer, who carried in his bones the genius and essence of Ireland.
I did not feel confident enough to write about London until many years later. First was a play, Haunted, concerning a married couple, also relegated to the margins and, like Thoreau’s characters, leading lives of quiet desperation. It was triggered, the way all my works are triggered, by accident. In a newsagent’s in Morden, near where we lived, there was a handwritten sign which said: Widower wishes to dispose of recently deceased wife’s clothing, as good as new. Call evenings. My second prompting came from Sasha, who described to me an older man, one of Beckett’s dreaming Belacquas, who was having a quiet drink in a pub on St Patrick’s Day, when the motley, in their variety of greens, arrived for the festivities, whereupon he left. It led me to north London, to centres where some of the Irish labourers, now retired, came to play billiards, to chat and to have a bit of free lunch. I often met them there and invariably we repaired to pubs, where I met many others who had once upon a time come to seek work, with a crucifix and pyjamas in the suitcase and steadfast memories of mother. Their stories were rich and they told them unstintingly and with a blazing and inspired truth, eons away from the Paddy jargon.
I have lived happily in London, or as happy as my anxious temperament allows, for the last fifty-seven years and the only brouhaha that happened was when I wrote a profile of Gerry Adams for The New York Times. There followed my novel, House of Splendid Isolation, but it was the newspaper article that people mostly read and were incensed by. Some spoke to me with absolute disbelief that I would show sympathy towards such people and such a cause, while others were openly intemperate and an MP at a gathering told me that he would bring back hanging for the likes of me. It was useless to cite history, useless to talk of Shankill Butchers or B-Specials, or the long years of Catholics in the North being treated as second-class citizens. But I believed then as I believe now that the partition of Ireland was ill-judged, brutal and had drastic consequences.
Having said at the outset that I imagined being initiated into a magic literary circle, I know now that there is no such thing, because writing is a lonely business and the only lasting magic is through language.
I am here, I have written without interruption or fisticuffs, I have met with warmth from many people in many walks of life and am happy to report on some faithful readers. Yet I am a woman in transit and when my time comes, I will lie with my ancestors on a grave on Holy Island on the Shannon. ‘A quiet watered land’, as one of the poets wrote of a sister island, birds and water birds whirling in and out over the roofless chapels and oratories, and maybe those roses that haunt me, part flower, part bloodshed, nature and sacrifice as one.
Edna O’Brien has written over twenty works of fiction along with plays, memoirs and biographies. Awards received include the Irish Pen Lifetime Achievement Award, the American National Arts Gold Medal, The Frank O’Connor Short Story Award and the Ulysses Medal. Her most recent books are The Love Object: Selected Stories and The Little Red Chairs.