The youngest child in a shabby, genteel farm family, which included a brother and two sisters, Josephine Edna O’Brien was born in Tuamgraney, County Clare, Ireland, on December 15, 1930, and grew up in rural western Ireland. If her fictions are to be believed, and in broad outline the facts are substantiated by her on-the-record comments, her father, Michael O’Brien, drank too much, and her mother, Lena, fully assumed the classic martyr’s role. O’Brien was educated at the local primary school in Scarriff and at the Convent of Mercy, Loughrea, County Galway. From this repressive, priest-ridden home and rural environment, with its many social and sexual taboos, she “escaped” in the late 1940’s to Dublin to study pharmacy in the work-study system then in vogue.
Always a reader, in the city of Dublin she encountered for the first time, and with great delight, the stimulation of venturesome writers, such as fellow Irish national James Joyce, and the realistic stories and plays of the Russian Anton Chekhov. She contributed pieces to the Irish Press newspaper. In 1951, O’Brien married the older, established Czech writer Ernest Gebler. Their sons Carlo (a novelist in his own right) and Sasha (an architect) were born in 1952 and 1954, respectively. In 1959 the family moved to London, where O’Brien established permanent residence.
O’Brien’s necessary physical departure from the community where she was raised and eventually from Ireland freed her—as it freed Joyce, Sean O’Casey, and other Irish writers in voluntary exile—to write about her homeland for a lifetime. Her best work, most readers agree, is set among the Irish and involves social and family relationships, searches and conflicts, not unlike O’Brien’s own experiences in a vanishing Ireland that she knows and re-creates extremely well.
During her first month in England, O’Brien wrote the very successful novel The Country Girls (1960), which was nevertheless burned in her village and banned throughout Ireland, as were her six subsequent books. She followed this novel with the other books in a trilogy: The Lonely Girl (1962; reprinted in 1964 as Girl with Green Eyes) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964). O’Brien and Gebler, who divorced in 1964, have argued in print over how much help he provided with the trilogy; whatever the truth behind their dispute, O’Brien was launched on a successful, jet-set, high-profile career, receiving counseling with the celebrated psychiatrist R. D. Laing, and making frequent television...
(The entire section is 1055 words.)