Mother Ireland should be seen in the context of O’Brien’s career and in the context of modern Irish literature. In the first case, the work effectively marks a period in her development as a writer of fiction. Since its publication, the author has tended to produce fiction which is less interested in background than in foreground. Background was used in her early work to supply a framework of understanding through which a reader might appreciate a given character’s rebarbative mannerisms or ignorant behavior. Subsequently—beginning, arguably, with the novel Night (1972)—the emphasis has been on passion and isolation, on protagonists suspended in the unique and not particularly communicable life of their own feelings, with an accompanying eschewal of cultural nuance. Mother Ireland is central to that change of emphasis. As though to underline the change in artistic orientation further, the choice of the passionate self (rehearsed in the closing pages of Mother Ireland) is upheld by the author’s anthology, Some Irish Loving (1979).
Paradoxically, then, as the author establishes the peculiar remove at which her social life has placed her from Ireland and at the same time reaffirms her intimate connection with her native country, she becomes the first writer of her generation to imitate a strategy employed to good effect by Irish fiction writers of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Three of the main figures of this period—Sean O’Faolain, Frank O’Connor, and Liam O’Flaherty—all wrote works of cultural criticism in a similar vein to Mother Ireland, voyages of rediscovery of various kinds and in a tone that varied merely in the degree of their acerbity. In a work which goes in for the salutary disabusement of tradition, Edna O’Brien aligns herself with a tradition. Since the tradition in question is a literary one, however, it is likely that she feels reasonably at ease in aligning herself with it; as Mother Ireland demonstrates, she has earned her place in the Irish literary tradition.