Mother Ireland: With Photographs by Fergus Bourke Analysis

Edna O’Brien

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Mother Ireland is Edna O’Brien’s first book-length work of nonfiction, a medium to which she has not devoted very much attention during her prolific writing career. In certain respects, the book is a consolidation and repetition of material which the author had already treated fictionally in her first three novels—The Country Girl (1960), The Lonely Girl (1962), and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964)—and more graphically and with greater art in A Pagan Place (1970). The autobiographical content of Mother Ireland, however, is presented in the context of the author’s general observations about her native land and her native place within it, which is in rural County Clare, in the west of Ireland. Thus, while the seven chapters of Mother Ireland cover O’Brien’s childhood, education, and immediate after-school life in Dublin, culminating in her emigration to England, each chapter contains more than a mere recitation of strictly autobiographical data. It is for this reason that the work is ultimately one of cultural, rather than strictly personal, interest and significance. Clearly, readers wishing to know more of the background of one of the least likely, but best-known contemporary Irish writers of fiction will find a considerable amount of color and detail regarding Edna O’Brien’s origins, together with an intriguing amplification of episodes from the early novels.


(The entire section is 477 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Mother Ireland is Edna O’Brien’s first book-length work of nonfiction, a medium to which she has not devoted much time during her prolific writing career. Most often, she writes short stories, novels, and plays. She did, however, follow Mother Ireland with the edited anthology Some Irish Loving (1979). In this wide-ranging collection, O’Brien paints a rather gloomy picture of women’s biological destiny, which causes their exclusion from real connection, with men in particular, which is where their fate lies in O’Brien’s fictions. Subsequently, too, O’Brien wrote James and Norah (1981), about Irish fiction writer James Joyce’s marriage, and she read Brenda Maddox’s Norah for The New York Times Book Review. O’Brien shows no great sympathy for what she calls “latent feminist combativeness whereby Norah has to be put on a pedestal.” Mother Ireland undoubtedly sprang from popular interest in O’Brien and her background because of her successful fiction writing, particularly The Country Girls Trilogy (1986) and A Pagan Place (1970).

After its initial “Land Itself” chapter, Mother Ireland continues to examine O’Brien’s life for six short chapters: hometown, classroom, books, a convent, Dublin, and escape. The impressionistic, highly subjective account she gives here suggests the extent to which she uses versions of her own experiences in all...

(The entire section is 563 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Starting with the “mother” symbol for Ireland, O’Brien is early on the attack. Her second sentence, with its preponderance of negative connotations, runs, “Ireland has always been a woman, a womb, a cave, a cow, a Rosaleen, a sow, a bride, a harlot, and, of course, the gaunt Hag of Beare.” For this reason, O’Brien fled the powerful influence of Mother Ireland, and her own joyless, martyred mother, as soon as she could. Her own mother, she has said, was “horrified” by the sexual forthrightness of her daughter’s early books, which were banned in the Republic of Ireland; anticlerical sentiments and priests in compromising roles also played parts in the censorship decision.

More fundamentally opposed to mainstream feminism, as has been suggested above, is the procession of sentimental, romantic, whining heroines on which O’Brien focuses her fiction. Based on the claim, which O’Brien has made repeatedly, that men and women are fundamentally “different species,” her typical heroine accommodates herself to the man in her life. Men in this scheme of things are almost always depicted as users and abusers of their women. On a couple of occasions in her fiction, as in The High Road (1988), lesbian feelings are discreetly consummated, but this is a rare occurrence in O’Brien, and it brings no more lasting happiness than her heterosexual relationships seem to do.


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Eckley, Grace. Edna O’Brien. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1974. This excellent but brief sympathetic study needs to be updated in its primary and secondary materials. It is the only book-length publication on O’Brien.

Guppy, Shusha. “The Art of Fiction: Edna O’Brien.” Paris Review 26 (Summer, 1984): 22-50. A lengthy and comprehensive interview including O’Brien’s views on other women writers and her place in the literary continuum. “I am not the darling of the feminists. They think I am too preoccupied with old-fashioned themes like love and longing,” she says.

O’Brien, Edna. “A Conversation with Edna O’Brien.” Interview by Philip Roth. The New York Times Book Review 89 (November 18, 1984): 38-40. A lengthy, perceptive, restrained, and generally sympathetic interview with a fellow novelist. Roth elicits very personal avowals from O’Brien; for example, on hating her father and overloving her mother. “Obsessive” is the word she chooses in speaking about her attitude toward her childhood.

O’Hara, Kiera. “Love Objects: Love and Obsession in the Stories of Edna O’Brien.” Studies in Short Fiction 30 (Summer, 1993): 317-325. Offers a psychological rationale for O’Brien’s choices: “Sometimes the unattainability of love in childhood causes a person to seek . . . the same kind of unattainability in later life. . . . ‘The notion of love’ fits this pattern as clearly as does a substance addiction.” Mother Ireland is well suited for this kind of reading, as indeed it is for an introduction to O’Brien’s work as a whole.

Woodward, Richard B. “Reveling in Heartbreak.” The New York Times Magazine, March 12, 1989, 42, 50, 51. Focuses on the opposition, revealed in interviews as well as in O’Brien’s fiction, of “the helpless female with the tough-minded writer, the woman-about-town with the farm girl riddled by religious guilt.”