The County Clare author caused controversy when her Country Girls trilogy was first published in 1960. Seán Creedon takes a look at her interesting life and distinguished writing career.


Growing up in rural Ireland in the thirties must have been difficult for a young girl who wanted to become a writer. But Edna O’Brien overcame those obstacles and she eventually made national headlines when her first book The Country Girls’ was banned and copies of the book were reported to be burned in her own county.

Josephine Edna O’Brien was born on December 15, 1930 at Drewsboro, near the village of Tuamgraney in East Clare. Her father was Michael O’Brien and her mother was Lena Cleary. She had three siblings, brother John and sisters Patsy and Eileen.

Michael had inherited a large farm and Edna said that her father had accumulated a fortune from rich uncles, who when they were ordained as priests, emigrated to New England and served in the parish of Lowell, outside Boston. However, by the time Edna was born she said the family were no longer rich as her father had sold off, given away in fits of generosity or bartered parcels of the land to pay debts.
Her great-grandmother had acquired the big house from Lord and Lady Drew many years earlier.

Edna’s mother’s people came from County Kildare; when they were evicted from their home they moved south to Clare and settled in Mountshannon, not far from Drewsboro.
In an RTÉ television documentary broadcast in 1975 Edna’s parents said that their youngest child was always writing while in national school.

Her father said she would tear pages out of a copy book and write short stories. Michael said that, while the spelling wasn’t always perfect, the material was very good.
It was obvious she had a talent for writing and was also a very honest writer. Her mother said Edna was very fond of animals and was quiet and probably a little sad as a child.
Their house was full of prayer books and Edna said that as a young girl she would often visit the local church on her own and ‘‘contritely say twenty Paters, Aves and Glorias and do the Stations of the Cross.’’ At home the monthly Messenger magazine was read – indeed that famous magazine is still with us.

Ireland was a much different place back then and in her memoir Edna recalls a column in the Messenger called ‘Your Questions Answered.’ One of the readers’ questions Edna remembered wanted to know if frying bread in dripping on a Friday constituted a sin, as meat was forbidden on Fridays.

She attended Scariff National School and for her secondary education Edna was sent to St Raphael’s boarding school in Loughrea. Three hundred women in the same convent; sixty nuns and around 240 students.
She studied hard and tried to win a scholarship, which was worth 40 pounds; the yearly fee which she said was a tremendous strain on her family’s resources. Edna said she came to love Latin and later admitted that she also fell in love with a young nun, who was her maths teacher in Loughrea.

After doing her Leaving Cert Edna got a job as a trainee pharmacist in a chemist shop in Cabra in North Dublin. On her brother’s advice she also attended night classes on optometry in Kevin Street. She lived at 58 North Circular Road, close to the Phoenix Park.

A retired Garda named Paschal lent her some books by Irish writers and her sister who worked in CIE, arranged for Edna to write a regular column for a CIE magazine.
The pseudonym she chose was Sabiola and around that time she also starting writing articles for the Woman’s Page in one of the daily papers.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own