Edna O'Brien (born 15 December 1930) at Tuamgraney, County Clare, Ireland is an Irish novelist, playwright, poet and short story writer whose works often revolve around the feelings of women, their problems in relating to men, and to society as a whole. Her first novel, The Country Girls, was banned, burned and denounced from the pulpit. Despite this, it has been credited with breaking silence on sexual matters and social issues during a repressive period in Ireland after World War II.
According to O'Brien, her mother was a strong, controlling woman who had emigrated temporarily to America, and worked for some time as a maid in Brooklyn, New York, for a well-off Irish-American family before returning to Ireland to raise her family.
O'Brien was the youngest child of "a strict, religious family". In the years 1941-46 she was educated by the Sisters of Mercy - a circumstance that contributed to a "suffocating" childhood. "I rebelled against the coercive and stifling religion into which I was born and bred. It was very frightening and all pervasive. I'm glad it has gone."
In 1950, she was awarded a licence as pharmacist. In Ireland, she read such writers as Tolstoy, Thackeray, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.In 1954, she married, against her parents' wishes, the Irish writer Ernest Gébler and the couple moved to London - "We lived in SW 20. Sub-urb-ia." They raised two sons, Carlo (a writer) and Sasha, but the marriage was dissolved in 1964. Gébler died in 1998.
In London, she bought Introducing James Joyce by T. S. Eliot and has said that when she learned that James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was autobiographical, it made her realise "where she might turn, should she want to write herself: 'Unhappy houses are a very good incubation for stories.'" In London she started work as a reader for Hutchinson where, on the basis of her reports, she was commissioned, for £50, to write a novel. She published her first book, The Country Girls, in 1960.
Her parents were vehemently against all things related to literature; her mother strongly disapproved of her daughter's career as a writer. Once when her mother found a Seán O'Casey in her daughter's possession she tried to burn it.
In 1981, she wrote a play, Virginia, about Virginia Woolf and it was staged originally in Canada and subsequently in the West End of London at the Theatre Royal Haymarket with Maggie Smith and directed by Robin Phillips. It was staged at The Public Theater in New York in spring 1985. Other notable works include a biography of James Joyce, published in 1999, and one of the poet Lord Byron, Byron in Love (2009). House of Splendid Isolation (1994).
She has received numerous awards for her works, including a Kingsley Amis Award in 1962 (for The Country Girls), the Yorkshire Post Book Award in 1970 (for A Pagan Place), and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1990 for Lantern Slides. In 2006, O'Brien was appointed adjunct professor of English Literature in University College, Dublin. In 2009, she was honoured with the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award at a special ceremony for the year’s Irish Book Awards in Dublin.
She won the 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award with her collection Saints and Sinners, with judge Thomas McCarthy referring to her as "the Solzhenitsyn of Irish life". RTÉ aired a documentary on her as part of its Arts strand in early 2012.
She is one of two surviving panel members of the first edition of the BBC programme, Question Time, the other being Teddy Taylor.
According to Scottish novelist Andrew O'Hagan, her place in Irish letters is assured. "She changed the nature of Irish fiction; she brought the woman's experience and sex and internal lives of those people on to the page, and she did it with style, and she made those concerns international." Irish novelist Colum McCann avers that O'Brien has been "the advance scout for the Irish imagination" for over fifty years. Says Maeve Higgins, "She is my hero because she is such an amazing writer."
She now lives in London.