Mount Alvernia High School, Newton, Massachusetts

Edna  O'Brien

Lindsay  Downey 
Changing Times: Travelers and Ireland's Modern International Identity

Martyr, Sinner, or Saint: Self-Destructive Women in the Work of Edna O'Brien

Irish author Edna O’Brien is a modern revolutionary who challenges and criticizes Irish Catholic culture and relates the experiences of women who wish to be freed from its shackles. The pressures of the society that O’Brien depicts in her novels mirrors the society she experienced as an Irish country girl; these memories remained with O’Brien long after she left her homeland and permeate her literature. Her protagonists inflict suffering on themselves to atone for past behavior about which they feel guilty. However, rather than redeeming them, the abuse that the characters exact upon themselves ultimately results in their downfall. The abusive patterns of the protagonists are most evident in their relationships. Whether spiritual or romantic, the relationships expose the self-destructive tendencies of the characters, who are unable to recognize this as their tragic flaw. The toxic effect that society has on characters is their alienation and seclusion from society.

The pressure and resulting isolation that O’Brien and her characters encountered is similar to the pressures experienced by Irish travelers. Travelers, often called Tinkers, or, incorrectly, Irish gypsies, are a nomadic cultural minority in Ireland. In the past, travelers remained isolated and embraced their distinct cultural identity. Travelers remained unconcerned with their separate culture and exclusion from Ireland’s national identity until the twentieth century, during Ireland’s growing involvement in international organizations. In order to gain acceptance in the international community and mobilize its economy, legislation required travelers to assimilate into the national Irish community. As Ireland participated in the global community economically and diplomatically, and the government incorporated travelers, these itinerants faced disapproval and castigation from the settled community. Although assimilation through legislation improved travelers' lives, it also marked, in some way, a tragedy. At an earlier time, travelers were a part of Ireland’s landscape; they roamed county to county with their clan in their covered wagons, telling fortunes and exchanging gossip, doing odd jobs, and singing folk songs at the pub. Now an anomaly, travelers represent traditional aspects of Ireland that have been destroyed by modernization and globalization.

Major Works Consulted:

Court, Artelia. Puck of the Droms: The Lives & Literature of the Irish Tinkers. Los Angeles: U of California P, 1985.
MacLaughlin, Jim. Travellers and Ireland: Whose Country, Whose History? Cork, Ireland: University Press, 1995.
O’Brien, Edna. The Country Girls Trilogy & Epilogue. New York: Plume, 1987.
---. A Fanatic Heart.. New York: FarrarStrausGiroux, 2008.
Photo Credit: O’Brien, Edna. A Fanatic Heart. New York:FarrarStrausGiroux, 1984.