Things Fall Apart: Why Edna O’Brien is the original brave, Irish woman

When Liadan Hynes' marriage fell apart she had to work on adjusting to the new reality. In her weekly column, Things Fall Apart she explores the myriad ways a person can find their way back to themselves...


Not to be too Scientologist about it, but one of the good things about a marriage falling apart is that it gives you the chance to do a life audit.

If change has come upon you on that level, and you’ve dealt with it, then change is no longer a thing to fear. And so you make changes you might otherwise not have done.

Change is good

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Changes that will make you happier. You realise you have choices about things. About changing a work situation. Re-evaluating some of the people in your life. You move outside your existing bubble, make new, really solid friendships with people that you rely on more than you thought possible of new people at your stage of life. Put yourself into social circumstances you would not have before. Agree to things you might never have before – I’m public speaking for the first time ever this week.

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Part of your life falling apart has the enjoyable side effect of making you brave. If things have been shaken up, and you’ve coped, it makes you realise the satisfaction of shaking them up further. Of breaking out of ways of life, of being, that you thought were fixed, givens. To stop telling yourself limiting stories about the kind of person you are, a person who does, or doesn’t like, or do certain things.

Abseiling down the side of a cliff, as I did last month. I may never get over my own newfound daring. Going to a black-tie dinner with new friends next month.

Finding your tribe

And one of the best things about all this is that you find other women, your tribe. It’s a little like being allowed into a secret club. Of women who have lived. Who have weathered life. Not all of them are necessarily divorced or separated. They have experienced loss, or lives which didn’t pan out as they planned. Have come up against the immovable object that is the undeniable fact that life is uncontrollable at times. But they have proved themselves an unstoppable force in navigating that. Women who have also been brave.

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You are let into a gang you didn’t even know existed. It makes friendships deeper, conversations more real.

People ask “Are you on Tinder?” “Dating yet?” And I almost laugh in their faces only it would be so rude. I am only interested in my women. My network of women.

The original brave, Irish woman

This week The Abbey debuted a production of Edna O’Brien’s stage adaption of her first novel, The Country Girls. Now 88, with a new book due in the next few months, she is for me the original brave Irish woman. She was brave for all of us, writing about what it was really like to be an Irish woman in the fifties and sixties. So dangerous, so incendiary, was the truth she told deemed that her book was banned when it was published in the early sixties.

It was magical to be there on the first night, and to see the author herself, still mesmerising in person, with a new book due in a matter of months, watching actors up on that stage portraying a story much of which is taken from the actual circumstances of her own life. The beloved mother. The controlling father. The disapproving church. The attempts at stringency on her choices. Her eventual rebuttal of all this. Her brave choice to go find life, in London.

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It was depressing, too, to see this Ireland which seemed almost farcical, but to know that this really was the reality for women at the time. That they were practically infantilised, by men and nuns, such was the tiny amount of autonomy allowed them. The brilliant Baba, sharp, intelligent, feisty, desperate for experiences, forced to rely upon the attention of a lascivious older man as a means of breaking out of the life another man, her father, is attempting to force upon her.

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And now here she was, Edna O’Brien, who wrote this truth, who left her husband and raised two boys as a single mother, who supported herself throughout her life, who braved the rage of her parents, not to mention the church and the state. On the stage of the national theatre, receiving a standing ovation. To know that when she originally told this story, her story, it was banned by official Ireland. It gave me shivers. That despite a total lack of support, for Edna was an outlier, she bravely made her choices, changed her life.

She said a few words. This brilliant woman, who in the 1960s, when to be a woman in Ireland was for much of the time, to be shamed, controlled, held in place, had defied them all. “I won’t go on for long, with a 25-minute Oscar speech,” she joked.

I could have listened all night.

Photo: Edna O’Brien, via Faber&Faber on YouTube


More like this:

  • If your marriage is ending and your world has fallen apart, this letter's for you... here.
  • I’ve cracked the code to weekends as a single parent... here.
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