The Country Girls

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The Country Girls

by Edna O’Brien


A novel set in the West of Ireland and Dublin in the late 1940s and early 1950s, first published in Britain and Ireland in 1960,


Two teenage girls, Kate and Baba, survive the terrors of their convent boarding school and move to the big city, learning about life men, and each other along the way,

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Edna O’Brien was born in 1932 in County Clare, a region between the Shannon and the Atlantic coast of Ireland. She had a rural Catholic upbringing, and moved to Dublin in 1948, where she graduated from Pharmacy College. In 1954 she married and, a couple of years later, moved with her husband to London. Encouraged by a publisher for whom she was working, she began writing the fictional account of growing up in rural Ireland that ultimately became The Country Girls. When the novel first appeared, it was banned in Ireland under the Censorship of Publications Act—a fate shared by many works of Irish and foreign origin during this period. By the time the Censorship Act was reformed and largely dismantled in 1967, a younger generation had become the audience for Edna O’Brien’s early novels, all of which now became available. O’Brien wrote two sequels. The Country Girls was quickly followed by The Lonely Girl (also published as Girl with the Green Eyes) in 1962 and Girls in their Married Bliss in 1964, forming a trilogy of novels with Kate and Baba as the central characters. The Country Girls and its two sequels established Edna O’Brien as a distinctive and courageous voice in modem Irish literature.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Age of De Valera

In the Ireland of the late 1940s, when Kate and Baba are about 14 years old in The Country Girls, a dour feeling of isolation could be clearly sensed by both native inhabitants and visitors. Ireland had maintained a posture of neutrality throughout World War II and then was politically marginalized by the changes and opportunities of the postwar world in Europe and beyond. The United States, facing the complex challenges of the Cold War, the competition with the Soviet Union for world leadership, was less than interested in Ireland’s local and rather dismal problems. Although for all practical purposes, Irish neutrality had operated to the benefit of the Allies, its continuation of diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany, including the expression of condolences to the German ambassador in Dublin upon the death of Adolph Hitler on April 30, 1945, had led to a ban against Ireland on membership in the new United Nations organization, which would not be removed until 1955.

In economics, the depression of the 1930s had left a deep mark on Ireland, deeper than on many other places; its standard of living was low, particularly when compared with Britain. The bleak prospects facing the population made emigration an easy choice.

Finally, the cultural vitality of the nation had been distorted and disabled by the application of rigorous and undiscriminating Catholic moral standards to movies, literature and all forms of public media. Movies were cut or banned for reasons that seem extremely peculiar now. Not only pornographic material, but mainstream novels and short stories, whether by Irish or foreign writers, could be presented to the Publications Censorship Board and banned from Irish shores on the most absurd grounds. In the case of the novel The Land of Spices by Kate O’Brien, for instance, just one sentence referring to homosexuality was enough to justify banning (Brown, p. 151). Theaters had to be careful in their choice of plays. Paintings with a hint of nudity, even those with clearly religious subjects, were refused for exhibition in public buildings. The shadow of Church disapproval hung over public debates on reforms in social policy, health, sports, and education. What made things worse was that the low level of economic activity, the constant stream of young people “voting with their feet,” that is, emigrating across the Irish Sea to Britain, and the sense of isolation from the outside world were often answered, not by an admission that something was seriously wrong, but by a kind of smug paternalism, assuring the population that Ireland was in fact an oasis of wholesomeness and Catholic piety in a world of secular materialism and corruption. The roots of this phenomenon can be found in the previous decade.

From independence to conservative isolationism

In 1937, to the satisfaction of Prime Minister Eamon De Valera, the proposed new Constitution of Ireland was passed by the electorate in a referendum, and with this document a long period of conflict in Irish history was laid to rest. Ireland had emerged from a long period of war and turmoil, but rather than entering on a journey into the future with all the optimism and robustness a newly liberated nation might be expected to show, the people embarked on an era of social conservatism, inflexible and narrow Catholic values, and cultural isolation. For most of the previous 70 years, a national struggle against the imperial authority of Great Britain had been carried on in one form or another, sometimes through peaceful, parliamentary methods such as those of Charles Parnell and the Irish Party between the 1880s and 1914, sometimes in the shape of armed rebellion, like the one that took place in Dublin during Easter Week 1916. A new militant nationalist movement formed in 1917 called Sinn Fein (pronounced “shin fane,” it means, in rough translation, “ourselves”). Ireland finally fought the War of Independence (1919-1921). Afterwards, representatives of the British government and the “underground” Irish government, which was led by Sinn Fein, hammered out the Treaty of 1922, which granted a high level of autonomy to an Irish Free State but at the same time established Partition—that is, the separation of the six largely Protestant counties in northeast Ireland to be retained under British rule. This arrangement provoked a split in Sinn Féin and armed conflict within its military wing the IRA (Irish Republican Army). The first group (led by Michael Collins) believed that Ireland needed peace and that the limited independence gained under the Treaty from the British government offered the best chance for successful self-rule; the second group (led by De Valera) felt that the Treaty with its partition of the country was a gross and unacceptable betrayal of the ideals of national independence. Ultimately the armed conflict escalated into the Irish Civil War, which lasted 10 months from 1922 to 1923, leaving a bitter and rancorous wound across Ireland, one that would take at least two generations to heal. In 1925 De Valera founded the Fianna Fail party to represent the defeated side in the Civil War, and in 1927 he led the party into the Dail, the national parliament. Fianna Fail went on to win the 1932 general election, and De Valera became Prime Minister.

The later 1920s meanwhile saw some very positive developments outside government: the establishment of the national broadcasting station Radio Eireann brought the modern world to remote villages and farms and, most importantly, the River Shannon Hydro-electric Scheme provided power to rural towns and communities in the midlands and West. With these new developments came the potential and pressing need for innovation in Irish education and other fields. Unfortunately, however, the range of political and social debate in Ireland was becoming increasingly marked by a combination of conservative anti-intellectualism and authoritarian Catholic teaching.

The victory of this concept of Irish national identity over a more diverse and multicultural version was relatively recent. Before 1922, both the size of the Protestant population in Ireland (about 25 percent of the total) and the historical contribution by Protestant leaders to the struggle for national independence meant that Irish nationalism had to promote a more open, complex and secular ideal than an exclusionary focus on majority Catholic rule. The long agony of World War I, the chaos of the War of Independence and the Civil War, and the creation of Northern Ireland had brought traditional Protestant Ireland to a very weakened state, however. Yes, the new mini-state of Northern Ireland had a Protestant majority, but a Presbyterian one that differed distinctly from the Anglicans in the South. These southern Protestants were in a tight spot: seeing little to attract them in Northern Ireland, they were meanwhile a minority with little chance of making their presence felt in the new Irish Free State. Moreover, thousands of Protestant families emigrated from Ireland to Britain, Australia, and South Africa, decreasing their substantial 25 percent of the population. In the end, the Irish Protestant minority sported a largely negative or equivocal attitude toward the Irish Free State that was affected by their decreasing numbers and declining political strength. During the 1920s, Protestants discovered they were becoming foreigners in their own land, partly due to their own failure to embrace the project of Irish national independence with enthusiasm, and partly due to the growing opinion that those who identified themselves as Protestant and Anglo-Irish, with some kind of residual loyalty to Britain, could no longer be considered part of the nation. The nation was now Catholic, Gaelic, and nationalist, characteristics that would define the shape of Irish society in the future. The arrival into power of De Valera and the Fianna Fail party was to be the final nail in the coffin of Anglo-Irish Protestant hegemony. Its demise would be cemented by the 1937 Constitution.

The Constitution was De Valera’s way of putting on record what had never really been in doubt: that the Irish Free State was a Catholic nation and public policy would adapt itself to this fact whether anyone liked it or not—and most everyone did like it. Certain provisions of the document were also Fianna Fail’s peace offering to the Catholic Church hierarchy, whose members had been either neutral or hostile toward militant nationalism. Article 44, which would be removed by referendum in 1972, stated that the Catholic Church had a “special position” in Irish society. Article 41 gave constitutional force to the notion that a married woman’s place is in the home, not on the job market. The social engineering of the De Valera Constitution would be felt deeply in Irish society over the following decades. Despite his history as a revolutionary nationalist and the secular vision of Irish republicanism, De Valera’s message was clear: there would be no social revolution in Ireland, no cultural experimentation, no open engagement with the modern world, but rather the maintenance of a conservative, inflexible Catholic philosophy, an obsessive idealization on a Gaelic past allied to mandatory teaching of the Irish language in schools in ways that ignored the economic reasons for its decline, and a consciously inward-looking isolation from the struggles and issues of the wider world. This is the Ireland in which the novel’s Kate and Baba are growing up.

Leaving the rural past

Despite the advances made since independence, Ireland in 1950 was not a place of prosperity or optimism. At the same time, it was not simply a failed political experiment collapsing into violence and despair. What you saw depended on one’s perspective. From one angle of observation, Ireland was one of the most successful examples of postcolonial development: it was a functioning democracy; it was administered by a noncorrupt civil service; its military and police forces obeyed the civil authority without question; it educated its children better than some countries, though less well than others; it was a society governed by the rule of law. From another angle, however, Ireland evinced the confusion afflicting a society emerging from long years of colonial domination. An aspect of this confusion was a conflict between rural and urban values, experiences, and ideas of social change.


The poet Patrick Kavanagh (1904-67), author of The Great Hunger, was born in the northern county of Monaghan and grew up in a world of small, subsistence farming. A largely self-educated man who had no format education after the age of 14, he went to Dublin in the early 1930s and began to attract considerable attention for his laconic, conversational poems His poetry was anti-heroic; not political or national1st, it focused on everyday experience and its unexpected depths fn 1942 Kavanagh took a different path and brought out The Great Hunger a long poem dealing with the tragedy of the rural small farmer and a society in a cycle of emptiness and decline Always suspicious of urban inteltec&tals and their tendency to romanticize country fife as part of a nationalist cultural formula, Kavanagh’s poem took bleak irony to new heights. Realistic and implacably honest, The Great Hunger (the name echoes the Irish Famine of the nineteenth century) follows the life of Patrick Maguire from when he is an awkward young man embarrassed by girls and worried by thoughts of sin, through the increasing loneliness and sexual frustration of his adult years, to the hopelessness of his old age Unmarried, childless, Maguire cut a haunting figure at the door of his house The verse envisions him as a ragged sculpture molded by the wind that “Screams the apocalypse of clay/In every corner of this land evoking one of the most memorable poetic images to emerge from Irish writing in this period (Kavanagh, p, 23).

Although the flight from the countryside had been going on for some time, Ireland remained a remarkably rural society. It was hardly though, despite this steadfastness, a confident society. Its steadfastness reflected a deep-seated fear of change and adversity rather than self-confidence in rural values and culture.

Irish rural life was like a raft afloat in the calm after a great storm. The Famine had betrayed so many that the survivor, conscious of the frailty of his craft and of the likelihood of future buffetings, calculated its precise seaworthiness and supported a social order that allowed no significant role in the countryside for those sons and daughters who could neither inherit the land nor make an appropriate marriage. For them emigration was the only possible route to a life without the frustrations and indignities of their position as helpers about the farm they neither owned nor, accidents apart, would ever own.

(Brown, pp. 19-20)

A casualty of this social order was the eldest son, who, designated to inherit the family farm, remained single into his forties and fifties because he had no property of his own as yet; with a father who seemed likely to live a long and healthy life, the son had no place to bring a wife of his own or to raise a family. Patrick Kavanagh’s social-realist epic poem “The Great Hunger” (1942) is the definitive piece of writing that takes as its theme the grim tragedy of penury, loneliness, and sexual frustration that was lurking behind the myths of rural family values and the rugged farming life. The hard reality was that the daughters and the younger sons (Irish families were generally large at this time) would move to the bigger towns, to Dublin or Cork, or across the sea to Britain. Emigration to the United States was an option for those who were more adventurous or had family connections across the Atlantic Ocean. Even young women and men who at first only moved away to go to college, rather than for economic or personal reasons, were unlikely to return except for visits. The continual seepage of young people meant that the chances of marriage in the localities they were leaving were becoming slimmer and slimmer, which encouraged more emigration. As one commentator has put it: “Rural Ireland was filled with broken families, whose fate seemed quite at variance with . a society which constructed itself on the sa-credness of family life” (Kiberd, p. 477).

From country to city

For many, the journey to Cork or Dublin, or further on to Manchester or London, was a journey out of a depressing and restrictive environment—the farm, the village, the remote small town—to lively, exciting urban centers full of people to meet and socialize with at a large selection of locales. As Kate says in The Country Girls when she and Baba arrive in Dublin for the first time: “I knew now that this was the place 1 wanted to be. Forevermore I would be restless for crowds and lights and noise. 1 had gone from the sad noises, the lonely rain pelting on the galvanized roof of the chicken house” (O’Brien, The Country Girls, p. 132). For Kate and hundreds of thousands like her in real life, the city offered not only the bustle and the vitality that they had not known before, but also something almost as important: anonymity. Life in a rural small town could become unbearable precisely because it was almost impossible to maintain anything like a private life, particularly if you were a woman. In the days when, if you had a phone, all calls went via the village postmistress who acted as the exchange, holding a confidential conversation was difficult. Your borrowing record at the local library, the number of visits to the doctor, anything could become an item of local gossip. Despite the welcome anonymity of city life, the confrontation with the urban milieu could also be an unpleasant one. The standard of working-class housing in Dublin was appalling and had been for many decades, despite some limited success with suburban-style developments built by the city as public housing projects. Often young people who came from poor family circumstances in the country were confronted with a disturbingly different and uglier kind of poverty than they had ever known at home. It was one thing to stare admiringly at the solid, upper-middle-class houses in the leafy neighborhoods of Ballsbridge and Drumcondra in Dublin, quite another to see the decaying, crumbling tenements that housed much of the Dublin poor, along with the violence and squalor that haunted their areas.

No matter how fresh and exciting Dublin appeared to the Kates and Babas stepping off the train at one of its main railway terminals, it was still a comparatively non-urban center. The rural structures of Irish society were often surprisingly alive even among streets, stores, and office buildings of the city, as well as in its residential neighborhoods and suburban outskirts. Social conservatism and a prurient curiosity were as well established as in any small town, and municipal politics was orientated around a “client” system of personal favors and backdoor negotiations rather than issues or policies. In dealings with public agencies, personal contact was considered more important than filling out the forms correctly. As in the countryside, the Church exerted a strong influence in Dublin: if anything, the level of religious observance was higher there than in many rural areas. The expansion of the population of the greater Dublin area had been met with a well-planned strategic response on the part of the Catholic Church, whose aggressive church-building and parish-creating program from the late 1940s on resulted in the mass concentrations of people in new suburbs and satellite towns being as close to the Church and its traditional institutions as villagers were. Moreover, labor organizations played only a marginal role in the spectrum of national politics in the mid-twentieth century, which meant that the dominating ideology in both major parties, despite their bitter differences over issues of national destiny, was that of the small storekeeper or the farmer. As for the professional classes, far from being open to talent from all social backgrounds they were small and tended to act as a self-perpetuating elite. Rather than a society on the move, urban Ireland appeared to be as static and as culturally conservative as the countryside from which it drew its burgeoning population.

Dublin at mid-century, then, offered a confusing mixture of the urban experience and the rural sensibility. From a positive standpoint, it was a city with the friendly informality and relaxed atmosphere of a small town; from a negative standpoint, it had all the problems of urban decay with few of the advantages of a developed urban culture. The population was a mixture too, a diverse mixture with subpopulations that expressed certain prejudices. Although living in Dublin and raising families in the growing city, many migrants from rural areas continued to look condescendingly at their urban home and its city-born inhabitants, continuing to hold a sentimental, somewhat unrealistic notion of the qualities of the rural environment they had been so eager to leave. Recruitment policies and unspoken preferences had led to the demographic make-up of the police force and the civil service being distinctly rural in mid-twentieth-century Dublin, creating feelings of distance and alienation between these institutions and native Dubliners. The “hayseed cop” confronting the “sharp-witted slum kid” is a standard motif in Dublin folklore. In sum, despite its population of 500,000 and growing, the Dublin of the early 1950s, to which the novel’s Kate and Baba migrate, was more like the home village than they would probably have cared to admit.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

In a small village in Clare, in the more southerly part of the West of Ireland, two girls are growing up. Caithleen Brady, called Kate, and Bridget Brennan, known as Baba, are friends, but their friendship is distinctly unequal. Baba is confident, cheeky, and clearly the dominant member of the partnership. As the daughter of the local veterinarian, she belongs to a higher social niche in the community than Kate, whose father is an unsuccessful farmer. Kate, who is the first-person narrator of the story, continually portrays herself as less smart, less interesting, and less assured than Baba. Unlike Baba, Kate is indecisive, timid, and likely to defer to Baba’s authority on every occasion. Kate’s mother is the long-suffering wife of a blustering failure given to bouts of uncontrolled drinking. When the girls are 14 years old, at the beginning of The Country Girls, Mrs. Brady drowns in a boating accident. Unable to bear living with her domineering father, Kate spends that summer with the Brennan family; in the fall, Kate leaves for boarding school on a scholarship grant. Baba’s parents, worried about her bad grades and general lack of progress, have decided to send her to the same school. Before leaving, Kate makes a trip into Limerick, the nearest big town, to buy her school uniform. In Limerick she bumps into “Mr. Gentleman,” an older man, half-French, who lives with his wife near Kate’s village. His real name, Monsieur du Maurier, is regarded as exotic and unpronounceable by the local people, who have provided him with a substitute identity, as shown by his nickname. Mr. Gentleman invites Kate to lunch, and she accepts, flattered by his attentions and attracted by the air of culture and wistful charm that he radiates. He drives her back home from Limerick, and they hold hands in the car. Kate’s and Baba’s boarding school is a grim and joyless convent. The food is almost inedible, in the dorms the girls have to undress for bed under their bathrobes, and the atmosphere is one of authoritarian piety. The two girls are at the Catholic boarding school for three years until a wild and obscene prank, organized by Baba, leads to their hoped-for expulsion. Baba writes a pornographic message (involving a priest’s private parts and a nun) on a sheet of paper and cajoles Kate into signing her name to it along with Baba’s. An elderly nun finds the paper. She begins reading it aloud under the impression that it is a prayer, and faints from horror when she realizes what she is reciting. The trick works, and the girls are expelled from the school with the reputation of being evil, despicable creatures. They return home, where Kate is physically attacked by her enraged father in Baba’s house.

Baba convinces her parents to let her move to Dublin to take secretarial classes. Kate decides to go with her and obtains the promise of a job in a store. It is now around the year 1950. Arriving in Dublin one fine spring evening, the young women rent a room together in a north city lodging house run by an Austrian woman, Joanna, whose English (spoken with a German accent) becomes a kind of comic soundtrack as the story progresses. Exhilarated by the freedom of being away from home and school, and by the bustle and energy of the city in contrast to the lonely silences of their rural background, Kate and Baba blossom.

Their personality differences begin to shift the balance of their relationship, with Kate tending more to resist Baba’s browbeating and indomitable cynicism, at least some of the time. Kate’s love for books and reading, always a source of irritation to Baba, becomes an issue when on one occasion Baba begs her furiously, if they are out together on a date, not to keep asking men if they have read James Joyce’s Dubliners as it tends to put them off. Kate does not have Baba’s single-minded energy and commitment when it comes to looking for male company, and so often ends up accompanying Baba to meet people whom Kate does not like and who tend not to like her. After one particularly disastrous evening with two older men, Kate returns home to discover to her joy that Mr. Gentleman has driven up to Dublin to visit her. They spend the night talking in his car and watching the sunrise over Dublin Bay. Mr. Gentleman stays in the city for several weeks and his and Kate’s relationship develops. He becomes the first man to whom she reveals herself naked, although they do not sleep together. Before returning to the West, he invites her to come with him on a trip to Vienna. Kate, who has never traveled outside Ireland, is overwhelmed and delighted. Meanwhile, Baba, who suspects she has tuberculosis, finds it necessary to go into a sanatorium, and Kate is left on her own. On the evening Mr. Gentleman is supposed to take her to the airport, Kate places herself at the agreed-upon meeting place. Expecting to wait a few minutes, she stands for hours as the night life of the city surges around her. Mr. Gentleman never shows up. When she returns to the lodging house, Johanna gives her a telegram from him, in which he explains that both his wife and Kate’s father have found out about their affair, and he had to call the whole thing off. Kate is left with the bleak remains of her romantic illusions.

The price of a good dinner

In one of the final chapters of The Country Girls, Baba and Kate go out on a date with two prosperous businessmen whom Baba has met previously. Harry and Reginald are middle-aged, self-assured and, in Harry’s case, exploiting the opportunities offered by the absence of his wife. Baba’s date, Reginald, is reasonably civil and courteous, but Kate develops her usual antipathy to Harry, her partner for the evening. He is egoistic and pompous, not to mention older than Kate would like; Kate feels uneasy in principle about Baba’s interest in older men. As she says to Baba earlier in the evening: “But we want young men. Romance. Love and things” (Country Girls, p. 145). Baba is convinced that there is no future there: “Young men have no bloody money. At least the gawks we meet . a cup of damp tea in a damp hostel. Then out in the woods after tea and a damp hand fumbling under your skirt. No, sir” (Country Girls, p. 145). The present evening becomes fraught with sexual tension and mismatched expectations. At one point, the four are returning from an expensive meal in an exclusive hotel for which the men have paid:

We drove back just after ten o’clock, and there was a stream of cars coming from the opposite direction.

“Sit close to me, will you?” Harry said in an exasperated way. As if I ought to know the price of a good dinner.

(Country Girls, p. 152).

Harry drives them to his house, where Reginald and Baba disappear for a time, leaving Kate and Harry alone. Harry makes sexual advances to Kate who repels him forcibly. His response to Kate’s protests is “Why in God’s name did you come, then?” Eventually, he drives the two women back home, Reginald having drifted off to sleep. It’s not quite clear whether or not Baba and Reginald have actually slept together or not. Baba claims that Reginald is not married, but Kate does not quite believe it.

Kate’s visceral dislike of the date at the house and the evasiveness of Baba regarding the nature of her relationship with Reginald reflect the pressures and double standards that young single women had to negotiate in the particular atmosphere of that period in modern Irish history. The deeply Catholic stamp on the society’s moral guidelines meant that an intense hypocrisy was often the norm when socializing with the opposite sex. Reginald and Harry are obviously respectable men in the usual sense of the term—upright citizens and prosperous members of the community. They use their money to attract women as men with their resources might do anywhere else. The difference is that the reigning social ideology in Ireland at the time denied that any such thing happened. Even if a married


At the conclusion of The Country Girls, Baba has to go away o a sanatorium for suspected tuberculosis OB). The threat of TB was one of the major unsolved health and social problems haunting Ireland at mid-century. The TB statistics were dismaying—a fatality rate of well over one in 1,000 Irish in 1950, including many young people.

Family members who contracted TB were often kept isolated at home. There were extremely limited in-patient medical facilities available, even in Dublin, leaving parents with one sick child torn between wanting to care for him or her and to keep the infection away from the rest of the family. In 1448 De Valera’s government was defeated at the polls for the first time in 16 years. The new government was an unstable coalition in which a small, left-orientated party held the reins of power. With these changes came a desire for reform A young doctor named Noel Browne ran for election, won a seat, and was appointed Minister of Health and Social Welfare. Browne had seen three members of his family die of tuberculosis and was passionately convinced that the problem needed to be tackled immediately and aggressively. Facing a conservative government bureaucracy and a suspicious Irish Medical Association, Browne managed nonetheless to put involved radical inbitions, targeted health services plan that involved radical increases in the number of sanatorium available throughout the country, use of the new BCC vaccination, and the drug streptomycin. Trying something that no government official had ever attempted, he tapped into the assets of the Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes (a kind of national lottery), using them to raise further independent funding for his project Although the coalition government lasted less than two years, collapsing after a controversy over universal health care, Browne’s contribution to defeating the threat of TB In Ireland has become part of the nation’s political folklore From a death toll of 3,103 in 1948, deaths from tuberculosis fell to 432 in 19&1 (Coogan, p. 648), Browne would be elected to parliament many times over the next 35 years but never again occupy a government office. His combination of organizational energy and moral passion, how ever, left an indelible mark on Irish society.

man took advantage of his wife’s brief absence to go out on the town, trawl the bars, and find a woman, the national pretense was that such things only went on abroad, say in London or Paris, never in Dublin. Pregnancy resulting from such a liaison was a horrific prospect: a woman had little recourse when faced with a social structure that protected the established family and the husband against all accusations. To be an unmarried mother was simply impossible. Contraception was generally unavailable. Termination meant an expensive back street abortion, probably in England. Even having a child out of wedlock and giving it up for adoption, an option administered entirely by the Catholic Church, meant a humiliating procedure involving several months in a convent, where one lived in an atmosphere of moral censure and authoritarian discipline.

Despite all this, Kate is not so much under the pressure of Catholic moral teaching as disgusted, in an instinctive way, by the limited and degrading nature of what constitutes relations between the sexes in the Dublin scene. It was assumed that the man would pay for dinner and entertainment and, depending upon personality and expectation, some kind of sexual activity was seen as the legitimate compensation for that expenditure. She senses that this is wrong, that this cannot be all there is, but is confused by Baba who operates confidently on precisely that principle. Balancing the different demands of a guilt-inducing Catholic upbringing against normal desires for a social life as well as for love and intimacy was a subtle juggling act for women in Ireland, and Kate is not unusual in feeling each one of these elements tugging at her at different times, or even the same time. As De-clan Kiberd points out, Kate and Baba are “believable, fallible, flesh-and-blood women, neither paragons nor caricatures” (Kiberd, p. 566). Edna O’Brien’s achievement was, in many ways, to open up the unspoken dimensions of Irish women’s lives with both a sense of their everyday frustrations and an ear for the satirical and anarchic backchat that young women engage in when alone with each other and away from the public eye.

Literary context

The first person narration and the theme of The Country Girls would suggest some autobiographical influence from the writer’s own history. The apparently casual and informal style in which Kate tells her story, however, giving the impression of a close connection between author and narrator, is also doing some-thing unusual, even risky. It was not only the presence of sexual plot elements that caused the book to be banned, or what was perceived as the anti-Catholic polemic of The Country Girls’, it was also the comic grotesquerie and “vulgar” detail that got O’Brien into trouble.

The brassiere I bought was cheap. Baba said that once brassieres were washed they lost their elasticity, so we might as well buy cheap ones and wear them until they got dirty. We threw the dirty ones in the dustbin, but later we found that Joanna [the landlady] brought them back in and washed them.

“Christ, she’ll resell them to us,” Baba said, and bet me sixpence.

(Country Girls, p. 141)

O’Brien’s willingness to casually mention what young ladies just did not talk about in public—underwear is a good example—gives her novel a ribald energy that it would not have had if it had been more “serious” in its approach. Whereas other novels employed a demure vagueness about the nitty-gritty of everyday life, hers favored a brazen frankness.

The Country Girls is clearly a comic novel in some respects, but not in others. The characters in Kate’s village, such as Baba’s unstable mother leave little room for humor. What results from this mix of tone is an unashamedly realistic, female coming-of-age story that challenges the large number of male-centered narratives, by Irish and British writers, in this vein (for example, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, and Brian Moore’s The Emperor of Ice Cream). The specific references to Joyce’s Dubliners in Edna O’Brien’s novel point to a conscious attempt to appropriate some of the narrative elements and the psychological intensity of the Dubliners stories and use them for different purposes. As one critic has put it, O’Brien’s commitment to a realistic rather than a fantastic or whimsical style leads her to imitate the “tart, desperate comedy” of Dubliners (Gillespie, p. 111). The Country Girls and its sequel, The Lonely Girl, could be regarded also as Kate’s account of how she came to understand the progress of her life. Several years after her first novels appeared, Edna O’Brien published a short quasi-autobiography, accompanied by photos of Irish life and landscapes, called Mother Ireland. The text consisted of a number of lyrical prose chapters, one of which was entitled “The Books We Read.” Here, she describes her childhood reading fantasies bumping up against the cold fabric of rural existence. After drifting off into a reverie stimulated by the tear-jerking melodrama of East Lynne, an immensely popular nineteenth century romantic novel, O’Brien describes waking up to her surroundings:

Nothing could be further from reality. The topped egg had gone cold in its cup. There was scum on the cocoa, a voice was saying, “Have you done your exercise” or “Get that table cleaned.” Outside it was growing dark. The cows were already milked, there was half a candle left which you were enjoined to spare.

(O’Brien, Mother Ireland, p. 81)

Kate in The Country Girls seems to embody something of this willingness—which Baba never suffers from—to let the dream take over, to retreat from life into fiction. Her readiness to accept Mr. Gentleman’s offer when he invites her on the trip to the Continent is rooted in her tendency to want more than she sees, to search beyond the everyday routine of work in the grocery store and nights spent at the dance-hall. This dimension of The Country Girls is continually undermined, however, by the situation comedy of life in the lodging house with Joanna and her husband Gustav. As Michael Gillespie has suggested, “a both/and incorporating impulse rather than an either or exclusivity stands as the feature distinguishing O’Brien’s humor from that of most Irish male writers” (Gillespie, p. 109).

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

From silence to talk show

On a dark January evening in 1962, roughly a year after The Country Girls was released, the small number of Irish households that possessed television sets stared at their screens. A flickering Saint Bridget’s Cross, the Celtic logo designed for RTE, the national broadcasting service, appeared. The bells of the Angelus, the prayer at 6 A.M. and 6 P.M., in Catholic churches sounded out. The announcer came on, and the Irish television age was born. The first transmission was a Mass to celebrate the event. The arrival of the national television service combined elements that symbolized its role and personality in the years to come. It would make its gestures toward the Catholic ethos of the nation, but it would change Irish society radically. As the number of households with television sets in both rural and urban areas climbed higher and higher, regional news broadcasts and documentary films brought a searching light into the dim corners of Irish life, and a late-night talk show, called The Late Late Show, began to open up public debate among Irish people in ways that would have been simply inconceivable only a few short years earlier. Hosted by Gay Byrne, The Late Late Show tackled women’s liberation, censorship of movies and books, education, health and sexuality, and so on. The invited guests argued passionately about things that had, for generations, existed under a cloak of peasant silence.

This new cultural atmosphere went hand-in-hand with the economic renewal of the country. In 1958 Eamon De Valera left office after decades in power (1932-58). Grim stagnation gave way to innovative thinking. The new Prime Minister, Sean Lemass, working with the budgetary policy expert and senior advisor T. K. Whitaker, turned around two generations of economic conservatism and protectionism. Lemass opened up the country to foreign investment and industrial expansion, and the results were extraordinary. Ireland quickly became one of the most profitable industrial locations in Europe. This altered the character of the Irish economy and had the effect of slowing down but not stopping, emigration, and also spurred the rise of a modern consumer society in Ireland. Even though many had reservations about the effects on religious faith and others questioned the sustainability of this economic boom—which was not all upward—nobody could deny that a new energy, a new optimism, and a feeling that it was indeed possible to improve life were defining elements of this period.

A number of what had seemed unshakeable cornerstones of Irish society began to vibrate and crumble. One of them was the tendency of the broad majority of Irish women to maintain a decorous silence in public life, unless they were addressing safe issues where no suspicion of “un-feminine” behavior could arise. But, despite the memorable contributions made by women like Lady Augusta Gregory, Constance Markievicz, and Hannah Sheey-Skeffington during the struggle for national independence, women’s voices were not particularly welcome in Irish public life. Female candidates were rarely nominated to stand for election to local councils or the national parliament, except in rare cases where they were the widows of recently deceased public representatives. In the more revolutionary 1920s there had been attempts to increase the number of women in the Dail political party, but these had foundered upon women voters’ disinclination to vote for their own sex. Female government employees had to retire upon getting married, with the convenient result that the senior ranks of the civil service were entirely male. These inequitable conditions began now to change.


The more dramatic tale of how Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls was received revolves around its banning by the Censorship of Publications Board for indecency. Beyond this, the novel received some very positive reviews, mostly in Britain and the United States. In the New Statesman V. S. Naipaul praised The Country Girls as “A first novel of great charm by a natural writer,” going on to describe it as “so completely, so truly realized in the writer’s mind that everything that comes out has a quality of life which no artifice could achieve.” Patricia Mac-Manus in the New York Herald Tribune commented that it “combines a guileless wit and crisp directness with a certain innocent earthiness.”

In Ireland, neither the quality of the writing nor the “innocent earthiness” of the story impressed those who saw Edna O’Brien as just the latest in a long line of disrespectful writers purveying filth. The Censorship of Publications Board banned The Country Girls from sale or distribution in the Republic of Ireland on June 21, 1960. Two points are useful to bear in mind in relation to censorship of books in Ireland: one is that the censorship laws were supported by the majority of the population; they were not the arbitrary action of some political elite opposed by the rest of the nation. Secondly, Ireland did not operate like a police state, so the ability to bring a banned book into the country from abroad depended entirely on whether the customs officials at the airport or the harbor were going to search your luggage and, if they did, if they were interested in what you were reading. If the banned books were not found or confiscated at the port of entry, they could sit openly on your bookshelf at home and circulate among your friends. This meant that many educated people who were interested in modern Irish writing could read O’Brien’s works and others that had been banned.

In 1967 the censorship law would be radically reformed, providing for the automatic lapsing of banning orders 12 years after they had been issued and an efficient appeals system for authors and publishers who felt that their books had been unjustly censored. In effect, this meant that censorship of publications in Ireland, as far as fiction was concerned, would practically cease to exist. Importation of journals and magazines was still strictly controlled, however. A couple years earlier, in 1965, an Irish glossy magazine had arranged a semiprivate deal with the government minister to whom the Censorship Board reported to publish The Country Girls in serial form; this seems to have been the only time that such an application was made to republish, rather than import for sale, a work under a banning order. Over the following few years after the new legislation was passed, The Country Girls and Edna O’Brien’s other early novels—as well as those of censored colleagues—gradually appeared on bookstore and library shelves, securing their place in modern Irish writing.

—Martin Griffin

For More Information

Adams, Michael. Censorship: The Irish Experience. University, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1968.

Brown, Terence, Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922 to the Present. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Coogan, Tim Pat. De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow. London: Arrow Books/Random House, 1993.

Gillespie, Michael Patrick. (S)he Was Too Scrupulous Always: Edna O’Brien and the Comic Tradition.” In The Comic Tradition in Irish Women Writers. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.

Hargreaves, Tamsin. “Women’s Consciousness and Identity in Four Irish Women Novelists.” In Cultural Contexts and Literary Idioms in Contemporary Irish Literature. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1988.

Kavanagh, Patrick. The Great Hunger. London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1966.

Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation. London: Vintage/Random House, 1996.

Lee, J. J. Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

MacManus, Patricia. Review of The Country Girk, by Edna O’Brien. New York Herald Tribune, 10 April 1960, 8.

Naipaul, V. S. Review of The Country Girls, by Edna O’Brien. New Statesman 60 (16 July 1960):97.

O’Brien, Edna. The Country Girls. In The Country Girls Trilogy. New York: Plume/Penguin, 1987.

____.Mother Ireland. Photographs by Fergus Bourke. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

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