Born in Tuamgraney, Ireland, on December 15, 1932, Edna O’Brien entered a world that would not only profoundly influence her development but also provide an imaginative resource for her fiction. The fifth child of Michael and Lena O’Brien, Edna was introduced to the life that was predetermined for Irish young girls in the 1930s. Speaking about her mother, O’Brien foreshadows the heroine of many of her stories: “I think my mother was exhausted, spent. She was a woman of considerable ambition, which she hadn’t realized” (McQuade, p. 48). O’Brien attended the National School of Scariff from 1936 to 1941 and then the Convent of Mercy in Loughrea. Her memories of the convent life are vividly portrayed in her memoir, Mother Ireland (1976), where she documents the conflicts between the rigidity of the religious system and the natural enthusiasm of the young women. Escaping from the parochialism of small-town existence, O’Brien traveled to Dublin in 1946 to work in a chemist’s shop and study at the Pharmaceutical College of Ireland at night. Living in Dublin transformed her life. Once she had broken the bonds of place and experienced the freedom of discovery, her natural gifts as a writer began to emerge.
O’Brien is often asked what prompted her transformation from student to writer. She eagerly retells the story: “The first book I ever bought—I’ve still got it—was called Introducing James Joyce by T. S. Eliot…. Reading that book made me realize that I wanted literature for the rest of my life” (Guppy, “The Art of Fiction,” p. 29). Joyce has been and continues to be a powerful influence on O’Brien. Besides writing a memoir of Joyce entitled James and Nora: A Portrait of a Marriage in 1981, her most recent analysis of Joyce, entitled simply James Joyce, was published in 1999. Joyce provided O’Brien with the perspective of a Catholic in Ireland. However, while Joyce captured the male reaction to Catholicism, O’Brien revealed the feminine confrontation with the patriarchal Church.