Celtic Junction Arts Review

Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy: In The Irish Comic Tradition

Mary McCormick and Patrick O’Donnell

"The Country Girls" book cover image

The Country Girls, published in 1960 by a young Irish woman barely thirty, was later deemed the quintessential tale of Irish girlhood, after much vilification of the book and author in Ireland for its skewering of the then hidebound, misogynistic society.

Edna O’Brien followed up swiftly with The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964), which followed the adventures of the country girl Kate and her best friend Baba into singlehood in Dublin and their ill-fated marriages.  The three novellas together are referred to as The Country Girls Trilogy.

While working as a single young woman in Dublin, O’Brien bought a secondhand copy of Introducing James Joyce, with an introduction by T.S. Eliot.  She read it and re-read it, and copied out Joyce’s sentences.  He became a major influence.

Ernest Gebler, portion of a book cover by Carlos Gebler
Ernest Gebler, husband of Edna O’Brien

The novellas are semi-autobiographical.  O’Brien herself grew up on a farm in County Clare. Her alcoholic father drank away the farm and the family’s money.  Her ambition to write was scorned by her husband, Ernest Gebler, an older screenplay writer and documentary filmmaker.

Caithleen (Kate), the artless, naïve narrator in the first two books, dreams of romance and ideal love.  The first book opens with her waking up, anxious and fearful because her alcoholic father has not come home.  A twentieth century Madame Bovary, Kate gorges on F. Scott Fitzgerald novels, which, in the end, is not the best preparation for real life.

Caithleen and Baba as portrayed in a production of The Country Girls.
Kate (Grace Molony) and Baba (Genevieve Hulme-Beaman) from the 2017 Minerva Theatre production of The Country Girls

Kate has a foil in her best friend Baba, who is earthy, direct and manipulative (also hilarious). At the end of The Country Girls, Kate and Baba endure the strictures of the nuns at a Catholic boarding school.  Kate skewers ridiculous aspects of their situation with observant satire.  Baba engineers their prison break.  She gets them both expelled by creating a minor sex scandal.

James Joyce in 1915
James Joyce by Alex Ehrenzweig, 1915.
Public Domain, Link

O’Brien fully imbibed Joyce’s irreverence.  In his collection Dubliners (1914), he remorselessly excoriated the paralysis of colonial Dublin, foreshadowing O’Brien’s savaging of Catholic rural Ireland in the 1950s.  Joyce’s clear-eyed ironic detachment is mercilessly evident in the grotesque Don Juan figure of Corley in Joyce’s story “Two Gallants”: “His head was large, globular and oily, it sweated in all weathers and his large round hat, set upon it sideways, looked like a bulb which had grown out of another.”

Another parallel: Joyce created an alter ego of his youthful brooding self in the character of Stephen Dedalus in the partly autobiographical works A Portrait of the Artist (1916) and Ulysses (1922).  O’Brien adopted the alter ego of Caithleen, echoing the personification of Ireland in W.B. Yeats’s play, Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), in which Ireland becomes a vision of “a young girl, and she had the walk of a queen.”  Kate’s childhood friend Jack is full of quotes from Ireland’s bardic tradition.  He espouses a mundane but sincere Yeatsian cultural nationalism: “You know many Irish people are royalty and unaware of it. There are kings and queens walking the roads of Ireland, riding bicycles, imbibing tea, plowing the humble earth, totally unaware of their great heredity. Your mother, now, has the walk of a queen.”  If Kate is the latest incarnation of the spirit of the nation, she treats its repressions and taboos with a pervasive Joyce-imitating satiric wit and irony.

The clearest debt to Joyce is arguably the character of Baba.  She is like a younger updated 1950s version of the hilariously sensual and irrepressible Molly Bloom from Ulysses, only in O’Brien’s trilogy she is not confined to her bedroom in 7 Eccles Street, but is defiantly trying to live a larger life in the world.

Heavy repression by the Catholic Church in Ireland, supported by the nationalist government, formed Irish society in O’Brien’s early years. Such repression depended on the disenfranchisement of Irish women.  This makes for a broad target for O’Brien’s wit and satire.

Humor in The Country Girls is deeply rooted in the history and culture of Ireland.  Professor Vivian Mercier, in his classic study, The Irish Comic Tradition (1962) traced the origins and types of Irish humor.  The Irish comic tradition moved through an evolutionary process from a simple relish in absurdity, the macabre and the grotesque, into more complex forms of irony, wit, and paradox culminating in satire and parody.

This comic process evolved from a primitive humor employing strategies of lies, irrationality, and exaggeration to a more complex form of wit relying on paradox, in which the true and the absurd are juxtaposed, as in Oscar Wilde’s epigrams.  The next evolutionary stage is satire dependent on irony, such as the outrageous cannibalism of babies in Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.  The process culminates in parody.

Mercier traced the tradition’s origins across thousands of years to the verbal magic of pre-literate Druids in a culture that valued dexterous and agile speech rooted in trained memory. From Old Irish, it evolved into an English language literature pigmented with Irish language idioms that has commanded the world’s attention in authors as varied as Sean O’Casey, James Joyce, John Millington Synge, Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett.

These evolutionary stages reflect an Irish investment in learning literary technique and simultaneously the subversion of that very craft of literary technique.  A good example of this subversion is the “Cyclops” episode in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922), where parodies of the rhetoric of cultural nationalism ascend to peaks of hyperbole.

The thread that holds all of these various stages of the comic into a continuity is an archaic irreverent play-spirit.  Mercier insisted that “contact with the play-spirit of an archaic civilization has enabled it [Irish literature in English] to play with words, with ideas, with taboos, in a mood of abandon which has won the fascinated if somewhat apprehensive admiration of most of the literate world.”

Edna O’Brien by photographer James Davies (Literature Wales) in 2013. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Edna O’Brien inherited this tradition, and certainly broke taboos in a mood of abandon.  She used wit and satire as a form of proto-feminist aggression against the prevailing patriarchal order.

O’Brien plays with words.  Her writing style is simple, unaffected and direct.  She has an exquisite eye for tiny, telling details of setting, character, and especially inner monologue, which make her stories vibrate with life.

From The Country Girls:

[Kate’s father lights two cigarettes, gives one to Baba’s father, ignoring Martha, Baba’s mother.] 

Martha lit one of her own, out of spite.  My father neglected her.  He had no interest in women.

“And you, mam?” my father asked Martha.  She hated being called “mam.”  It was aging.”  

From The Lonely Girl:

[Kate and Baba buy tickets to a fancy dance, and are escorted by Baba’s rude friend called The Body, who drives a smelly van.  They all get drunk at the dance.  Afterward, the girls bring The Body home since he’s too drunk to drive, and put him on the drawing room sofa of their rooming house, presided over by an older Austrian woman named Joanna.  Early the next morning, they are awakened by The Body shouting, still drunk, looking for the Gents.]

We both ran out to the landing to shut him up, but Joanna had got there before us. 

“Jesus meets his afflicted mother,” the Body said as Joanna came down the stairs toward him in her big red nightgown, with her gray hair in a plait down her back.

“Jesus falls the first time,” the Body chanted as he tripped on a tear in the brown linoleum.

Baba stuffed the white towel over his mouth to shut him up, and through it he murmured, “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus…”

Irreverent play-spirit, indeed.

Mary McCormick continues to share her passion for literature in the Fall 2021 class, Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth. You can take Mary’s online class through CJAC’s Irish College of Minnesota on Thursdays 8- 9:15 pm. September 30 through October 21.