Edna O’Brien
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Literary Arts

Edna O’Brien

Past Event: Tuesday, November 27, 2001

At Benaroya Hall — S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium

Sponsored by Stoel Rives, LLP.

Lauded by Philip Roth as “the most gifted woman now writing in English,” Edna O’Brien is the author of eleven novels, as well as numerous collections of stories, plays, nonfiction, and biography. She burst onto the literary scene in the early 1960s with her novel The Country Girls. Because of the sexual content of the story, The Country Girls, and six of the author’s subsequent works, were banned in Ireland. Her parents, who were deeply ashamed of the book, were vilified by their neighbors and O’Brien became a national target for resentment. However, The Country Girls met with immense success in other parts of the world, propelling O’Brien into a realm of literary notoriety and success.

O’Brien was born in Tuamgraney, County Clare, in the west of Ireland, and as a young woman, she worked as a pharmacist and spent time in both London and Dublin. But after the publication of The Country Girls Trilogy, she left Ireland for good and settled in London. When asked why so many writers leave Ireland, she responded, “I left Ireland because my first books were banned, I was frightened; and the climate of censorship was strangulating. But although you physically leave the country, mentally you bring it with you.”

Much of O’Brien’s work is autobiographical: “A writer’s journey is a graph,” O’Brien told the Atlantic Monthly, “I started with things I knew—convent girls, family, etc.—but as I became a little more confident I applied myself to venturing into the outer world and, I hope, integrating it with a corresponding inner world.” O’Brien’s later work deals with a wider range of social and political issues. In Wild Decembers (2000), O’Brien wrote about a conflict over land ownership and its ramifications on a family and a community. This book followed House of Splendid Isolation (1994), set amidst IRA struggles, and Down by the River (1997), concerning Ireland’s famous “X” trial and the issue of abortion. Although O’Brien writes about difficult aspects of an often repressive society, the beauty, humor, and melancholy of her native country still resound in her writing.

O’Brien is the recipient of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. Her work appears regularly in The New Yorker. She has lived in London for the past forty years.

Excerpt from Wild Decembers (2000)Josephine’s hair salon remains open all the year, and she prides herself on the fact that she does not just pander to summer visitors who breeze in, sit outside the hotel eating their toasted sandwiches and taking photographs.

The salon is half a terraced cottage with a concrete back yard for a coal shed and in the front window a placard of a brunette and a sample folder of nylon hairs, little switches, ranging in colour from ash blond to jet black. In that small linoleumed room with its smell of ammonia and hairspray everything gets told. Josephine is the first to know who is pregnant or who has miscarried, the first to ferret out secrets too terrible to tell. Lovers are her speciality, clandestine lovers meeting in their cars. Of Josephine, people say, “She would go down in your stomach for news.” Yet they confide in her because they cannot help it. Something in her invites it, her motherly way, her soft stout arms with the healthy growth of black under the arm pits, and her thin lips permanently open, as if she is drinking her listeners in. Her particular forte is that she always agrees, never contradicts, always says, “That’s right . . . That’s right,” regardless of what she is thinking inside.

“I love when it’s just us,” Lady Harkness says. She says it faithfully each week as she rubs her hands to show off her bracelets, the envy of all, even Josephine, who jokes and says, “You’ll leave me them in your will.” Sometimes she even gives them a little kiss. Lady Harkness comes only on Thursdays to avoid the Bolshies, and usually there is that nice girl Fiona, who has just got engaged and has wedding jitters.

As Josephine looks up and sees Breege peering through the window, she winks and says, “I’d love to get my hands on that head of hair.”

Lady Harkness, although set and ready to bake under the drier, is reluctant to go because of the wonderful tips Josephine is relating about weddings. They are from a special issue of a magazine for brides — Bridal Clothing, the Bridal Beauty Box, the Bridal Secrets, and the Bridal Wedding Stationery. She reads excitedly: “The latest trend is not to insist on a June wedding at all, as hotels, not to mention friends, will be already chock-a-block. Move from the traditional June date and the traditional white dress to something more eccentric. Become a trend-setter.”

“No white dress,” Lady Harkness says aghast, and shrieks as Josephine spells out the alternative: “ice-blue satin hot pants.”

Selected WorkWild Decembers (2000)James Joyce (1999)Down by the River (1997)House of Splendid Isolation (1994)Time and Tide (1992)Lantern Slides (1990)The High Road (1988)The Lonely Girl (1988)Girls in Their Married Bliss (1987)The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue (1986)A Fanatic Heart (1984)James and Nora (1981)Virginia (1981)Some Irish Loving (1979)I Hardly Knew You (1978)Arabian Days (1977)Mother Ireland (1976)Girls with the Green Eyes (1964)

LinksIreland Now: The Literature of Edna O’BrienSalon.com LitChat with Edna O’Brien (1999)Books & Writers bio of Edna O’BrienNew York Times book review of Down by the River

Event Details

Benaroya Hall — S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium

200 University Street
Seattle, WA 98101

View directions.

Transportation & Parking

This event will be held in the S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, the largest event space at Benaroya Hall. 

Benaroya Hall is located at 200 University Street, directly across Second Avenue from the Seattle Art Museum. The public entrance to Benaroya Hall is along Third Avenue.

By Car

  • From Southbound I-5
    Take the Union Street exit (#165B). Continue onto Union Street and proceed approximately five blocks to Second Avenue. Turn left onto Second Avenue. The Benaroya Hall parking garage will be on your immediate left. The garage entrance is on Second Avenue, just south of Union Street.
  • From Northbound I-5
    Exit left onto Seneca Street (exit #165). Proceed two blocks and turn right onto Fourth Avenue. Continue two blocks. Turn left onto Union Street. Continue two blocks. Turn left onto Second Avenue. The Benaroya Hall parking garage will be on your immediate left. The garage entrance is on Second Avenue, just south of Union Street.
  • From Northbound I-5 via Westbound I-90
    Take the 2C exit for I-5 North. Follow signs for Madison Street/Convention Place and merge right onto Seventh Avenue. Turn left onto Madison Street. Proceed three blocks and turn right onto Fourth Avenue. Continue four blocks. Turn left onto Union Street. Continue two blocks. Turn left onto Second Avenue. The Benaroya Hall parking garage will be on your immediate left. The garage entrance is on Second Avenue, just south of Union Street.

By Public Transit (Bus & Light Rail)

Benaroya Hall is served by numerous bus routes. Digital reader boards along Third Avenue display real-time bus arrival information. For details and trip planning tools, call Metro Rider Information at 206.553.3000 (voice) or 206.684.1739 (TDD), or visit Metro online. The Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, served by light rail, has a stop just below the Hall (University Street Station).


The 430-car underground garage at Benaroya Hall provides direct access from the enclosed parking area into the Hall via elevators leading to The Boeing Company Gallery. Enter the garage on Second Avenue, just south of Union Street. Maximum vehicle height is 6’8″. ChargePoint charging stations are available for electric vehicles. Visit the Benaroya Hall website for event pricing.

Parking is also available at:

  • The Cobb Building (enter on University Street between Third and Fourth avenues).
  • The Russell Investments Center (enter on Union Street between First and Second avenues).
  • There are many other garages within a one-block radius of Benaroya Hall, along with numerous on-street parking options.


Open Captioning is an option for people who have hearing loss, where a captioning screen displaying the words that are spoken or sung is placed on stage. This option is present at every event at Benaroya Hall in our 2021/22 Season.

Closed Captioning is an option for people who have hearing loss, where captioning displays the words that are spoken or sung at the bottom of the video during an online event. Captioning is available for all online events; click the “CC” button to view captions during the event.

Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs) are devices that people with hearing loss use in conjunction with their hearing device (hearing aids or cochlear implants). Benaroya Hall has an infrared hearing system, which transmits sound by light beams. Headsets are available in The Boeing Company Gallery coat check and the Head Usher stations in both lobbies.

Sign Language Interpretation is available upon request for Deaf, DeafBlind, and hard of hearing individuals for both in-person and online events. To make a request for interpretation, please contact us at boxoffice@lectures.org or 206.621.2230×10, or select “Sign Language Interpretation” from the Accessibility section during your ticket checkout process and we will contact you to confirm details. Please note: we appreciate a two-week advance notice to allow us time to secure interpretation.

Wheelchair Accessible Seating and Accessible Restrooms are available in all sections at our venues, and our venues are fully accessible to ticket holders with physical mobility concerns. Among other features, Benaroya Hall has designated parking spaces adjacent to elevators in their parking garage. Elevators with Braille signage go to all levels within the Hall. To reserve seating for a specific mobility concern, you may select “Wheelchair Accessible or Alternative Seating Options” during ticket checkout, and we will contact you to confirm details. For more details on their accessibility features, click here.

Guide and service dogs are welcome.

Gender neutral restrooms are available.

We are pleased to offer these accessibility services at our venues, and they are provided at no additional cost to ticket holders. Please contact us with any questions and feedback about how we can be more accessible and inclusive. Our Patron Services Manager is available at boxoffice@lectures.org, or Monday-Friday from 10:00am – 5:00pm at 206.621.2230×10.

For more accessibility information, please head to lectures.org/accessibility. If you would like to make accessibility arrangements you do not see listed here, please contact our box office or select “Other Accommodations” from the Accessibility section during your ticket checkout process, and we will contact you to confirm details.