Saturday 17 August 2019

Gerard O'Regan: 'The past is a different country - Ireland has belief to stand up for itself now'

Edna O'Brien
Edna O'Brien

Gerard O'Regan

She remains our original girl with green eyes. Our red-haired story-teller has pushed and probed for so long, prodding Mother Ireland to better know itself. She speaks in familiar hushed tones, her voice an unlikely marriage of Co Clare vowels mixed with the intonations of a lifetime lived in the London suburbs.

Edna O'Brien was the subject of yet another television profile in a prestigious BBC series this week. It's a long, long time since her first novel, 'The Country Girls', was infamously banned - and reportedly burned - by our thought controllers way back when.

Now in her 80s, she has rightfully assumed the status of a national treasure. In a sense it seems Edna O'Brien has been around almost forever. Feted on many fronts here in Ireland, this literary exile has been assured over and over that the zealousness of our one-time censors should be a thing of distant memory.

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Her status as a writer is assured. So much has levelled out with the passage of half a century. O'Brien's musings in 'The Country Girls', which roused the ire of the Censorship Board in the 1960s, seem so harmless and innocent in a more knowing and hard-bitten era.

Yet the BBC profile was tediously clichéd. The programme could not bring itself to give even the slightest nod to a country which has metamorphosed itself in the space of a few decades.

And for her part, Edna would have us wallowing forever in images such as rain-sodden farmers mournfully flogging cattle at a local mart. They would then adjourn to the local pub while women and children hovered fretfully in the background of their lives. All around were black and white scenes of defeat and poverty; a gloom-filled Catholic Church ensured joylessness would permeate all.

All in all, the programme was time-warp stuff. There surely comes a moment when we can stop beating ourselves up about the way things used to be. In a country sometimes over-obsessed with the shortcomings of another era, the dizzying possibilities of the here and now must also be embraced.

The interminable Brexit debate is a classic case in point. At times there has been a sense of self-abasement and self-loathing in the air. Yet a core reality should supersede all other considerations in what cannot be other than a high-wire act for all concerned. The stance taken by this country on the backstop issue is fair, reasonable and justified. It is about protecting a peace process fraught with a centuries-old legacy of sectarian hate.

Of course the Irish authorities are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea should the UK leave the EU and draw up the drawbridge behind them.

But there are consoling straws in the wind if the worst comes to the worst. The Irish economy is arguably operating at a higher level than at any time in its history. This will be a huge help in withstanding the tremors of a sudden-death UK departure.

Other less tangible threads are in our favour should doomsday arrive. Most of all there is an assurance and self-confidence in Irish life which would have been unimaginable even a few years ago.

Returning to the time of 'The Country Girls' can send a shiver down the spine. We were so insular and so afraid to engage with the wider world.

The opposite is currently the case. Europe and the EU are entrenched in the Irish psyche as part of a deeper destiny. The bonds with our nearest neighbour will endure regardless of what happens. But the relationship between this country and the UK is now one of equals.

Self-belief is the primary reason why Ireland Inc has been able to hold the line on Brexit.

"Sometimes one word can recall a whole span of life," wrote Edna O'Brien. A word for this particular epoch is surely that unlikely term - backstop.

The girl with green eyes chronicled an era when - if given the situation in which Ireland now finds itself - we would not have had the nerve to see things through. Brexit and the backstop are part of a white-knuckle ride - but the signs are that, this time round, we've got the gumption to stay the course.

Irish Independent

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