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From pharmacist to feted novelist

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Edna O’Brien, the award-winning and controversial Irish novelist, now aged 80, practised briefly as a pharmacist in Dublin, although her spell in the dispensary appears to have had little influence on the content of her work. Her novels revolve around the inner feelings of women, and their frank views on sex and religion led to many of them being banned in Ireland.

O’Brien was born in 1930 in Tuamgraney in County Clare, to parents opposed to the concept of literature. To please her parents she got a job in a pharmacy in Dublin and studied at the city’s pharmaceutical college at night. She qualified as a pharmacist in 1950.

It was in the pharmacy that she met her husband to be, novelist Ernest Gébler. They married 1954 and moved to London. This appears to be the end of her career, and interest, in pharmacy.

In 1960, O’Brien published her first book, ‘The country girls’, the first part of a trilogy. Soon after publication these books were banned in Ireland, and in some cases burnt, because of the frank portrayals of the sex lives of their characters.

The novelist’s life has perhaps been all the richer and more varied for leaving pharmacy behind. In the 1960s, for example, she was a patient of

R. D. Laing, the famous but controversial psychiatrist. She was also friends with the novelist J. D. Salinger before he became a recluse.

She has also written on Irish politics, and two prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, have invited her to 10 Downing Street to discuss her views.

Edna O’Brien has won the European Prize for Literature and the Los Angeles Times book prize. She is adjunct professor of English at University College Dublin. Her 21st work of fiction, a collection of short stories called ‘Saints and sinners’, was published in February.

 

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