Earlier this year I wrote about discovering the novelist Edna O’Brien’s brief memoir, Mother Ireland, which she wrote in the 1970s. I was especially taken by her description of rushing off as a young woman to Dublin’s Croke Park stadium, “rain, hail or snow,” to watch games of Irish hurling. For the uninitiated, hurling—which is Ireland’s national sport—combines elements of soccer, lacrosse, and rugby. “We would always arrive hours early and already out of breath at the anticipation of the game, of watching various heroes slithering around scoring points or goals, even sometimes getting livid with each other on the pitch and resorting to fists,” she wrote. “The pleasure was something not far removed from physical ecstasy.”
In the October 14 New Yorker, Ian Parker has a long profile of O’Brien, whose early books were banned in Ireland for their sexual candor and criticism of Irish culture, and who is still writing at eighty-eight. Born into rural and humble circumstances in the west of Ireland, she became something of a literary celebrity in London, famous or notorious for her beauty, parties, and romances in the 1960s and ’70s. Winningly, at least to me, she still appears to be an avid sports fan. “Her ideal TV viewing is European club soccer,” writes Parker. “When we first spoke on the phone, we discussed Barcelona’s underpowered performance on a recent visit to Liverpool. ‘Messi looked like someone who just came out of a badger burrow!’ she said. ‘And I love Messi.’” Lionel Messi is widely regarded as the best soccer player in the world, and Barcelona is known for playing an especially artful style of the game. “Badger burrow,” used to describe a soccer player’s performance, is the sort of striking and witty language that O’Brien is prized for. Parker provides other examples. Urged by the writer Thornton Wilder to put more of her humor into her writing, O’Brien told him “you’re not going to part me from my sorrows.” Arriving for a meeting at T. S. Eliot’s former apartment in London, O’Brien is mistakenly told she has come to the wrong address. “I’m approaching a heart attack,” she later recalls when describing her anxiety during the incident. “We have arrived jangled—jangled.”
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