Irish novelist Edna O'Brien wins lifetime achievement award

Country Girls author receives £40,000 David Cohen prize seen as Nobel precursor

Edna O’Brien has been awarded a £40,000 lifetime achievement prize regarded as a precursor to the Nobel, for having “moved mountains both politically and lyrically through her writing” in a career spanning almost 60 years.

The Irish author was presented with the £40,000 David Cohen prize at a ceremony in London on Tuesday night.

Awarded every two years to a living writer for their entire body of work, the prize was founded by the late cultural philanthropist in 1993, in the hopes of starting an equivalent of the Nobel prize for UK and Irish authors.

Many recipients, including VS Naipaul, Doris Lessing and Harold Pinter, went on to become Nobel laureates.

On hearing the news, O’Brien said, “I’ve often looked at books in bookshops that I have hardly heard of and seen that the authors are the recipients of three, four, five prizes. Naturally, I am very glad to have one prize to put on the back of my book and at the forefront of my mind.”

When asked whether she regarded the win as a sign that the Nobel prize would be next, she said: “The fortune tellers have yet to come over the hills about that news, as such.”

Since her debut, The Country Girls, shocked Ireland in 1960 with its sexual frankness, O’Brien has written more than 20 books, many of which have focused on the inner lives of women and how their fates are shaped by men around them.

She has also plays and nonfiction, including her 2012 bestselling memoir Country Girl. Her most recent work, a novel called Girl, was released in September, and follows the journey of a Nigerian schoolgirl kidnapped by Boko Haram, a departure from her usual Irish setting.

She has been consistently hailed by peers and contemporaries including John Banville, Philip Roth, Sir Ian McKellen, Anne Enright and Michael Ondaatje, as one of the world’s greatest living writers.

The chair of the judges, Mark Lawson, said O’Brien had “achieved a rare arc of brilliant consistency, her literary skill, courage and impact as apparent in a novel published as recently as September as in her first book, which appeared 60 years ago … it is a particular pleasure that it goes this time to an author who is also of such present strength and significance.”

Viv Groskop, a fellow judge and journalist, said “her true achievement lies in her ability to redefine – in myriad ways and with a unique voice – what it means to be human”, while Jon McGregor, author and judge, said: “A writer can challenge societal norms and interrogate form all she likes, but first she has to create an appetite for her writing, and O’Brien has spent her long and fruitful career doing exactly that.”

The poet and judge Imtiaz Dharker said in reference to Girl: “I thought I had the course of O’Brien’s work mapped out before the judging came around, and then, towards the end of the process, another great tome dropped through the letterbox, changing the whole terrain.

“This prize is a celebration not just of a lifetime’s work but of a still-burning flame.”

O’Brien said she regarded Girl as a continuation of her career’s focus, “to chart and get inside the mind, soul, heart and emotion of girls in some form of restriction, some form of life that isn’t easy, but who find a way to literally plough their way through and come out as winners of sort – maybe not getting prizes – but come through their experiences and live to tell the tale. It is a theme I have lived and often cried with.”

She added: “I have nothing against domestic stories, I wrote plenty of them. But they are no longer enough in the world we live in. I have to try and look outside my own fence.”

Winners of the David Cohen prize are also tasked with bestowing the £10,000 Clarissa Luard award on an emerging writer. O’Brien selected Clodagh Beresford Dunne, an Irish poet from Dungarvan, County Waterford, who has yet to publish a collection.

O’Brien said she became aware of Beresford Dunne’s poetry after seeing her read at a literary festival in Ireland. “I had many claims on who I would wish this prize to go to, including in Nigeria, so it was hard for me. But I decided to give it to a fellow Irish girl – well, she’s a girl and I am a woman – because I know how much she loves poetry and with four children and a husband, she wants more than anything to have a book of poetry published,” she said.

“With this help and accolade, I am sure she will get there. For each writer, whether you are starting out like Clodagh or finishing up like me, we are always worried about the next book. It is a big challenge, a big terror and a big journey.”


Sian Cain

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Irish novelist Edna O'Brien wins PEN/Nabokov lifetime award
Author behind Country Girls trilogy scoops $50,000 prize for breaking down ‘social and sexual barriers for women in Ireland and beyond’

Alison Flood

07, Feb, 2018 @1:52 PM

Article image
Edna O'Brien to receive France's highest honour for the arts
The 90-year-old Irish writer will be named commander of the French Ordre des Arts et Lettres on Sunday

Alison Flood

03, Mar, 2021 @12:32 PM

Article image
Edna O'Brien: 'A writer's imaginative life commences in childhood'

Fifty years after leaving County Clare for London, the doyenne of Irish fiction is still preoccupied with the land of her birth. On the eve of a new short-story collection, she talks about love, exile – and why, at 80, she's still a party girl

Rachel Cooke

06, Feb, 2011 @12:05 AM

Article image
Edna O'Brien wins Frank O'Connor prize

Judges reward 'the Solzhenitsyn of Irish life' with €35,000 award

Alison Flood

19, Sep, 2011 @11:37 AM

Article image
'Women are better writers than men': novelist John Boyne sets the record straight
Male authors are always pronouncing their own brilliance – or boasting about not reading books by women. So, after a lifetime spent writing and attending literary festivals, John Boyne would like to get something off his chest …

John Boyne

12, Dec, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Country Girl by Edna O'Brien – review

The taboo-breaking, the men, the fabulous prose – there's no one like Edna O'Brien. By Anne Enright

Anne Enright

12, Oct, 2012 @9:55 PM

Article image
Philip Pullman wins JM Barrie lifetime achievement award
Author of His Dark Materials acclaimed as ‘a magical spinner of yarns’ who appeals to all ages – especially children

Alison Flood

21, Mar, 2019 @12:59 PM

Article image
Edna O’Brien: from Ireland’s cultural outcast to literary darling
The Irish novelist’s love of her home country is finally being reciprocated, but it’s been a long, hard road to acceptance from the days when her work was burned

Ed Vulliamy

10, Oct, 2015 @9:49 PM

Article image
Saints and Sinners by Edna O'Brien – review
Ireland is still the heart and soul of Edna O'Brien's work. By Sylvia Brownrigg

Sylvia Brownrigg

05, Mar, 2011 @12:07 AM

Article image
Scholars hit back over New Yorker ‘hatchet job’ on Edna O'Brien
Irish literary critics unite to defend novelist after article portrayed her as ‘deceitful, flighty and self-pitying’

Dalya Alberge

12, Apr, 2020 @8:05 AM