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Sunday 28 January 2007

Put Edna on a real desert island, please

THERE may be people who don't find listening to Edna O'Brien like hearing a thousand pieces of chalk being dragged, shrieking, slowly down a blackboard, but they don't include me or my friends Mo and Sean, all of whom squirmed through her recent Desert Island Discs. Each of us volunteered that never - in all our years of living in England - had we been so embarrassed to be Irish.

"I wanted to switch her off," said Sean, for us all, "but it was like seeing a car crash and not being able to look away."

Every word was imbued with the deepest of significance ('Ah-vid-ih-tay' was Mo's favourite), every phrase larded with mist-that-do-be-on-the-bog rhetoric and the voice radiated fra-gil-i-tay: "There is a quest for something, so I am both glad and sad that I have this urgency within me to make out of nothing some little thing."

" 'My mother didn't want me to write; my husband didn't want me to write' ," quoted Mo sourly afterwards, adding, "And we don't bloody want her to write."

My sentiments exactly. Edna describes her ac-tiv-i-tay as "the turning over of the soil". I'm with the critic who described her books as "the cartography of the knicker-stain".

She is still looking for love, Edna confided, so Gerry Adams could be in luck. After all, she famously described him as "a lithe, handsome man [who] in a different century, one could imagine as one of those monks transcribing the gospels into Gaelic". What with Gerry being so inclusive, he might overlook the 18-year age gap, for Edna's favourite record is The Foggy Dew, a dirge with sentiments so maudlin they could have been written by the monk himself. Celebrating the event "that broke the chain the 900-year [sic] yoke", it includes such plums as:

Oh, had they died by Pearse's side or fought with Cathal Brugha/

Their names we will keep where the fenians sleep 'neath the shroud of the foggy dew.

Sadly, she wasn't asked if she thought the fenians should join the PSNI.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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