Tuamgraney born Edna O’Brien has been awarded the highest cultural honour in France.
On Sunday, she was named Commander in the French “Ordre des Arts et Lettres” by Mrs Roselyne Bachelot, French Minister of Culture, during an online ceremony.
Awarded annually by the French Minister of Culture to leading lights in the arts and literature, the Order of Arts and Letters has three grades, increasing in prestige from Knight, to Officer, and to Commander.
Minister Bachelot-Narquin described the Clare woman as “a legendary writer who has enriched Irish literature in inestimable ways” who also nurtured French literature.
Up to 20 people can receive the title of Commander each year, with the 18 time novellist joining an exclusive list of Irish cultural figures who have received the accolade including Paul Hewson (Bono) and Seamus Heaney.
Edna who celebrated her ninetieth birthday in December continues to be a literary force. Her 2019 novel, Girl won Irish Novel of the Year and was lauded for its portrayal of the trauma endured by Nigerian schoolgirls who were ambushed and captured by the Boko Haram militants.
O’Brien’s most recent book, Joyce and Nora: A Portrait of a Marriage published in 2020 depicted the relationship between James Joyce and Nora Barnacle.
Over the years, she has received numerous accolades, including the Irish PEN Lifetime Achievement Award, the American National Arts Gold Medal, the Frank O’Connor Prize, the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature and the David Cohen Prize for Literature.
“Writing was a very secret transaction because it was regarded as profane, both in our house and in my country, during my formative years,” Edna outlined in her acceptance speech.
She was humbled to receive the honour. “I want to convey to you the happiness and disbelief I feel on receiving this great honour. In fact, I was so surprised and confounded when I received the first letter from Minister Roselyne Bachelot and I put it aside because actually I thought a second was going to come cancelling it. We’ll put that down by my Catholic upbringing. Anyhow, I found the letter and replied and here I am”.
Her career has spanned six decades and she is celebrated for The Country Girls trilogy, her role as a committed feminist and also one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.