Olga Pyne Clarke (1915-1996): Class and Identity – Writing Lives

Olga Pyne Clarke (1915-1996): Class and Identity

Although part of the landed gentry of Ireland, Olga’s family was actually ‘very poor’ (p.40) for their cultural standards. As a child, Olga did not have any toys, instead, she would play with the animals on the farm. Olga’s class was one that blurred the lines between rich and poor, she describes how only ‘half the Irish country houses had bathrooms or flush lavatories’ (p.33) and how only ‘one per cent’ (p.34) of these had a telephone. This was a time, she explains, when ‘Antibiotics and immunisation were a mirage of thirty years on’ (p.33). Poverty would remain endemic in the poorer regions of Ireland, once an area was poor, even those with land suffered. Despite her family owning a country house, conditions for Olga were not that of luxury: Olga still had to worry about catching ‘smallpox, malaria and leprosy’ (p.33). She recalls how poor the mortality rate for infants was in this time, that out of fifteen children, for ten to survive would be a blessing. Where Olga was raised, everyone suffered together. It is this suffering that somewhat transcended the class between Olga and the poorer residents of county Cork.

      Olga saw both sides of society growing up, she had many connections with those of influence but lived a humble life herself. Although Olga did not live in luxury, the ability for her family to farm their own land and to own horses played a big role in the course of her life. To an extent, Olga was privileged to be raised with horses because, throughout her life, she used her knowledge of the animals to sustain an income: it was always something she could use to find work. The picture above is Olga’s childhood home, as depicted, she lived in a large house. Olga belonged to what Terrence Brown called a ‘Anglo-Irish’ (p.82) family. She had a dual nationality when she was older, utilising a network of friends and family in both England and Ireland. As a girl, Olga recalls getting angry when she is called English by another little boy: Olga has always seen her family as being Irish because, to her, that was where she had been born and raised.

      Horses, once again, contextualise Olga’s life in relation to her class and identity. Her experiences at the Ascot races are a good example of this because they show how, as an adult, Olga participated in higher society in a way that also felt detached from it. At the races, she describes wearing her ‘lovely double emerald and ruby engagement and wedding’ (p.153) rings and ‘beautiful dresses’ of ‘high fashion’ (p.152). On the surface, she was a woman of wealth and luxury; however, as she later explains, the dresses she wears are gifted to her and then altered into high fashion by her friend Miss Kelly. Like the land she grew up on and the society she was split within, Olga was able to be a part of high society (through dinners and friends) without being rich. It was through her friends and connections that she could be part of high society as well as relating to those who live in poverty as she herself did.


Brown, T. (2011). Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922–2001, HarperCollin

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