Lifestyle

Saturday 20 September 2014

Nell: Nuala didn't ban me from her deathbed

Among the thousands of viewers who tuned in for Marian Finucane's heart-rending documentary on Nuala O'Faolain last week was the writer's ex -- Nell McCafferty.

After sharing 15 years of her life with O'Faolain, the Derry woman was conspicuous by her absence from the 90-minute film having declined to take part for "personal reasons".

But once the credits had rolled, she added her voice to the debate, disputing the notion that O'Faolain had banned her from her deathbed and railing against the programme's attempts to label her lover's sexuality.

According to McCafferty (67), rather than being cast out of O'Faolain's last days, the couple remained in contact until the end and made the mutual decision not to see each other.

She says: "We agreed peacefully not to meet during the weeks of her dying, and were in almost daily email contact until she went into the morphine-induced coma. We loved each other well enough."

She adds: "All those questions about Nuala loving a woman? That love was not hard to understand."

McCafferty took to Facebook to discuss the RTÉ programme on Monday night, saying: "The documentary on Nuala tonight was skewed by its sclerotic views on sexuality.

"Nuala would never have allowed a trivial detail like gender to stop her loving someone. She was a sexual being, and I was irresistible."

So what went wrong in the relationship that the pair couldn't be in the same room at the end?

McCafferty was 36 and O'Faolain 40 when they started their relationship in 1980. In many ways they were the odd couple: McCafferty was the Derry firebrand, 4ft 11ins of militant feminism and civil rights crusading; O'Faolain was the academic with a highbrow love of Proust and an even greater love of men.

But however extraordinary their relationship, it seems that what destroyed it was no different to what casts many a union asunder -- petty grievances, power struggles, money issues and feelings of disillusionment.

According to McCafferty, cracks in the couple's domestic bliss started just four years in.

A 40th birthday trip was planned for New York when McCafferty had wanted Berlin. The holiday was a disaster and signalled the end of the couple's sex life.

There were wranglings over buying houses and career resentments. McCafferty felt her creative talents were underrated by O'Faolain and was hurt that her lover never saw fit to read what she wrote.

McCafferty's family ties were also a bone of contention. In 1995 there was a fight when McCafferty felt O'Faolain was being again dismissive of her career.

After a night spent in separate bedrooms, O'Faolain announced: "It's over," and McCafferty agreed.

The relationship was finished but the two were never able to fully extract themselves from each other. Years later, McCafferty acknowledged this: "We split, but we never separated."

Their lives remained uneasily entwined, allowing old grudges to fester and old feelings to never fully be put to rest.

By 1996 McCafferty was in a brief relationship with a mum-of-two but still agreed to go travelling with her former lover. While in Albania O'Faolain announced she was writing her memoirs. McCafferty was horrified.

She had initially raised the idea of penning her own autobiography and O'Faolain had been opposed, on top of which McCafferty did not want publicity about her sexuality because it would upset her ageing mother.

When Are You Somebody? came out and became a bestseller, McCafferty was to be further affronted by the way the tome glossed over the passionate side of their life together.

Relations turned yet more sour when McCafferty asked O'Faolain for £25,000 as financial compensation for what she'd paid into O'Faolain's properties over 15 years. A cheque was dispatched but no note attached.

For years, and indeed up until O'Faolain's death in 2008, their testy friendship existed largely via email.

After O'Faolain's now infamous US magazine interview in which she declared she "never thought of Nell as a woman" and "would walk across 59 women to get to one man", she received a missive from her former partner simply saying "shame on you".

A similarly direct email followed O'Faolain's interview with Finucane where she talked frankly about the cancer that would claim her life.

Asked about McCafferty, she said: "As far as I'm concerned Irish women owe so much to Nell and I was dead lucky to live with her."

Another email was sent -- this time asking why, just once, could O'Faolain not say publicly she had 'loved' her.

The question was never to be answered, and the uneasy end to their complicated relationship, and even more complex split, will never be satisfactorily concluded for McCafferty who had hoped the pair would meet, aged 80 on their Zimmers, and put the past to rights.

This lack of resolution has made the usually outspoken commentator unusually quiet and she declined to be interviewed for this article.

Someone who knows her well explained: "With Nell, nothing is off limits, everything is a laugh and she has an opinion on everything. But the only thing she won't be drawn on publicly is Nuala -- she just closes up, it goes too deep."

Certainly in recent years McCafferty has not shied away from the limelight. She posed nude for a portrait and has also taken part in a host of reality shows including Celebrity Bainisteoir, Driving Me Crazy and TV makeover show Off The Rails.

But in all the appearances she has rarely talked about O'Faolain.

For four years, she devoted herself to caring for her mother, Lily, until her death in 2004. It was the same year that her own memoir, Nell, was published in which she addressed her relationship with O'Faolain. "It's a love story, a love story that failed," she explained. "I couldn't write about my life without writing about that."

She continues to write, and lives in Dublin. Recently she confessed that fewer newspapers come to her with commissions and she spends an increasing amount of time on Facebook debating everything from etymology to who killed Frank in Coronation Street.

It's interesting that, despite not wanting to appear in the programme, she called on her 2,394 Facebook friends to discuss the documentary.

The story may be over, but McCafferty's not ready to be separated from it.

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