Saturday 20 April 2019

In a lifetime: The enduring magic of Nuala O'Faolain

Ten years after her death, Nuala O'Faolain's work and moving final interview still loom large. With a new edition of 'Are You Somebody?' imminent, our reporter looks at her life and legacy

Nuala O Faolain gazing out the window of her home in 1997. Photo: Eamonn Farrell
Nuala O Faolain gazing out the window of her home in 1997. Photo: Eamonn Farrell
Edna O'Brien
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

In the spring of 2008 RTE radio was lit up by one the most riveting interviews that had been broadcast in a long time. Marian Finucane was speaking to her good friend Nuala O'Faolain about the latter's diagnosis with terminal cancer. In the interview the Are You Somebody? author delivered a heartfelt and, at times, heartbreaking meditation on death and dying, scything through the worn-out cliches around the subjects.

Listeners were left with a sense of pity and deep admiration and the interview was given a searing intimacy by the fact that the two women were close friends. And then, in as jarring a moment as you could imagine on radio, the broadcast was interrupted to deliver to listeners the news of Patrick Hillary's death. Marian cut to a pre-prepared package of dignitaries, including Bertie Ahern, giving the usual tributes. It was all predictable protocol, pure aural taxidermy. And somehow, deeply galling.

My mother, not given to loud complaining, sat down at the kitchen table that night to write a letter to RTE. She contrasted the former president's "dilemma in trying to decide whether he would go into politics or pursue a career, like his father did before him, in medicine" with Nuala's saltier description of another kind of father, one so many women up and down the country had known: absent, drunk, damaged.

"I have lived in an Ireland in the past few decades where the whole political process has been seriously shaken by allegations of corruption, the working class has become another country and the dependency culture has expanded to fill the void," my mother went on. "Nuala O'Faolain has chronicled so well all these political and social changes. She is the absolute antithesis of all platitudes."

Putting the writer on "undignified hold" to eulogise this nondescript political fossil seemed to her to represent everything that was wrong with us.

Defensive bulletins from the kitchen tables of Ireland had been a theme for Nuala at RTE.

A decade before, with the publishing phenomenon that was Are You Somebody? sitting atop the bestseller charts on both sides of the Atlantic, Nuala went on The Late Late Show to promote the book. Gay Byrne's first question to her was "You've slept with an awful lot of men, haven't you?"

Nuala herself later wrote that she was taken aback by it (not that her response gave any indication: she quipped, "Only three that ever mattered, and that isn't many"). But it was a telephone caller to the programme who seemed to underline that this was not some Annie Murphy Mark II, hawking a sensational sexual tell all, but a deeply beloved figure and the voice of a generation: "I bought the book (Are You Somebody?) this morning, and I haven't done a stroke of work all day," the caller said plainly, down the phone. "She is writing about the real Ireland we grew up in."

The next day Easons on O'Connell street put up a sign, saying they had sold out of the book.

What was it about Nuala that inflamed such a passionate response in women like my mother and The Late Late caller? As a broadcaster she was limited - her delivery was faltering and girlish - but as a writer she soared.

She was certainly the first memoirist, to accurately and lyrically chronicle the experience of that generation of Irish women who are now in their sixties and seventies, and she blended the personal with the political in a way that few writers before her had ever managed. Alcoholic parents, nuns, boarding school pashes, fallen convent girls, swooning affairs, bedsit fantasies, drunken decades; like no other author since Edna O'Brien she laid bare that other Ireland, a place that somehow lay between the nostalgia of Maeve Binchy and the horror of Frank McCourt.

Are You Somebody? was originally meant to be merely an introduction to a collection of her popular Irish Times columns, which had for years been compulsive reading; the newspaper would receive fan mail by the sackful for her.

Her writing had a homely quality - McCourt later said she "stirred up love with a long spoon" - but it was savagely critical of the society at the time. Her childlessness and bisexuality placed her somewhat outside the society she wrote about, she conceded, but that distance gave her observations a great objectivity.

Along with Marian, Nell McCafferty and a few other trailblazers she was one of the leading voices in Irish feminism of the period.

The novelist Hugo Hamilton, a friend of hers, would later say "She cracked open something here in Ireland, I think. She took the lid off the family. Irish society was terribly hidden, and she was one of the people who allowed us to speak more truthfully about ourselves."

She grew up in what she described as fairly straitened circumstances in North County Dublin. Her father was Dublin's best known social diarist, Terry O'Sullivan, who wrote for the Evening Press, among other organs. While he was part of the glamorous night life in the city - Eamon Dunphy later expressed incredulity that his family could be described as poor - his large brood existed in an isolated cottage and his neglected wife sank into alcoholism.

Nuala was the second eldest of nine children and when she was 14 she ended up in boarding school. She went on to university and a career in journalism. She moved in a world of literary celebrities but her inner world was marked by depression, and her life was chaotic.

A psychiatrist later told her that "she was going to great trouble", "and flying in the face of the facts of your life, to recreate your mother's life".

She saw the truth of it: "There was I half her age, not dependent on anyone, not tired or trapped, with an interesting, well-paid job. Yet I was loyally recreating her wasteland around myself."

Nuala was, she conceded, a "very late starter". She said in an interview that she had "wasted my thirties and forties drinking and miserable, unable to break my way out of my little demon-haunted self".

She was one of the first to identify alcoholism as a national problem, and to lay bare its ravages as well as its insidious attraction for the lonely, thwarted and unhappy.

Her drinking wasteland ended with the entry of Nell McCafferty into her life. They were Nuala and Nell, the best-known, while at the same time fairly discreet, lesbian couple in Ireland, a female counterpoint to the open secret of Edwards and Mac Liammoir. It was with the warming, nourishing presence of Nell in her life that Nuala felt able to "throw away the booze and the pills" but, the 15-year relationship presented one of the great paradoxes of Nuala's writing.

While she was always praised for her openness she remained opaque about the romantic nature of their union; she never spoke about it in public until after it ended. They travelled the world together, braved homophobic graffiti daubed across the home they shared, but there was a word that dared not publicly speak its name.

When she and Nell broke up and she gave an interview saying she would crawl across 10 women to get to a man, it seemed to cruelly twist the knife for Nell, who had smarted under the knowledge that Nuala had never read her work.

For decades after the breakup their lives had the taint of aftermath. Each accused the other of being obsessed with their mother.

When I interviewed Nuala in 2005, the mere mention of Nell caused tears to spring bright in her eyes. To many they were the loves of each other's lives.

Even Are You Somebody?, with its taboo-shattering honesty, was unclear about the nature of their relationship.

The memoir, published when she was 55, was a sensation and catapulted into the bestseller charts in the US after she went on morning TV in the US with Malachy McCourt on St Patrick's Day, 1996. It made her a millionaire, but the jaw-dropping advance she received for her next book - a novel called My Dream Of You - brought its own pressures.

Her editor in New York broke the difficult news to her that the book was "not ready", and it seemed that the golden touch of her memoirs was not to be replicated in her fiction.

Her new-found literary fame did open up a new life for her, however, and paved the way for a move to New York. There she fell into online dating and met a lawyer called John Low-Beer. Their life together would form much of the basis for her second memoir, Almost There.

In that book she wrote of the jealousy she felt for Low-Beer's young daughter Anna - one reviewer even surmised that she was a danger to the child. She also reported in the book on her years-long liaison in Ireland with a much older, married lorry driver she picked up in a bar.

Whenever he summoned, she would drive hours to a run-down motel for their near-wordless encounters. She would wait months for his phone calls, in which it took only his "low, slow old man's voice" saying, "Is that my little girl?" to cause her "inner self" to "soften and... spill, heavy, like candle wax".

The book was met with mixed reviews - some could not believe the almost pathetic light in which she had revealed herself. It was to be the last work that was released before her death.

When Marian Finucane saw her old friend limping slightly, she presumed she had sprained her ankle. O'Faolain said she was returning from a fitness class in New York City six weeks earlier when she lost all power on her right side. Just over 12 hours later in hospital she was informed that there were tumours in her brain and she was unlikely to get better.

She told Marian that she would do radiotherapy but not chemo. It was shortly thereafter that they sat down for the famous interview, which gripped the nation.

"The goodness had gone out of life." Nuala said, starkly. She also described Low-Beer as "my good friend". She had "stopped pretending" to be a family with him and Anna.

She admitted she had no chance of recovery. After her hair fell out, she wore a wig which she said made her look like "a rather striking elderly chorus girl".

Her voice quivering, she said her own experience with cancer could not offer anyone else hope. "Beauty means nothing to me any more.

"I tried to read Proust again recently, but it has gone, the magic has gone. Instead, she said she was reduced to "reading old copies of Vanity Fair" in "hospital waiting rooms".

She made final visits to two of her favourite cities, Madrid and Paris. "It was such a miracle that I came together with the right kind of people. I am sick but I am trying to say goodbye."

Somehow, the most moving part in an interview full of them was her description of the beautiful silk curtains in New York that she would never see again.

Someone offered to go and get the curtains, of course, but the goodbye came soon: she died on May 9, 2008. Hundreds of people, including Marian, Nell and John Low-Beer, packed the Church of the Visitation in north Dublin for a simple service.

By then it felt like the final act in a drama of which she had seized creative control. She vehemently said she did not believe in life after death but somehow that has been her fate.

Even 10 years after her passing, the sparkling writing of Are You Somebody? leaps off the page.

And Nuala - though she will never be included in the canon of Yeats, Wilde and so on - will remain one of the most beloved Irish writers of this, and any, generation.

Three of the best...  Irish memoirs

A Guest at the Feast by Colm Toibin (2011)

In this deceptively slim volume, Toibin writes with quiet brilliance of his childhood and youth in the slowly liberalising Ireland of the 1960s and 1970s.

Moving from the small town of Enniscorthy in Co Wexford, reading forbidden copies of Edna O'Brien found on top of his bookish mother's wardrobe, to Dublin, the author charts his coming of age amid the currents of place and family. Toibin was 12 when he started writing - the year his father died - he has surmised that there was "clearly" a connection.

Mother Ireland: A Memoir by Edna O'Brien (1976)

The grand dame of Irish fiction (pictured below) wrote stories about sex, religion and, later, politics. When she left Co Cork for London well over five decades ago, she changed the nature of Irish fiction.

In 1976, she penned a memoir in the form of seven essays presenting a historical overview of her native land, cut with scenes from her youth in the 1930s and 1940s: her convent school, the walk home through her village, a delicate young priest who comes to tea. Seemingly small themes, but "this was a mortal effort", The New York Times reviewer warned at the time, "...full of force and pain and anger".

Edna O'Brien

Nell by Nell McCafferty (2004)

The Derry-born journalist's stunning memoir contained one of the most affecting accounts of closeted homosexuality ever written in Ireland - a youthful Nell wonders early in the book if the women of the neighbourhood would rally around her, as they did a young woman who was pregnant out of wedlock. It moves on to the Troubles, clashes with the archbishop over education, journalistic celebrity in Dublin and, of course, her long relationship with Nuala. In many ways however, Nell's mother might have been the real love of her life; the mother's tart rejoinders to special forces turning over her sugar bowl in search of Semtex provide some of the memorable comic relief of this excellent book.

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