One way to gauge the impact of Nuala O'Faolain's memoir Are You Somebody? is to ignore the bestseller lists of the time and scrutinise the personal responses when it was published.
Today we have the quicksand of social media, those longed-for likes on Twitter, the shout-outs, the awful trolling, retweets, abject endorsements, love-bombing and the cancelling. Back then it was hand-written letters. Gay Byrne's opening comment on The Late Late Show, "You put the responsibility for your personal happiness onto men, and there were plenty of men", guaranteed a readership before any of the other complexities of her story could be digested. But there was something bigger, pioneering even, about the way she smashed the silence on Irish women's lived experiences.
In the weeks before lockdown, I visited the Reading Room of the National Library to rummage through this precious archive of letters to Nuala - box after box after box - in a bid to find out what exactly these strangers of the mid-90s wanted to talk to her about.
It reads like an entombed #MeToo moment. Women writing about the devastation of desolate marriages. Men falling in love with her because she dared speak her mind. Horrendous tales of abuse, poverty, forced immigration, hidden sexuality. Others wrote in fear for her soul. Quite a few wanted to offer advice on how to behave.
"I would love to have married someone I adored and liked and to have him feel the same way about me, and to have children. Instead I became a mother to my own mother in my 50s and am alone, is this what irony is?"
Another: 'My family is filled with tragedies of losing a brother, a manic-depressive illness, alcoholism, and incest. I am in a committed passionless relationship. I fear what is out there for a woman like me. Keep writing, Nuala. I look for you to blaze the trail."
Emilie Pine, who takes part in the upcoming Somebody exhibition at the Museum of Literature Ireland, talks about the notion of 'silencing' around women's experiences but maintains it is cultural attitude doing the suppressing. "Nuala's work is so brave and so loud that it becomes unavoidable, that's what actually broke the silence in the end."
What had Nuala done that was so different? Yes, she wrote very sorrowfully about her mother's unhappiness, how it impacted on Nuala's own notions of passion and love. She charted the effects of alcoholism on the family. She told how she coursed through a patriarchal society where the men were the doers and women more often the decorative supports.
As Yvonne Nolan puts it, it's a great work of Irish literature because it's a 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman'. "If you read this book, it might give you some of the stepping stones you need to follow to become an artist." Diligent, brave, hard-working, Nuala landed great jobs in broadcasting, lecturing and journalism, but somehow still felt she lacked the confidence to pull it off. She travelled extensively, experienced full autonomy. In raw and fiery sentences, she traced all these incidental freedoms back to what she considered to be wilful neglect in her early years. No one really cared. Emotional abandonment, pain, chaos… all of it allowed her to fling herself onto the map and choose her own weather systems. Writing the book was an attempt to understand how and why it had happened.
In 1996, it became an invitation for others to do the same. The result was a massive outpouring, a ridding of miniature shames.
"It was such a small society to bring out a little bomb of a book like that," Anne Enright says, in her interview for the exhibition. "It was an intense moment of gossip-making, you could not believe she was saying these things… untrammelled and amazing."
Some of the letters in the archive are pricked with tiny resentments too. Why should it have been Nuala to break new ground when so many suffered in silence? "So, you're a superstar in Ireland. Terrific. No one deserves it more. But fame has its price, as Rilke noted. You worked hard for career [money? accomplishment? acclaim? self-satisfaction? whatever] how could you have love also? It doesn't work that way. At least not for me."
I found my own letter to Nuala in one of the boxes. A journalistic profile I posted off as a student when she said 'yes' to me interviewing her in her home. Her niece Mairead Brady said it took Nuala "years" to answer all the letters. Who would have the time for that sort of humanity today? "Come and interview me if you must," she'd written back on a postcard. "But I doubt I can be of much help."
Self-deprecating as ever, I think Nuala would be surprised at how much of an influence she has been on me and my work. I've curated this exhibition precisely because the reach of her memoir continues to be singular and unique.
Exhibition, Somebody: Nuala O'Faolain and a Book that Changed Us www.moli.ie/whats-on/somebody/ 11.30am-7.30pm, Tuesday to Sunday and bank holiday Mondays. Last entry at 6.30pm
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