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Are You Somebody? Legacy of the 'little bomb of a book' that smashed the silence on women's lives

The reach of Nuala O'Faolain's groundbreaking memoir remains unique, writes June Caldwell, who has curated an exhibition about the writer featuring letters from the public that read like an entombed #MeToo moment

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Nuala O’Faolain’s memoir told how she coursed through a patriarchal society. Photo: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall

Nuala O’Faolain’s memoir told how she coursed through a patriarchal society. Photo: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall

Nuala O’Faolain’s memoir told how she coursed through a patriarchal society. Photo: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall

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.