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An honest tribute to a friend

IT'S doubtful anyone else but Marian Finucane could have got Nuala, a documentary about her friend Nuala O'Faolain, who she described as "one of the most stimulating people I'd ever known", off the ground.

Finucane's moving 2008 radio interview with a cancer-ravaged O'Faolain, recorded just a month before her death, captivated the nation and led to an outpouring of sympathy for the journalist and writer, who first made a name for herself in Ireland with her weekly column in The Irish Times, before her astonishingly frank memoir, Are You Somebody?, catapulted her to fame in the United States in 1996.

That book, which spent two months on the New York Times bestseller list and unlocked the gates of the Big Apple to a delighted O'Faolain, who revelled in the city's cosmopolitanism, told the shocking -- even to her closest associates -- story of her troubled upbringing and epic sex life.

Her father, a debonair journalist who wrote the Evening Press's Dubliner's Diary column under the name Terry O'Sullivan, was a serial womaniser with a string of mistresses, one of whom was his wife's sister.

Though his salary was as generous as the paper's editor's, Nuala and her siblings lived in constant penury, sleeping under coats instead of blankets and always short of food. Her mother was a hopeless alcoholic who spent much of her conscious time (which, according to one of O'Faolain's sisters, she tried to keep as short as possible) getting off her face on a mixture of lager and gin. She was found dead, face-down on the floor, a position her children had grown used to seeing her in when she was alive.

Nuala, intellectually brilliant and a hungry reader from an early age, responded to all this by diving headlong into a pool of hedonism, bedding an extraordinary number of men. At one point her exploits cost her her scholarship place in UCD, yet she was a perfect fit for Dublin's 1960s bohemian literary and artistic set, headquartered in McDaid's pub, among whom the sex flowed as freely as the booze, while the wider world of London (where she worked for the BBC) and New York offered unlimited freedoms.

The O'Faolain who emerged from the film was a woman of many facets, not all of them pleasant. She was smart, outspoken and individualistic at a time in Ireland when the opinions of women were treated with something below contempt.

She could be totally supportive to her friends (Finucane credits O'Faolain with helping her through the death of her daughter from leukaemia), yet she could also be needy, selfish, childish (especially in her tumultuous relationship with the eight-year-old daughter of her final partner, New York lawyer John Low-Beer) and even cruel.

The cruelty manifested itself in her blank refusal to allow her lover of 15 years, Nell McCafferty, the person with whom she said she felt most fulfilled, to be near her when she was dying.

Unsurprisingly, McCafferty declined to take part in the film, and there was a marked difference of opinion among O'Faolain's siblings and friends as to whether she was actually bisexual, or whether her relationship with McCafferty was a one-off. In an article, which must have hurt Nell, she said she'd "climb over 49 women" to get to a man.

It's to the credit of Finucane and her fellow producers, Patrick Farrelly and Kate Callaghan, they never attempted to apply a saintly gloss of whitewash to her friend's life.

A brief word -- and the briefer the better, frankly -- about Sceal na Gaeilge. Presented by the insufferable Alan Titley, an academic who seems to fancy himself as a bit of a joker, this was a two-part attempt to tell the story of Irish in the style of Horrible Histories, complete with jerky cut-out animations.

Intended as funny and irreverent, it was merely facetious and irritating. It ended with Titley claiming that TG4 has revitalised Irish. Really? Then why was I watching this with English subtitles?

nuala HHHII sceal na gaeilge HIIII