Documentary Poses the Eternal Questions
Deaglán de Bréadún
Politics was a subject of great interest to the late Nuala O’Faolain who was herself the subject of a fascinating documentary on RTE television last night. If you missed it, you should certainly look for it on the RTE website.
Nuala was, at different times, a lecturer and a newspaper colleague of mine. I have vivid memories of her in my English lectures at UCD where she taught the history of the English novel, among other topics. She was a dazzling combination of brilliance and intellectual glamour; beauty and high intelligence.
It was a privilege to attend her lectures. She also had a sharp tongue and I was relieved, yet also slightly regretful, not to be in her tutorials – the smaller groups that met away from the crowded lecture-hall. One of the student radical papers at the time carried an attack (written by another sharp-tongued individual, an older student who was capable of equally-devastating put-downs) who criticised Nuala’s short way with the first-years. Much later, she told me how upset she was by that critique, and it may have led her to move out of the acadamic sphere at the time.
Many moons afterwards, we ended up in the same corner of the Irish Times newsroom. Nuala was a columnist at that stage, one of the most successful we’ve ever had. As I recall, her column appeared on Mondays and was a major antidote to the inevitable drop in sales at the start of the week.
We got on quite well: we had a common interest in the culture and society of Iran, where I had done some reporting and where she had also spent a good deal of time; she gave me a nice book on the place.
But you wouldn’t want to cross her. She was formidable in the French sense of the word and could make Lady Bracknell look diffident. But she could also be compassionate: once, when I told her of a friend, a mother of small children, who had taken her own life, her tears flowed immediately in sympathy.
She seemed to be losing interest in her column and there was an effort to get her to write more for the news pages. Nuala didn’t do anything she didn’t want to and, when a lunch was set up with a senior colleague to discuss new writing options, she was, er, called away after the first course and had to leave unavoidably, abandoning her lunch-partner at the table.
Later, when I became Northern Editor, she was also posted to Belfast to write her column about the new Northern Ireland that was emerging from the peace process. She got a place to stay on, as I recall, the Lisburn Road, but ”kept herself to herself” and led a totally-separate existence from the team in the Belfast Office. Indeed, it was not clear how much time she actually spent in Belfast instead of back home in Dublin.
She was not, at least in her Irish Times days, a “team-player” which, I suppose, reflected the sturdy individualism that was one of her strengths as a columnist. I would have to say that her extraordinary skill as a writer (Are You Somebody? is a classic – but must have been hard reading for her family) and amazing breadth of learning and culture were not accompanied by an overabundance of what is now called “emotional intelligence” and sensitivity to other people’s feelings.
Even the last radio interview before she died, which was the cornerstone of the RTE documentary, was an exercise one would have to question. Another cancer victim, who has also since died, rang me after listening to it, quite upset. There was no hope: the picture she presented was totally bleak. Obviously at that stage of a terminal illness, the future is bleak, but do you not still have a responsibility to others who are suffering and to their families?
The documentary went into unsparing detail about her family background. Her mother was an alcoholic who spent all the late afternoon and evening in the pub. Her father, writing as Terry O’Sullivan, was a hugely-successul and well-paid social diarist with the Evening Press whose job it was to attend functions and parties and receptions. He was also a serial womaniser who was on the town professionally and personally night after night. They may not have been text-book parents, but the surviving children who were interviewed last night came across as well-balanced, assertive and rounded individuals. Go figure, as the man said.
Having had a brush with cancer five years ago, happily emerging a winner, I had a certain understanding of Nuala’s tragic final days. It is terrible to think of what she went through and, although I would criticise aspects of the radio interview, she did pose the eternal questions: what’s it all about and where do we fit in, if at all?