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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: March 20, 2012 @ 10:52 am

    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?

    • JOD says:

      If I recall – and it’s many years since I read (but didn’t finish for some extraenous reason/distraction) her book – the title ”Are you somebody?” was engendered by someone coming up to her and peering in her face thinking she was a famous person. I recall wondering at the time whether perhaps it might not be the case – as is the case with many survivors of abuse; not just sexual, but other physical, emotional, mental, spiritual abuse – that the author was questioning her own validity as a human being and the possibility that she did not, in fact, exist at all. Some symptoms of childhood abuse would include wondering why you can cast a reflection in a mirror and wondering why that door opens when you push it because you are so isolated and alienated from the world and so convinced of your own worthlessness that even to cast a shadow on a glass or enough force on a handle to open a door seems in excess of what you might be entitled to. She certainly experienced a huge amount of abuse as a child growing up in this miserable dump of a theocratic slave-state and I thought perhaps that which Cecil Day-Lewis (Daniel’s dad) once wrote about when he wrote of abuse victims being like occupants of a bathyscape, staring transfixed through immensely thick glass at ‘strange and liquid forms of life / Moving around” yet being ”afraid to pierce the bubble / And be drowned” (sorry if I misquote there been years since I read the verse). In any event, by the time she reached the point in her life where she was staring into the Reaper’s empty eyes and what she didn’t see there seemed to terrify her, she knew that she was indeed ”somebody” and moreover had a room of her own where she could be herself.

    • JOD says:

      Glad to hear of your own recovery from an horrible disease. I’ve had a couple family members go through it lately, one sadly didn’t survive one has but the various meds she has to take to keep the thing at bay are playing merry hell with her mentally emotionally and of course physically. It must be a pretty chilling moment, that when you are told you have the Big C. Whether its treatable or not and what the prognosis is are all hugely important info but I’d say in that moment when reality irises down to the word itself: Cancer, pretty much everything else in your head goes away. Including the reasonable expectation of next year and the year after that having you in them. I don’t know if such eternal questions are of any interest at that moment; perhaps afterwards, when the shock has somewhat abated. But it’s good that one might get to ask them and reflect/consider what inward response is received. An opportunity you don’t get when say dying of a heart attack.

    • mary o connor says:

      not in the same category of insight on the human condition, i am afraid. this sort of reads as a ‘i knew Nuala and her manners weren’t impeccible.’ yeah we know. so what. that wasnt her contribution. re family: gd knows what sort of state her living family were/are really in. fair doos to them for appearing and talking so movingly. not fair to use their composure to question N’s sensitive disclosure. in interview N seemed very sensible too. her gift was the illucidation of what can be underneath. the spoken words many of us dont have but a world many have experienced. as for the darkness she felt before her death, that was the darkness she felt before her death. noone should deny that validity as impropriety. but of course we all hope there is more past that. Nuala’s thougths on death were not mine, and they affected me for her. not for myself. i was drawn imediately to desire brighter for her. with horror that she was there at all.

    • mary o connor says:

      lack of ‘emotional intelligence’ and ‘sensitivity to other people’s feelings.’ ??? her writing was how one absorbed an emotional sensitive intelligence on irish society/history/individual situations. finally ireland started to state itself in something other than newspeak.

    • JOD says:

      I wonder did she ever find out what kind of a father her father thought he was?

    • JOD says:

      I mean towards the end of her life she asked – in tones of sheerest horror I thought and me listening to it pulled in on the side of the road near Ferrycarraig coming back from fishing – whether it all went away, what a waste of creation, all the knowledge accumulated over a lifetime, did it just come to nothing? And yet earlier in her life she said she could never hope to understand life and death but she did hope to understand what kind of a father her father thought he was. Being the central male figure (tho’ largely absent) in her life it seems to me, that seems to be the question upon which her world’s axis turned for a very long time. I wonder if she did find out to her own satisfaction and if she did whether it was compensation for the existential horror she felt towards the end of her life at the prospect of everything meaning nothing, ultimately? She was a classic example of an Irish person who – as my old friend Mr Wang used say – ”thinks too much”.

    • JOD says:

      ‘Felt too much” rather perhaps.

    • JOD says:

      Growing up in nineteen forties/fifties Ireland, which as I think Elizabeth Bowen so beautifully, accurately put it, had amputated its emotions; in what appeared to be the lap of luxury with a brilliantly sophisticated and wellknown parent and outwardly a quiet normal family but was quite a different matter behind closed doors, her family home a chaos her mother absent through self-medication for depression (imo) and an inability to bear the pain of a futile hide-bound existence married to a man who didn’t love her and whose own public persona – while he may well have believed himself every inch of it – concealed a very different private one, emotionally physically and mentally distanced entirely from his kids and wife, more concerned for the mistresses whom helped prop up his hopelessly deluded self-image i’ll hazard, certainly equipped her to take on all the other whited sepulchres she encountered in her later career. Except the one of her self as a happy brilliant bohemian. She wasn’t at all happy. Kept re-enacting the disasters of her own father’s (and mother’s) relationships and seeking assuagement of the pain repeatedly caused through our old friend Al K Hol. Kept seeking out the kind of men who’d end up breaking her heart (and breaking the heart in turn of the one man who by all accounts wouldn’t have broken hers) so she could somehow perhaps by experiencing and re-experiencing the traumas and guilts in the hope of tracing back to the original trauma and guilt that made her feel like such a non-person. Just hazarding a guess mean no disrespect to your late and esteemed colleague nor any of her friends quite the opposite. A life lived so bravely in the face of public opinion and convention deserves nothing less than a reasonable remembrance and a half-decent attempt at if not understanding at least honestly considering the contexts that we know of which made said life. I must finish that book it’s below in the homeplace I’ll get it next week.

    • JOD says:

      Was very impressed when she talked about meeting Kavanagh and Behan and all that crush back in McDaids or some similar hostelry of literary legend. Behan being a Dub of course bullied Kavanagh a lot there although I don’t think NOF mentions it in her book I know Behan roughed Kavanagh up quite a lot too. The bollix. He had nowhere near the same talent imo that was just typical Irish begrudgery.

    • jaygee says:

      I remember reading about the interview at the time, and being deeply affected by the sadness and despair. At the time I thought the only answer for anyone who thought or felt deeply was to get out of the country. Since then, I continue to be filled with admiration for those who stay/stayed and dealt with the fallout from the years of theocratic rule. To me the problems were always intensified by the secrecy and denial which seem to have permeated every aspect of Irish life.
      JOD @ (1) Thoughtful and sensitive comment.

    • mary o connor says:

      think original article shows a criticsm of a level of Nuala’s inability with people in person. at first i was affronted by this because in the face of her achievements i saw it as nothing. but in further thought i’ve wanted to confront it as a pattern of those who have been terribly harmed. that then a fracture can occur on the intrapersonal and yet to a total world ‘out there’ they can share an accuracy few of us get to. its as though they are brave enough, hurt enough, forced enough to have an elemental compassion above and beyond a normal position but not necessarly one to one. (due to deprivation) the person to person has a fault – but their universal, doesnt. it seems a lot of people like this seek out jobs that will help them understand the human condition.
      and the rest of us? are too selfish to care. to comforted and thus distracted from a deeper deliberation…

    • JOD says:

      Nice of you to say jaygee. Suppose it’s the toxic Irish National Shame thing really. So long as the Left Hand don’t know that the Right Hand’s bein a bad boy things are tickety-boo and never mind the moral/karmic implications sure we can get rid of that dushta in the PRivaCy of the confessional in exchange for a few Our Fathers and Hail Marys rattled off without a thought in the head except when we’re going to do the bold thing again (whatever it is).

      ERGO: We have politicians calling their corrupt dishonest PRedeCessors ”patriots to their fingertips” while coming out with pious vapourings about how the People have a right to expect their finance ministers and leaders generally to be above board; we have the Church gunning up with Her high-powered lawyers to defend at all costs against suits, while at the same time issuing reports prating about Her ‘sincere’ ‘regrets’ and ‘apologies’ for the cowardly inhumane rapine of thousands of children’s lives by the very people whom they were brought up to believe were holy and good. (An atrocity I can only compare to the stab in the back of those German citizens whom happened to be Jewish by those German citizens whom happened to be not). Why we can’t even implement decent child protection laws while we turn blind eyes to the (far more frequent even) rapes of children by their own parents and siblings (a vast appalling holocaust of lives and souls that hasn’t even BEGUN to surface) by the very people whom they believed from their very first moment of awareness were the ones who loved them most in the world. Why we have pious little laws against public servants facilitating torture while our own law enforcement agencies and their politio-legal overlords willingly turn blind eyes to the 21st century aviatory Auschwitz Express aka Shannon Airport (and likewise why we preach to an admiring and deluded world about our ”neutrality” while busily and lucratively facilitating the transit of a million glum soldiers a year on route to destroying innocent countries never offered us harm nor threat. Why we had bravely soldiering finance ministers who sought and obtained our decent sympathies for their own personal medical woes while they hung a 200 billion euro millstone round our necks while telling us it would be ”the cheapest bailout ever” of private high-risk investors who we’d certainly never have heard a word from if they’d made, rather than lost, money on their private high-risk bets. Why nobody in power and position in this country has the least intention nor desire to see any made accountable for their part in this Catastrophe that every day threatens this country with final dissolution as a state and society; because they’re too terrified that once the dirt, the real FILTH, of this country’s reality starts leaking out it’ll spatter them and their parties and affiliations and controllers and cronies also. I could go on. But really why bother? Throw a stone in the air it’ll come down on top of some filthy little pustule bursting with all the Irish sins that we’re too ‘ashamed’ to even acknowledge let alone say sorry for never mind do anything about.
      Nuala O’Faoilain was a legend in her own lunchtime and a maker of history in this dump purely because she’d gone beyond all shame and stood up and told this kip the TRUTH about herself her life and what she thought.
      I’d say she should be canonised if it wouldn’t be an insult to her which it would.

    • JOD says:

      It’s distasteful jaygee DISTASTEFUL to sit pickin over the bones of the innocent dead whom we neither know nor care to get to know properly just because they were pubic figures or at least people who were known for their views and made a living from it of some sort. ………….PeRiCope adultera and all that. Sitting in judgement on another family for their dirty linen washed in public whether by biographers or random bloggers and commentators when every family has dirty linen mostly not washed ever in public nor in private. Suppose one can only TRYand be sensitive and thoughtful if one has anything to say about the thing at all that might add value. Certainly sitting amidst the ashes of the deceased preaching on about their misfortunes as if one knew anything about them to begin with like some Job’s comforter and adding to the wrinkles of those who have to listen isn’t much use either. I’ll certainly make sure and read at least one of her three books fully before vouchsafing any further there must be many out there who loved NOF and saw her their own way for her own frailties misfortunes bravery hilariousness whatever who’d have far better insights to offer because at least THEY’VE READ ONE OF HER BOOKS ENTIRELY. Sorry I’ll shut up now taken way the hell too much of this thread.

    • Give us a break, JOD. You are like a fella with a long beard carrying a sandwich board proclaiming, “Repent, the End is NIgh”. We’re only human: get over it.

    • JOD says:

      Someday that hairy lad will be right. For each and every one of us as you well know. Suppose it’s a case of motes and beams sure if we all only ask ourselves what do we think of ourselves as fathers (and mothers) it’d mean it wasn’t all a total waste.

    • JOD says:

      To err is human eh. Covers a multitude of sins and not only sins but oft repeated sins didn’t Wilde make a distinction between the error and the mistake? Well to lose a country once must be a mistake. Suppose there’s a Divinity that shapes our ends rough-hew them as we may hope S/He’s of the forgiving type in a big big way. Even the Signatories of the PRoClamation nkew the national sports round here were dishonouring Ireland’s Cause to the 3 Deadlies. Old Greeks said every couple generations they had to have a war so the young Greeks could learn for themselves the true horror because we forget nothing and we learn nothing. Getting tedious. So don’t complain if I do too.

    • JOD says:

      Would like to hear more from mary o’connor there. THat was interesting. Ever hear the story of the Lindworm? Wore many layers of armour tore through relationships as it were and was finally stripped of its defences by someone brave and calm and loving enough. Maybe Nuala found that in her relationship with her bean an tí no that wouldn’t be right ‘fear chéle’ then. Don’t know. Not my biz. Love is love and it’s the only thing has the power to disarm the terribly harmed get them to drop their guns and open up to a world of possibilities they’d only previously perceived from inside a bathysphere. Or something. What sort of jobs would such people be found in mary? Sorry for banging on Deaglan and hijacking your blog . as usual.

    • PeRiCope dept. says:

      Sorry bathyscapes not spheres whatever unterseeboots as our German friends would say ;)

    • arberao says:

      @ 13 Deaglán — I hear that..

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      So she was emotionally damaged by her upbringing – who in Ireland isn’t?

      But the thing that seems to annoy people the most is that instead of saying she was battling to live longer she acknowledged that she was tired of life and embracing the reality of her inevitable death.

      We have guilt drummed into us for centuries that we are taken aback at the idea that suicide could also be seen as a person’s valid choice that is no one else’s business except theirs or that when someone has a terminal illness that instead of subjecting themselves to every conceiveable medical treatment, instead they decide to make the most of the time they have and gracefully face death. Why battle something that no one has ever defeated and never will.

      Why not use the time you have, when told that time is due to end, to get your paperwork in order and make sure no messiness is left behind and to make the most of living while you can and that doesn’t mean spend most of your time in a medical centre trying to stop the tide coming in.

      It’s coming in anyway.

    • o yo han says:

      (Huan yin lai dao Zhongguo Deaglan. Welcome to the Middle Kingdom. Say Nee Howzitgoin to them for me.)

    • fyi says:

      ‘In free air captive, in full day benighted,
      I am as one forever out of his element
      Transparently enwombed, who from a bathysphere
      Observes, wistful, amazed, but more affrighted,
      Gay, fluent forms of life weaving around,
      And dares not break the bubble and be drowned.’


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