Julia O'Faolain: a star in an artistic galaxy

The writer's fiction is excellent, but her new memoir shows the enthralling facts behind life as Sean O’Faolain’s daughter

Author Julia O'Faolain’s latest book, Trespassers, is an exuberant memoir of the great and the good in Irish political and cultural life. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Author Julia O'Faolain’s latest book, Trespassers, is an exuberant memoir of the great and the good in Irish political and cultural life. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Tue, Apr 2, 2013, 07:00

Julia O’Faolain looks a little bit lost, somehow. She has come from London to Dublin to publicise her newly-published memoir, Trespassers . It is an exuberant book whose every page teems and pulses with gossip about the great and the good in Irish and international culture and politics.

So vivid are these tales that it’s only when you meet her that it dawns on you: nearly all of the characters who stride through O’Faolain’s pages are, in fact, dead. Her parents, Sean and Eileen O’Faolain. Her father’s lover, Elizabeth Bowen. And a veritable galaxy of artistic friends, among them Frank O’Connor, Brendan Behan, Paul Henry, Patrick Kavanagh and Richard Ellmann.

“That’s what happens if you live too long,” O’Faolain observes. In person, she is self-effacing and softly-spoken – the opposite of her forceful, feisty prose. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that since her father’s death in 1991, Ireland has become, for her, a country of ghosts. So why publish this book now, at the age of 81? “Well, it was my agent who said, ‘Why don’t you write a memoir?’” she says, tossing a mop of unruly hair. “I said, ‘I don’t want to write a memoir. I’ve never done anything. I’ve never fought, or even taken a gun in my hand.’ And he said, ‘You’ll find things as you go along.’ ”

Her agent was right. Whether she’s confessing that, as a baby, she found her parents “unnervingly fanciful”, or spilling the beans about the antics of poets and painters at society parties on the Luggala estate in Co Wicklow, or giving a bat of the feminist crozier to Irish clericalism through the ages, she is not short of first-rate memoir material.

The book’s title refers to an incident in her childhood when she and her mother climbed a crumbling wall near their home in Killiney and found themselves in what appeared to be an abandoned orchard – only to be confronted by a man carrying a shotgun.

“I was terrified,” she says. “I wasn’t very big. I was five or six. But there were notices up saying, ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’; and that sounded terrifying. It could have been ‘executed’. I wasn’t sure which was which.”

The theme of trespass may, in fact, be a kind of warning to the reader. This is not a minutely-documented autobiography designed to please historians and scholars; O’Faolain flits happily from her father’s IRA bomb-making career to her stint as a waitress at the Moo Cow Milk Bar opposite London’s Victoria Station. By her own admission, some of her stories may not be 100 per cent accurate, such as her account of an agile young Garret FitzGerald climbing a tree at the O’Faolain house in Wicklow. “It may not have been a cedar,” she admits. “I wanted it to be a cedar, and I didn’t go back and check. I can see what it looked like. Great flat branches with lots of needles.”

The future/former taoiseach is now, of course, among O’Faolain’s dead. “About three years ago I came over to Dublin to launch a novel, Adam Gould ,” she recalls. “Garret, and several other people that I’d known were hustled up and brought to the launch dinner, which was hosted very generously by the Alliance Francaise. And I said to him: ‘You know, you were my first love.’ He was mildly embarrassed. But he put up with it.”

Old loves, and old country

There were a number of adult loves for O’Faolain, some of the more exotic of whom –

including a medical student of Jewish-Algerian extraction, Jean-Paul – are chronicled here, before she met and married her Italian-American historian husband, Lauro, in Florence. On her rare visits to Dublin nowadays, does she detect any of the old Ireland she writes about, still lurking beneath the secular post-Tiger surface?

“I don’t come back enough to really know,” she says. “Nobody tells me anything. Although a friend has a brother-in-law who was a Redemptorist priest. They went to Rome to see pope Benedict and to try to speak up for this man, who had made some rather liberal-sounding sermons. What happened next was that he was excommunicated. They were shocked. He was shocked. If I hadn’t known this person, I would never have imagined such a thing could happen.”

There are plenty of surprises for the reader of Trespassers – not least the picture of quiet Sunday afternoons in the company of the usually unquiet poet Patrick Kavanagh, who would obligingly swap poems with the precocious daughter of the house. “The poems – mine, I mean – would be unbelievably awful,” she says. “But he was comfortable with us. I often wondered if he had a soft spot for my mother.”

After her mother’s death, O’Faolain found a number of poems dedicated to Eileen in Kavanagh’s copperplate hand. “I should go into the British Library and see if those poems are there – or if he really did write them for her,” she says. “Too late for this book, anyhow.”
Looking back at the literary luminaries in her book, does O’Faolain feel aggrieved that her name doesn’t often figure, these days, in lists of famous Irish writers, perhaps because she doesn’t live here? She smiles. “Not only do I not live here, but when my last book came out someone wrote an article naming me as ‘a forgotten writer’. Which was not a cheerful read. It wasn’t in any way offensive, but it wasn’t very comforting.

“I suppose I didn’t write enough. You mustn’t let too many years go by between books – and I did that. A lot. I suppose I should keep at it now. There’s a book of short stories coming out next year.”

And this book? Will it create a stir, does she think? “Well, people might at least notice that I’m not dead,” she says, with a tart smile. “Which would be something.”

Trespassers by Julia O’Faolain is published by Faber & Faber