Anne Enright on Nuala O’Faolain: She knew there was something very wrong with her feelings

Almost There, O’Faolain’s second memoir, is being reissued with this new introduction by Anne Enright

Her voice stilled the entire nation one Saturday morning in April 2008 as we waited for the redeeming line and did not get it. Nuala O’Faolain’s diagnosis of terminal cancer was followed, at her request, by a radio interview with her close friend Marian Finucane. “Did it start in the lung?” asked Marian, perhaps in the public interest. She was, herself, tormented by her repeated failure to give up smoking.

My husband rang me from the supermarket car park and said, “Turn on the radio”, a call to public witness I had not heard since 9/11. “Even if I gained time through the chemotherapy it isn’t time I want. Because as soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life.” Nuala sounded passionately despairing and perhaps a little speedy. Her grief was utter. “The very essence of this experience is aloneness and, anyway, it is the steroids keep you awake at night. So it is two in the morning or four in the morning and you’re walking around ... and there is nobody else to lay it off on and that aloneness is the centre, and the thing that you never know when you are well.”

By her own description, Nuala was long familiar with loneliness. As she wrote in Almost There, her second book of memoir, she knew it “like the back of her hand”. She sought it out, pushed people away, and she also knew why she was so afflicted: “It was because of her,” she said, speaking of her mother. Nuala’s mother was an alcoholic and, late in her daughter’s life, the thought of her was like “a toxic gas” seeping into the room. Nuala described her as “cold”, “blank”, “scornful” and “inconsolable”. She was a kind of absence, endlessly courted: “What shrine,” Nuala asked herself in middle age, “Have I been worshipping at, all along?”

She was a middle-aged, childless woman who felt that her successful newspaper column made her acceptable as a kind of honorary man but not as herself

Her father was a social columnist and small town celebrity who wrote under the name of Terry O’Sullivan. Serially unfaithful, he liked to involve his many mistresses in his family life. One attacked his wife with a bedside lamp in the marital bed, another took in one of his daughters to conceal an inconvenient pregnancy from the world. Yet another named the baby she had by him Nuala (“oddly enough”, O’Faoláin wrote). He was a bit like Gay Byrne — dapper and charming, he used courtesy as a way to keep people at a distance. Unlike Gay Byrne he used to come home pissed and “pummel” the mother of his eight children. This was according to Nuala’s brother, who tried to escape his mother’s cries for help by sleeping in a chest of drawers. But Nuala, who was never less than truthful, was also a great romantic. She looked at her parents’ abusive, chaotic marriage and saw a charming man, a woman who was confident all her life of “the perfection of their physical relationship”.

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Long after they were both dead, their well-known, brilliant, incisive and very charming daughter described herself as “a nobody”. She was a middle-aged, childless woman who felt that her successful newspaper column made her acceptable as a kind of honorary man but not as herself. There may have been a kind of “twilight celebrity” gleaned from presenting a books programme on RTÉ but the fact was, it was on so late in the evening that no one ever looked at it. One incident, which clearly stuck, was recounted both in her first book and in an interview in 2003: “Say I was in a pub at night and there were a few women having a few drinks. After a while they’d nudge one of them and send her over, and she’d wobble over to me and she’d say to me ‘C’mere, you — are you somebody?’ ”

The phrase was the title of her 1996 memoir which became the answer to the problem it posed — the huge success of the book made Nuala very much a “somebody”, even in her own eyes. She did not take credit for writing a remarkable book, however — that would be too large a claim — if you asked Nuala, it was all down to an appearance she made on The Late Late Show, which bypassed the critics and appealed directly to readers.

There is a clip of this interview online, which rejoices in the title Nuala O’Faolain’s Search for Mr Right. In it, Gay opens with some of his signature finger-wagging, shame-o-tainment. “You of all people, Nuala,” he says, and accuses her of sleeping with “a fairly lengthy list” of men. At the time the whole country thought Nuala was gay — she had lived for 15 years with her partner, the feminist Nell McCafferty — so this was news on a number of fronts. I remember it as a kind of fold in the time-space continuum, back to an Ireland when women “didn’t” — but didn’t what? Yes, she said, there had been “plenty of men”.

If you turn the sound down, you will see Nuala look down and then flick her gaze back up at Gay in a way that looks like bashfulness, though her words are the opposite of bashful, they are what used to be called “brazen”. She did sleep with people, “for loads of reasons, even including for the exercise”, she says. The women in the audience laugh in delight, but Nuala wants to talk about things more important than mere physical exertion. She wants to talk about loneliness, her failed search for intimacy. Gay shifts in his chair and changes tack — the shame is now on him. Nuala considered the 20 minutes of that interview to be one of the highlights of her life.

Years later Nell McCafferty felt obliged to clarify that she had not been banned from the deathbed

The book flew out of the Irish shops, and then later flew out of the American shops and the readership became a kind of family, “there to welcome me coming out of the shadows”. They wrote her letters. Two or three arrived each day and she answered all of them. These correspondents told her things about their lives that had been previously unsayable — all kinds of stuff; it was “a parade of human hurt”, and receiving it made Nuala feel valuable and seen.

It took a while for recognition and money to make a difference but, by 2008, her life was as near to golden as Nuala ever got. She had a relationship with a lovely man in Brooklyn and a little room in Manhattan for herself. She had a little house in Dublin and a small house in Co Clare, and a bolthole by a lake in New York state. In February that year, on her way home from a fitness class, her right foot started to drag and she took herself to hospital where a passing doctor told her she had two tumours in her brain. She was about to die.

The despairing radio interview with Marian Finucane brought another rush of letters and emails. People were desperate to comfort Nuala or to be of practical assistance. Her artisan cottage in Ringsend was adapted for wheelchair use. A friend flew to New York and went to her “little room” to fetch the silk curtains Nuala longed to see “one last time”, but she could not get them down off the wall.

It may have been difficult to control the traffic. “I knew she was well-known in Ireland but it was a little surprising just the strength of the reaction,” said John, her partner. “A lot of people feel they have some claim on her or that they’re the ones who knew her best. That’s hard for all concerned in a way.” Years later Nell McCafferty felt obliged to clarify that she had not been banned from the deathbed.

The day before she died, Nuala ate a winter vegetable soup, followed by a dessert, and she enjoyed them, John said. Her last words, “Goodbye dear friend”, were spoken on the phone to Marian, who was on her way to Damascus at the time. Her best friend turned back to Dublin, only to arrive at the bedside “ten minutes late”.

The will she left was a work of art. It was full of small bequests thanking people — many of them married couples — for their kindness and company. The money was given “for shoes, probably”, for “a bottle of something good”, “treats for dogs”, to “remember her in Cabourg”. It was a ghost list of her own pleasures, in a life that was ardently well-lived: clothes too indulgently expensive, superior wine, good food, travel, the “pristine love” of a pet.

The last radio interview with Marian was one of the most famous ever broadcast by RTÉ and it became a subject in itself. “Talking about death and dying, and the pain and fear of it, was not new territory for us,” Marian said. “Nuala was godmother to my daughter Sinéad, who died, aged eight, in 1990. But Lord, was it hard — shocking — to be having that conversation again, knowing that, once more, the outcome was 100 per cent certain.”

Nuala had been supremely supportive to Marian before and after the loss of her daughter, and the two deaths, 18 years apart, seemed linked in Marian’s mind. When it came to decisions about who could visit Nuala in her final days, she had prior experience on which to draw. “When Sinéad was dying, I would have cut the legs off anyone who would cry in the room with her — because life goes on as normal, in as much as it can. We were ruthless about that.”

It might be said that Marian was also pretty ruthless on herself. She continued to host her radio programme throughout her daughter’s treatment, remission and last illness, and she went back on air days after the funeral. This was a private loss. She did not speak of it in the media for another 13 years. Her husband said Marian used work to help her cope, also that she never recovered and could not bring herself to visit the grave.

Marian found some of that steely professionalism for her interview with Nuala, which did not avoid the tough questions. “Do you believe in an afterlife?” Nuala’s answers are so poignantly child-like, it is hard to say what age she thinks she is. “I thought there would be me and the world,” she says, in a tiny voice. “But the world turned its back on me. The world said to me, ‘That’s enough of you now and what’s more we’re not going to give you any little treats at the end.’ ”

The girlishness she showed to both Marian and to Gay may have been of its time — that coy look up from a downturned face was also used by Princess Diana as she broke taboos with a powerful personal truth. Nuala certainly had other modes and ways of speaking. Her voice had a musical range and complex timbre. She could be ironic and sad and generous at once. But she also identified as a little girl in her romantic relationships, and that seems distinctive to us now.

“Am I your little girl?” she liked to say, a little desperately, to one older lover. “Am I? Am I?”

When she found love online in the form of her wonderfully patient last partner, John, she found he already had a little girl to love. He had a daughter of eight — the same age her goddaughter had been, when she died. This similarity did not make Nuala fond of the new child in her life. Instead, there was an inchoate rage, in which boundaries were crossed and categories confused.

“I didn’t say one word on match.com about wanting to meet an eight-year-old girl. I have no interest whatsoever in eight-year-old girls,” and then “I am sick! I want to shout. What about me. I’m sick! I have a pain!”

Her jealousy was disturbing to some readers and also, it goes without saying, to John: “I tried to tell her ‘you’re a grown-up and she’s a child’ but she said: ‘No, no, no, I’m a child too.’ ”

Nuala’s rant about John’s parenting is almost comically sour, though it all gets less than comical in places.

“You should hear your voice! ... All wobbly with loving yourself for being so indulgent. Have you ever heard your own voice when you’re up there in the bedroom murmuring to her.”

Perhaps we all have a Nuala in our lives, the person who can eviscerate reality, call out injustice, but who cannot do a reality check on the emotions they hold about themselves

Nuala knew there was something very wrong with her feelings, which showed her to be “out of true” in some way. “I think it was easier for her to be honest about the difficulties that she was experiencing and about her loneliness, which was real,” said John. “But her connectedness was also real.” He thought Nuala really did love his daughter and was always thoughtful in her gifts to her.

And as I pull at the various threads that I am following here, I wonder if I am tugging too hard. I don’t know why she regressed so fiercely to girlhood, but it was a version of herself that Nuala carried inside her to the end, and could never leave behind.

It is not enough to say that Nuala, Marian and also Nell were feminists — although they were proud feminists — they were among the most effective social reformers of their age. In her life as a journalist, Nuala was interested in the silences and hypocrisies of institutions like the church, the justice system, the medical or legal professions. She also wanted to expose the “sacred site” of the family, starting with her own. But it is hard to say exactly what is being exposed, when the hurt of family keeps moving around. Perhaps we all have a Nuala in our lives, the person who can eviscerate reality, call out injustice, but who cannot do a reality check on the emotions they hold about themselves.

I was a guest on Nuala’s book show in 1989. It may have been my first interview. I was so nervous, it seemed to empty my brain and I was not helped by the sight of Nuala’s hands trembling violently under the desk. The red light went on above the camera, she smoothed one small hand over the other, she turned to me — and I am sure I misremember, I am sure these could not have been the first words out of her mouth, but I really do think she said, “There’s a lot of pain in your work”, as though this were some kind of question to which I might respond. I thought I was writing short stories. But of course she wasn’t exactly wrong.

Some years later I was interviewed by her friend Marian, who pushed so hard for me to discuss the suicidal feelings I had written about in an essay that I had them all over again, and continued to have them for hours and days after I stumbled out of the studio. I knew that this was the price for selling a book; that if you could survive the interview process, or even triumph, as Nuala did in the face of Gay Byrne’s cold fondness, you would enter some kind of community of the hurt, which was, secretly, everyone, and your book would be a success. But you had to be vulnerable first — especially if you were a woman — because a book, in itself, was not enough. A book, in itself, was too large a claim. I am sure, at the time, I also thought that we needed to talk about mental health issues, we needed to talk about pain, we owed it, somehow, to Ireland. But the push towards public suffering seemed to me to have something extra in there, and I did not entirely trust it.

Copyright © Anne Enright 2022

New Island is reissuing Nuala O’Faolain’s Almost There on August 19th