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Nuala O’Connor on her adult autism diagnosis: ‘I’d found out it was my brain pushing me in these directions ... I was euphoric’

Author was at her lowest two years ago, but hope arrived via an interview on the radio, when she realised she might be autistic

As a child, Nuala O’Connor was assigned a number of labels.

“My mother used to call me a fluttering virago,” O’Connor says. “House devil, street angel was another. My neighbour used to call me the little curser, because I would get so het up, and curse the head off people, as a four-year-old.”

It was the 1970s, in Palmerstown, Dublin. O’Connor was one of seven children, whose days were mostly spent outdoors, playing by the river.

“We were feral,” she says, jokingly. “My mother used to blow a whistle to bring us home. And our neighbours had a whistle for their kids.”


At school (a small, Gaelscoil on Marlborough Street, called Scoil Mhuire), young Nuala was obedient, and academically bright, but in other areas of life, she was “a bit of a little terror”. She was often bored and frustrated, but the one thing that seemed to hold her attention was books.

“I remember [my mother] talking to a friend about it once. ‘Nuala reads a book a day.’ And she sounded like she was proud. And I was delighted. There’s something I do well. Because it seemed I was a problem in every other way.”

O’Connor, now 54 years old, sits before me in the Ashling Hotel in Dublin, on a rainy April afternoon. She is wearing a blue sweatshirt, gifted to her by her sister, with the words “Too old, tired and sober for this shit” on the front. We’re here to talk about her sixth novel Seaborne, a work of historical fiction about Anne Bonny, an Irish woman tried for piracy in the 18th century. But there’s something else on O’Connor’s mind, too. Over the past four years, she’s gone through a period of soul searching – a period that has thrown all the years up to now into a new light. Suddenly those early labels – those “problems” – have started to make sense.

There’s no saying where it began, but it was the publication of her fifth novel, Nora (New Island, 2021), that kicked everything into overdrive. A fictionalised account of Nora Barnacle’s love story with James Joyce, the book captured the attention of readers, critics, and prize committees, and was chosen as One Dublin, One Book for 2022. Over a two-year period, O’Connor took to the publicity trail, travelling around the country, and globe, to promote the book. It was shortlisted for the Dalkey novel of the year and the Kerry Group Irish novel of the year. It ought to have been a joyful period. But for O’Connor, it turned out to be nightmarish.

“I remember going to Germany for a writing gig, and I only got out of bed to do the gig,” O’Connor says.

She had taken on too much – a familiar hazard.

“I tend to do that, because I have perfectionist tendencies,” she says. “There’s also the people-pleasing aspect of not wanting to let people down. I remember not wanting to go on the Germany trip, and thinking: what if I just said no? But that wouldn’t be in my vocabulary. So, I had to burn out completely, and end up quite ill, and really at the end of my rope, to the extent that I didn’t want to be alive any more. That’s when I had to start facing up to what the hell was going on.”

O’Connor has three children, Cúán (30), Finn (21), and Juno (14), and a loving, supportive husband, Finbar. On a logical level, she knew she didn’t truly want to end her life.

“I knew I didn’t want to die, but I knew something had to change. My husband came with me to the GP, and I went to counselling.”

This seemed like a positive step, but still things didn’t exactly get better.

“I felt like I was laying out all the things that were difficult for me, and the counsellor wasn’t, kind of, putting them together, or offering things I could put in place to help myself,” she says.

The work is trying to undo all of the trauma and shame that you’ve accumulated over the years

It was only by chance, listening to the radio in the car with her husband, that O’Connor finally got the eureka moment she needed.

“I heard this woman talking about how females present in autism. We were driving in Kerry, myself and my husband, and everything she said, we were kind of looking at each other, ticking off the boxes in terms of how they related to me,” O’Connor recalls. These included: loathing small talk, social anxiety, panic in noisy places, dislike of phone conversations, a love of research, emotional spin-outs, failed friendships, obsessive interests and enthusiasms, rigidity around time and food, and rigidity in general.

“I got very emotional. I realised: oh my god, that sounds like what it is. It sounds like that’s why I struggle so much in life.”

She went to a psychologist who specialises in neurodivergence. Soon, she had been diagnosed with autism and ADHD.

“And what a relief. Oh my god. I just felt so broken for years, and all of a sudden ...”

Here, she lets out a long exhale.

“Like, I knew I wasn’t choosing to be this way. All of a sudden, I’d found out it was my brain pushing me in these directions, and causing these sensitivities. And I felt, just – I was euphoric, for months.”

Of course, after the relief came the realisation that the work only starts now.

“The work is trying to undo all of the trauma and shame that you’ve accumulated over the years. Being too sensitive. Being a weirdo. Being the person who can’t seem to retain proper friendships,” O’Connor says.

“Hannah Gadsby, the Australian comedian, when she got her diagnosis [at] 33, said it was an ‘exfoliation of shame’. And I really loved that, because to me it is like sloughing off years of misunderstandings between me and other people, but also between me and myself.”

In this sense, O’Connor is at the beginning of a long journey. But she has begun to make necessary changes to improve her life. Before her diagnosis, she had already given up alcohol, which alleviated some of her anxiety. Now, she tries to practice self-compassion, and to focus on “what is” instead of what might be, or what cannot be controlled.

She’s been doing a deep dive into autism – listening to podcasts, taking courses, trying to understand how her mind works and how best to organise her life to suit it. She’s by no means an expert yet, but the main thing her diagnosis has given her is permission “to live a more hopeful life.”

“Because for a while, the burnouts, like the burnout I had at the end of the promotional period for Nora, were so debilitating that I really felt like I’m never getting out of this. There’s literally no hope. And then to find that there is hope, having not believed there was, is like magic.”

The past four years have been a brilliant growth journey, she says.

“I just feel so much happier now than I used to be – much more forgiving and compassionate in ways I couldn’t be before,” she says.

I had found ways to mind myself without knowing what the hell I was doing

Those four years also included a global pandemic, during which O’Connor lost her father to Covid.

“I loved my dad. I got on really well with him. I don’t have a lot of people in my life who I talk to, because of who I am, and he was one of my people that I talked to. He was also a local historian, so we both shared a love of history,” O’Connor says.

“When you write books, there’s no guarantee that the people you know and love will read them. He was the person who read my books and would give me feedback.”

O’Connor’s latest novel Seaborne is one she’s certain her father would have loved. It begins in 1703 in Kinsale, where the infamous Anne Bonny purportedly grew up (reliable sources on her life are scant, and there is a question mark over whether she was even Irish). The book follows her to a plantation in the Carolinas, and on to the Caribbean, from where she takes to the high seas. The one reliable piece of information that exists on Bonny is the transcript of her trial for piracy, in Jamaica, in 1720. It is towards this trial the book proceeds.

“So much that’s written about her is just salacious rubbish,” says O’Connor. “I was buying all these books, and each one was worse than the last.”

What she wanted to write was a kind of bildungsroman, exploring Bonny’s young life.

“I wanted to write about: if she was a young girl from Cork, how does she get from being this ordinary girl, to this woman who is – and this is on the historical record – arrested for piracy in 1720? How do you get there?”

At the same time, some of the more outrageous things that had been written about Bonny seemed like fodder to play with.

“I did love some of the mad stuff that was written about her, and some of the silly pictures that were drawn of her, with her shirt open, and her breasts on display. So, while I wanted to write a serious novel, I did also want to draw on some of these funnier aspects of Anne’s alleged life,” O’Connor says.

The lack of hard historical facts gave O’Connor freedom to lean into certain aspects of her life, for example her cross-dressing, her unconventional nature, her bisexuality.

“I realised, there’s such a scant paper trail, I have great freedom to invent here. And so I brought in this friend, Bedelia. She’s an indentured servant in [Anne’s] father’s house. And I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s a quest. It’s an intertwined love-and-friendship story, and at the heart of it is Anne trying to figure herself out,” O’Connor explains.

It was only after she finished the book that O’Connor realised Anne is autistic, like her.

“She’s essentially me. I’d have to say all my main female characters are versions of me anyway. I’m not coy about that. They really are. And when I really bring the lens back further and look at this group of novels that I’ve written, at the heart of them is always a girl or a woman who is on a quest to find out who she is,” O’Connor says.

The “group of novels” to which she refers are a set of historical fictions she’s written over the past decade. She’s explored the lives of Emily Dickenson (Miss Emily, 2015), Belle Bilton (Becoming Belle, 2018), and Nora Barnacle (Nora, 2021).

“I have essentially been writing these – I always call them maverick women. These women who don’t fit in the boxes that society wants them to stay in. I’m interested in all of this stuff in my own life [too],” O’Connor says. “This constant struggle between being good and being bad. When you live your life when you’re out with people in a sort of anxiety-, adrenaline-fuelled way, and then you have to go home and recover, I’m interested in writing women who also live in that way.”

O’Connor may have made a name for herself as a writer of historical fiction, but her body of work stretches farther and wider again. In a literary scene that sometimes favours the sensational newbie, she’s an outlier. Her career has been fashioned slowly and diligently, over decades.

O’Connor studied Irish in Trinity College Dublin, followed by a Master’s in Irish and Translation in Dublin City University. After that, she spent some time in Scotland, then Dublin. She had been writing since she was a child – she even placed second in a poetry competition judged by Michael Hartnett when she was nine – but it wasn’t until she moved to Galway, aged 26, that she began to understand how writing might become a way of life.

She was working among artists, as an office manager, at the theatre company, Punchbag Theatre.

“There were two writers on the staff, and I whispered to one of them that I write a bit, and he was like: join a workshop,” O’Connor says. Such an idea had never occurred to her before.

“I thought writers were magical beings who had publishing contracts. I didn’t think they were real, normal, working-class people. I just didn’t think people like me could be a writer.”

But at a workshop in Galway Arts Centre she met like-minded souls, and eventually formed a writers group.

“We would share information and the usual things,” she says. “To meet other people who are as enthusiastic about words and reading and books as you are, it’s just very joyful and affirming when you’re starting out and you haven’t a clue what you’re doing.”

In 2003, when O’Connor was 33, she published her first collection of poetry, Molly’s Daughter (Arlen House). From that first starting block, a prolific and varied career began to grow. She has written in Irish and English, in numerous forms and genres. To date, O’Connor has published four poetry collections, six short story collections, and, including Seaborne, six novels. She’s picked up several awards over the years, including the Francis MacManus Award, and short story of the year at the 2022 Irish Book Awards. She also edits the flash fiction e-journal, Splonk, now on its 11th issue.

To keep going at the precarious business of writing has required tenacity and resilience.

“You have to create a life that suits it. You have to know that financially you’re never going to be flush. Unless you’re really, really lucky. I suppose you don’t realise that starting out, but you realise very quickly that it’s incredibly hard to earn a living at it,” O’Connor says.

She also sees the value of a “supportive other” in a writer’s life.

“[Someone], maybe a life-partner, who is willing to be the only wage earner. And who is willing to have a modest kind of life. You’re probably not going to have two cars. You’re going to live somewhere affordable. You’re maybe not going to have a lot of money at the end of the month. You’re not going to have a lot of luxuries.”

O’Connor, who has been married twice, says that both of her husbands have been supportive of her vocation. Over the years, she’s worked in a handful of jobs to stay afloat – in libraries, bookshops, writers’ centres. She remarks that, even though she didn’t know she was autistic, she has inadvertently built a life that suits her needs.

“I have a lot of quiet time. I live in a very quiet place, in a very quiet cul de sac. I don’t like nine-to-five because I’m not very sociable. I’m not very comfortable in loud, noisy, people-filled spaces,” she explains.

I’m kind of proud of myself. You know, I have found a way to live that suits me

The east Galway town of Ballinasloe has been home to O’Connor for some years now. In the afternoons, she might be spotted on her daily walk around town, or in Garbally. Mornings are siphoned off for writing.

“If I don’t write first thing, I might not do it. So, there’s that kind of: I have to do it.” But sitting at her desk, conceiving fictional worlds is not a chore for O’Connor. It’s the best part of her day.

“Because I’m autistically very rigid in my life and everything is about schedules and rules, writing is the only place where I’m sort of like free-flowing jelly. I’m less in my head and tense. I’m talking to myself. I’m laughing. I’m just delighted with the space that I’m in, with whatever it is that I’m writing. As long as I love what I’m writing, and I generally don’t take on things that I don’t love,” O’Connor says.

At the moment, she’s working on novel set in the present-day, as well as a memoir, about being a late-diagnosed autistic woman. She’s also working on trying to understand herself, and give herself grace.

“I’m in the process of being kind to myself. Something I’m not very good at, but I’m trying to get better at. Last year was brilliant. I felt calmer and happier than I had in years. I’m a much nicer person to live with. My husband would attest to that. I’ve said to him, you’ve seen the differences. And he says 100 per cent. I’m no longer the fluttering virago.”

Reflecting on the life and career she’s built up to now, O’Connor is content.

“I had found ways to mind myself without knowing what the hell I was doing. So, I’m kind of proud of myself. You know, I have found a way to live that suits me.”

Seaborne by Nuala O’Connor is published by New Island

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116123, or email