Anne Enright: ‘Nuala O’Faolain was an impossible person, to whom we owe so much’

Older feminists are not always delighted when the young enjoy freedoms they fought for

MOLI, the Museum of Literature Ireland reopens on Monday 2Oth with a new exhibition ‘Somebody: Nuala O’Faolain and a Book that Changed Us’ . Video: Bryan O’Brien

 

“Why does no one ever ask me up to dance?” This was the question Nuala O’Faolain asked at an evening hooley at the Merriman School in Lisdoonvarna in August 2007.

It would not occur to me to want such a thing, except suddenly, as a teenage pang, when Nuala asked me and then everyone else, why no one ever asked her up to dance. Why? Why? And there was such pathos in her voice, we all felt, briefly, as unwanted as Nuala thought herself to be.

The wonder of it was that someone was dispatched, a man was found, Nuala got the tap on the shoulder and away she went, blushing like a girl.

She had a way of getting people to look after her, I noted, though I did not want to look after her, partly because she had sliced me up earlier in the day. It happened as I sat down after giving my, admittedly less than competent, conference take on being a woman in Ireland.

As Nuala leaned over and slipped a comment that left me reeling, after which, she stood up, settled her nerves, and took the audience by the scruff of the neck. It was one of the best impromptu talks I have ever heard. It was also a lament.

Nuala O’Faolain was a moralist, and it seemed to me that she made high moral requirements of women especially. Photograph: Paddy Whelan
Nuala O’Faolain was a moralist, and it seemed to me that she made high moral requirements of women especially. Photograph: Paddy Whelan
She said whatever came into her brilliant head: spiteful or generous or sad. The difference between private and public speech was just an inconvenience: she lived for the wonderful, blurting rush of telling the truth

Nothing had changed for women, everything had failed; even our sex lives, she said, were not happy.

This is a small enough story and possibly not worth the telling, though tiny hurts with deep roots were a feature of O’Faolain’s 1996 memoir Are You Somebody and of her trenchant, nation-changing columns on the pages of this newspaper.

The story of Irish feminism may someday include these Oedipal truths: that older feminists are not always delighted when the young enjoy the freedoms they fought so hard to ensure. Why would they be? There should be a moment of gratitude, there should be a moment to acknowledge the difficulty and pain.

I was born 22 years after Nuala O’Faolain and had the great privilege of being able to write all day. In 2007, I was more interested in suffering for my art than for my gender: I wanted to claim the right not to care. So I was a Mary to the Marthas of the feminist past and besides, it was all really, really hard.

O’Faolain was a moralist, and it seemed to me that she made high moral requirements of women especially. She did this in a very child-like way. The word “innocence” was her shield and sword, the word “child” stood for “happiness” and also for “vulnerability”.

O’Faolain was one of nine siblings. She was the hurt child of a bad marriage between two alcoholics, and it is possible she did not know how to grow up. She had no boundaries, no buffer. She said whatever came into her brilliant head: spiteful or generous or sad. The difference between private and public speech was just an inconvenience: she lived for the wonderful, blurting rush of telling the truth.

Hard to remember what it was like but, in the days before the internet, people in Ireland were honest face to face. Some, of course, used the anonymity of the radio, others used alcohol to reveal truths that might be forgotten the next day, but it was the great imperative of the age – to tell the truth and shame the devil. We were turning the confessional inside out.

Nuala was truthful to the point of being self-destructive – and it was just that point of combustion that sparked my interest, as a writer.

I did not realise how central her voice was, until I did an interview recently with June Caldwell for her exhibition about O’Faolain in the Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI) on Stephen’s Green.

Yes, I said, of course I used all that in my work. Very specifically, I nabbed the theme for my novel The Forgotten Waltz from the end of Almost There, her second volume of autobiography, published in 2003, where she wrote that she was sick with jealousy of her partner’s eight-year-old daughter: she could not bear the way he indulged the child, was maddened by the sound of him putting his daughter to bed, thinking what about me?

A young Nuala O’Faolain.
A young Nuala O’Faolain.
Nuala had a child’s capacity for joy – from the walk, from the dance – it always came as such a surprise

The fact that O’Faolain published this stuff about a real child – for all her interest in the innocence of children – was astonishing. Did she think the girl could not read? The caustic truths of my novel,The Gathering, could not have been written without the excoriations of Are You Somebody? in its disdain for the large Irish family and, most especially, in the way she raged against the figure of an always pregnant, emotionally absent mother.

Like half of Ireland, I read Are You Somebody? in a single sitting when it came out, and had an instant opinion. I thought O’Faolain was incredibly hard on her mother, an alcoholic, abandoned by a glamorous-seeming husband to look after their nine children with no money, while he partied elsewhere.

In Almost There, O’Faolain describes the thought of her mother as “a toxic gas” seeping into the room, “harbringer of defeat”. This was such a strange, anti-feminist thing to say – that you hate your mother for being weak – and yet it was also entirely truthful. The psychological and political were at odds, in her thoughts and in her life, in a way O’Faolain did not even try to reconcile.

Why do we blame our mothers? This was the first clear instance I saw of a tendency people have to lash out at a woman, when they feel they have been denied something in life. Nuala could do this, even though – or even because – some of her closest and happiest connections were with women. Men, in this psychic space, are for something else.

If we are to untangle the knots of envy as well as those of power, then O’Faolain’s battlefield reports remain an excellent place to start. Though perhaps that great subject – the tension between women of different generations – can be left to feminism’s next wave. Or to fiction where I, for one, am very happy to oblige.

I spent an amount of energy avoiding O’Faolain, though I remember every last thing she said in my company. She was, I thought, an impossible person, to whom we owed so much. I was sorry I had not expressed my gratitude more clearly to her.

So many of them are gone now, these brilliant, courageous women: Maeve Binchy, who was in the front row that afternoon in Lisdoonvarna, and Marian Finucane who hiked the backroads of the Burren the previous day with Nuala; both of them with wooden walking stocks, arriving back to the hotel full of fresh air and happiness. Nuala also had a child’s capacity for joy – from the walk, from the dance – it always came as such a surprise.

The Irish Times Summer Nights Festival is a series of online talks and events taking place from July 13th to 16th. On Wednesday at 6.30pm, author Anne Enright and Irish Times columnist Kathy Sheridan will discuss writing, feminism and the work of the late writer Nuala O’Faolain.

Readers of this article may use the discount code “summer20” to avail of a half-price ticket for €20, covering this talk and all events at the Irish Times Summer Nights Festival. Simply go to irishtimes.com/summernights and make sure you apply the discount code before purchase.

The exhibition Somebody: Nuala O’Faolain and a Book that Changed Us is at Museum of Literature Ireland from July 20th. Booking: moli.ie

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