‘I’m dying’: Nuala O’Faolain and the Marian Finucane interview she wanted to do

Nuala O’Faolain rang her friend Marian Finucane in March 2008 to arrange a lunch – but it was far from an ordinary meeting between the two friends

NUALA O’FAOLAIN rang me in March 2008 to arrange a lunch – we were good friends and had a running gag about birthday lunches, which could be had in any month of the year or in many months of the year. We met the following Monday in a busy restaurant in Dublin. She came in using a walking stick and dragging her leg a bit. Other than that, she looked terrific.

Presuming she had sprained her ankle, I asked her what had happened. Her reply, in its directness, was classic Nuala: “I’m dying. I have cancer in my lungs, tumours in my brain, probably elsewhere too. It has metastasised. I will take radiation but not chemotherapy.”

Bam. I felt disbelief, horror. And a great desire that this was some awful, awful mistake. It took several minutes to sink in.

I first met Nuala O’Faolain when she was a contributor to a radio programme about convent education on RTÉ’s Women Today. This must have been in the mid-1970s. Unusually, the programme was prerecorded in the producer’s apartment, so we had some time before and after the interview to get to know each other.

Nuala was brilliant on that programme. It was the first time I experienced close up her unique blend of articulacy and hilarity. We received many letters afterwards, one man writing to say that we had nearly caused him to crash his car into a tree due to the tears of laughter streaming down his face.

We became close friends and occasional colleagues, both of us working on RTÉ's The Women's Programme.

There is always a tendency to speak of one’s friends in glowing terms, especially when they have died, but Nuala really was a one-off: fiercely intelligent, opinionated, articulate to an astonishing degree, erudite, but also loyal, vulnerable and, despite being prone to melancholy, great, great fun. She was no saint either, and could drive you nuts betimes. She could boss for Ireland, and in an argument you had to hold your own fairly fiercely. But those arguments and disputations were great, great fun as well.

At that lunch in 2008 we discussed the necessity of truth about dying, and how there should be no lies, no claiming false hope, which often only serves to isolate a dying person even further. Talking about death and dying, and the pain and fear of it, was not new territory for us. 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.

Unbelievably, looking back now, we discussed in a relatively matter-of-fact fashion the idea of doing an interview. Nuala really wanted to do it. I was still reeling from her news, still trying to absorb the enormity of what I had just heard. We must have looked strange to the other diners that day, to the very jolly party also in the restaurant, locked in an intense discussion, both of us in tears.

Since Nuala had become a successful author in the late 1990s, when her memoir Are You Somebody?was an international bestseller, I had interviewed her on a number of occasions. It became obvious to me that, for Nuala, being interviewed live provided her with an important means of understanding herself. It was as if answering questions under pressure marshalled all of her considerable gifts, allowing her to speak with her wonderful blend of candour, wit and passion.

After our lunch I called Anne Farrell, my producer of many years, to get her opinion about the interview. She was, obviously, deeply shocked by the news but, on balance, felt that we should proceed.

The interview was recorded in Galway, because that’s where Nuala was having radiotherapy. By that time she had lost her hair and was bloated from the drugs, but there was nothing wrong with her brain.

At first we planned to do the interview in the hotel room where I was staying, but it turned out that the recording equipment I had taken with me was faulty. I called the RTÉ studio in Galway to explain. At one point I found myself practically inside a wardrobe as I tried, as discreetly as possible, to say that I was interviewing Nuala O’Faolain, who was dying. How ridiculous, in retrospect, considering that we were about to have a conversation of brutal honesty. But our decision to use the studio was a good move, providing a useful distance between us. We held it together. She was magnificent.

On the way back from Galway after the interview, I called Anne Farrell to say I wasn’t sure that we could air the programme – after all, it was hardly the usual kind of material encountered on mainstream radio on a Saturday morning. And what about all the other thousands of people who were dying of, or being treated for, cancer? We discussed the various issues for days.

Eventually we agreed that it should be aired, but only with an explicit warning at the front. This was the first time in my life as a broadcaster that I found myself advising listeners to turn off their radios. Anne organised for the psychologist Tony Bates, who had hospice experience, to listen to the interview and to participate in the programme to deal with issues that arose. The Irish Cancer Society set up a helpline to deal with any distressed callers.

The interview was completely unedited. Some of it was conducted through tears – on both sides – but her wonderfully truthful command of language never faltered, not even for a second. With most interviewees I tend to begin with a few more general questions to put the subject at their ease. But this was different. There was nothing for it but to start, to “just do it” as Nuala was so, so fond of advising others to do.

The Saturday Interviews,by Marian Finucane, is published by Wolfhound Press, €12.99. All royalties will go to Friends in Ireland

- There will be a public interview with Marian Finucane by Doireann Ní Bhriain at Wood Quay Venue, Dublin 8, on Thursday, November 24th at 6pm. Book on 01-6744862, 01-6744873 or cityofliterature@dublincity.ie