Nuala O’Faolain: My powerful, idiosyncratic, crude friend
Ten years after the author's death, June Caldwell reflects on her friend and mentor
Nuala O Faolain outside her tent at Lough Gowna, Dring, Co Longford, in 1990. Photograph: Frank Miller
I first read a Nuala O’Faolain column in The Irish Times as a teenager. She was talking about how the cult of the “large family” remained untouched in the 1980s but our cultural reactions to it were often deeply hypocritical.
“Someone announces they have 12, 15 or 22 [children] and the only acceptable social response is warm congratulations, as if Ireland were a country so decimated by war or plague that we urgently need to replenish our population stock … I see children who are vicious little brats by the age of eight, they are suffering. So are the glue sniffers and the vagrant children and the little, silent pale ones who wait for their parents outside pubs.”
Powerful, idiosyncratic, and jarring to read, always. But as her own memoir would illustrate a decade later, there were solid reasons why Nuala felt so appalled at childhood neglect and had the tenacity and guts to wail about it.
Don’t go to male shrinks, they’re even worse than ordinary males’
The Ireland Nuala was writing about was a deeply conservative country compared to now: 87 per cent of the population went to Mass at least once a week. Contraception was only available with a valid prescription from a GP and was barred from mainstream advertising. Divorce was illegal. The economy was a mess. Ireland, Nuala said, had no fat on it to nourish the margin.
“What we have instead is a system of alleviation, grudgingly provided by the more well off in inadequate amounts to the less well off.” Usually published every Monday from 1986 onwards, her journalism covered a wide breadth of topic and mood, from politics to sex – the lust and gluttony of priests, women’s struggle for equality in and outside the home, bird watching, suburban kitchen tables during election time, heroes of rock, a diary of the Birmingham Six appeal, life in Iran under the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini, the strange life of Nora Barnacle.
All accompanied by a lilting wisdom that felt familiar, instructive: “Alcohol is our snow and heat and hurricane and flood – the self-induced calamity that holds Ireland back, though nature has treated us kindly. And our alcoholics are disease-spreaders in a society that has the potential to be a healthy one…so many murders, car crashes, suicides, fights.”
As I’d write in The Guardian after her death, the supreme achievement of these columns was both to explain the huge double standards encrusted in Irish life, and to confront her audience with their complicity.
In 1997, for instance, on the death of the paedophile priest Brendan Smyth, who raped hundreds of children over the course of four decades, Nuala held up a tarnished mirror to her public. She wrote that “they went on calling him ‘Father’ in this culture; even though he embodied the worst wickedness anyone could think of, the notion of taking his title from him, or tacitly agreeing not to use it, was not entertained. Denial sustained the terrible sham of his long career of evil.’
In 1987, she won the A.T. Cross Woman Journalist of the Year. By this time, she was also a renowned filmmaker, academic, teacher, book reviewer and feminist. She’d also received a Jacob’s Award in 1985 as producer of a weekly women’s television programme, Plain Tales.
She briefly shared a flat with Patrick Kavanagh, who used to ‘piss and groan out the doorway in the mornings’
When I returned from London for a postgrad in journalism at DIT in 1996 I scribbled Nuala a postcard requesting an interview. It’s a miracle she even bothered to reply as the post boy had to literally drag sacks of mail “with hundreds of letters” to her across the floor of the news room on a weekly basis.
“She was the nearest thing to a star,” editor Conor Brady said. Are You Somebody? was published earlier in the year, topping the bestseller charts for 20 weeks – including the New York Times – selling one million copies worldwide. But she still made time for a stranger on a Sunday morning arriving at her home with a bag of breads and spreads. “You look like you live in a bedsit; take that stuff back with you!”
She diligently replied to every correspondence she ever received, even ones loaded with misplaced anger. We’d go on to email each other sporadically for the next 11 years. Me, bored and frustrated in low-level journalism jobs. Her, firing advice with a crudeness that would sometimes hurt: “Whatever you do, don’t go and have a child, you can’t even look after yourself or a cat, imagine what you’d actually do to another human being . . . Perhaps an interesting job isn’t your destiny, boredom and sexual frustration will force you to write fiction . . . Don’t go to male shrinks, they’re even worse than ordinary males.’
The week we met in person had been tough for Nuala. Her column was late, she had writer’s block. She met a dying man on a beach in Sligo. There was still a lot of heartache over her recent relationship break-up with Nell McCafferty with whom she spent 15 years. There was mention of valium and insomnia, and a desire to jack it all in and travel.
I was ushered into the sitting room to look at the “Victorian blue” paint on the walls, sourced from someone who renovates stately homes in England. She introduced her Labrador Molly and lodger Luke Dodd, both, she said, were true and brilliant friends. “I have a cat too, Hodge, a yoke I bought off a sinister man for £150.”
She asked me if I thought the kitchen was messy (it wasn’t particularly) and began frying sausages. “I’m trying to live and push as much life into myself,” she shouted in from the hob. “I want to really live. On the other hand I can hardly live because I’m missing all kinds of skins that enable other people to live fully. I’m 57, but it’s as if I’m 17, trying to learn how to be happy. Sometimes I feel it’s not happening, because I’m the only person who knows about me.”
Nuala was born in Dublin on March 1st, 1940, the second of nine children. “I was typical. A nobody who came of an unrecorded line of nobodies.” Her father, Tomas, was a journalist who wrote an On The Road column for The Sunday Press when Nuala was 10, taking him all over the country. Four years later he began his famed Dubliner’s Diary social column under the pen name Terry O’Sullivan for The Evening Press.
Nuala was thriving at boarding school in Monaghan by this time, away from the roaming paws of older men at dances. She won an essay competition at age 16. The prize: afternoon tea at the French Embassy with Monsieur Jacques Victor de Blesson! Her mother Catherine drank beer and gin every afternoon until pub closing time.
Two of her brothers would die of alcoholism, like her mother. “My brother Don, who died in London, had a family of his own, but couldn’t let go of the past,” she told me. “He sat in his room and drank and starved himself and drank again, until he could die. He was just following out the logic of it.”
Other fine-spun details in the book leak similar noxious heartache, though it’s not the fare of standard “misery memoir”, it is far too gripping and beautifully written for that. Nuala was from an era when families were large by proxy and relatively uncared for, but it was also a time when you could dream up your future and chassis it with the right tools. These biographical details have been covered elsewhere, but a core surprise in Nuala’s story is the level of poverty the family endured despite her father earning a very good wage. Remuneration on a par with the then editor of the newspaper, Douglas Gageby. At night they slept with overcoats on the beds because there weren’t enough blankets, and most of the time they were hungry.
“My father was a dapper, clever, reticent man and he treated the family as if he had met them at a cocktail party” – one of the most quoted lines from the book. He splashed all his cash around town on a conveyor belt of girlfriends and mistresses, while the family did their best to survive in the house in Clontarf on very little.
They moved several times because of “rent issues” and Nuala attended seven different schools. Sheamus Smith who worked as a junior photographer with her father revealed in his own memoir that Terry O’Sullivan drank a bottle of Power’s Gold Label most nights. This fanfare of male entitlement would shape a lot of Nuala’s personal politics, as well as her relationships with men. Yet she admired her father deeply, taking from him a lifelong love of classical music and a journalistic wit that far surpassed his. She signed herself into St Patrick’s Hospital in the grip of breakdown after his death from leukaemia on December 5th, 1980. Her mother, Catherine O’Faolain, died alone on Sunday, September 29th, 1985, at her home in Dollymount.
In 1958, while studying English at UCD, things did not run smoothly for Nuala. At one stage she had to drop out because of what was considered risqué or promiscuous behaviour, securing work in a hospital kitchen in London for a while. When she returned to Ireland, Mary Lavin gave her an allowance for six weeks to resit exams and finish her degree.
She read everything she could get her hands on: Anton Chekhov, John Keats, James Joyce, Franz Kaf ka, Jean Racine, Emily Brontë, Robert Lowell, T.S. Elliot, William Shakespeare, Yasunari Kawabata, Marcel Proust. That imaginary world which was her escape in childhood was now the centre of her intellectual life. She briefly shared a flat with Patrick Kavanagh, who used to “piss and groan out the doorway in the mornings”. Dublin was dark and dramatic, streets drifting with smoke and rain.
Noël Browne’s Socialist Party met regularly in Moran’s Hotel to discuss the future of Ireland. Students lounged around Bewleys scoffing potato pancakes, throwing out ideas for short stories. Nuala spent many a night drinking bottles of Vintara in Leland Bardwell’s flat in Leeson Street, writing bits of scripts for Radio Éireann. She went on to read medieval romance at University of Hull in her early 20s and eventually secured a scholarship for a B.Phil in Literature at Oxford.
After she graduated she taught English Literature for a while in Dublin, before moving on to the BBC in 1970. There she produced outlandish and stimulating programmes: protesting pornography with the Queen’s gynaecologist, querying religious sects that buried their prayers inside batteries at the San Andreas Fault, chronicling personal problems of Yorkshire transsexuals and a documentary on the Bogside Community Association.
‘Intellect and emotion’
Her colleague Tony Laryea remarked in Marian Finucane’s posthumous 2012 documentary Nuala: “Intellect and emotion were very closely connected for Nuala, she emoted everything and had a wonderful facility for language, a voracious intellect but never rammed it down your throat.”
Art critic, painter, novelist and poet John Berger, as well as American critic Lesley Fiedler and renowned essayist Clement Greenberg, were lovers of Nuala during this time. ‘These were not fusty old academics but the most glamorous minds of the time, everyone was reading them,” noted Colm Tóibín. She also had a long-term relationship with writer Tim Hilton whom she left the day before they were due to marry. She returned to Ireland in 1977 and took a job at RTÉ, producing Open Door and Booklines.
I asked Nuala in her kitchen that day why she began and ended Are You Somebody? with poignant accounts of her parent’s ill-fated marriage. “I hadn’t realised that I’d go back to them, I think out of some mixture of loyalty and being imprinted by pattern, I was trying to oblige them by ruining myself. I was tempted to join my mother in her despair all my life. I was very close to her, even though I didn’t like touching her or being with her. I pitied her so utterly that I copied her. I am very lucky they both died when I was about 40, it gave me a chance to live. I have been very lucky too, that there must’ve been some instinct for life in me, that I was lucky enough to get off with Nell, who insisted on life.”
She finished by pointing to a rocking chair. “You know I sit there and drink red wine and read and read and read, just like Mammy.”
This book is extraordinary on several levels, the aweless way she flings facts on to your lap before moving on unflurried to some unrelated topic. “I was never afraid till I went to The Messiah in the Theatre Royal when I was 11, and a man put his hand up under my skirt and hurt me with his fingers.”
This is followed by details of an ineffectual conversation on radio with Gay Byrne, the reader trapped by the preceding admission. Sounds, sights, smells: the Jeyes-Fluid smelling toilets of bygone Dublin and the sugar crunch underfoot in old kitchens. Rare peculiarities about nuns that you would honestly never even be able to research now, never mind hear about. No Irish woman, with the exception perhaps of Molly Bloom, had written frankly about masturbation, casual sex, the endless pursuit of passionate love. It is fascinating to read of the regimental chauvinism that must’ve been confused by many for care.
One of her lovers wrote her a letter, addressed “Dear Little Sister”, outlining to Nuala how she should behave with a man. “You can be the sieve for his ideas and enthusiasms, the moderator of his superfluous angers, the soft bosom of his hard days, his scourge to action – or his dangle of promised sweetmeats.”
The gear change from slapdash servitude to the #MeToo movement of now is something Nuala would’ve properly marvelled at, had she lived longer. Likewise she would have a ton to say about the state of American politics, a subject she loved to write about when she moved to New York in 2001. The frank and hilarious descriptions of the people in these pages – Kingsley Amis, for instance, is a “big pink particularly likeable baby” – to ignoring the “feminist call” to self-respect in relationship decisions. This really is a book that does for memoir what Edna O’Brien did for fiction, with an imperishability in the telling. Nuala drove me home in her busted car after our meeting, calling two weeks later with a cat in a basket – and an envelope with £30 to procure “Sandra” a hysterectomy – as a thank you for taking the time to talk to her.
She wrote many emails to me over the years, all of which are erased now from an old Hotmail account I let lie too long. I remember how giddy and happy she was meeting barrister John Low-Beer in New York, a whole slew of emails outlining how “at the age of 60-something” she still “hadn’t a clue” how to traverse the dense and melodramatic pathways of intimacy. She was thrilled to be writing fiction full-time, with plans to end out her days “writing about other people’s cats and dogs” in her cottage in Co Clare.
In March 2008, when I emailed to tell her I was on the move again to a small Victorian seaside town outside Belfast, she replied: “The sheer quality of the misery of winter in a life-denying small town where everyone thinks you’re nuts, the sheer awfulness of trying to stay warm, even the sheer perversity of living away from anything pleasant Belfast has to offer is very you!”
She had a terrific sense of humour. Her mood from the mid-2000s really picked up. She loved her little room in Brooklyn with the “hideously expensive yellow silk curtains”, peppered with time at John’s house where he lived with his daughter Anna. She was over the moon about winning the 2006 Prix Femina prize for her book The Story of Chicago May, about the notorious Irish thief and prostitute. “It was a grand little book even if the Americans didn’t like it.” Nuala was also making headway into what she dubbed a “hen lit” novel about being at the outer edge of middle age (Best Love Rosie). It came as a real shock when she wrote in April 2008 to tell me she had metastatic cancer, telling me I was to “listen out” for a radio interview scheduled with her lifelong friend, Marian Finucane. The interview would of course turn out to be a very public “rage against the dying of the light” that went viral. She spoke with horrendous candour about her fears and life regrets. She’d quit smoking at 53, but contracted lung cancer at 68, lasting only two months from the point of diagnosis.
I skipped her funeral to write the Guardian article by the print deadline, something I always felt guilty about. My copy of My Dream of You is signed to “my dear e-friend who is a genius”. That’s how madly generous she was. Not only agreeing to an interview with a student-stranger teeming with stupid questions when her own work schedule was so manic, but that she had bothered to keep in touch for over a decade, always flinging encouragement my way, even after I eventually came clean that I’d blown the cat’s hysterectomy money on a bottle of Bacardi and fresh pasta. She was my referee for an MA in Creative Writing at Queen’s University Belfast in 2007.
Her final email days before she died was uncharacteristically serene: “There is nothing left to say except bye bye for now”.
This is the introduction to a commemorative edition of Are You Somebody? (New Island) by Nuala O’Faolain, who died on May 9th, 2008. June Caldwell is author of Room Little Darker