The lonely passion of Nell McCafferty


'I'm going to have to go through a week of Lesbian Nell, I know that.' Honest as ever, journalist Nell McCafferty talks to Kathy Sheridan about her autobiography.

It takes all of 335 pages before the name Nuala O'Faolain kicks in - looking for a spare bed, as it happens - but Nell McCafferty is surprisingly reconciled to finding her multi-faceted 437-page autobiography, Nell, reduced to a 15-year relationship with another writer. When the lengthy Sunday Tribune extracts, published at the weekend, focused exclusively on that relationship, some wondered if the legendarily combative McCafferty might take umbrage at having her entire 60-year-old life defined by another woman.

She sucks on her cigarette and nods vigorously in agreement - but with a different point entirely. Vintage McCafferty.

"They pay €20,000 for the extracts, then their ads run all week talking about my 15-year relationship with 'a woman', and don't even name the 'woman'. I'd have thought Nuala O'Faolain's name was worth money in this town, wouldn't you?" she snorts, laughing.

But, eh, don't you mind that this is how your life is boiled down by the media?

"What else could they focus on - my childhood in Derry, the 30-year war in the North? Come on . . .", she says, wryly. "I'm going to have to go through a week of Lesbian Nell, I know that. But if I'd been them, I'd have begun it with the Christmas Eve when Nuala arrived in with a red fox-fur coat and red silk knickers for me . . ."

For all her fierceness, there is something almost innocent about Nell McCafferty. She firmly believes that her sexual orientation is a secret, known only to the media village.

"Half the population of Ireland do not know about it, I'm telling you," she says. "They think I'm beating men off the front door, that I'm some kind of sex machine."

She cannot understand why, when O'Faolain's memoir appeared with its oblique and unnamed reference to their relationship - "like we were lodgers", says McCafferty - no journalist asked McCafferty straight out about being gay.

"No journalist mentioned to me or the media that I was the other woman," she says. "I don't know why they didn't . . . Is it because it is unspeakable or because the media is so sweet?"

It's an odd question because, at the time, most journalists who knew her would have had a ready answer. McCafferty had always given first thought to her adored mother when such matters came up for discussion. This was plain in an exchange between McCafferty and O'Faolain, while O'Faolain was writing her own memoir, Are You Somebody?. O'Faolain had shown McCafferty the first page of the chapter she was writing on her. McCafferty relates the incident in her autobiography: "But, I protested, what about my mother? The revelations about our relationship would frighten her. It was time my mother was stood up to, Nuala said . . . Had she dropped the term 'lesbian' applied to me but not to herself? She had, Nuala said.

Like so many of her stances and relationships, sexual and non-sexual, she is a mass of contradictions. But she is never less than achingly honest. Her tone is almost reverential now when speaking about her old love: "I loved the woman. I got the Holy Grail. I couldn't get over my luck." So, in hindsight, was O'Faolain right, should she have stood up to her mother?

"I finally stood up to my mother, but no, Nuala wasn't right," she says. "That was just her way of saying: 'I'm going to publish the book anyway.' "

Time and again in McCafferty's book, people who have performed in various unfriendly ways invariably pop up again soon after, as if nothing much had happened. But that doesn't prevent them getting a good going-over for the record. And McCafferty, scarily for some, has held on to her notes and quotes, through war and peace, for more than 40 years.

"I knew I would write this book when an American magazine sent me an interview it had done with Nuala," says McCafferty. The interviewer had asked O'Faolain to reconcile the focus on heterosexuality [ in her novel] with her relationship with McCafferty.

Although, in her reply, O'Faolain acknowledged her love for McCafferty and that she had "got better through her", the thrust of the reply was what crushed McCafferty. O'Faolain said that she had had never thought of McCafferty "as a woman and when I woke up with Nell it didn't seem remarkable to me at all", and finished with: "I would still walk across 59 women to get to one man if I was attracted to him . . . Nell is very bitter. She thinks this book is a disgrace."

McCafferty, who suffered the "loneliest" night of her life after reading that, later concluded that O'Faolain "just could not deal with anyone thinking of her as a 'lesbian' ". But her most savage riposte comes at the end of that chapter, when she writes: "My mother told me she always knew, when her children were walking out the door, which of their marriages would fail. 'What did you think of Nuala coming in the door?' I asked. 'She was too old for you,' my mother said gently. 'She'd already lived her life.' "

McCafferty offered her book to O'Faolain to read before publication, but O'Faolain was between places and said she would buy it herself.

The Derry journalist, Eamonn McCann, was not offered similar privileges. He comes out rather badly, I suggest to the author.

"Good," she says brightly.

Both McCann and the late Mary Holland, the distinguished journalist and mother of two of his children, feature in one of the "terrible humiliations" of her life, which related to the release of the young MP, Bernadette Devlin, from jail in 1970.

McCafferty had been sent north by The Irish Times to record with the rest of the local and international media what she termed "the walk to freedom of the most recognised and acclaimed young revolutionary in the world. I was slightly embarrassed because I was going as both new reporter and old friend . . . I hated the thought of asking her personal questions for public purposes".

So pivotal was McCafferty to the Bogside battles, and so extensive was her contacts list, that the rest of the assembled media was taking its lead from this young reporter with the much-envied access, the woman who was so close to Devlin that she was even suspected of acting as a decoy for her old friend to allow her go out the back door.

They began to look at her a little strangely as McCann, Devlin's political mentor, came and went, pausing only to take aside the British Daily Mirror photographer. Holland was driving, and she and McCann roared off in their car, swiftly followed by the Mirror man.

Neither of them paused to chat to their old friend McCafferty. Long before the rest of her colleagues copped it, she reckoned that she "had been betrayed by two friends". Devlin had sold her story to Holland's paper, the Observer, and to the Daily Mirror. A disgruntled television journalist noted sourly that McCafferty "certainly had nice friends". The wound was raw when she had to ring The Irish Times newsdesk and tell the news editor about "my friends".

So wounding was the incident to McCafferty that she wrote it all down then and kept the account for 34 years, reproducing it over five pages in her autobiography. She has no issue now with Holland: "She was a ruthless journalist, as any woman should be" - but she's not finished with the "fearless, informed . . . breathtakingly beautiful" McCann. She recalls when he was offered the chairmanship of the powerful Citizens' Action Committee (CAC) and how he turned it down, dismissing it as "middle-aged, middle-class and middle of the road". Though he and McCafferty sometimes "kissed the faces off each other", he told her that his archetypal woman was "a middle-aged, middle-class married woman".

McCafferty is unrelenting: "Sexual power without responsibility, so - was it a similar impulse which had led him to reject social power, and the responsibility that came with it, through chairmanship of the CAC?"

Incidentally, she notes that after McCann walked out of that CAC meeting, a man called John Hume was elected its vice-chairman: "Within a year, this quiet man would wipe out, electorally, the Nationalist Party in Derry and, by 1970, co-found its replacement, the Social Democratic and Labour Party. Eamonn had handed him power on a plate."

Despite the bust-ups between McCann and McCafferty, contact continued. In 1995, after her relationship with O'Faolain had collapsed and each night McCafferty turned her "face to the wall and drank Southern Comfort", McCann sent flowers with the message "to the irresistible Nell". The long voicemail left by McCann last August, explaining the circumstances of that long-ago jail release, is still on her answering machine.

"I love him," she says. And the thing is, you believe her. No doubt, there is nothing here that he hasn't already heard.

A scan of the book shows a life rich in characters and politics - Northern, feminist, you name it - encountered and embraced at enviably turbulent times, and, sometimes, love. Above all, there is the love of her mother, whose faithfully reproduced, straight-from-the-heart letters haunt the heart long after the book is ended. "Am I the only one who has no issues with her mother?" she wonders merrily. But a slow read reveals more of a deep loneliness and a lifelong sense of exclusion.

"I think I was isolated by my own brilliance", she says, laughing about the early days. Later, it might have been a sense of not wanting to be part of any gang.

For six years after she went to university, she remained unkissed. She trained herself to go to the pictures alone, paying for the expensive seats, at a time when few women were seen out alone.

"I believed this was my life . . . I was desperately lonely because of my sexuality." She also believed herself to be socially inept: "Some friends say they wouldn't take me out because I might say something that would affect their parents . . . probably bad language".

She describes a few doomed years in "the lesbian ghetto" in Dublin, in terms to wither even the most radical heart. She has no wish to go back. Then there were the nine years of a dying relationship with O'Faolain, when she remained unkissed.

She laughs while saying all this, joking that she and Roddy Doyle characters are the only people in the world allowed to say the F-word. But loneliness is woven through her book like a dark thread. Her refusal to condemn the murderous deeds of the "neighbour's children" - the Provos - hardly helped matters, at a time when witch-hunts for anyone with "green" tendencies down South were a commonplace. She had "an awful lot" of neighbour's children, she agrees.

"What I thought was that even if I didn't like the Provos, it was the British that brought this upon us, therefore everyone in Derry being in the IRA became the neighbour's children. My attitude is that I don't understand Lebanon - and I don't expect people from a different country to understand the North," she says.

It continues to niggle. She has read Austin Currie's "stunning" book and says: "Christ, what he went through . . . I managed to turn a wilfully blind eye to what was happening to him and John Hume. I never once went up to John and Pat and said 'that was appalling'. I should have done it."

And why didn't she? "Because," she says, a touch wearily, "then we'd have had a row about the Provos and I'd have said: 'There's a war on, don't give me a lecture.' Believe me, I'm aware of all these contradictions."

But her life is at last achieving a kind of equanimity. The "wound" - inflicted by what the global churches called the "curse" of her sexuality - is healed.

"I realise it's been wounding me all my life. It's over now. The wound is over," she says.

Meanwhile, her ailing mother is her focus. "It's getting very hard," she says. "I'm getting physically tired. I keep asking, do I take such care of her to compensate for me being born gay."

The answer, she says, is no.

"I like her. Love is too shallow a word for it. I enjoy my mother. That's it".

Nell, by Nell McCafferty. Published by Penguin Ireland at €23.99