Nuala O’Faolain’s feminism is only part of her story


Sir, – Anne Enright does not give readers much detail about the lecture at the Merriman Summer School in 2007 during which Nuala O’Faolain, it seems, decried the “failures” of Irish feminism (“Nuala O’Faolain was an impossible person, to whom we owe so much”, Culture, July 11th).

However, Enright ascribes this view of things to O’Faolain’s resentment of a later generation of Irish women, who were able to enjoy freedoms of which O’Faolain herself and her peers had been deprived.

Enright further suggests that, like other Irish feminists of O’Faolain’s time, “when the world changed around them perhaps the anger became misdirected one way or another, sometimes” (Patrick Freyne, “Anne Enright: ‘I looked at how men managed their confidence’”(Culture, July 15th).

In some ways, it seems justified for Enright to position herself as a more fortunate legatee of Irish history and of the efforts of the Irish women’s movement than O’Faolain had been. Some things do get better over time. There are now somewhat more hospitable conditions for women writers in the country.

However, this account of things should not come at the price of a reductive account of O’Faolain’s worldview. Nor perhaps should O’Faolain’s opinions in 2007 (at least as these were outlined elsewhere by O’Faolain in print) be regarded as merely stemming from an emotionally frustrated response to the new Ireland of her time.

Did O’Faolain, as Enright states, really “lash out at a woman”, namely her mother, and “hate her” for being weak? Most readers of Are You Somebody? will surely recall O’Faolain’s equally searching critique of her father. If anything, the work arguably draws attention to and dignifies what O’Faolain believed to be the tragedy of her mother’s life.

O’Faolain’s contribution to the literature of Irish feminism is clearly of huge significance. Only perhaps Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls had a greater impact on Irish readers than Are You Somebody?

Nevertheless, O’Faolain’s feminism is only part of her story – although a crucial one.

In her memoirs, journalism and fiction, she also wrote about the Famine, enforced emigration, the Birmingham Six, and an extraordinary column about the deaths of the three Quinn children in a loyalist firebomb attack on their home in Ballymoney in 1998. She recounts also her reverence for the more radical traditions in Irish social thought – praising, among many others, Noel Browne and Seán Mac Réamoinn.

O’Faolain died in May 2008 and therefore did not experience the post-Celtic Tiger crash later that year. But unlike some other Irish writers, wise after the event, she was never reconciled to boom-time Ireland.

In 2006 she wrote in a column entitled “Islam and the West”: “For myself, the values of Christianity, as expanded by ideals like those of the French Revolution or the early trade-union movement or socialism, would be just fine if they were put into practice.”

However, she asked tough-minded questions of the neoliberal world that had emerged since the 1980s: “What’s so great about pornography being the most popular industry on the internet? About walking through cities at night and seeing fellow human beings asleep in doorways? About watching the toil and privation men and women endure in order just to subsist – in mines in South America, in brothels, on their knees on peasant farms – while the likes of Paris Hilton . . . are worshipped? . . . The fact has to be acknowledged that human beings have failed in the project of living together, and they’ve failed everywhere.”

Maybe her reservations about the “good life” that consumer capitalism, in Ireland or elsewhere, actually delivers were an important part of the explanation for O’Faolain’s disappointment and unease in the final years of her life?

Viewed in the context of her wider writings, this seems a fairer judgement than to surmise that she was primarily motivated by psychic rage or generational jealousy directed at other women. – Yours, etc,


Dublin 8.