Nuala @ her cottage in Clare. © Sunday Tribune
Nuala O’Faolain terrified me. I met her in May 1997 at her home in Ranelagh for a student interview. “You’re ‘too sensitive’ to make a go at journalism, too wide-eyed for shitheads in a newsroom,” she concluded, after just half an hour. Her family history had parallels with my own and despite the fact that she was completely intimidating, we somehow clicked. She scoffed a sausage sambo and laughed at me for being vegetarian. I was obliged to throw sticks at Molly the Collie and admire the ‘Victorian blue’ paint on the sitting room walls (sourced by her lodger Luke from a stately home in UK). Her grand plan was to live out latter days “writing about other people’s cats & dogs” in a cottage in Clare. Three hours later she drove me home in a battered car that could’ve belonged to a learner driver in Wexford and not a woman whose book Are You Somebody? was topping the best seller lists worldwide.
When I sent her the typed interview she thanked me by dumping a cat in a basket on my doorstep with a £20 note & strict instructions where to buy ‘Sandra’ a hysterectomy. ‘Anyone who wants to be fully human should own a cat,’ the note said. I zipped around to Tesco on Baggot Street, turning the nice crisp hysterectomy dosh into a bottle of bacardi, fresh pasta & some scented candles. Sandra got duffed by the lesbians-in-the-basement’s ‘Felix’ and three years later, while Editor of a revenue magazine, I emailed her to come clean. She called me ‘despicable’, saying I was the worst type of person there was. Nuala’s emails were hilarious, often sad, always sickeningly candid. I was forever chuffed to hear from her, even when she told me not to have kids, that I’d make a lousy mother (and various other insults): ‘You can’t even look after yourself or a cat, imagine what you’d actually do to another human being!’ Another email read: ‘Perhaps an interesting job isn’t your destiny June, so boredom and sexual frustration will force you to write fiction.’ Every few months she’d write to ask me how I was, without fail. Her messages were always packed with funny little nuggets of advice: ‘Don’t go to male shrinks, they’re even worse than ordinary males.’
In 2002, she agreed to be my ‘referee’ for a Foundation Course in Psychotherapy at the Tivoli Institute, Galway. ‘After you’re done there, there’s a place in north Belfast that does great training at weekends, you’d be a brilliant counsellor, I’d go to you, just don’t ever ask me for a writing reference’. It transpired I was way too neurotic for counselling training and Nuala changed her mind about a writing appraisal when she read a feature I wrote for the Sunday Business Post. Once again she ended up as rent-a-judge, this time for an MA in Creative Writing at Queens’ University Belfast in 2007. ‘You will soar, eventually, but the effort will probably kill you,’ she said. After she died I wrote an article in The Guardian which I think would’ve surprised her. Last night when RTÉ aired Nuala, a profile by a cherished friend, Marian Finucane, I dug out the original interview I wrote 15 years ago, which I’m pasting below. Bear in mind it was my first attempt at a journalistic profile (it’s written in the present tense of 1997), so some of the language is manuka-sticky, but a few worthwhile insights survive.
WATCHING NUALA O’ FAOLAIN EAT A SAUSAGE SANDWICH
Relations between men and women are in an awful state. The old world is dead, but there’s no new world yet, we don’t know what to do or which way to go. There’s young-ones with money taking over Temple Bar and old Dublin, Joyce’s Dublin, is dissolved into paltriness. The whole point to Dublin was that it was accessible, shabby, alive. People wandered around it all day. Now they go from A to B, spiritually impaired. The wandering has stopped and mass exodus towards apostasy has begun.
This is what Nuala O’Faolain feels today, 11 months after her book Are You Somebody? was released. This arresting memoir, by a dedicated controversialist, presented itself by pure accident and topped the best seller list for 20 weeks in 1996/7. The book indwells itself in the public and private life of Ireland, so much so, that Nuala herself is stunned at the emotional episode it has created. People wrote to her from Trinidad, Australia, China, Chicago, and even from a trekker’s hut in Nepal, to offer her images of themselves in response to hers. In an unpublished extract called ‘Afterwords’, she writes:
‘I never envisaged such cherishing. When I called my memoir Are You Somebody? it was largely to pre-empt the hostile people who’d say, at my writing anything about myself at all, ‘who does she think she is?’ I never imagined awakening something a bit like love.’
She was asked by New Island Books to write an introduction to a decade’s collection of journalism articles. She felt it was impossible without chronicling some fundamental aspects of her life. She had no intention of ‘writing a book’, rather the lengthy introduction was an unavoidable resolution to a complex and lacerated childhood.
‘Trying to live and push as much life into myself,’ is Nuala’s motto. “Sensation and feeling, that’s how I want to live. I want to really live. On the other hand I can hardly live because I am 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. Yet sometimes I feel it’s not happening, because I’m the only person who knows about me.”
Her cat Hodge is so like Patrick Kavanagh it’s not funny! He has the same cynical pissed off expression and he’s a begrudger. I imagine PK’s eyes were as strikingly gold on occasion, when he woke half dead from alcohol. But Hodge doesn’t indulge in the ‘wrong’ kind of drink or write poetry. He’s a misanthropic feline, with attitude, Nuala adores him, despite his mucky personality. “I bought him off a sinister man for £150,” she explains. “They’re both the same, they don’t have very good personalities…ah sure Patrick had his good days too, like when he’d win on a horse and want to share everything with you!”
In her UCD years, Nuala shared a flat briefly with Patrick Kavanagh, who used to piss and groan out the doorway in the mornings. Dublin was dark and dramatic then…Noël Browne’s Socialist Party met regularly in Moran’s Hotel to discuss the future of Ireland. Students sat around Bewleys, scoffing potato pancakes, discussing 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. There was an unselfconscious scattering of ideas all over the literary Dublin of the time. You were assessed in terms of yourself, and warmly welcomed if you fitted in.
In 1958, while studying English at UCD, things did not always run smoothly for Nuala. At one stage she had to drop out of University and work in a hospital kitchen in London. When she returned to Ireland, Mary Lavin gave her an allowance for six weeks so she could resit exams and finish her degree. Shortly afterwards she read ‘medieval romance’ at University of Hull and eventually secured a scholarship for a B.Phil in Literature at Oxford. After she graduated she taught English Literature (briefly) in Dublin, before moving on to the BBC in 1970.
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. Yet she was never au fait with any aspect of her emigrant life. She became increasingly desolate and disaffected in the UK, to the point where she had not choice but to return home. The year was 1977. The same vigour that hauled her through those early years, was bulldozing her towards inescapable crisis. She signed herself into St. Patrick’s Hospital as a full-time alcoholic, addicted to tranquilizers, desperate for help. It became apparent that she had to go right back to the beginning of her life, and start again.
Nuala O’Faolain was born in 1940, in an era of art deco, when Cat Woman first appeared in comics, when faulty condoms were made out of sheep’s intestines and UFO sightings were reported on a world-wide basis for the first time. It was the same year John Lennon and Frank Zappa were born, and Scott Fitzgerald and Emma Goldman died. Irish ‘O’Faolain’ is a diminutive of ‘wolf’ and is among the fifth most numerous names in Ireland.
In 1939, Tomás O’Faolain joined the Irish Defence Forces, spending most of his spare time writing to his ‘chroidhe dhil’ (Nuala’s mother) with details of moving his young family to Donegal. The following year he cycled up to Dublin from Dunree on the Inishowen Peninsula to greet Nuala at the Rotunda hospital. Her mother and father were desperately in love. By the early 1940s, Tomás had metamorphosed into the auspicious Terry O’Sullivan. He began his journalism career by taking the ‘Radio Train’ to Killarney for Radio Éireann, and his ‘Dubliner’s Diary’ column for the Evening Press. His ostentatious career and social life, took him further and further away from home. Mrs O’Faolain, glorified wife and onlooker to numerous extra-marital affairs, began to feel totally cast aside. Increasingly, she sat in her armchair in the kitchen to drink and read. “This is how she chose to eventually die”.
Nuala attended seven schools in total, during these early years, when she lived in a farm-labourer’s cottage in North County Dublin. She was hauled off to boarding school in Monaghan in 1954, when puberty became ‘a problem’. There she nurtured her love of reading, and fostered an urge to learn. ‘My life only began when I learnt to read,’ Nuala once wrote. And she read everything she could get her hands on. Saul Bellow, Alice Munrow, Chekhov, Keats, Dacia Maraini, Dermot Healy, Joyce, Eoin MacNamee, Montherland, Richard Ford, Kaftka, Racine, Jane Eyre, Robert Lowell, T.S. Elliot, Shakespeare, Kawabata. For too many years novels were all Nuala cared about. She has read a book every few days of her life without fail. In later life, she sees the characters of decades, gathered around her, to keep her company.
“When I get on in age, I’ll have to write novels,” she insists. “Sure what else can I do here? I’m here on my own all the time: you can hardly call that living. I will go and live in Clare full-time and write my books, crammed with characters, men and women & other people’s cats and dogs.”
Her input in broadcasting has been sedulous and when she returned from England in the late 1970s, she took a job at RTÉ, producing the Open Door and Booklines programmes. Journalist Jonathan Philbin Bowman debated many issues with Nuala over the years, but states quite clearly that his various opinions of her don’t always fuse: “Nuala is a very fine writer, equally capable of great sensitivity and occasional near sanity. There are times when she is not sure herself, how to bridge that gap between intellect and passion. But overall, she is consistent in the amount of human compassion she shows people.”
Nuala joined the Irish Times in late 1980, following a conversation she had on radio with Gay Byrne, about elderly Irish women. Today, she is a highly respected columnist, who writes about all miens of Ireland in a unique, manifold way. Angela Bourke, writer and lecturer summed up her journalism in the following way: “They are essays that have urged us over the years, to pay attention to the weave of the society we live in, weft as well as warp. She notices always the threads that run always: the lives of women, of children, of quiet men, the hurts inflicted and forgotten or suffered and remembered. Class politics, gender politics, power relations. These are her particular themes.”
Some find her writing uncomfortable because she insists on adjusting to a certain understanding of how things really are. A certain amount of people recoil when truth flails around so unselfconcsiously, other embrace her honesty as if it were a long-awaited benefaction.
On Poverty: ‘If you live one of those local authority estates on the edge of small towns – the ones whose name appears predictably in the court reports of the local paper – who will care about you?’
On Drugs: ‘Hard drugs are the worst thing to happen to Ireland since the famine. But we forget, we lose interest, we fortunate ones can afford to.’
On Female Sterilisation: ‘Women are in no position to be airy-fairy about their bodies, they bleed, their wombs swell, they labour just like animals to bring forth children, then they feed them, wipe the waste from their bodies, shovel grunge into their mouths…to bring them through to independence.’
She writes her articles, pen avec paper, on a rough wood table in her kitchen, where we sit now. Molly the half Collie, runs in from the back garden with a stick for me. We fabricated a friendship in the isolated minutes after Luke, Nuala’s lodger, showed me in and handed me a cup of cha. Nuala trundled down the stairs, hair soaked, wearing a blue flowery dress and a big, amiable smile. There is an extraordinary expression in her eyes, as she talks unhindered, with a sausage sandwich hanging halfway out her gob.
“My lodger Luke is the dearest man in the world, but I am terrified of him coming in drunk, my whole life I’ve been watching people come in drunk.”
What comes across most fixedly about Nuala’s life is that she is dreadfully hurt by what she calls “one of those hugely damaged, big Irish families.” It is this unresolved ache that propels her to discover truths that would otherwise be unreachable. She has undoubtedly survived all the things that have entranced, beguiled, sickened and outraged her. Yet at this stage in her life, she feels she has no immediate or momentous purpose, and is very alone.
Sean MacConnell, Agricultural Correspondent in the Irish Times is probably Nuala’s closest confidant. He has known her well for ten years, and worked with her father in the Evening Press many years before. To sum up Nuala in a sentence he told me, “She is an amazingly bright, remarkably strong woman, with great integrity and great vulnerability.” His first impression of Nuala was that she was unbearably shy but had a suave charm. “Just like her father, the one thing that really stands out about Nuala is that life is a huge learning process, and because she is so open to new interpretation, she can be very unpredictable.”
Going back to the book where the explication of her life and success ultimately lies, I ask her why she began and ended 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 actually 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 spent nearly two life-giving decades with Nell McCafferty until they split up last year  when their many differences became insufferable. “Back to whole relationship/family thing: take my brother Don, who just died recently in London. He had a family of his own, but couldn’t let go of the past. 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.”
She tells a story about ‘Michael’ and ‘Rob’, her two tremendous loves featured in the book. They haven’t even bothered to drop her a line, or pick up the phone in response to her story being published. Her whole life it seems has been flooded by moments of unimaginable intensity, followed by long spells of desert, and all-consuming work in between. Her mother had been the same in this respect; nothing matters except passion, mythos is something to covet, something to adore…
On the way out the door, Nuala points to the rocking chair in the kitchen and says: “You know I sit there and drink red wine and read and read and read, just like Mammy.” When the car chugs off up the road, almost of its own accord, I ask her if she travels around the countryside a lot. “I do,” she says, “just like Dad did.” So at 57, writing, reading, drinking wine and contemplating how to live, she is a synthesis of her mother and father. How could she be anything else?