Nuala O’Faolain (1942-2008)


Life
b. 1 March 1942, Dublin, 2nd of nine children; dg. of Tomás Ó Nuaillain, prominent broadcaster, journalist [pseud. “Terry O’Sullivan” in The Irish Press] and philanderer, and an alcoholic mother, as narrated in her autobiogrphical writings (‘there was a savage lack of love’); ed. at a St. Louis’ Convent in Monaghan, UCD (grad. English), Hull (Med. Lit.), and Oxford (BPhil.); appt. lecturer of English at UCD; moved to London and worked as producer making programmes for the Open University, and afterwards for the BBC; published ‘Irish Women and Writing in Modern Ireland’, claiming that there had not been a major woman-writer;
 
joined RTE in 1983; worked with Larkin and Berger, and taughted occasionally at Morley College; produced “Plain Tales” (RTE TV), based on the lives of ordinary - or not so ordinary - woman; winner of Jacob’s Award, 1985; hired as columnist by The Irish Times, 1986; raised feminist objection to the absence of women writers from The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, in an interview with Seamus Deane on “Booklines” (RTE, 8 Nov. 1991); anti-feminist her autobiography Are You Somebody? (1996), which started as a preface for a collection of her column-pieces held the top of Irish best-sellers for 20 weeks, and reveals her lesbianism while exploring family and sexuality in Ireland; writes of her 15-year relationship with Nell McCafferty;
 
took leave from The Irish Times, 1998 and settled in Greenwich Village to write My Dream of You (2000), a novel based on historical documents relating to the Talbot divorce case in Mayo, circa 1850, when the wife was said to be in an affair with a female servant - which became a fiction best-seller for O’Faolain; taught short course on writing memoirs at NYU and kept up “Regarding Ireland”, a regular column in The Irish Times Magazine [Weekend]; issued and autobiographical sequel, Almost There: The Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman (2003);
 
lived in one-room apartment in New York but afterwards as registered partner with John Low-Beer, sharing their Brooklyn home with his daughter; issued Story of Chicago May (1005), about the Irish-American gangster May Duignan; winner of Prix Femina Award, 2006; diagnosed with metastatic cancer, Feb. 2008; spoke of her terminal condition on the Marian Finucance morning show, RTE1, 12 April 2009 - disclaiming the desire to live long (‘As soon as I heard I was going to die, the goodness went from life’); d. 9 May 2008, ion a Dublin hospice; a posthumous novel Best Love, Rosie, appeared in 2009, a story of migration to America with an ageing aunt, and eventual return to a loving family; she lived at 3 Charlston Ave., Ranelagh, to 2006.

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Works
Autobiography
  • Are You Somebody?: The Life and Times of Nuala O’Faolain (Dublin: New Island 1996), 351pp., and Do. [pb. edn.] (London Sceptre 1998), 356pp.; Do. [another edn.] (NY: H. Holt 1998), 215pp. [see extract and summary];
  • Almost There: The Onwards Journey of a Dublin Woman (London: Michael Joseph/Penguin 2003), 275pp. [see summary];
  • The Story of Chicago May (London: Michael Joseph 2005), 307pp.
Fiction
  • My Dream of You (London: Michael Joseph 2001), 464pp.; Do. (London: Penguin 2001), 447pp. [see extract and summary];
  • Best Love, Rosie (Dublin: New Island Press 2009), 460pp. [posthum.; see summary]
Miscellaneous
  • ‘Edna O’Brien’, in Ireland Today [Irish na Roinne Gnothai Eachtracha/Bulletin of the Dept. of Foreign Affairs], No. 1,0001 (Sept. 1983), pp.10-13 [see under O’Brien, supra];
  • ‘Women, Writing and Ireland Now’, in Ireland and the Arts, ed. Tim Pat Coogan (London: Literary Review 1983), pp.88-91.
  • ‘Irish Women and Writing in Modern Ireland’, in Irish Women: Image and Achievement, ed. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (Dublin: Arlen Press, 1985) [see extract];
  • intro. to Jon Michael Riley, The Irish File: Images from a Land of Grace (London: Thames & Hudson 2002), [n.p.]; ill. [some col.];
  • also ‘Onward and Upward’ [feature-article on publication of Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman], in Irish Times Magazine (15 March 2003), pp.10-12, with colour port [infra].
Media
Sound recordings for the Open University [written by several hands]:
  • Devotional Hinduism (Open University 1977);
  • Experience - the Root of Religion? (Open University 1977);
  • The Hindu Temple (Open University 1977);
  • A Hindu Testimony (Open University 1977);
  • A Humanist Testimony (Open University 1977);
  • [David Goldstein,] Music in the Jewish Religion (Open University 1977);
  • Music of Christianity (Open University 1977).

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Criticism
Eilís Ní Dhuibhne, review of Almost There, in The Irish Times (22 March 2003), “Weekend”. See also sundry notices and reviews under Commentary, infra; obituary, in the Telegraph (11 May 2008) [incls. photo-port.; available online];

Patricia Sullivan, ‘Nuala O’Faolain: Irish Writer Illuminated Female Isolation’, in Washington Post (12 May 2008) [attached].

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Commentary
Shirley Kelly
, interviews Nuala O’Faolain, in Books Ireland (Feb. 2001), pp.7-8; notes her success of Are You Somebody? (1996).

Helen Falconer, review of Nuala O’Faolain, My Dream of You (2001), in Guardian Weekly (26 April 2001): Kathleen de Burca, 49, exile from Ireland, returns home for resolution with family; plot within plot involves her investigation of scandal of 19th c. landlord’s English wife and his Irish love-starved childhood, she returns to republic growing in self-confidence; about healing that takes place when victims take control of their own history. Considered worthy successor to her mid-90s best-selling autobiography of her mother’s depression and her father’s coldness. (p.19.)

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Kathy Cremin, review of My Dream of You (?2001), in The Irish Times (Weekend, 27 Jan. 2001): Jimmy, Kathleen’s gay colleague and best friend, suddenly dies, pitching her into ‘nothing’; becomes fascinated by scantily-reported affair between landlord’s wife and stablehand, Marianne Talbot and William Mullan, in 1850; sets out to investigate their ‘whispering ghosts’; comments, ‘only towards the end of this novel does the reader understand the dead part of her life’; ‘O’Faolain makes a serious attempt to locate Irish scars outside the oedipal trauma of England-Ireland’; her father patriarchal and ridiculous; her mother absent; of her mother’s reading: ‘passion [...] the thing she was pursuing as she trawled through novel after novel’; calls it ‘choice O’Faolain’; ‘women’s experience of Irish society [...] written all over the pages of this book [...] a reservoir of anger and grief that women feel about women, in a way that is significantly unexplored in Irish fiction.’ (p.12.)

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Catherine Lockerbie, reviewing My Dream of You (NY: Riverhead Books), in New York Review of Books (14 March, 2001), quotes, ‘An only life [...’ as infra] and remarks: ‘My Dream of You is a big, generous, essentially old-fashioned novel, taking its unhurried time to tell a story and create a central character, to have a cool, long look at history and romance’; compares heroine of first and second novels: ‘both are journalists. Both are Irish, well-traveled, middle-aged, educated, alert, literary, single working women facing jup to the remaining decades of their lives. Inded. one of the finest achievements of th ebook is its unflinching, empathic depiction of just how it feels to be poised on the cusop, to experience the chill clutch of the thoughth that the rest of one’s life might be empty of love, sex, intimate human contact.’; notes that the language of the novel is ‘sometimes a little too flat, a little over explanatory.’

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Maureen Boyle, ‘Fiction’s Isn’t Lies; Memoir isn’t Truth’, review of Almost There with works by Colm McCann and Kate Moses, in Fortnight [Belfast] (May 2003), p.16-17: quotes, ‘I’m in America now because of it [the previous book] the idea came into my head that I got here all the way from Ireland in the canoe of my life [...] I journeyed in it from the world I saw when I looked around me after breaking up with Nell [McCafferty], to the world I am looking at now.’ Also gives account of her exploration of a lonely affair with married man for her novel: ‘I was in the extraordinary position of being able to put things baout him in a book, knowing he’d never read them.’ Further quotes: ‘[...] not for a minute do I think that my memoir or any memoir is other than a narrative which might have been another narrative even though it is constructed from profound necessities.’ Boyle remarks: ‘By denying memoir any sense of privilege in relation to a single truth and by blurring the boundaries of form [between memoir and novel], O’Faolain is part of a growing trend within contemporary writing’ (p.16.); and later, ‘O’Faolain’s honest account of how her life went into her novel is really no different from what literary biography tells us of earlier writers’, citing Charlotte Bronte’s experience as a governess and Jane Austen’s account of the pressures and compromises of the single woman; ends by arguing that fiction ‘should be allowed to move back to its root in feigning [...]’ (p.17.)

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Marian Finucane, ‘“I’m dying: Nuala O’Faolain and the interview she wanted to do’, in The Irish Times, 12 Nov. 2011), Weekend: ‘[...] 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.’ Further: ‘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. [...] 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. (Available online; see also The Saturday Interviews, by Marian Finucane, Dublin: Wolfhound Press [2011] - in royalties from which will go to Friends in Ireland [hospice]).

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Quotations
Are you Somebody? (1996): In an afterword she explains: ‘hitherto silent voices [...] were just on the brink of speaking out. I was just slightly ahead.’ Further: ‘My aim in life was something to do with loving and being loved’). Further: ‘I would have been a very bad mother during most of my life [...] I’d be a good mother now.’ (Quoted in Kirkus Reviews, online; copied in COPAC; accessed 07.08.2009 - but no result at Kirkus at this date.)

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My Dream of You (2001): ‘An only life, I muttered to myself, can take so long to climb. Clear of its wrong beginnings [...] I often used poetry to keep harm away.’ (Quoted in Catherine Lockerbie, review in New York Review of Books, 14 March, 2001.)

My Dream of You (2001): ‘The little moorhens and the bony wildcats are busy with living now...exactly as they have always been. But humans have to deal with the past and the future.’ (Kirkus UK; quoted at COPAC online.)

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Irish Women and Writing in Modern Ireland’: ‘[...] It is the absence of realism from our great literary tradition which obliterates women, because realism is the only mode available to women writers who want to write to and of women. I do not mean that women could not and do not avail themselves of non-realist devices, but I do mean that the core of women ‘s writing has always been confessional and has, in the last few decades, become autobiographical. Its ultimate realisation would be a realism based on personal realisation: but the ultimate [?], in this or any other form of expression is only a guide here. (In Irish Women: Image and Achievement, ed. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Dublin: Arlen Press, 1985, p.131.

On the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, 3 vols. (1991) ...

‘If a compilation as seemingly authoritative as this came out in America, with these flaws, American women would not let it stand. They would demand its withdrawal. Well, I don’t want it withdrawn. Up to halfway through its last volume, it is a richly exciting book.
 ‘But I want it revised at the earliest opportunity. I think that as it stands – and precisely because it is nearly such a great book – it is immensely wounding. And I hope that other people will protest with me, so that the next time an anthologist bends to his task, he won’t be able to forget that there are watchful women out there.
‘Seamus Deane says in his introduction to the anthology that ‘what we show is an example of the way in which canons are established and the degree to which they operate as systems of ratification and authority’. Well, exactly. That’s the danger. While this book was demolishing the patriarchy of Britain on a grand front, its own, native, patriarchy was sitting there. Smug as ever.

Nuala O’Faolain [column], in The Irish Times ([12] Nov. 1991); quoted in Catriona Crowe: ‘Testimony to the Flowering’, in The Dublin Review [n.s.; ed. Brendan Barrington] (Spring 2003) - available online; accessed 07.11.2011.) See further under Deane, supra.

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Onward and Upward’, feature-article on publication of Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman, in Irish Times Magazine (15 March 2003), pp10-12: Gives an account of her days in New York in 2002, and experience of dating through Match.com, with remarks on her sexuality: ‘I don’t think I’m evenly bisexual: until I was 40 and met Nell [McCafferty], I had never thought of women as possible partners, whereas I’d been thinking about boys and men since I was 13. But I had no difficutly at all in falling in love weith her, and I woujld have been neither surprised nor taken aback if another relationship had been with a woman.’ Also refers to an assignation with a lesbian and further recounts a satisfying union with a (male) lawyer.

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Notes
Are You Somebody (1996): The memoirs of Irish Times journalist Nuala O’Faolain, tracing her life from childhood in Dublin through university days at UCD and Oxford and onwards to a career in TV and newspapers, touching on her parents alcoholism and own difficulties in early life. After her father, a well-known journalist, left her mother the latter (a voracious reader) neglected the children and turned to drink as well. Her daughter Nuala, who was sent to convent school by relations at 14, explores the role of women and gender in Ireland and in her own life, revealing her lesbianism publicly for the first time.

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Almost There: The Onwards Journey of a Dublin Woman (2003): A follow up to Are You Somebody?, it takes the form of a provocative meditation on the ‘crucible of middle age’ which continues the author’s story from the moment her life began to changeat a time of of life that forges the shape of the years to come. (See COPAC notice.)

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My Dream of You (2001): Kathleen de Burca, an Irish travel writer based in London, has not been back to Ireland since she was twenty. Now she is 49 and has not experienced passion since she was young. Her home is her office, her family and friends a few close colleagues. Starting with the death of her closest friend the props of her life fall away one after another and she returns to Ireland to investigate the truth behind a fragmentary account of a scandalous 19th-century affair between the wife of a big Anglo-Irish landlord and her servant in 19th century Ireland. Back in Ireland, she creates her own passionate version of the Talbot scandal which exposes the links with Ireland’s turbulent history and her own unfulfilled life. (See COPAC online.)
...

Best Love, Rosie (2009): By O’Faolain’s own admission an autobiographical novel which recounts her ‘years of commuting between the melancholy of Ireland and the optimism of America’. The Rosie of the title is an independent woman entering middle-age who has the care of her ageing aunt when she gets the change to live and work in New York. Her aunt unexpectedly follows and both women find a new life of freedom in the States unlike the life they know in Ireland. Eventually Rosie returns to her family home where she finds love and friendship when she least expects it.

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Photo opp.: Nuala O’Faolain is photographed at the launch in Powerscourt Townhouse, in The Irish Times (7 Feb. 2001).

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Sisterhood: Deirdre Brady, a younger sister of Nuala, has issued Thank you for the Days (Townhouse 2005), a less tortured memoir of childhood; m. Eamon Brady, a Dublin printing-plant worker; returned to education (Leaving Cert.) in her fifties following an aneurism and hospitalisation at Beaumont Hosp.; enjoyed visits from her parents in later life, incl. gourmet dinners cooked by her father. Her book originated as a memoir, commenced in parts before the publication of his sister’s Are You Somebody? and bound by her children for her sixtieth birthday. (See Books Ireland, May 2005, p.112.)

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House-sale: 3, Charleston Ave., Ranelagh, the home of Nuala O’Faolain since 1989, was offered for sale in August 2006 with a quote price of €1.2 million, the owner having largely settled in Co. Clare [at that time]. A feature of the house that decided her on buying it when she was at first a staff-writer with The Irish Times was the solid-fuel D’Olier stove in the kitchen. (See The Irish Times, 31 Aug. 2006, Property Sect., p.2.)

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