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13 March 2009

IN MEMORIAM: Nuala O’Faolain

Colleen Smith interviewed Nuala O’Faolain for The Denver Post in 2005, prior to O’Faolain’s visit to Aspen Summer Words. A slightly different version of this article originally appeared in July 2008 in The Denver Post following O’Faolain’s death.

She had that lyrical, quintessentially Irish name: Nuala O’Faolain. A native Dubliner, she eventually split her time between Ireland and Manhattan.

“Writers,” O’Faolain had written, “are the nearest thing the human community has to spokespeople.”

In 2005, on assignment for The Denver Post, I had the good fortune to interview this writer, this spokesperson, this feisty conversationalist with the charming accent, the capacity for searing honesty and the vocabulary that included words like “gobsmacked.”

O’Faolain had a reputation as a gritty firebrand, but during our exchange, I found her courteous and funny, even warm—every bit the force I’d admired in her books’ pages. After our interview, as I drafted my piece, favoring one radiant quote over another proved my biggest challenge.

“Women of my generation in Ireland--I’m amazed that we came through. It’s so recent that women have had jobs and money of their own that Ireland doesn’t know what to do with women,” O’Faolain said.

“There is no role model for lippy, middle aged women. Women of my age are supposed to be apple-cheeked grannies.”

Which wasn’t an option for O’Faolain, who had no children—and no regrets at the end of her life about that choice. O'Faolain, second eldest of nine kids, endured a turbulent childhood. Her father was a journalist, a minor celebrity and a philanderer. Her mother fortified herself with gin, shortbread and books.

O'Faolain had earned a postgraduate degree in 19th-century literature from Oxford University, taught literature at University College Dublin, launched a journalism career embracing both broadcast and print. She authored columns, and eventually novels, a biography and two unflinching memoirs, including "Are You Somebody?” which topped The New York Times best-seller list in 1998.

O’Faolain wrote with vulnerable candor, presenting less than flattering facets of herself and her homeland. She came clean about everything from her woefully dysfunctional family to her flabby physique to her tempestuous love affairs with members of both sexes.

“There’s a reason why more autobiographies aren’t written, especially in small, watchful countries,” O’Faolain told me. “People have too many hostages to fortune.” She realized that her lack of spouse, lover, judgmental friends or close family members left her free to be unaffected when she began writing her first memoir.

“It was a wonderful thing that my life was so mismanaged and empty; there was nobody to stand in my way. I could afford to be reckless,” she said. “And I was under the absolutely sincere impression that nobody would read it.”

But read it they did, and in droves. Yet O’Faolain claimed to me that being set among the Emerald Isle’s literary crown jewels came with incredulity.

“I didn’t think of myself as a writer,” she insisted. “I had no literary ambitions at all, though I’m very literary. I’ve taught literature, and I’m an extremely snobby reader. I love the most demanding writers, but I never saw myself as part of that world and don’t still. It’s inconceivable to me.”

O’Faolain acknowledged her cultural link to melancholic memories and lilting language. We touched on Joyce and Yeats and Shaw, on Seamus Heaney and Patrick Kavanagh and Galway Kinnell. And when I asked this Dubliner how tiny, impoverished Ireland came by such huge, rich literary clout, she answered with a huff: “We had nothing else. Everything else requires something: paint or a musical instrument. The Irish were much poorer than anyone cares to remember, bitterly poor, and under political oppression. All of us were oppressed. All of us denied. England conquered Ireland and discriminated against the native Irish in education, religion, commerce, every possible way--all of us,” she said.

“The one thing they had and nobody could control and they didn’t need any money to buy was what they say. The Irish are good talkers.”

O’Faolain most certainly was no exception. We talked fast and long, meandering from one topic to the next, including a heartfelt discussion about our aching love for our ailing, aged dogs—her Molly and my Friday—and our trepidation over the reality of soon losing them.

“I must be there for Molly,” O’Faolain said, fierce.

Having established our common love for canines, the interview morphed into a spirited conversation that seemed to delight her as much as me. She valued discourse.

“Even today [in Ireland], social status and money are not as important as personality and personal charm. In America, people don’t feel the need to tell good stories and use language vigorously and with originality. Americans are confident enough to be boring,” O’Faolain said.

“The Irish are always insecure, always trying to win over people listening to them with charm. The Irish have a different approach to truth. They play with language. They use words differently. They ask more of the listener,” she said.

“There’s a loquaciousness and joy in language, but also a peasant caution. You can talk away, but you use the talking to hide; and you don’t let any real information out.”

With her revelatory memoirs, O’Faolain broke rank with that tradition. At one point in “Almost There”--her second memoir--she confessed to feeling 17 years old. When I pressed her about this admission, she said she actually felt more like eight.

“I’m not grown up. I’m hopelessly immature,” she blurted. “Scrabbling is a reflex. I don’t even want what I’m fighting for, but I’m forced to fight because I was always a child in too big a family. It’s me back with my sisters and brothers with not nearly enough resources.”

“Almost There” includes a poignant case-in-point. The author recalled when a neighbor gave the O’Faolain children a whole block of ice cream. Ignorant of the concept of refrigeration, the kids cached the treat in a cool culvert they called The Secret. Upon their return the next day, the ice cream, of course, had melted.

Such disappointment was grist for O’Faolain’s mill. Though adept at pastoral riffs and colorful yarns, she best translated sorrow. Which is why I thought of Nuala three summers ago when my dog Friday died. I still had her email address, but decided against sharing the sad news--not that she could not take it, but she’d shouldered more than her share of grief. I wondered about Molly.

“Melancholy is a conversion of anger,” Nuala had said to me during our interview. “I’m more angry than I used to be.”

Aware that her books had labeled anger as the Irishwoman’s disease, I asked her, “What gets your Irish up?”

“Right Wing Republicanism does,” she said without missing a beat. “Sneers and insults to women, the idealization of children with all innocence attributed to children. Injustice. Waiting for dinner. Cruelty to animals.”

Despite all the misery she’d survived in Ireland, and all the troubles of Eire, O’Faolain defended her homeland.

“The people are gifted in living,” she said. “They risk themselves all the time. They drink like fish and dance and stay up late. They live intensely. It’s a way of life I’m very attracted to and admire.”

And a way of life she profoundly regretted losing at the not-so-advanced age of 68. Last February, after working out in a New York gym, O’Faolain suffered partial paralysis. Later that day, a doctor diagnosed her with terminal, inoperable lung cancer. O’Faolain underwent radiation, but then rejected chemotherapy. On May 9, after some travels around Europe, after visiting New York one last time to take in a performance of Schubert's “Death and the Maiden,” after checking herself into a Dublin hospice days earlier, O’Faolain died.

In mid-April, just weeks prior to her passing, O’Faolain did an interview with an Irish radio station. By then, cancer had metastasized to her liver and also to her brilliant brain, rendering her unable to concentrate enough to read.

In the tearful and jarringly bleak interview, O’Faolain said, “…twice in my life I have read the whole of Proust…. But I tried again the week before last and it was gone, all the magic was gone from it.”

She said, “It seems such a waste of creation that with each death all that knowledge dies.”

In the despair surrounding dying, she said that even nature had lost its allure: “It amazed me how quickly my life turned black."

No surprise, Nuala’s death has left me blue.

In “Almost There,” O’Faolain wrote, “It is not what you have but what you have lost that links the reader and the writer.”

Reading the online account of the funeral Mass, I noted that O’Faolain’s family had brought her dog to the Dublin church. The dog’s name was not Molly, but Mabel. I wondered whether Nuala had been with Molly at the end, as she had demanded of herself. Whatever the case, the fact that she’d opted for another round of uncomplicated dog love bared her tender heart and evidenced her hope.

Word has it that Nuala O’Faolain’s next book will be published posthumously, in September.

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