It would have been more surprising if Julia O'Faolain hadn't become a writer. Born in 1932, she was the daughter of two successful authors. Her father was Sean O'Faolain, an Irish short-story writer who fought for the Republicans during the Irish civil war, and made bombs which her mother smuggled for the IRA. He was also made the Saoi of Aosdána, the highest honour in Ireland for the Arts.
Julia studied in Rome and Paris, and her brilliant fiction reflects both influences. Godded and Codded (1970, also published as Three Lovers) is a fairly raucous comedy concerning the Irish virgin's dilemma, taking the form of sexual adventures in Paris. It's the tale of an innocent abroad, with a few nice digs at Irish expats. When the inevitably pregnant heroine returns to her family in Ireland, we come to have a better understanding of her wild behaviour.
O'Faolain's novel No Country for Young Men, meanwhile, is set in Dublin, and traces three generations in a variety of narrative threads; it's her best book, and was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1980.
Her works are strongly influenced by Irish identity. In We Might See Sights! (1968), O'Faolain used her homeland as the setting for several stories satirising sexual repression. Her other short-story collections include Man in the Cellar (1974), Melancholy Baby (1978) and Daughters of Passion (1982).
O'Faolain writes about women's roles in society, power, faith and sexuality, and about Irish dilemmas of female identity. Women in the Wall (1975) is a history of Saint Radegund, who in the sixth century founded a monastery in Gaul. With her husband, O'Faolain edited Not in God's Image: Women in History from the Greeks to the Victorians (1973), and has just produced a new novel, Adam Gould, which is set in a lunatic asylum. Although it's her first book in 17 years, it explores familiar themes: clerical intrigue, family history and farce, with madness added to the mix. "I like fiction to be a Trojan horse," she says. "It can seem to be engineering an escape from alien realities, but its true aim is to slip inside them and get their measure."
O'Faolain is a wonderful stylist and an exciting writer, which makes it all the more surprising that she is often overlooked. Her work is joyous, urbane and intensely Irish. Although she has a new book in print, the rest are – you guessed it – hard to find now.