Nuala O'Faolain: 'Ruthlessly truthful' memoirist

The Irish journalist, writer and commentator Nuala O'Faolain last month caused something close to a sensation when she revealed in a tearful radio interview that she was dying of cancer. She told her friend, the RTE broadcaster Marian Finucane: "Beauty means nothing to me any more." The interview, which featured the often harrowing intimacy of much of O'Faolain's work, stopped many listeners in their tracks.

Hers was a varied life, marked by a series of failed relationships. Childless and unmarried, she wrote unflinchingly about her alcoholic mother – "she was a terrible mother" – and of her journalist father, who to the family was a distant and unloving man-about-town. Her works struck a chord with many in Ireland, candidly relating as they did the experience of those raised in problem families.

"She was ruthlessly truthful and honest, a wonderful communicator," Finucane said of her. "She had a wonderful ability with language to cut right to the point she wanted to make. She had a wonderful way of articulating things with intellect and emotion in a way that generated a response in others. She could get to people in a special way."

The Irish arts minister Martin Cullen meanwhile said that O'Faolain's "searing honesty and her trademark frankness" had meant she "caught the imagination of the public not just in Ireland but around the world".

The second in a family of nine children, O'Faolain had some educational teenage difficulties but went on to study English at University College, Dublin, and the universities of Hull and Oxford. She later held jobs as a producer for both RTE and the BBC, winning a number of awards for her work. Later she wrote a widely read column for The Irish Times. But while she was regarded as successful professionally, her personal life was as disastrous and unhappy as her childhood, with a series of love affairs, some with married men.

She finally found some degree of pleasure in a relationship with Nell McCafferty, the feminist from Londonderry's Bogside who is one of Ireland's most engaging characters. McCafferty at first steered clear of her, describing O'Faolain as "invariably drunk", but came to adore her and the two lived together for many years.

But the relationship had its difficulties and eventually ended after 15 years, McCafferty writing that, at their last meeting, "Nuala was an icy stranger." She was affronted when O'Faolain exposed their relationship in her 1996 book Are You Somebody?, feeling that O'Faolain "denied and derided me". She sent her a short, bitter e-mail: "Shame on you."

The book was a breakthrough, and a success in both Ireland and the United States, where it was viewed as a scaldingly frank expression of Irish pain and personal suffering. It was an accidental book which began as a preface but then unexpectedly grew into a fuller memoir. Other successful works followed, including a second volume of memoirs, Almost There (2003).

After her cancer was diagnosed, O'Faolain decided against having chemotherapy, saying she did not wish to prolong her life: "The magic has gone. It amazed me how quickly my life turned black," she said. "As soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life."

Her radio interview produced a flow of emotion. "It must look as if I'm an awful divil for publicity altogether," she said. But she won much praise for breaking a taboo by being prepared to speak of her impending death.

David McKittrick

Nuala O'Faolain, writer: born Dublin 1940; died Dublin 9 May 2008.

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