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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: Sales Manager

£60k - 80k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Full Stack Software Developer

£35k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Opilio Recruitment: Senior Developer

£50k - 60k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We have an exciting Seni...

Opilio Recruitment: Senior Front End Developer

£50k - 70k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We have an exciting Seni...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game