“Do you believe in an afterlife?”
“Do you believe in God?”
The responses are laboured and painful, reflecting the searing agony of the writer Nuala O’Faolain in the final stages of her battle with terminal illness.
She could find neither meaning nor consolation in religion, she said. “The world turned its back on me,” she told broadcaster and friend Marian Finucane, revealing she had cancer on Marian’s RTÉ radio programme.
Ravaged by the disease and with only a month left to live, Nuala turned to Marian to talk about her impending death in a radio interview in April 2008. “It amazed me how quickly my life turned black,” she said, insisting that she chose not to have chemotherapy. “Even if it gave me time, it is not time I want,” she said with the kind of raw frankness that was the hallmark of a complex and conflicted woman.
Coming of age when Ireland was an insular, church-dominated society, she struggled in a childhood dominated by a philandering father and an alcoholic mother yet managed to live a rich life, working as a documentary film maker, literature professor, newspaper columnist, novelist and memoirist.
Nuala first recounted her life in blunt and vivid detail in her international best selling memoir Are You Somebody? Her story was unique in terms of the breath of her literary achievements and the conflicts and contradictions that bedeviled her personal life.
Nuala survived a destitute childhood to become an outstanding critic and novelist.
Along the way she stumbled through alcohol problems, encountered men who treated her badly, while at the same time working on ways to improve her life and develop her writing skills.
In this feature documentary, Marian goes behind the drama of Nuala’s tortured existence to paint a personal picture of a woman struggling to find her way with only her own fierce intelligence to guide her.
She was a woman of many, contradictory parts, says Marian — the enthusiastic heterosexual whose most lasting intimate relationship was with Nell McCafferty; the feminist who adored a father who abandoned his family and publicly betrayed his wife.
Marian’s close friendship with Nuala was cemented during the loss of her own daughter to leukaemia — Nuala was godmother to Marian’s daughter Sinead. That shared agony and the honesty of their conversations during that terrible time formed the backdrop to the their on-air conversation when Nuala sat down to talk truthfully about her own impending death on Marian’s RTÉ Radio programme.
The documentary, which was awarded Best Irish Film at the 2012 Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, reflects the enduring power of the friendship between Marian and Nuala, a relationship that endured through good times and bad. Nuala is Marian’s story of her friend’s remarkable life. It will be broadcast on Monday at 9.35pm on RTÉ One.
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