Recalling creators with novel view of parenting

Caroline O’Doherty talks to Booker shortlisted author Julia O’Faolain who recalls her revolutionary and complex parents with warmth and candour

Recalling creators with novel view of parenting

Trespassers: A Memoir

Julia O’Faolain

Faber and Faber, £14.99

Seán and Eileen Ó Faoláin, revolutionaries and writers, were as complex personally as any theme they tackled professionally.

They were also the parents of Julia O’Faolain, herself a Booker shortlisted author, who recalls them with warmth and candour in her new memoir, Trespassers.

The title comes partly from the expeditions her mother took her on as a child when they rambled through the grounds of semi-abandoned once fine homes, Julia in nervous awe of Eileen’s appetite for mischief.

“Your mother used to be fearless,” she writes her father told her much later on, though whether his comment was pointed or poignant is hard to tell.

Julia would later study, work and live in different countries, each time feeling something of a trespasser looking at someone’s else’s home with an outsider’s eyes.

In between times, her upbringing was not the most conventional, her earliest years being spent in Co Wicklow where future Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald was a playmate, artist Paul Henry was a neighbour and fellow Corkonian writer, Frank O’Connor, a regular visitor.

The family then moved to Killiney in south Dublin to a new-build Seán had commissioned, that in itself being a novelty that set them apart from their neighbours, and Seán published The Bell magazine from an out-house at the bottom of the garden.

Writer, poets and intellectuals came and went — Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and Conor Cruise O’Brien among them — and it was not unusual for an artist eager for deep discussion on the fruits of their muse to end up giving Julia bike-riding lessons.

“My father was always writing articles and trying to finish them by dinner time and he probably asked, can I beg one of you to take my boring daughter and keep her out from under my feet,” she laughs now.

She pestered less when she had school to occupy her but she didn’t enter a classroom until the age of eight as Eileen, who had worked as a teacher, had little time for the nuns who invariably ran the local schools.

Julia saw her point. On her first day, the head nun singled her out for having her hair tied in a scarlet ribbon or “England’s cruel red” as Mother Fidelia called it.

Julia was furious with her mother, believing she had deliberately set out to cause trouble, but Eileen was unfazed. “Ask that nun,” she challenged, “where was she when your mother was fighting for independence.”

Soon it was Julia who was doing the questioning and she writes vividly of an incident where a pupil, fresh from a beating, was made stand in a circle of her classmates who were instructed each in turn to say as Gaelige that she was a bad girl.

Julia couldn’t do it. “Is cailín maith í,” she eventually blurted out to the disconcertion of the “pious bully”.

Yet while her father was writing controversial criticisms of the Catholic Church from the bottom of the garden and her mother was asking questions at the school gate, Julia says their stance, out of step with the time as it was, caused her no great anxiety.

“I knew that my parents would stand by me if anything went terribly wrong and that they did not actually believe an awful lot about what the nuns and priests were teaching me. That gave me a freedom to be myself,” she says.

What was harder to deal with was Seán’s philandering, his habit of falling for other female writers, putting him and the family at the centre of unwelcome gossip.

Although Julia’s awareness of it at the time was limited to a few uncomfortable journeys among possibly whispering passengers on the No 59 bus, her mother’s hurt became plain to her later on.

“I felt badly because I had not protected her, although I don’t know how I could have,” she says. “She was stoical and dignified and secretive. What else could she be? It wasn’t that unusual. Years later I noticed the families of people near us were much bigger than we were led to believe.

“Clearly there had been a lot of goings on. I did recognise there was double thinking and everybody was behaving differently, secretly to what they behaved in public.”

Only once does she refer to Eileen threatening to leave Seán and, bizarrely, that was over Julia’s first big romance, an intense affair with a French student her parents did not approve of at a time when all her passions were expected to be reserved for her studies.

“Seán told me Eileen had said she would leave him if he didn’t convince me to finish the relationship. I didn’t know if she really meant it but at the start I was inclined to say, let her go. Maybe that was ruthless but I thought if they could manage without each other, maybe she should go. I still wonder.”

Eventually, under duress, she did give up her Frenchman and moved to London and the start of a variety of jobs from waitressing and teaching to translating Italian at the Council of Europe.

It was on a break in Florence that she ran into a young American historian, Lauro Martines, who was on his way to becoming a leading authority on the Italian Renaissance. Lauro soon banished all memories of the Frenchman and the couple were married within months — at Seán’s insistence, in a Catholic church.

“It probably meant more to my mother and he was trying to calm her down,” she says now, although late in his life, Julia came to realise her father was far more conflicted about the Church than his writings suggested.

“At the end, he wanted to believe there is an afterlife,” she says. “It was hard for him not being able to believe.”

He died in 1991 at the same age as the century, three years after Eileen, his once sharp mind increasingly confused after her passing.

It is 33 years since Julia’s No Country For Young Men was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and she has not been prolific since, although she takes it with good humour that she was included in a list of best forgotten authors a few years ago.

Today, Julia, who is now 80, and her husband live in London where retirement eludes them.

Lauro has recently completed a book about the religious wars and Julia will soon have a collection of short stories published.

She’s also thinking of her next novel and an idea has been floating about in her head since a journey through South America almost 40 years ago. “But it would be about priests and I always seem to be writing about priests, so maybe not. We’ll see.”

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