We are indebted to Nuala — she let us peer into the true Ireland

I WAS one of many people who saw a radiant Nuala O’Faolain speaking at the Merriman Summer School in Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare, in August last year. She gave a presentation to a symposium entitled What Were We Like? during which she was joined by novelist Anne Enright.

Appropriately, her close friend Marian Finucane of RTÉ, who did much over the years to facilitate the public articulation of Nuala’s thoughts and ideas, and who presided over her final dialogue with an Irish audience last month, chaired the symposium.

That afternoon, O’Faolain touched on many of the themes that illuminated her career and writings — the status of women, whether things had changed for the better, and her thoughts on the struggle for equality between the sexes.

She was sceptical about whether the women’s movement had succeeded, pointing out that there still existed constraints on what a little girl in Ireland may grow up to do in contrast to what a little boy may grow up to do.

She wondered “why should this little thing with a heart and a soul and a mind and a body be differently able to be all that she might be? Why different than the little fellow? To me that is the women’s project, however you might approach it”.

Speaking over her allotted time, she wandered off in other directions and insisted most women were not celebrating their bodies and having good sex lives, pointing out that women’s liberation was never just about contraception.

She was regretful, angry, sometimes very funny, unpredictable and compelling. She had the ability to provoke wide-ranging responses from her audiences, and she could be infuriating.

Like so many others, when I began reading her memoir Are You Somebody?, published in 1996, I could not put it down. The way she wrote about her parents and upbringing was particularly absorbing and uncomfortable because of her searing honesty.

Her mother had to cope with 13 pregnancies, but as O’Faolain pointed out, even still, her mother did not want “anything to do with child rearing or housework. But she had to do it. Because she fell in love with my father and they married, she was condemned to spend her life as a mother and a homemaker. She was in the wrong job”.

She also wrote starkly about how so many childhoods were abruptly ended by the experience of sexual violence in a matter of seconds, out of the blue. “I was never afraid till I went to The Messiah in the Theatre Royal when I was 11, and a man put his hand up my skirt and hurt me with his fingers,” she wrote.

One of the reasons the book was such a revelation was because, while she had a very public role as a commentator and newspaper columnist, and appeared confident and authoritative in tackling the subjects she wrote about, privately she was full of self-doubt and feelings of underachievement: “I had no lover, no child. It seemed to me that I had nothing to look on but failure.”

But I could not finish her second volume of memoirs, Almost There, because I felt it was too self-pitying. I was fed up reading her reflections on her mother and thought it was time to move on.

“Will you ever be bloody there?” I said sarcastically to myself as I closed it three-quarters way through.

That may seem very harsh, but one of the reasons she was so interesting was precisely because she could be infuriating as well as compelling.

The second memoir did not diminish my admiration for her and all that she had done, but I’d had enough. A similar thing happened shortly after the novelist John McGahern died.

When researching a radio programme on memoirs of Irish childhood, I was relieved to find in the archives a clip of McGahern reading from his enthralling memoir.

He had recorded some of the passages for another RTÉ radio programme, including the very last few paragraphs of the book where he returns to one of the central themes and characters of the book — his mother who died when he was a young boy.

He read it beautifully: “When I reflect on those rare moments when I stumble without warning into that extraordinary sense of security, that deep peace, I know that consciously and unconsciously she has been with me all my life. If we could walk together through those summer lanes, with their banks of wild flowers that cast a spell, we probably would not be able to speak, though I would want to tell her all the local news. We would leave the lanes and I would take her by the beaten path the otter takes under the thick hedges between the lakes… Above the lake we would follow the enormous sky until it reaches the low mountains where her life began. I would want no shadow to fall on her joy and deep trust in God. She would face no false reproaches. As we retraced our steps, I would pick for her the wild orchard and the windflower.”

I included this piece in the programme. It moved the producer to tears and I had a lump in my throat, but someone I talked to after it was broadcast, who had lost his own mother when he was very young, was not so impressed.

“There was McGahern,” he said, “having written his last book, knowing he was dying, and he still hadn’t come to terms with his mother’s death. Am I the only one who finds this irritating?”

I don’t know if he was, but I think I know what he meant.

From the mid-1990s, Irish readers became used to the memoir, the confessional tell-all book and the impact they had in the context of lifting the lid on the Irish family.

McGAHERN and O’Faolain were very different people with very different styles, but they knew that it was not enough to assert that the old Ireland was dead and buried and that it was time to move on.

They wanted to try and make sense of it, and they did it by writing with insightful and lyrical honesty about the forces and the people that shaped them.

It has been suggested there was too much of this going on, and that after 10 or 15 years of memoir writing, the genre had become jaded.

But those of the calibre of McGahern and O’Faolain have left us with something very valuable — not just beautiful writing, but a record of what it felt like to grow up in Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s. The whole business of untold stories lay at the heart of the appeal of memoirs for both the reader and the writers.

What was going on privately, behind closed doors, was at odds with the official version of Irish society and the Irish family that was sanctioned by church and state for far too long.

O’Faolain broke that silence. Anyone with an interest in honest appraisals of Ireland and its people owes her a great debt because her writings can help us to appreciate a history of modern Ireland that is more complete and more human.

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