Another voice lost

May 12, 2008 | No Comments

Nuala O’Faolain, Irish journalist and author, passed away this past Friday in Dublin from lung cancer. The New York Times has a succinct summary of her life, work, and final interview. I was fortunate enough to meet O’Faolain at a college event a year or so ago. She turned to me at the dinner table and whispered, “I’m going back to my room for some quiet – there’s too much talking here.” Having read Are You Somebody I understand how much she valued solitude even when, sometimes, she had to wrestle to heartbreaking terms with it. And my old college mealtimes could be a bit of an ordeal, and not just gastronomically.
O’Faolain’s mother was an alcoholic trapped in the straitjacket of of the 1950s, “condemned to spend her life as a mother and a homemaker. She was in the wrong job.” Some of her peers were content to spend years comparing twin-tub washing-machines and prams, while others lived lives of suppressed fury, blaming their husbands for their unrealized potential, “half censorious, half wistful” when they came across an unmarried woman. My mother, too, was “forever sending children to the shops,” (right, Susan, now mind – six eggs, brown loaf, tin of Heinz beans).
O’Faolain described her difficult Irish childhood without exaggeration or self-pity, looking back with clear-eyed consideration, and gently upbraids her own foolishness – the foolishness of waiting for that married man to divorce his wife and marry her; the foolishness of falling in love with your own country as an adult. “I knew a lot about England,” she says, “I knew almost nothing about Ireland.”
The last few pages of the book offer some of the best writing I’ve ever read about loneliness – to be “nobody’s mother, no-body’s wife, no-body’s lover. My problems are banal only because so many people share them.” One of my own fears over losing my husband is that I would have ““no right companion to marvel at the world with,” no-one to turn to, daily, and say, “Look? Did you see that?” It’s a human impulse to want to capture and share a sensation with others, but I think it’s strongest in writers. And, like O’Faolain, I would have made a lousy mother in my twenties. And yet, like O’Faolain, I think “I’d be a good mother now. Too late … Sometimes I have to look away from small children. They’re too beautiful to bear.” I admit it; I had a wee bubble at the end of her memoir. And, after hearing of her passing, I had a wee bubble all over again