Born in Dublin, Ireland, the second eldest of nine children of a journalist
who became Ireland's first 'social' columnista gentler
Walter Winchell or Nigel Dempsterwho for years wrote a
newspaper Dubliner's Diary about the goings-on around town the night
before. This occupation meant he was rarely available to his wife and family,
and over timeas touched on in Nuala O'Faolain's
autobiographical essay, Are You Somebody?his wife,
Nuala's mother Catherine, became more and more lonely and sunk in alcoholism,
and the home and the children became more neglected. The family lived in various
cheap rented houses up and down the line of the railway out of Dublin and from
time to time, like something out of a fairytale, the glamorous father would
descend from a train.
Nuala, aged 14, was a gifted but almost out-of-control girl, sneaking out at
night to go to dancehalls with men and women much older than herself. The nuns
at her convent school asked her parents to remove her, and in an
uncharacteristic burst of attentiveness they found the money and made the
arrangements to send her away to boarding-school where she spent the rest of her
school years. At this remote, Irish-speaking convent, she began to achieve
academic success and to convert the turbulent impulses that had got her into so
much trouble at puberty into an intellectual and an emotional life.
At 18 she went to university in Dublin on a coveted entrance scholarship. But
the freedom of Dublin city and new interestslove,
left-wing politics, drinkingunbalanced her again, and she
dropped out of college and had to go to England, to worklike
many penniless Irish at the timeat various unskilled jobs.
She was saved from this being a permanent fate by the kindness of some older
people in Dublin who watched over her and lent her money to pay her fees while
trying to complete her degree.
She did this with distinction, and over the next few years also got a
scholarship to the University of Hull in England where she read medieval
literature; returned to Dublin and got a qualification in French, and an M.A;
and finally won a travelling studentship, which she took up at the University of
Oxford where, in the late sixties, she got a post-graduate degreea
B.Phil.mainly in nineteenth-century literature.
Oxford University in the late sixties was still beautiful and unspoiled by
tourists, and because of the Beatles and Lucky Jim and Carnaby Street,
working-class students, and even plebeian outsiders like the Irish, were in
fashion. After three marvellous years it was a difficult transition to return to
Dublin to become a lecturer at U.C.D.not least because of
an on-again off-again engagement to an English writer. The next ten years were
unsettled by this relationship, which in the end came to nothing.
To be near this man, Nuala O'Faolain moved to London to become a producer
with the BBC, making television and radio programmes for the first years of the
arts faculty of the Open University. Then she became one of the first team
making 'access' programmes for BBC television and then made programmes from
Northern Ireland for a BBC Further Education series. This decade was one of
constant travel and learning, for a BBC still perfectly self-confident. Nuala
O'Faolain also reviewed books for the London Times during this period;
was a guest lecturer in Indiana and many other places, was seconded to Teheran
for the planning of an Iranian 'open university' in the last year of the Shah's
reign, taught occasional evening classes in Morley College, etc.
She began to visit the west of Ireland on holiday and to become, for the
first time, interested in the Irish language and Irish traditional music and
song and dance, and Irish social history. And the day she realized that the
place she liked best in London was London Airport she gave up on England, and
returned to Ireland, getting work as a television producer in the current
affairs section of Radio Telefis Eireann, and also reviewing and lecturing
extensively. When a new university was set up in Dublin she took a year's leave
of absence and taught Media Studies. She became one of an all-woman team who
made a weekly woman's programmea first on Irish televisionand
also made a series with older women, called 'Plain Tales,' where 'ordinary'
women told the stories of their extraordinary lives. This won the award for
television programme of the year. Soon afterwards, Nuala O'Faolain was invited
to become an opinion columnist for The Irish TimesIrelands
leading newspaper. The next year she won the annual award for journalist of the
For the next twelve years, she was with The Irish Times,
primarily as a columnist but also writing features from Africa, the United
States and all over Europe, andtaking up residence in
Belfast for almost a yearfrom Northern Ireland. She also
presented a television books programme, a series of radio interviews, reviewed
for magazines and so on.
In 1996 a small Irish publisher brought out a selection of her opinion
columns, and she offered to write an introduction to them. The introduction,
unexpectedly, and uncalledfor, grew and grew as she wrote
it. She wrote it for herselflooking back over a life which
had always been difficult and lonely on a personal level, in an attempt to
accept that her promise had come to nothing, and that now, in her fifties, she
had no accomplishments to show, no partner, no childrenno
company of friends, even, at times like Christmasand that
she must say goodbye to hope. The book of journalism with this introduction had
a very small print run and came out quietly, with no launch, no review copies
sent out, no advertising, etc. But when she talked about it on television it
became an instant bestseller in Irelandselling, indeed, so
fast that in many bookshops it was sold from boxes, because the staff hadn't
time to put it on shelves.
It turned out that the introductionquickly reprinted as
a book in its own right, called Are You Somebody?sounded
some tone which men and women everywhere could respond to. This note sounded
even across barriers of age and culture and experience. The autobiographical
essay of an obscure Irish journalist eventually spent many weeks on the
bestseller list of The New York Times, reached number three in Australia,
and did very well in the UK and Germany and Sweden. It didn't change Nuala's
private life, but it brought her loving responses from all over the world.
Because of the autobiography's success approaches were made to her for her
'next book.' She protested that she was not a writer of booksthat
she didn't look on Are You Somebody? as a book, and had no plans at all
to write anything else. But gradually, the idea of trying to write a fiction
became irresistible. To do this, she took a leave of absence from the Irish
newspaper, and moved to America where the culture is so much more hospitable
than Ireland's to believing that dreams can come true and late attempts succeed.
In the nurturing artists' colony of Yaddo she wrote the beginning of a novel
about a middle-aged Irishwoman coming to terms with the role of passion in her
own life, through a contemplation of a disastrousreal-lifepassionate
affair that took place 150 years ago in an Ireland devastated by the potato
famine. Then she went to New York and showed what she'd written to an agent. The
agent took her and the pages around a number of publishing houses. Various bids
were made: within weeks a contract had been signed with Riverhead books for the
completed novel, to be delivered a year later.
Then began what for Nuala was one of her life's happiest adventures. She had
a one-room apartment in Manhattan, the company of a little cat rescued from a
shelter, and a laptop, and over one fall and winter, and generously helped by
her agent and her supportive editor at Riverhead, she wrote My Dream of You.
Change came about so quickly, since the day she sat at her kitchen table
to begin telling herself the story of her life, that she used to say that she could hardly
believe it. 'Isn't it extraordinary!' she said once while having coffee with some of her sisters and her brother. 'Me, at my age,
writing a novel!' There's nothing extraordinary about it, they said. 'Do you not
remember?' they said. 'When we were kids and we all slept in the same bed? You
wouldn't let us go asleep. You made us stay awake every night to listen to your
Nuala O'Faolain died in May 2008 in Dublin. She was 68. Learning that she had terminal cancer just eight weeks before her death she declined treatment and instead embarked "on a last visit to her favourite cultural
landmarks" with a small group of friends, traveling to Paris, Madrid, Berlin and Sicily. In a radio interview shortly before she died she said, "Even if I gained time through the chemotherapy, it isn't time I want. Because as soon as I knew I was
going to die soon, the goodness went out of life."
A Radiant Life: The Selected Journalism of Nuala O'Faolain (2011)
A More Complex Truth (essays from the mid-1980s to 2008, published in 2010)
Best Love, Rosie, published posthumously in 2009
The Story of Chicago May (nonfiction, 2005)
Almost There: The Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman (nonfiction, 2003)
My Dream of You (fiction, 2001)
Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman (nonfiction, 1996)
This biography was last updated on 01/22/2012.
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