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Nuala O’Faolain, a feminist whose happiness was often tethered to men

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Anxiously anticipating that the guillotine of restriction would fall again, reducing my meagre cultural life to a doze in front of Netflix, I removed my head from the fridge, where I was looking for something edible to spread on a stale bagel, and took myself off on a jaunt to Moli, the Museum of Literature Ireland. 

There, I sat on the window sill of a high-ceilinged room, looking out on the museum’s magnificent garden and then inwards to view a video installation curated by the writer June Caldwell – a memorial to the honest and courageous work of a writer and journalist of an earlier generation, Nuala O’Faolain.

Outspokenness

I watched, in the glorious stillness of that restful place, as novelists, poets, academics, journalists and family members shared their memories, not just of O’Faolain but of the society she lived in and documented. Contributors spoke of her outspokenness and erudition, her ability to blend the personal with the political, her willingness to place herself so openly at the centre of her work. 

A feminist whose happiness, it seemed, was often, though not entirely, tethered to men, she was, they said, unflinching in her observation of a country that was, during her childhood and working life, dancing under the disco ball of the patriarchy.

It was O’Faolain’s depiction, in her bestselling 1996 memoir Are You Somebody? (which I read in a Dublin maternity hospital), of her own mother’s disappointed life that resonated most sharply with me. I doubt I was alone in that feeling. I’d guess that plenty of others who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, watching their mothers mired in marital quicksand (even if it was less relentlessly chaotic than that of O’Faolain’s family), were grateful to read of the writer’s ambiguity about motherhood and domesticity. 

Empty pages

The room where the film was showing gradually began to fill up (but only to its designated capacity, I should add) with middle-aged women waiting to take their place on a windowsill. I realised that I had swiftly lost an hour in O’Faolain’s company, and so I moved on through the gracious rooms. 

At the higher level of the museum is a writing room, with a table of empty pages, an inducement to write the first line of a novel and pin it to a board, but I was struggling too much with my own faltering sense of purpose to contribute, so I left.

Walking through town past Kehoe’s, McDaid’s and the Palace Bar – to name but a few of the establishments that hosted the Dublin literary scene referred to in the O’Faolain film – I tried to picture that generation surviving these stringent times. It was hard to visualise Patrick Kavanagh or Leland Bardwell or Myles na Gopaleen waiting patiently in a beer garden to order a plate of chicken nuggets and chips to go with their pints of porter.

As a child I watched my own mother, over the sticky rim of my MiWadi glass, wilt in the desert of lost ambition. I observed her caught in the crossfire of rage and duty, ambition and a societal pressure to stay put, to be content with Rinso, Ryvita, another baby and a song sung to the radio. I watched her chuck charred pork chops and a couple of decades into the same old bin. 

The older she got, though, the happier she got; essentially a lighthearted and optimistic person, she was due, I suppose, some kind of Indian summer.

My father and Nuala O’Faolain were related through their maternal line. My father, though taciturn about his past, was sullied by a difficult maternal relationship of his own. Although he and Nuala both worked in the newspaper industry, they didn’t fraternise. 

My mother loved O’Faolain’s writing. I remember her telling me that she and Nuala had both, one day, many moons ago, found themselves stopping to admire the newly erected Mr Screen, a caricature sculpture of a cinema usher, that used to stand outside Dublin’s Screen on College Green. Their conversation was brief, impersonal, both of them amused by the squat, moribund little man in his officious cap.  

“Did you tell her that you were her cousin’s wife?” I asked my mother when she recounted the story.

“No,” she replied. “It didn’t seem important. I just told her that she was a wonderful writer.”

The cinema was eventually levelled, apparently to make way for an office block and eateries. Walking past the flattened ground the other day, though, such a bold development felt as unlikely to materialise as the ghosts of those two women from an earlier time, both with so much shared history to pass silently between them. 

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