Last Monday RTÉ aired one of the best pieces of programming they’ve done in a while, a documentary by Marian Finucane on Nuala O’Faolain entitled simply Nuala. Finucane and O’Faolain were friends for many years so it’s fitting that Finucane was the one to present and co-produce this documentary, which she describes as a “warts and all” look at a talented, warm and complex woman who never seemed to find lasting happiness.
O’Faolain was born the second eldest of nine children and her father enjoyed fame in Ireland as a social diarist who wrote under the pseudonym Terry O’Sullivan for the Evening Press newspaper. Despite her father’s success the family endured poverty and many house moves. In addition Nuala’s mother was deeply unhappy and sought refuge in alcohol, often leaving the house to go to the pub in the early afternoon not to return until nightfall. Nuala’s childhood was certainly difficult and she chronicled this in her memoir Are You Somebody?
O’Faolain’s sharp intelligence and intellectual curiosity ended up saving her. After studying English Literature at UCD, University of Hull and Oxford, she worked at the BBC and at RTÉ producing award winning programmes. From 1986 she wrote a weekly column for the Irish Times. This was followed by the publication of her memoir which made her a star both at home and abroad and was No 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. O’Faolain produced three other books; My Dream of You (2001), Almost There (2003), and The Story of Chicago May (2005).
Although never married O’Faolain had a turbulent romantic life which is examined in the documentary. Two of her partners declined to be interviewed, most significantly, the feminist, journalist and activist Nell McCafferty with whom O’Faolain had a fifteen year relationship. O’Faolain seemed to experience great dissatisfaction in her relationships with men, in part as a result of her own own issues having witnessed her father’s philandering.
O’Faolain was diagnosed with terminal cancer in early 2008 and she was interviewed by Finucane a month before her death. The result was one of the most brutally honest and heartbreaking pieces of broadcasting I’ve ever heard. (You can read a full transcript of the radio interview here.) One gets the sense of a woman facing death as bravely as she can while still assailed by doubts, regret and loneliness. The interview prompted a mass outpouring of sympathy from the Irish public and Nuala was overwhelmed by the letters she received – they lifted her heart in her final days.
Nuala won Best Irish Film at the 2012 Jameson Dublin International Film Festival and I hope this brilliant documentary finds audiences abroad and wins the many awards that it surely deserves. Nuala is available to view in Ireland on the RTÉ Player until April 9th.