Nuala & Nell: In death they do part

Nuala and Nell have been part of the nation's life, through the women's movement that liberated Ireland, and through the stories of their own lives that are part of our fabric

By Susan McKay 

It is an interview that will be replayed and remembered. Extraordinary. Haunting. Shot through with fragments of desolate beauty which have the resonance of poetry. Hard to listen to without tears. Hard to listen to without cringing, occasionally. Hard to imagine the impulse of a dying woman to confide her most private thoughts, not in those she loves and who love her, but across the airwaves, in the nation.

But then, to Nuala O'Faolain, the people who read her and who listen to her on the radio, are those in whom she confides: “Company for me who happens to be a childless middle aged woman”, she said of those who responded to her bestselling memoir, Are You Somebody? When Marian Finucane asked her about her conversations about her imminent death with her friends, she replied, “This is me talking to people.”

She is loved for this by many, particularly women of her own generation – she's 67. Finucane is dealing with a mountain of letters and cards sent by those who have been moved to comfort the woman who has unsparingly laid her life bare for them, and who has now cried out to them in pain. “As soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life,” she said. “How quickly life turned black.” She'd thought, she said, that in the end, there would be her and the world. “But the world turned its back on me and said that's enough of you.”

Finucane conducted the interview with an impressive blend of steeliness and compassion. As a lifelong friend of O'Faolain, it must have been gruelling. This was a glimpse of the formidable skills Finucane does not often have much use for in her present weekend shows on RTE radio. 

O'Faolain has always been a great teller of stories. She has an avid ear for unhappiness, and diverted from telling the story of how she found out she was dying, to recount what she heard about the other poor souls waiting in A & E in New York two months ago.  She'd gone to the hospital alone, unaware that anything serious was amiss. The way she was told about her own illness was appalling. “A man walked past and said you've two brain tumours,” she said. “He just passed by.” Two hours later he passed by again with the casually imparted news that she had two lung tumours as well.

That was just six weeks before she did the radio interview. In the meantime she had learned that the cancer was advanced – already in her liver – and incurable. She'd returned to live in Ireland, undergone radiotherapy, acquired a wig that made her look like “a rather striking but old chorus girl”, abandoned it, and decided against chemotherapy. She'd gone to Paris, Madrid and New York. 

In Paris she'd been happy on her own, drinking coffee and eating bread at a pavement café. Her day at the Ritz in Madrid with two male friends looking after her was “one of the best in my life.” In New York she'd heard a string quartet playing Schubert's Death and the Maiden. If it had failed to move her, she'd have thrown herself under the subway, she said. “I came out elated. So there's things left.”
But what there isn't is consolation. “No,” she said, in a small, firm voice. She does not believe in an afterlife. Nor in God. She wept, frightened like a child in the dark, as she talked about a song she loved about “asking God in heaven that you don't believe in to send back yesterday when you know it can't happen”. There were moments which were so painful and raw that it felt like voyeurism to witness them. But she'd insisted we be there. At her deathbed.

She did not begrudge others their beliefs, she said. “Let poor human beings believe what they want,” she said. “We each end up differently facing this common fate. I wish them all a miracle cure.” The essence of dying was aloneness, she said.
O'Faolain will always, of course, be associated with the woman with whom she lived for 15 years, Nell McCafferty. Along with Finucane and a handful of others, they spoke for the women's movement, blazing a trail for women's rights in the bleak 1970's and 1980's when Catholic bishops declaimed that feminists were engaged in a conspiracy to destroy the family, and social workers argued that incest could be good for a child. 

The personal was the political, they insisted. They put women's voices out into a media so male dominated it hadn't even noticed that there were no women in the building except the cleaners. They let the cleaners speak out too, as well as the feminist fighters. The feisty McCafferty was, in those days, the more brilliant journalist. O'Faolain was too in love with suffering. She could be preachy and was, as she would later admit, muddled about many things.  The little girly voice she sometimes put on could be excruciating.
O'Faolain's true voice really emerged only in the memoir, published in 1996, when she was 55.  She was, she has said, a “very late starter”. She said in an interview a few years ago that she had “wasted my thirties and forties drinking and miserable, unable to break my way out of my little demon-haunted self”. She was one of the first to identify alcoholism as a national problem, and to lay bare its ravages as well as its powerful allure for the lonely, thwarted and unhappy.

They were Nuala and Nell, or Nell and Nuala, the best known closeted lesbian couple in Ireland. They came out in a barrage of hurtful, published exchanges, when the affair was over. McCafferty excruciatingly looked into the TV camera on the Late, Late Show and asked the nation, “Am I disordered?”

O'Faolain wrote that far from being gay, she'd climb over ten women to get to a man. McCafferty wrote that Nuala was at her best in the morning, before she'd had a drink. Each accused the other of being obsessed with their mother. That was certainly true. O'Faolain's account in her work of her mother's lonely, alcoholic life as a neglected, battered wife who never showed affection for her children, is incredibly powerful. Her realisation that this relationship has blighted her life, that even in her sixties, “her unhappiness seems much more real, still, than my happiness”, is tragic. So was McCafferty's dogged refusal to acknowledge the woman with whom she shared her life as her lover in case it would upset her elderly mother in Derry.

Finucane asked O'Faolain about old, unfinished business. Everyone knew she meant Nell. Nuala made a spirited effort to mend the damage. Twelve of the years they'd spent together had been “the greatest fun”, she said. “I thank her.” And of course, RTE went looking for McCafferty, whose interview on Morning Ireland two days later, was painful. “The subtext of the ghastly manner of her dying raises the subject of euthanasia,” she said, grimly. Nowhere had O'Faolain intimated that she wished to have this option. This was McCafferty's own preoccupation. “When I had my heart attack…” she said, reminding us that she, too, had felt death's terror brushing close.

Part of the problem with this interview was that both Aine Lawlor, who conducted it, and McCafferty, insisted that what O'Faolain had done was to start an important debate about dying and that this was a contribution to it. McCafferty even protested that RTE had let everyone down by cutting short the discussion about Nuala in order to air “banal tributes” to the late President Hillery!

O'Faolain makes endearing use of words and phrases from the 1950's. “Thanks be to the Holy God this is the 21st century”, she said to Finucane, regarding the availability of a sophisticated range of pain relieving drugs. One of her words is “Noticebox”. Celebrities are the ultimate manifestation of this, and both O'Faolain and McCafferty have a celebrity streak that doesn't always do them proud. But we are fond of this pair, and we forgive them much.

The truth is, though, that what we actually want to know is how did McCafferty feel about the sad and shocking news that her old lover was dying. And how did she feel that Nuala had sent a message via RTE thanking her for her part in her life. We want to know would McCafferty respond in kind. It isn't our fault. These two have told us too much for us not to wonder.  Lawlor didn't ask, though, and McCafferty didn't say. Her voice, though, was heavy with misery.

The O'Faolain interview ended on a whisper. “Are you sure it won't give people despair?” she asked Finucane, who then asked her if she could offer other people any advice. Nuala's reply was scarcely audible: “No”.