Skip to main content

Nuala O'Faolain, Journalist and Author, Dead at 68

The celebrated Irish memoirist, who had been battling lung cancer, died May 9. Her 1996 memoir — about growing up poor in the Ireland of the '40s and '50s — became a best-seller. Terry Gross talked to her in 2001.

27:57

Other segments from the episode on May 12, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 12, 2008: Interview with Padraig O’Malley & Mac Maharaj; Obituary for Nuala O'Faolain.

Transcript

DATE May 12, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Political activist Mac Maharaj and peace negotiator
Padraig O'Malley on peace negotiations in Iraq and elsewhere
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Members of Iraq's warring factions--Sunni, Shia and Kurd--met last month to
talk about prospects for peace, but they didn't meet in Iraq. They went to
Helsinki for a weekend of closed-door negotiations. The meeting was organized
by my guest, Padraig O'Malley. It was the second meeting of Iraqis O'Malley
held in Helsinki. The participants agreed on a framework for negotiations.
The next round of talks are planned for Baghdad.

O'Malley is a distinguished professor of peace and reconciliation at the
University of Massachusetts, Boston. He grew up in Dublin and lived there
during the troubles. He worked on peace negotiations in Northern Ireland and
South Africa. To demonstrate to the Iraqis that reconciliation is possible,
O'Malley brought to the Helsinki meeting former enemies from Northern Ireland
and former enemies from South Africa, who had learned to work together in new
governments.

One of the South Africans who attended the Helsinki meeting is also my guest,
Mac Maharaj. He was a leader of the African National Congress Underground,
and got to know Nelson Mandela when they were both prisoners on Robben Island.
Maharaj was the first minister of transport in the post-apartheid government.
O'Malley has written a book about Maharaj, called "Shades of Difference."

Padraig O'Malley, Mac Maharaj, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mac Maharaj, you spent a long time as the leader of the African National
Congresses Underground. How much awareness do you think the people who were
at this meeting of Iraqis, how much did they know about the history of the
South African struggle?

Mr. MAC MAHARAJ: I think all of them have taken interest in South Africa and
Northern Ireland to one extent or another, some more deeply than the others.
But when we go there and participate in their meetings as facilitators, what I
saw them reacting to was that, on one occasion, Cyril Ramaphosa was chairing
in his capacity as facilitator, and they had all spoken from the Iraqi side.
He then came into the discussion and said, `I have made the following notes of
each of your concerns.' And he listed them all. And he said, `We will now try
to address and enable you to talk around each of those issues.' That
inclusivity lit their eyes because he was not trying to say one group's views
will prevail over another. He was saying `each of these points that you have
raised merit attention.' And once he did that, he was articulating a principle
that we had learned through our own experience.

GROSS: You know, Padraig O'Malley's the author of a book about you and your
own struggle in South Africa. You were in prison for 12 years, and in the
introduction to this book, which is written by Nelson Mandela, Mandela
describes you as being legendary in South Africa for several things, including
your ability to withstand unimaginable torture. Was it difficult for you to
see the representatives of the government that was authorizing your torture,
was it possible early on in your attempts to participate in reconciliation to
see them as anything but evil?

Mr. MAHARAJ: It wasn't that difficult a problem to be able to talk to the
enemy who had been my torturers. And it wasn't difficult because, while under
torture in 1964, I learned to make a distinction in the case of a particularly
brutal torturer. I learned to respect him for the way in which he conducted
his torture. He was trying to understand me and trying to be one step ahead
of my thinking. And I realized then, you may hate your enemy, but do not be
trapped by that hatred. Because then you are in danger of underestimating
their capacity. You need to respect their technical skills while you hate and
totally disagree with their philosophy, their political outlook and their
political program.

GROSS: What was the most difficult aspect for you of working with the people
who had been your enemy in a power-sharing government, and what was the most
difficult thing about that that you wanted to communicate to the Iraqis?

Mr. MAHARAJ: The most difficult one was to get, within the power-sharing
arrangement, an agreement on reconciliation and reconstruction that addressed
the inequalities and the inheritance of that oppressive system of apartheid.
Because there was a tendency for the white minority in South Africa and the
party that represented them to merely say, `Forget the past. Let's reconcile
and shake hands and move forward,' without appreciating how much injury we had
done to each other. So when the Iraqis listened to that experience, they
begin to say, `Yes, we have deep wounds amongst ourselves as Iraqis, but we
need to be able to deal with our differences within a political framework and
a set of principles which do not require us to resort to violence and war with
each other.'

GROSS: Padraig O'Malley, did you ask the Bush administration for its blessing
on this peace initiative that you've launched?

Mr. PADRAIG O'MALLEY: No. We never consulted anybody, but we allowed them,
through intermediaries, to know what we were doing.

Mr. MAHARAJ: Terry, there are many initiatives going on around Iraq. This
initiative in which we are involved is an independent and separate one, and
its focus is merely to get the Iraqis together to put their own vision, which
includes living amongst themselves with their differences without resorting to
violence. That way they have a common, national vision in which they can
interact with the rest of the world, knowing what their national interests
require. All other initiatives have the tendency to wrap in both external
interests and the interests of Iraqis into one process. And I believe that
what we are trying to do would be of interest of all external parties because
it provides them with a basis to understand what Iraqis want for themselves.

GROSS: So, Padraig O'Malley, part of your job was organizing the conference,
choosing the people from Iraq who would participate, convincing them to come.
So you went to Iraq, and I understand you had like $40,000 in your pocket for
travel money so that you could buy the airline tickets for the people who were
going to be participating in the conference. I guess my first question is, it
seems like it would be mighty unsafe to be in Iraq, which is already unsafe,
and have $40,000 in your pocket.

Mr. O'MALLEY: Iraq has a cash economy. It's not a credit card economy. So
if you have to purchase something, you have to purchase it with cash. But for
the last year, ever since last June, I have spent two weeks of every month in
Iraq--except for October--putting these conferences together. And going to
them to invite them to something is far more--it's different, Terry. They
will say to me repeatedly, `We've been invited to many conferences, but nobody
has come here and actually asked us. We might get an e-mail, we might get a
telephone call or we might get it through an agency, but you people are the
first who have come to ask us. That establishes bonds between us.'

GROSS: Padraig O'Malley, since you've been spending two weeks out of nearly
every month for the past year in Iraq trying to organize the conflict
resolution meeting, the conflict has become more personal for you because your
life has been endangered by it. Through living in Iraq, did you find it
difficult to not start taking sides?

Mr. O'MALLEY: Well, I lived in Northern Ireland, and I'm Irish, and learned
not to take sides, so it is a lot easier not to take sides in Iraq. Every
side in Iraq has grievances, and conflict is about dealing with people's
accumulated grievances, and I'm able to empathize by listening.

GROSS: When people saw you as an American, and I know...

Mr. O'MALLEY: No, no, no. I carry an Irish passport.

GROSS: You carry an Irish passport, right.

Mr. O'MALLEY: I identify myself at all times as being Irish. And I...

GROSS: Being Irish. Does that help?

Mr. O'MALLEY: It sure does. It sure does. And...

GROSS: How does that help?

Mr. O'MALLEY: One has to say, and I can say this unequivocably, that all
Iraqis that I have met, and I've met Iraqis at every level, resent what is
called the occupation. And they resent that Americans are treated differently
at checkpoints, that even the most senior, even ministers of government have
to go through checkpoints in Iraq. Americans, low-level employees of the
State Department, do not. There are...

GROSS: And what about you?

Mr. O'MALLEY: Me? When I'm in Iraq, I'm a prisoner. Literally a prisoner.
I can only move from place to place if I'm with somebody carrying the
necessary identification to move me to that place. So Iraq is--even within
the green zone, it's entirely segregated according to the color of the card
you carry because that card identifies your position. I can leave my hotel to
go to the first checkpoint, but as soon as I get to the first checkpoint, I am
not allowed through if I'm not accompanied by somebody who has the authority
to take me through.

And a funny example of that was that I was trying to meet with some members of
the United Nations, but the people I was meeting with only had authority to
get to a certain checkpoint. I had the authority to walk to that checkpoint,
but not to go through it, so in fact if we wanted to talk to each other, we
had to use bullhorns to talk over the checkpoint. So the whole day can go by,
if you have a meeting, even within the green zone, of hours going through
checkpoints, and then you get to meet the person, then the electricity goes
out, then the Internet goes down.

And I have spent a lot of time in the Iraqi parliament, and nothing works
there. I mean, the lights go out; Internet works every other day. People
have to leave work early because of fighting in such places as Sadr City, so
the average workday might be at best five hours.

GROSS: Is this one of the reasons why you hold the meetings in Finland and
not in Iraq?

Mr. O'MALLEY: Yes. In fact, one of the comments, I think made to Mac when
he was leaving, by Minister al-Hakim, who's the minister of dialogue and
national reconciliation, was that he didn't think they would have the capacity
to hold a conference of the type we had just had in Finland in Iraq. The lack
of skills at every level is that nothing gets done. After I had sent
invitations by e-mail three times to participants in Iraq, because of having
been there so often, I kind of took the position that they probably didn't get
the e-mails. And so I had to go there to verify whether or not they got the
invitations. Nobody had received an invitation. So when the Iraqis are asked
to meet benchmarks, what's not taken into consideration is whether or not they
have the internal administrative capacity to do so, whether they have the
structure to do so. I mean, the telephone system, Iraqna, the national
telephone system, doesn't work.

GROSS: Mac Maharaj, for many years, you were head of the African National
Congresses Underground, and the ANC was an armed militant group in the
apartheid era. Because of that, do you feel a kind of understanding of why
some Iraqi groups are armed groups now, having come from an armed group
yourself?

Mr. MAHARAJ: Yes, I think so. Because I've come to the position that people
take to arms for a reason. Something pushes them to it. And if we want them
to lay down their arms, it cannot be by unilateral imposition or by crushing.
We have to lay a basis to say, `What is your political problem? Here is a
forum; come and talk.' And unless we do that, we will only treat the problem
at its symptom level, rather than at its root causes. So, to put it very
sharply and extremely, I come from a background that says that, in humankind's
march to freedom, people have a right to revolt against tyranny. And once you
acknowledge that right, you'll create the basis for enemies to sit at the
table. At some stage in every conflict, armed conflict, there will have to be
negotiations, even if it is between a victor signing a truce with the
vanquished. But there will be negotiations.

GROSS: Mac, I know you have to leave our conversation because you needed to
go and teach a class now. Thank you very much for participating in the
conversation.

Mr. MAHARAJ: Thank you.

GROSS: Padraig, not that I want to end on a discouraging note, but after the
IRA put down its arms, you wrote an op-ed basically saying, you know, `Great,
the IRA puts down its arms, and then along comes the jihadies.' Is it very
discouraging for you to know that, you know, in all likelihood, one conflict
is resolved, and another one comes along? One fanatical group--and you
describe the IRA as fanatical--puts down its arms, and another fanatical group
picks up theirs, or picks up, you know, stronger weapons.

Mr. O'MALLEY: No, I see that in the nature of things, Terry. It took 40
years of effort to bring the Northern Ireland conflict to--what I wouldn't
call an end, but to a settlement that must be nurtured over the years in order
for it to work. But there is a way of reaching people who are in militant
organizations, and there is a way of drawing them slowly into a process. You
cannot do it by the manner in which the Sadrists are being told to lay down
their arms, or the Madhi army in Baghdad, by conducting guerilla warfare,
targeting people from 70,000 feet. I mean, this is just doubling and tripling
the support for the militias. They must be talked to. They must be brought
into the process. And in the end, if we are honest about it, someplace,
someday, someone will have to make contact with al-Qaeda and say, `We have
come to talk.'

GROSS: Of course, the people with arms have to be ready to talk, too. There
was going to be a representative from Muqtada al-Sadr's group, but he never
made it to the Helsinki conference in April, and he said that there was a
problem with the plane, but, you know, I'm skeptical by nature, so I figure
who knows if that was really problem or not.

Mr. O'MALLEY: No, there wasn't a problem with the plane. I talked to him on
the Thursday morning at 11:00, and the plane was due to leave Baghdad at 3.
And he said that he was caught in Sadr City, that he couldn't get out. There
was fighting going on. And he wasn't able to make it out. Now, that same
person attended Helsinki one, and signed off to the principles of Helsinki
one. I will go back to him and be talking to him within the next month. And
I will be asking him to find ways that I can make contact with people that are
in fact closer to al-Sadr with the view to bringing the message that there is
a table, that they are welcome at the table, and there are no preconditions.

GROSS: One more question. You've been going to Iraq about two weeks out of
every month to help organize these conflict resolution meetings that you've
been holding in Helsinki. It's really hard, from everything I've heard, to go
in and out of Iraq, and to, you know, adjust to the safety of the United
States and then go back and expose yourself to the dysfunction and the dangers
of Iraq. Is this wreaking havoc with you psychologically and emotionally, to
be going back and forth on such a regular basis?

Mr. O'MALLEY: Yes. It is definitely having an impact, a larger one than I
thought. Iraq, at least in the green zone, is a place, to me, of spiritual
despair, where the stories you hear from people of what they have gone through
and are going through, and the inability of the government to deliver on basic
services is heartbreaking. And then to contrast that with the way in which
many minsters and government officials live within the green zone in
conditions of maximum security, but they live in isolation from the people.

And the American presence, occupation, whatever you wish to call it, is a
large part of the problem. But it is also recognized at this point that a
precipitous withdrawal would probably result in a civil war. And I think this
is something that should be asked of presidential candidates. When they are
formulating policies regarding the withdrawal of American troops, are they
ever saying to themselves, `What is good for the Iraqis? What
responsibilities do we have to them? Must we not first ask them, "What do you
want us to do? What should we do to leave?"'

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us, and be safe on your
travels. Thank you.

Mr. O'MALLEY: Thank you.

GROSS: Padraig O'Malley is a professor of peace and reconciliation at the
University of Massachusetts, Boston. He hopes to hold the next round of Iraq
peace talks in Baghdad.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Author Nuala O'Faolain discusses her life, writing
career and first novel, "My Dream of You"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

A nobody who came from a line of nobodies in a conservative Catholic country
that feared sexuality is how Nuala O'Faolain once described herself. In her
best-selling memoir "Are You Somebody?" she wrote about growing up in poverty
in a family of nine children in Ireland. She'd been a columnist for The Irish
Times, who became well known in England and America through her memoirs and
novel.

O'Faolain died of lung cancer Friday night at the age of 68. We're going to
listen back to the interview I recorded with her in 2001, after the
publication of her novel "My Dream of You." It's the story of a middle-aged
Irish woman who escaped the conditions of Ireland years ago by emigrating to
England, where she writes for a travel magazine. After the death of her best
friend, she has a midlife crisis, quits her job and returns to Ireland to
research an obscure 19th century divorce scandal known as the Talbot case. It
helps her understand her country's sexual repression and misogyny, as well as
her own malaise. Here's a brief reading.

Ms. NUALA O'FAOLAIN: (Reading) "I was interested always in any story about
passion. I believed in passion, the way other people believed in God.
Everything fell into place around it. Even before I started mooching around
after boys when I was 14, I'd understood, watching my mother, that passion was
the name of the thing she was pursuing as she trolled through novel after
novel."

GROSS: Now, your character believes in passion. She's also middle-aged, and
a lot of people assume that passion is supposed to burn less hot in middle
age. Do you believe that, that the nature of passion changes?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Oh, yes, of course. Well, where it sits in your heart and
your mind change because simply how can it still be appropriate at, say, 54 to
be running after the dream that you ran after when you were 14? How can you
go on believing? And yet one does. How can you go on believing that,
somewhere in the world, there's the other, the perfect person, the one who
will understand you and cherish you and you will be as good back? How can you
believe that that'll happen and it'll solve everything when, for one thing,
when you're middle-aged, you have a history that you can never share, no
matter how hard you try? It isn't there to be given. You can never describe
it. And so you're already late to the table of perfect passion.

GROSS: That's an interesting way of putting it. How does that apply to you
as someone who's middle-aged?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Well, I go--what I resent now is that I can't get rid of it.
I can't get rid of the hope of something wonderful happening, and even at this
late stage, having somebody who worries about me because I have to go to the
dentist or who wants to talk to me about our plans for the summer holidays, I
would like to forget all that. And I'd like to forget how much my body would
like to have had more use. I would like to be rid of all that because I feel
demeaned a bit by still secretly longing for it.

I'm getting better and better as I get older at all the other things, which is
the great discovery of middle age. I never knew before a few years ago what
animals can do. I had never had a dog or a cat before. And I hadn't realized
that's a whole new kind of joy. And I hadn't realized either that you can
make new friends in middle age. And I hadn't realized that you feel terribly
well. I feel terrifically healthy mentally and physically. So all kinds of
things are kicking in. And if only I could stop wanting the impossible, I'd
be as happy as a lark, Terry.

GROSS: Now, the character...

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: And you see, who planted this seed of that impossible dream?
It makes sense when you're young and you're looking for someone to mate with
and build a nest with. But by my age, we have our nests and there won't be
any children. So why is it just as--why does it pick at you and pull at you
just as badly?

GROSS: Why do you think? Do you think it's because it's a natural thing to
yearn for that, or do you think it's the influence of novels and movies and
fantasies?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: I think it's cultural. I mean, for most of human history,
and I think on most parts of the planet, there hasn't been this primacy of
romantic love. But, after all, I belong to my culture, and I've been soaked
in it since I can remember. And you know, the thing is this: The reason why
there's a huge romance industry of songs and movies and dressing to attract
and all that is because, on the whole, most people's lives are not very
celebrated. And that first time when you're in love and the other person
loves you, too, you feel wonderful. You feel potent. You, because you are
loved, you feel you can talk about yourself and be listened to. And you
listen, too, in a way that you never listened to your parents or your friends.
And it's the preciousness of that experience that makes the dream of love so
important. It's not just a trivial thing, and it's not just about the
sensation of sex. It's about feeling that you are your whole, full self.

GROSS: Your character thinks sometimes about what it means to, at her age, be
not married and to not have children. I'm wondering how it feels to you to be
not married and to not have children compared to how you thought it would feel
when you were a young woman.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Well, I have never been bothered about married, being married
or not married. I can't get over the way in America everybody seems to get
married young. I think it's a very odd thing to do. I was often asked--and
even one week--I had the engagement ring, we were to get married on the
Saturday, and we decided on the Thursday not to get married. And we went on
our honeymoon anyway, but we didn't go to the wedding. And sometimes I bump
into people all these years later who say, `Where were you on your wedding
day? We were there. Where were you?' But I don't care that I've never been
married, and that I'm sure I'll never marry.

But about being childless, quite apart from how much I love the sight and
sound and being of children, and I do, I think that you have to ask yourself,
`What were you for?' in a different way from most people. Most people solve
the problem of their own meaning by having children because then they have now
invented a meaning for themselves. Their meaning now, having created children
or helped to create children, is to rear those children with as much goodness
and intelligence as they can and to love them always and be loved by them.
And so they slide through life belonging to life. And the times of life are
appropriate when they're young. The hormones drive them and they make the
children in their prime. They protect the children. And then when they're
older, they become grandparents and give what they have to the grandchildren.

And if you're childless, you're outside that beautiful movement of the
generations. And it seems to me that you're far more self-conscious if you're
childless. It seems to me that you have to--a woman certainly has to ask
herself, `Well, what was it all about, all the fallings in love and the being
mad about people and the choosing my clothes and having periods for 35
year--you know, what was it all for?'

GROSS: Do you feel like you've had to consciously go about constructing a
meaning in your life?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: I do, and I think that's what I did, quite not knowing that
that's what I was doing. When I wrote my memoir--which of course never was a
memoir; nobody ever asked for it, and nobody knew I was doing it--it was only
an introduction to a book of old opinion columns. But I was in my early 50s,
and I couldn't understand why my life had come to so little, and how I managed
to end up with no partner, no gang of friends, no lover, no children, no
money, no particular future to look forward to. And a desire to sort of write
in some way to myself about what, looking back, had been the passion that
brought me to this, I think I wouldn't have had to do it if I were a mother
and a grandmother.

GROSS: I think I should probably not ask you what meaning you were able to
find in your life, because that would be asking you to reduce your life to a
little statement here.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: And because it doesn't work like that. You don't find a
meaning. You don't at all find a meaning. I still know nothing, and I'm
still like fundamentally as solitary as I was then.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: The difference is that I have had a small effect on other
people. I know, because I got thousands and thousands of letters about the
memoir from other members of the human race about their experience of being
human. And I know that, in some extraordinary way that managed to leap across
culture and gender and age, the way I spoke to myself in desperation at my
kitchen table in Dublin, Ireland, when I was 54, that that somehow was heard.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Now, your mother had nine children. And she actually had 13
pregnancies.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Mm.

GROSS: What impressions did it give you of motherhood watching your mother
raising nine children?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: As best she could, she didn't raise them. She very much
resented being stuck in the country in a house with no hot water, with a
husband who was gallivanting about in town with all these children. It wasn't
an occupation that gave her pleasure. And you know, I think there's a lot
more women than my mother who really get stuck with motherhood when it's not
suitable to them. She would've been a great librarian. She would've been a
wonderful wife and consort to him if children and poverty hadn't dragged her
down.

GROSS: You're the second oldest of the nine children. So when you were
growing up, was your mother pregnant most of the time?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: She was, yeah. And...

GROSS: What did it make you think of pregnancy watching her be pregnant?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: It never made me think anything, everybody, all the women
around were always pregnant. Everyone was pregnant all the time. I know that
women seem to me to be--well, they were effectively a race of second-rate
people in the Ireland I grew up in. Not only was there no contraception
available unless it was the rhythm method that my mother and the other women
in the country had never heard of, and which they could never have enforced on
their men, anyway, but--not only was there no family planning when I was an
adult woman, but you weren't even allowed to know that it existed. So when I
was an adult woman and all my sisters along with me, there were men in the
Irish customs force pulling out the back pages of American and British
magazines so that Irish women wouldn't have access to little ads about clinics
where you could send away for books. We were supposed not even to know. And
that was the condition that Irish women were pushed to by the combination of
the native patriarchy and the Roman Catholic Church.

GROSS: How did you discover birth control?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Well, we heard of it. We heard of it. And of course, in the
'60s, from America--where in my life all good things have come from for us in
Ireland, well, no, about half of the good things--the pill was rumored to
exist.

GROSS: If you don't mind my asking, were you able to discover birth control
the same time you discovered sex?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: No. I took the most hideous risks. I have in fact never
used any birth control, but it became evident to me in my 20s that I must be
infertile. And I think I was. I did get pregnant when I was 39, but I had a
miscarriage.

GROSS: Hm. Were you sorry?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: I was too confused to know what I felt.

GROSS: You were sent to, I think, a convent boarding school when you were
about 14.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Yes.

GROSS: And you say that puberty got you into a lot of trouble and that you
were stunned by the demands of the body that you had barely noticed before.
What kind of things got you into trouble?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Dancing. There used to be dances in the little town we lived
in. They started at 10 at night and went on till 4 in the morning. I need
hardly tell you that I was a schoolgirl at the convent, a day school, and it
was utterly unheard of for schoolgirls to go to these dances. These dances
were essentially for the working class to find each other. But I went. I
used to steal the money from my poor mother to go. And I'd be locked in and
I'd find some other way to get out. And I'd be locked in again and I'd find
some other way, and so on and so on. And one Friday, the nuns in the convent
managed to track down my father and said to him, `We want you to take her
away.' And it was a real crisis.

Now, crises occurred all the time in our family, and other people's crises
went unmanaged, but for some reason they went to great trouble for me. By
their standards, they went to great trouble for me. My father had a small
car, and he sold it and bought me the clothes to go to boarding school because
you had to have a trunk, you know. You had to have things like three night
dresses and two pairs of shoes and so on. And we'd always only ever had one
of anything; at the most, you know, one of anything. So I was sent off to a
boarding school, an Irish-speaking boarding school, up on the border with
Northern Ireland.

I arrived there the day I was 14 and I didn't get out till I was 17 1/2, and I
didn't fit in very well. But it was, like many of those old-fashioned Irish
boarding schools, a very, very good education.

GROSS: Did you like having the structured environment of the convent, or was
it just too repressive for you?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: I just wanted to get back to dances. I wanted to--I don't
know the American for courting. Snogging? Whatever. That's what I wanted.
I wanted to work in a shop like my friends in Dublin and I wanted to go to
dances, and I wanted to be left home by good-looking boys. And I was lost in
that stuff. And by accident, on the side, I was very good at school. And by
accident, you know, I got scholarships and so on, and firsts in Ireland and
everything. But I didn't care about that. I wanted the security of physical
love.

GROSS: Now, your father was a society columnist. What kind of stories did he
cover?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Well, the car would call for him at 3 in the afternoon, a
limo with a driver with a cap, and my father would emerge spotless in his
evening dress. He was the most impeccable and fastidious little man. And,
you know, the house would be in uproar, maybe, and Mammy might have been
drinking at lunchtime and we might be looking for money or something, but
Daddy went to work. He might go to the launch of some product. He might go
to the opening of a ballet season. He might go to a party for a political
retiree--whatever constituted the growing sort of PR world of Dublin. He was
the first ever.

And then at midnight, he went to his office and he wrote 2,000 words every
single night. And the thing came out the next day. And sometimes there'd be
something that moved him much more deeply, and then he mightn't go into this
stuff. He would just write a column. I remember when President Kennedy was
shot, he wrote a marvelously sincere and affecting column. So I think he was
probably a lovely writer who was very much underappreciated from that point of
view.

GROSS: Now, how could it be that you and your sisters and brothers hardly had
any clothes, and your father had this fantastic evening wear that he'd go off
in every night? I mean, how is that he was in the society world and you and
your family had nothing?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Because he was keeping--yeah. Oh, well, we didn't have
nothing; we had just enough. The thing is, he was keeping the show going. I
think he must have thought in his own mind that there was nothing he could do
by joining us in our chaos, you know? He would have had to be a saint to both
do his job and care for us. He was an old-fashioned man of old-fashioned
people. It was Mammy's job to look after us. It was his job to bring home
the money. And he did bring home the money. But he had to spend a good bit
of that money on himself, because he couldn't go about his job in shabby
clothes or anything. But, I mean, I have to stress that he loved us, and we
loved him.

GROSS: Now, you said that depression runs in your family, and you mentioned
before that several members of your family have serious trouble. One of your
brothers committed suicide. Was there not quite a word for depression in your
parents' day?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: No, and I don't think there were any anti-depressants. It's
not depression, anyway. It's despair.

GROSS: Mm. What's the difference to you?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Well, there's something dramatically suffering in those of my
brothers and sisters who are suffering. It's not a dull thing they live with.
It's a thing that keeps attacking them and trying to drag them down. And it
took me a long time to defeat the demons who were trying to drag me down, and
I really only did it in middle age, and I wish I'd managed to do it when I was
younger so that I wouldn't have wasted my whole 30s in drinking and so on.

GROSS: Did you? Did you drink a lot in your 30s?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Yes. I was an alcoholic, I would say, by the end of my 30s.
And the year I was 40, I was in a psychiatric hospital for a while. But then,
luckily--I was completely derelict, really, mentally and emotionally.
Luckily, I fell in love with a gay woman, and this was after a lifetime of
being mad about various men. And we lived together for 14 years, and it was
immensely healing to live with a woman.

GROSS: In what ways was that healing?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: We had a home. I don't know how to explain to you, but I had
a domestic life for the first time ever. I loved it. I loved buying cups and
buying an egg lifter, and I just loved it. There's an intrinsic tension, I
think, between men and women, and it wasn't there between myself and my
friend. It's true that the relationship didn't last, but I've had such great
strokes of luck in my life, like being sent off to boarding school and like
that one, that she cared about me and stuck with me while I finally sort of
kicked sleeping tablets and then cut back and back and back on the drink. If
anything, then I became happier and healthier than she. And, anyway, we broke
up and, a year after I wrote the memoir.

GROSS: Were you surprised, falling in love with a woman?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: I was. I was, when I came to think of it. But when it
actually happened, my whole world was so disoriented because my father had
died slowly and very, very savagely. And I'd been drinking and I hadn't slept
in six months or something, and I could barely hang on to my job, and I don't
think I was at all well mentally. So I was free, I was free of every
constraint. I didn't know. It never really dawned on me that she was a woman
for a while, you know? I mean, of course I know she was a woman, but the
strangeness of it didn't strike me for a long time.

GROSS: Let me ask you, since I know one of the things you're thinking about
is, you know, the process of getting older.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: It's, I think, always been assumed that you get older, you have
children who help take care of you; you have a spouse, if they're still
living, who helps take care of you. But a lot of people now aren't married,
they're not in a long-term relationship, they don't have children, they're not
going to have children and they're going to be getting older. So the kind of
system of how you get by when you get older is going to have to change because
the whole nature of family life, for a lot of people, has changed.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Yes.

GROSS: Do you think about that a lot?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: I do. I do, indeed. And my only motivation for wanting to
earn money is for the nursing home at the end. But, of course, you don't know
how long you might be infirm. But besides money, what you need--and perhaps
this would get you through even if you didn't have any money--you need an
attitude to aging that allows you not to regret and not to repine, but to take
vitality from the small things of the everyday. And I'm getting better and
better at that stuff.

I, first of all, as I say, I discovered animals, little pets, small little
animals, you know, the company of them. I think food and a moderate amount of
drink are great resources as you get older. I think that landscape matters an
awful lot. Music means a great deal to me, and it does really. It's not a
show-offy thing. It's from my heart for myself. And travel does, and I've a
few friends, a lot of them made just recently.

So I'm saying that there are lots of things you can put in a palisade around
you and plant like little seeds in your heart to sprout in your 60s and 70s
and, please God, 80s, when, really, you can't be hanging around looking for
just passion, to go back to the thing we began with.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Thank you.

GROSS: Writer Nuala O'Faolain recorded in 2001. She died Friday of lung
cancer at the age of 68. She's survived by her partner, John Low-Beer, an
American lawyer. They'd been together for about six years, and she had been
dividing her time between New York and Ireland. I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

'Fresh Air' remembers Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (Part 3)

We conclude our tribute to Sondheim by listening to archival interviews with collaborators and performers, including Stephen Colbert, James Lapine, Paul Gemignani and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

52:30

'Fresh Air' remembers Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (Part 1)

Sondheim, who died Nov. 26, was the lyricist and composer who gave us Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and other shows. In 2010 he spoke about his writing process, from rhyming to finding the right note.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue