By Mursi Saad El-Din
Nuala O'Faolain was often described as Ireland's finest woman writer. Apart from her work on the Irish Times and Irish Radio she is the author of a number of literary works, including Are you Somebody which became a best seller in both the US and Britain. When she submitted this novel to the publisher she asked him to print as few copies as possible and added "only a lunatic" would read it, so what had I got to lose? Against her expectation the first print sold within five hours and came to top of the list of best-sellers in Ireland for more than five months.
When the book came out in Britain in 1997, one of the critics wrote "Rare is the book that you cannot put down, the one that seems as necessary, poignant, impossible and joyful as life. This short work of memory and desire by one of Ireland's most prominent columnists is one of them."
I know that Nuala's name might mean nothing to our readers, but when I read about her recent death and what The Observer calls "Extraordinary final odyssey" I felt I should present her to our readers.
The story behind Nuala's death has the power of a Shakespearean tragedy. When she was diagnosed with cancer three months ago, she refused treatment and embarked on a last visit to her favourite cultural landmarks. In the words of Venessa Thorpe in The Observer "Nuala O'Faolain had just weeks, perhaps days, to live and wanted to bid farewell, one by one, to some of her favourite pleasures."
O'Faolain refused chemotherapy, saying "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 my life. Her odyssey started at the Berlin Opera where she watched Verdi's Don Carlos, and there she was clearly moved that she wept. Thorpe comments "What the strangers around her did not understand was that she was also saying a final goodbye to music -- one of the great loves of her varied and turbulent life.
According to Venessa Thorpe, shortly after receiving the unexpected terminal diagnosis in New York, O'Faolain embarked on her European odyssey in company of some of her close friends. Talking in a radio programme she reminisced over her life in memorable and telling phrases. "I thought there would be me and the world, but the world turned its back on me, the world said to me that's enough of you now and what's more we're not going to give you any little treats at the end." That interview was hailed as "a testament to the late writer's talent as a communicator."
Nuala O'Faolain visited Madrid where she saw some of the great paintings inside the city's Prada. Her friend who accompanied her said "I don't think she ever lost the capacity to take pleasure in things. She kept going, she wanted to live every minute."
Until her diagnosis O'Faolain lived in New York providing regular commentaries for Irish radio on the presidential elections. She was a graduate of Hull and Oxford universities and had worked for the BBC and in Tehran during the 1979 Iranian revolution. On becoming ill she moved back to Ireland. her friend, Luke Dodd, who was with her on her European odyssey remarks "She was one of our few real intellectuals and a true one. But she wore it very lightly. She wrote in a completely unthreatening way."
O'Faolain was one of the great architects of modern Irish womanhood and was a supporter of the former Irish president Mary Robinson. To quote Dodd again "I was with her on the last night with her family. In our culture that is a great privilege. We were all singing and talking. I am happy really because she had the death she wanted in the end."
Commenting on her coming death she said that in her time "people have died horribly in Auschwitz, in Darfur, or dying of starvation in the Congo... Look how comfortably I am dying. I have friends and family, I am in this wonderful country, I have money. There is nothing much wrong in me except dying."