Writer Nuala O’Faolain died as she lived – independent to the last.
One of Ireland’s best-loved writers, Nuala O’Faolain, 68, died on Saturday. She made a remarkable end.
Diagnosed with terminal cancer just eight weeks ago, she refused chemotherapy and instead embarked on a journey around Europe to say goodbye to her favourite pleasures.
She was up-front about her anger and dismay at her illness. "Even if I gained time through the chemotherapy, it isn’t time I want," she told Irish broadcaster Marian Finucane in a radio interview on April 12. "Because as soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life.
"I thought there would be me and the world, but the world turned its back on me."
O’Faolain, the daughter of a well-known journalist, was best-known as a columnist and broadcaster, but achieved fame in 1996 with her memoir, Are You Somebody?, which detailed with unflinching honesty her parent’s troubled marriage and her mother’s alcoholism. She asked for as few copies of her work to be printed as possible – an injunction her publisher ignored, and the work became an international best-seller.
Her honesty about her private life (she was bisexual, never married, never had children and considered that much of her life had been a complete waste) was also to be seen in her attitude to her illness and she spent little time on self-pity. "The two things that keep me from the worst of self-pity are that everyone’s done it so that ordinary people are as brave as I could ever be or as less brave as I could ever be,’ she said.
"The second thing that really matters to me is that in my time – which is mostly the 20th century – people have died horribly…in Auschwitz, in Darfur, or dying of starvation or dying multiply raped in the Congo. I think, 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 with me except dying."
O’Faolain, in a land of faith, was an unbeliever. "Though I respect and adore the art that arises from the love of God and though nearly everybody I love and respect themselves believe in God, it is meaningless to me, really meaningless," she said. "I don’t even think about it. I have never believed in the Christian version of the individual creator."
Her last interview met with massive response in Ireland, and she had planned another, but death overtook her before she was able.
She undertook her last journey – to New York, Paris, Madrid, Berlin and Sicily – in the company of close friends, paying a visit to the Berlin Opera House to see a modern-dress version of Verdi’s Don Carlos – a performance she wasn’t impressed with, according to her friend Luke Dodd (something she made clear, quite loudly, from her seat in the audience).
Dodd also travelled with her to Madrid to bid goodbye to her favourite paintings, housed in the Prado. "The trip was awful at times, but Nuala was often hilarious," he said.
"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.
You can read the complete transcript of O’Faolain’s last radio interview here.