Editor’s Note
On May 9, around midnight in a small hospice in Dublin, writer Nuala O’Faolain died after an implausibly, ridiculously, brutally brief illness. The worlds of literature, politics and feminism shook, and a traffic of laments and tributes are gathering still, in newspapers and on radio.

Many of us who somehow got enough right in our lives to become
friends with Nuala have been, truthfully, struggling with a
discomforting sorrow. Friendship with Nuala was an adventure, a wild
ride that was worth it every breathing moment. How to make sense of
this loss?

Nuala, at 68, after bestsellers
and successes and personal passions and tragedies, seemed to be
just getting started. I want to share stories of what it was like to know
Nuala, but I just cannot do it yet. Perhaps before her New York
Memorial, set for June 24 at 7 p.m. at the New York Public Library.

For now, we have an extraordinary gift for you.

Polly Devlin, author of "All of Us There" and "A Year in The Life of An English Meadow," as well as many more books,
and a professor at Columbia and Barnard, has written a beautiful
tribute to Nuala that begins below. Enjoy.

Elaine Lafferty

 

* * * * * * * *

The Intricate Rented World
by Polly Devlin


A very little while ago — only yesterday but already a lifetime — I
went to a concert in Carnegie Hall to hear Schubert’s "Death and the
Maiden," a piece to which there is paradoxically no end. It is
unfathomable. Schubert was nearing the end of his life when he wrote
it,
and he knew what was approaching him in all its ineluctable dread.

I was there with my funny intemperate and beloved friend Nuala
O’Faolain. She had been in County Clare getting radiotherapy for her
cancer, and I was in New York, but nevertheless in the middle of this
horrible time she had flown over to say goodbye to her friends in New
York and to hear music this one last time. One last time.

At the best of times you listen to live music with attention. But
you cannot sit beside someone you love who is dying by inches in front
of your eyes and listen to the "Death and the Maiden" without being
affected beyond words, so I will say no more about it.

I will, though, say more about her. I loved her. I never met a truer
or keener intelligence. I never met anyone who could teach me about the
ecstasy and meaning of music as she did, though she would have been
bashful if she heard me about this. She was so chary of her own
talents, this brilliant writer, and failed to recognize their extent.

She could be wide-eyed about the most ordinary of social things. She always insisted she had no social graces and loved any arcane
example of ritual behaviour and was gleeful at social pretension. Her
stay among certain women in County Down in Northern Ireland gave her
much pleasure in that direction, but she always trod a thin wire
between despair and joy and, alas, grief ran taut throughout her life.

God, how she could write:

The way country lanes are in Ireland at this time of
year came into my head when I read that John McGahern was dead — such
a beautiful time, with life bursting out through the flowers of the
blackthorn and the vigorous singing of the small birds, and the earth
and ourselves moving forward, the great round starting off again.
Except for the dead, who have to stay behind. John’s funeral procession
will make its way through a landscape of newly green little fields.
He’d have known every detail of them. He was
one with the place where he lived as few people are. And he was a man,
to paraphrase Hardy, who used to notice such things.

Yet when I think of him I think of the rainy, shadowy, dark-grey
Dublin of his youth and mine, where the golden light from pubs was
almost the only light along the quiet streets.

There were women in her life who were more important to her than me
–- her sisters, Nell McCafferty, Marian Finucane, oh, many others, but
I warrant no one loved her more. What am I going to do without her?

She was funny, impatient, demanding, alchemic; going shopping with
her, which I often did, was a nightmare, and there was much flouncing
and screaming and then the calm that passeth all understanding when she
found –- or more generally when I found — something that she liked.

There was no one more generous, with time, with affection and care
and temper with money — I don’t think anyone except Marion Finucane
knows, for example, what she did for women in Africa and their children
with AIDS.

She was ironic. She deflected emotion, she couldn’t bear
compliments, she thought the worse of her self, she refused to see she
was pretty, she had a way of ducking her head when she was told she was
loved -– as if to say, "Ah, don’t say it." She didn’t see herself at
all as the world saw her. She didn’t perceive her own beauty yet saw it
so fast in everyone else.

She was straight as a die and had a fantastic critical mind. I would
ask her, say, about Henry James and she would stop — she’d halt at
such times, quivering with excitement to tell me exactly how great he
was. Or I’d say, "Have you read Colm Tobín on Hart Crane?" And she’d
burst to a halt and I knew she was talking about someone she revered.

We spent time together in isolated places and away from people; or,
rather, isolated from our usual daily lives and loves and friends. We
spent a week in Aspen in Colorado on a literary festival, the snowy
mountains towering above us, and that was the first time I found how
active she was, how much she got done. Lord, how she could bustle.

Left to myself, I would have walked ’round the town or gone to a
concert or read. Not Nuala. She did all those things, too, at breakneck
speed, but she also hired bicycles and we cycled for miles discovering
lakes and forests. And all the time there was her talk — evidence of
that original true mind of such raving intelligence and integrity.

Then we spent a month together at the McDowell Writing Colony in
darkest, snowiest New Hampshire, and I have a vivid memory of her
running down Peterborough High Street in the snow with tiny steps like
a geisha in a red woolly hat; why was there so often snow around?

We  were together in New York, always from January to May — she
sometimes teaching at Bennington, and me up at Barnard. And in all
these places where we saw a lot of each other, I have endless visual
images of her larking about. No one could do larking –- or despondency
-– better, or being apocalyptic, joyless, joyful. It was often
extremes. I’d have a glass of wine; she wouldn’t. "I don’t see any
point in drinking unless you drink too much," she said, dead primly.

Not long ago we hired bikes, again, and took a fast ferry to New
Jersey for 45 glorious, scudding, sunny minutes, with Manhattan
receding under the Verrazano bridge, to Sandy Hook, where the criminals
and insane landed before being allowed to go to Ellis Island and where
she set part of her book "The Story of Chicago May."

It was a little bit of dreamy lost archetypal America, and we were
cycling all innocent alongside the ocean in the sunshine when the
weather came up over the horizon without warning and slammed us off our
bikes. Freezing hail and ripping wind tore our clothes half off. In the
space of five or six minutes, we were wet through — our knickers and
bras sopping wet, our shoes gushing, our bodies streaming water. We had
by chance brought plastic macs. Nuala got her head stuck in a sleeve,
like a pink condom, and I couldn’t get her out of it.

You couldn’t see much through the rain, but I could see her two
desperate eyes staring out of the pink sheath and her lips under the
plastic shaping the words, "For fucks sake, get me outta here," but I
had gotten myself lost in a big brown poncho and looked like something
DHL had dropped out of the back of a van. And, in any case, we were
laughing so much that we couldn’t help each other, that hysterical
laughter that incapacitates.

We pushed back with real difficulty to a clam house where there was
no heating and wrapped as much of ourselves as we could in towels
without breaking the decency code and frightening the horses. We hung
our clothes out to drip onto the wet porch where they got much wetter.
I had my first steamed clams, which was one of the best meals I’ve ever
had.

We both loved dogs and missed ours when we were away. She wrote
about her beloved mutt Molly’s reaction when she got home to Clare:

It was enough to make me weep. she was so beside
herself. I got out of the car and whistled and she hurtled up the lane,
and she’s a fat little thing, but her little muddy legs blurred
practically and then she wouldn’t leave me. Even in the shower she sat
outside looking through the glass. I face 5 months without her. I don’t
know how to bear it.

She used to fret that Molly would outlive her, but Molly died last year.

She seemed to know everything but wore it lightly and was never
didactic. She had a great sweetness of nature mixed in with general
fury and extraordinary intellectual capacities. I’ve never met anyone
who was so well read, and she could be hysterically funny. The English
class system made her angry — she lived for years with an upper-class
Englishman and got know their deeply prejudiced little ways, and would
say, prodding me, "You beat them at their own game." And I would nod
happily, delighted to be ratified in any way by her, even though I
discerned vaguely that it was at best an ambivalent compliment.

I don’t think I’ll ever come across another woman who brought such
vivid apprehensions of daily life, such energy, quickness, delight,
profound knowledge of the arts, literature, music, passionate feelings,
surprise and pleasure to  living as she did. You could never be bored
for an instant with her around, though you could be alarmed by a
freakish change of mood.

She wrote to me not long before the diagnosis of her illness:

Maybe it’s the season but black anxiety wakes me up too.
Though, like you, I know how fortunate I am and can count all the
things up. And I try to pray. I think it becomes too hard, the whole
thing, Poll. I think time loads too much on us. And we have to
negotiate our way into grey hair and dumpiness and of course that
breaks a woman’s heart. The only answer I know is to turn out from
ourselves. Work is part of this. And you have such a family, and
friends, such opportunity. 

I was with her on Super Tuesday night. We were having  supper in
her apartment, and I saw she was walking funnily and asked her what was
wrong. She said she had been exercising too much, and I laughed fit to
bust because Nuala never exercises. But she insisted no, no, she had
turned over a new leaf and knew now for the first time that what she
wanted was a beautiful old age with cats and dogs and Proust and then
to spend time in Clare and Dublin and Brooklyn with her friends and
John, her partner.

I was so sure it was a trapped nerve, but the next day (so short a
time ago how this can be) both her arm and leg felt funny and she went
to the emergency department of NYU Hospital and they pulled her in
immediately. John phoned me from the hospital, and I got down there in
a glaze of panic — all our lives changed by a sentence. I imagine many
of you reading this will have heard her talking about her own death in
a way that makes one know that some people are vatic.

We had such plans: to go to Colmar to see that most terrifying of
all masterpieces, the Isenheim Altarpiece by Grunewald; to Paris in
July where she was teaching; to Vienna.

She went to Sicily with her family just before she died and to
Madrid with her friends Brian and Luke. She told me in excitement that
Luke was making her read everything about Velasquez — "and you
wouldn’t know, Poll, how much I have learnt."

And on top of it all, she was a most wonderful and felicitous
writer. She finished that obituary of John McGahern with these words;

He had embarked on a life of heroic honesty. He already
knew what he meant by being a writer. He gave me, what he could ill
afford a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.  Now, I see that
John, for all that he was shabby and provincial-looking and unregarded
and about to incur the hatred of the deathly Ireland of that time, had
already absorbed Rilke’s advice: "that you may find in yourself enough
patience to endure and enough simplicity to have faith; that you may
gain more and more confidence in what is difficult and in your solitude
among other people."

There should be sorrow today, that that passage ends –- "And as for
the rest, let life happen to you. Believe me: life is in the right,
always." No more life for John. But there was a distance from
experience in him from the start — the distance he used, I suppose, in
the making of his art — that prevents me from pitying him even for his
death. He had pieced his broken heart together after he lost his
mother. He had made himself into a true stoic. I don’t think I’ve ever
met anyone who so fully accepted the way things are. In the simplest
way, he was always ready to die.

She knew what she was writing about, but I don’t think she ever
pieced her heart together. She wrote to me from Clare a year ago with
terrible presentiment:

I am okay but uneasy. Very uneasy. And my first ever
ever boyfriend, his obit was in the paper, it is as if the grim reaper
is at the edge of the field sharpening his  scythe.

Goodbye for now. Not for long  xx nuala

And now it’s forever.

I don’t know what I’ll do without her.

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  • Rebecca Uí Bhruacháil September 7, 2008 at 5:50 pm

    Polly,
    Thank you

    Reply
  • Elaine L June 10, 2008 at 6:15 pm

    Dearest Nell
    I cannot tell you how much we all appreciate this particular comment. For WVFC readers who may not be familiar with Ms. McCafferty’s work, I’d like to share that she is one of the most esteemed journalists in Ireland, a feminist champion in Europe, and was Nuala’s partner for some 15 years.Thank you for all your work Nell, and we would be privileged to have your contributions to this site at any time.

    Reply
  • nell mc cafferty June 10, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    this is the best account of nuala that i have ever read, shot through with the joy and despair and quickness of her life and times.

    Reply