"Why doesn't anyone ask me to dance?" This was the question Nuala O'Faolain asked in an evening lecture at the Merriman School in Lisdoonvarna in August 2007.
I wouldn't have dreamed of wanting such a thing, except suddenly, like a teenage pang, when Nuala asked me, and then everyone else, why no one had asked her to dance. Why? Why? And there was so much pathos in her voice that we all felt, briefly, as unwelcome as Nuala thought we did.
The wonderful thing was they sent someone, they found a man, Nuala was tapped on the shoulder and she was gone, flushed like a girl.
She had a way of making people look out for her, I realized, even though I didn't want to look out for her, partly because she'd sliced me up earlier that day. It happened when I sat down after giving my admittedly less competent opinion about being a woman in Ireland.
MOLI, the Museum of Irish Literature reopens on Monday the 20th with a new exhibition 'Someone: Nuala O'Faolain and a book that changed us'. Video: Bryan O'Brien
When Nuala leaned over and made a comment that stunned me, she rose to her feet, calming her nerves and grabbing the audience by the neck. It was one of the best impromptu conversations I've ever heard. It was also a lament.
He said whatever came to mind: spiteful, generous or sad. The difference between private and public speaking was only one downside: she lived for the wonderful rush of truth-telling.
Nothing has changed for women, everything has failed; even our sex lives, he said, were not happy.
This is a small enough story to possibly not be worth telling, although small wounds with deep roots were a feature of O'Faolain's 1996 memoir Are You Someone? and his hard-hitting, nation-changing columns in the pages of this paper.
The history of Irish feminism may one day include these Oedipal truths: that older feminists are not always delighted when younger ones enjoy the freedoms they fought so hard to secure. Why would they be? There must be a moment of gratitude, there must be a moment to acknowledge difficulty and pain.
I was born 22 years after Nuala O'Faolain and had the great privilege of being able to write all day. In 2007 I was more interested in suffering for my art than my gender: I wanted to claim the right not to care. So I was a María for the Martas of the feminist past, and besides, everything was very, very difficult.
O'Faolain was a moralist, and it seemed to me that she demanded a lot of morality especially from women. She did it in a very childish way. The word “innocence” was his shield and his sword, the word “child” meant “happiness” and also “vulnerability”.
O'Faolain was one of nine siblings. She was the wounded child of a bad marriage between two alcoholics, and it's possible she didn't know how to grow up. She had no borders, no buffers. He said whatever came to mind: spiteful, generous or sad. The difference between public and private speaking was only one downside: she lived for the wonderful sudden rush of speaking the truth.
It's hard to remember what it was like, but before the internet people in Ireland were honest face to face. Some, of course, used the anonymity of the radio, others resorted to alcohol to reveal truths that might be forgotten the next day, but it was the great imperative of the time: tell the truth and shame the devil. We were walking through the confessional.
Nuala was honest to the point of self-destruction, and it was precisely this fire point that piqued my interest as a writer.
I didn't realize how central his voice was until recently doing an interview with June Caldwell for her exhibition on O'Faolain at the Museum of Irish Literature (MoLI) in Stephen's Green.
Yes, I said, of course I used all of these in my work. Very specifically, I took as my theme my novel A Valsa Esquecida do Final de Além de Além, her second volume of autobiography, published in 2003, where she wrote that she was dying of jealousy of her partner's eight-year-old daughter: she couldn't stand the way he spoiled the girl, he was freaking out at the sound of him putting his daughter to bed, thinking what about me?
Nuala had a child's capacity for joy, from the walk, from the dance, it was always a surprise.
The fact that O'Faolain posted these things about a real child, for all his interest in the innocence of children, was amazing. Did you think the girl couldn't read? Couldn't the caustic truths of my novel, The Gathering, have been written without the critiques of Are You Somebody? in her disdain for the large Irish family and, mainly, in her way of attacking the figure of an always pregnant and emotionally absent mother.
As half of Ireland, I read Are You Somebody? in one session when it came out, and I had an instant opinion. I thought O'Faolain was incredibly hard on her mother, an alcoholic, left by a glamorous-looking husband to care for her penniless nine children while he went out partying elsewhere.
In Almost There, O'Faolain describes the thought of his mother as "a toxic gas" seeping into the room, "a harbinger of defeat." That was such a weird, anti-feminist thing to say, that you hate your mom for being weak, but it was also completely true. The psychological and the political were at odds, in his thoughts and in his life, in a way that O'Faolain did not even attempt to reconcile.
Why do we blame our mothers? This was the first clear example I saw of a tendency for people to lash out at a woman when they feel something has been denied them in life. Nuala could do this even though, or even because, some of her closest and happiest connections were with women. Men, in this psychic space, are for something else.
If we want to unravel the knots of envy as well as those of power, O'Faolain's Battlefield Reports are still a great place to start. Though perhaps that big issue, the tension between women of different generations, can be left to the next wave of feminism. Or into fiction, where I, at least, am only too happy to oblige.
I spent a lot of energy avoiding O'Faolain, even though I remember everything he said in my company. She was, I thought, an impossible person to whom we owe so much. I regretted not expressing my gratitude more clearly.
Many of them are gone now, these bright, brave women: Maeve Binchy, who was in the front row that afternoon in Lisdoonvarna, and Marian Finucane, who walked the back roads of the Burren the day before with Nuala; both with wooden traps, arriving at the hotel full of fresh air and joy. Nuala also had a child's capacity for joy, going for walks, dancing, it was always a surprise.
The Irish Times Summer Nights Festival is a series of lectures and online events taking place from 13th to 16th July. On Wednesday at 6.30pm, author Anne Enright and Irish Times columnist Kathy Sheridan will discuss writing, feminism and the work of the late author Nuala O'Faolain.
Readers of this article can use discount code 'summer20' to get a half-price €20 ticket covering this talk and all Irish Times Summer Nights Festival events. just go toirishtimes.com/summernightsand be sure to apply the discount code before purchase.
Somebody: Nuala O'Faolain and a Book that Changed Us is at the Museum of Irish Literature from 20 July. Reservation:moli.es