The consistency with which the late Nuala O’Faolain related her thoughts echoes in this collection, largely from her columns for the Irish Times of Dublin. She combined erudition with no-nonsense observations, and her calm, steady, but ethical and forthright presence graces this collection. I heard some of this material on an audiobook version of her Almost There sequel to her international breakthrough memoir, Are You Somebody? and her voice can be heard as clearly on the page as on the tape. Hers was a composed, opinionated, but compassionate and reasoned p-o-v.
The 71 entries of this collection start in 1987. The first piece looks at the Statue of Liberty refurbishment celebrations broadcast, but from an Irish view, that of the global underdog, not the flag-waving immigrant. She contrasts the Reagan years’ rhetoric with the realities where the world’s comprised of Sandinistas as well as Sinatra fans, and how the two may even overlap, in a vision outside the narrow patriotism marketed as entertainment, as American, she notes, as is St Peter to the Vatican.
She was a fair-minded critic of Catholic restrictions, imposed upon body and mind. Many essays explore the impacts of belief, fear, and capitulation to the demands of the Irish state and its clerical power. She also represented the liberation of an older generation from what she regards as the confines of a mental dictatorship and a physical regimen of joylessness. If you want to understand how far and how quickly Ireland has become secularized, O’Faolain offers a tangential as well as direct testament of how it happened since the late ‘80s, so rapidly, but perhaps because it was based on such shallow grounds. She noted in an incisive entry, “Irish Atheism”, how ingrained the habits are, for communal standards and not personal conviction, to go along, from mother to child, with the system of faith that few believe but which fewer dare to challenge, for fear of upsetting the elders.
These pieces flow along often magically, as one topic one month fits into the one a few weeks later. She avoided easy sentiment and lilting cant. She was tough minded, yet open hearted—a tricky combination. Her steady output published here reflects, then, O’Faolain’s curiosity, her evolution as an observer of her Dublin-based, but also Belfast and Manhattan surroundings, and how she kept her thoughts channeled as they did not drift but moved along from subjects such as maternal lack of faith, to babies given up by the thousands by unwed mothers, to abuse in schools by clerics and nuns.
The American-version title is A Radiant Life, but the Irish original is A More Complex Truth. The former title pitches her her vibrancy and down-to-earth quality as known to international readers; the latter title edges towards a knottier Irish refusal to let one opinion, one fact, one voice dominate a conversation. Each entry’s short enough not to tire the reader, but long enough to engage him for a few minutes. This compression suits the contemplative tendency of her columns, as they mused about a point for a thousand or so words.
O’Faolain found fresh angles on familiar topics. About violence against women, she commenced with her walk as night fell at 4:30 on a remote Irish island, and how surprised she was to see stars, as she realized how long it’d been back in the city since she went out in the dark alone. She lamented her dental care, the death of her dog Molly, and she slowly moved, if beyond finally and inevitably beyond the last pages here (she died a year after the last 2007 column) into aging and mortality.
She faced her future with admirable balance and brave rationalism, but she did not act as if she had the last answer to the eternal mysteries which she pondered, if without the conventional pieties professed, at least publicly, by most of her readers and neighbors. This broad-minded approach, combined with a patient ear and an eye tilted towards the have-nots and the overlooked, wins one over.
O’Faolain dismissed hero worship, the neighboring island’s royals, the native politicians and prelates and celebrities. She did not do this out of spite, but out of morality. She did not pander to her everyday attitudes, but she explained them simply as those emanating from a well-educated woman with the right to her own informed views, and from a forum to express them with as much composure as those granted pulpits, cameras, and platforms for cynical, destructive, and sinister intentions. This anthology offers a modest, but lasting memorial to her journalism. She confessed her own inadequacies at its limits, but for me, it shows how the past quarter-century felt to a bold Irish woman, despite her leanings for the cozy corner rather than the media spotlight.