12 May 2008

Nuala Ó Faoláin RIP

Irish journalist/writer/broadcaster Nuala Ó Faoláin died in Dublin last Friday from cancer at the age of 68. She had been interviewed by Marian Finucane on RTÉ Radio One some weeks before her death. She spoke there about the reality that she was dying.

19 or 20 years ago, when Nuala was writing a weekly column in The Irish Times, I corresponded with her a number of times, though we never met. I remember, after she wrote a column about women pilots, I think, sending her a copy of an essay a student of mine in Cebu wrote about the reaction of her family and relatives when she told them she wanted to be a pilot. They just laughed. Nuala’s column, as I recall, had a remark about the height requirements for pilots in the Irish Air Corps. Her comment was more on the ‘officialese’ than the actual requirements. You would have to be like Kelly the Boy from Killane to get in. This old Irish ballad describes Kelly in these terms: Seven feet was his height with some inches to spare. I’ve never figured out which ‘side’ of seven feet that is.

In one letter to Nuala I questioned her holding up Madonna, as I saw it, as a role model for young women. In her reply she told me that what she admired in Madonna was her self-confidence, not her behaviour. She also mentioned her own sense of insecurity.

Nuala had an ability to see the significance in ‘insignificant’ events. She wrote in one column about being in a butcher’s shop in Dublin. There were two women in front of her, one clearly prosperous, the other an elderly poor woman. The butcher gave as much attention to the poor woman as he did to the other. Nuala’s analysis was that he, like the vast majority of Irish people up to our generation – Nuala was born three years before me – was familiar with poverty, either at first-hand or second-hand. The majority of those in the next generation aren’t. She wasn’t criticizing the younger generation, just expressing a reality.

Nuala also wrote about her re-discovering the importance of the Irish language and of learning it again as an adult. In Ireland, unlike the Philippines, it’s rare to have a conversation where two languages mix and blend, often in the one sentence. Language in Ireland was, and maybe still is to some degree because of our history, such an emotionally contentious issue that bilingual conversations weren’t really ‘permitted’. However, she was delighted to find herself being welcomed into such conversations on the train on her way to an Irish-language festival in the west of Ireland.

In her interview with Marian Finucane, Nuala said she didn’t believe in an afterlife but wasn’t quite sure about the existence of God. She mentioned her baptism, her First Communion, her membership of the Legion of Mary in her young days. She didn’t refer to any of these in a critical or negative way. She saw the importance of the Church in Irish society, how it had formed Irish culture, as is clear from her Irish Times columns. Yet her interview with Marian Finucane shows her Catholic upbringing, something she never tried to throw away, that came out iunconsciously in her 'Catholic language'.

Nuala will be buried from a Catholic church in Dublin and there will be a funeral Mass. There’s an ambiguity in this.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam – may her soul be on the right hand of God.

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