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Words That Rocked Ireland, and the Passion Behind Them

Books: Columnist Nuala O'Faolain never set out to write a memoir that would tear at the emotional fabric of her homeland, but somehow it just happened.

April 26, 1999|JANET KINOSIAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

She's a tiny thing, really, this middle-aged woman making such a ruckus in her native Ireland with her startling new memoir, "Are You Somebody: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman" (Henry Holt & Co.). When Nuala O'Faolain, a well-known journalist and columnist for the Irish Times agreed to write an introduction to a collection of her best-known political columns, she admits that "little did I know I was about to blow up my pathetic little world."

Her "little world" happened to be all of Ireland, and now, she says, "I've been standing here this morning looking at the sign [announcing her recent Los Angeles Central Public Library book reading] that says, 'Nuala O'Faolain/Los Angeles,' and I know I'm in outer space. I keep pinching myself: How did this happen?"

It happened because O'Faolain, 58, dressed in black velvet sweats, white Reeboks and, as she notes, "looking very American," wrote about growing up in Irish Catholic Ireland and penned her tale minus the fairy dust, writing about things that most Irish of the time lived with, but lived with in secret.

A New York Times bestseller now in paperback, and also on the list when the hardback was published last year, the book is a highly candid memoir, beautifully written, with the Celtic touch for poetic emotion and insight. It richly chronicles what O'Faolain terms "the Oprah culture,": sadness, child abuse, neglect, neurosis, poverty, adultery, bad love affairs, alcoholism, single womanhood, lesbianism, cultural misogyny, cracked family relationships, hypocrisy and (the world's oldest social disease) loneliness.

But it's also a book of great heart and one that apparently ripped the lid off a tightly repressed Irish culture uncomfortable with Sinead O'Connor-type grousing about alcoholism and child abuse in its midst, especially from a respectable, visible professional such as O'Faolain.

"You see, when a couple of publishers approached me with the idea of putting together some of my old columns, and I tossed off the idea that I'd write a 500-word introduction to fill up space, I thought, 'Ah, grand, no one will read it. It will be stuck away in a few old bookstores, and I can todder on.' "

However, this was an introduction that had spent nearly six decades brewing and wasn't about to be confined to 500 words. (The book's "introduction"--running about 190 pages--plus a new afterword is what became the current memoir.

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Anger and Poignancy in a Rush of Words

What O'Faolain endearingly terms her "part spaghetti western, part Puccini opera," the introduction, full of tender anger, was all anyone apparently read of the book. She typed it one Christmas as she sat alone in her kitchen and says she literally could not stop. And even though she was embarrassed by its candor, she admits she was more embarrassed by the possible backlash of tart Irish mumblings: "Och, who does she think she is?"

"I was going to call it 'Personal Ad' anyway," says O'Faolain, whose eight siblings and parents--many of whom are now dead--feature prominently in the tale. "It was more about my own personal loneliness, the fact that I've no lover, no child in a country that only upholds that role for a woman and here I am near 60. I wanted to find the answer to the question: How did this happen?"

She blames the ruckus her literary answer stirred up, in large part, on her appearance on Ireland's "The Gay Byrne Show," the equivalent of our "Tonight Show." Highly nervous, O'Faolain prepared "the only way an Irish person can prepare: I stopped drinking." Byrne's opening question to her was, "So, you've slept with a lot of people. How many?" And when she answered: "Well, only three of them counted, anyway," "we were off and running," says O'Faolain. "It seems the next day the world became unhinged."

The book was an instant bestseller in Ireland but also was something of a national phenomenon. The author claims it was "more than a bestseller; [it was] an emotional episode, somehow, in public life in Ireland." For five months it topped the Irish Times bestseller list, only to be bumped by Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes." An instant celebrity, O'Faolain was stunned by the personal level of the massive response.

"A lot of us suffered in the Ireland of my day, and I think this book is testament to how much people suffered in silence," she says. "We came out of a culture where women were utterly powerless and children had no value. If you were hit at school, you were hit at home for being hit at school. It goes without saying there was no sex education. The only education a lot of us got was in neglect and being unloved.

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