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OBITUARIES | Nuala O'Faolain, 1940 - 2008

Irish journalist wrote memoir 'Are You Somebody?'

May 19, 2008|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Nuala O'Faolain, the Irish journalist and author whose 1996 memoir, "Are You Somebody?," captured international attention for its soul-searching candor, died May 9 in a Dublin hospice of complications from lung cancer, according to news reports from Ireland. She was 68.

O'Faolain, a resident of Barrtra in County Clare, Ireland, with homes in Dublin and New York City, recently announced that she had inoperable lung cancer and she had turned down the option of chemotherapy, choosing instead to travel in Europe until she had to be hospitalized.

As a weekly columnist for the Irish Times, she developed an avid following in the 1980s.

She wrote about everyday events in a way that touched on basic human realities. For one column she visited the intensive care unit of a maternity ward where the fragile newborns didn't cry. They couldn't, she wrote, because they were sedated.

She often covered political and social issues from her outspoken, feminist perspective. In general, however, she was known to be unpredictable in her views, with a gentle sense of humor.

O'Faolain's bestselling memoir began as an idea for a book-length collection of her columns. She started writing an introduction that grew into several hundred pages of intensely personal autobiography. The memoir's subtitle, "The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman," suggests the change in direction.

"I had to answer the question nobody had asked: Where do my opinions come from?" O'Faolain said of her purpose for writing a memoir, in a 2001 New York Times interview. "The answer was simple. Ideology had nothing to do with it. My opinions come from my life."

O'Faolain was born in Dublin on March 1, 1940, the second of nine children in a family that was always struggling to make ends meet. Her father was a newspaper columnist for the Dublin Evening Press and a womanizer who "treated the family as if he had met them at a cocktail party," O'Faolain wrote.

Her mother was cold and aloof, in O'Faolain's view, and trapped in a lifestyle that was typical of many women in Ireland at the time. "She had had to work the treadmill of feeding and clothing and cleaning child after child for decades," O'Faolain wrote of her mother. In older age, "Mammy sat in her chair in a flat in Dublin and read and drank," she wrote.

O'Faolain was a scholarship student who graduated from the National University of Ireland in Dublin where she majored in English literature. She earned a graduate-level philosophy degree at Oxford University and returned to the National University for a short time as a teacher in the English Department.

In her early 30s she moved to London to work for the British Broadcasting Corp. She was a producer on a documentary-style program that covered controversial topics, from religious sects to transsexuality.

Her broadcasting career prospered, but her personal life was "a wasteland," she wrote in her memoir. Unhappy in love, painfully unsure of herself, lonely and drinking heavily, she checked into a psychiatric hospital.

She returned to Ireland in 1977 and produced television news programs for Radio Telefis Eireann, the national broadcasting company.

She also began a romantic relationship with Nell McCafferty, a prominent Irish journalist and feminist, that continued for more than 10 years. Other love affairs she wrote about in her memoir were with men.

The success of her first memoir encouraged O'Faolain to write several more books, including a novel, "My Dream of You," published in 2001, about a love-starved travel writer who researches a scandalous romance from the past in an Irish town. She also wrote a second memoir, "Almost There: The Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman," in 2003.

Until recent months, she was based in New York City and provided commentaries on the U.S. presidential primaries for Radio Telefis Eireann.

O'Faolain's survivors include six brothers and sisters.

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mary.rourke@latimes.com

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