Ireland is such a myth of mist and legend to those of us whose ancestors made their wretched way here and promptly buried their secrets. We have no history but we have the legacy – the enchantment of stories, the entrancement of drink, the scars of deprivation and humiliation passed down for generations. Ireland seems to me to be a land of lilt and loss and Nuala O’Faolain’s unsparing memoir provides plenty of both.
She was one of nine children – I remember an Irish-American family in one of the parishes where I grew up who were admired for their twelve. As if the rest of the families hadn’t quite made the cut as Catholics, as if that family was restocking the ranks of the faithful and we fell woefully short. The Ireland O’Faolain writes about lived on in the diaspora, too.
Growing up she had a mostly missing, charming father, a mother who adored him but was quickly overwhelmed by babies, poverty, an absent philanderer and a retreat into drink. New siblings arrived year after year and Nuala barely got to know them. Mammy was a voracious reader. Daddy was a journalist and raconteur. Young Nuala absorbed their gifts, and the rigid definition of what it means to be adult and female and the blessed forgetfulness at the bottom of a bottle. Her escapades sneaking off to dances got her kicked out of the local parochial school and sent to boarding school where she failed to reform. She pitched her life against the constraints of a country in which women had few options and managed to win scholarships to university and to Oxford. She became a producer for the BBC and a columnist for The Irish Times.
It is to her credit that the litany of lovers–many lovers–and drinking and failures and rescues holds up. These are not revelations in any surprising sense. The society that shaped her was slow to accept the autonomy of women and to grant them options for work, for romance, for making meaning of their lives. But nowhere was it much better and families everywhere hold each other in the same suffocating thrall. So we travel her bumpy life with her and marvel at what she achieved and recognize in her stories our own.
O’Faolain the journalist does a good job reporting on herself without pity or embellishment. She traces the spiral that circles her back on herself through episodes, lovers and leavings and shares her hard won introspection without fanfare. “Are you somebody?” is a question asked when you might just be recognizable, maybe a minor celebrity, a person whose name might be known. But it’s the deeper question as well, one O’Faolain has spent a lifetime asking. In the end she still wants what she was trained all her life to want, the answer to the question revealed in the eyes of someone who loves her. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask but it is everything. People are each unhappy in their own way, lonely in their own lives, she finds. Extricating a life from the tentacles of family and society’s suffocating constraints is a life’s work.
O’Faolain died of lung cancer in 2008. Her memoir was a bestseller and she took some comfort from the outpouring of recognition and emotion that it generated among readers, especially women. But she claimed in the book and in interviews shortly before her death that she never felt like a success, always felt on the cusp of beginning her life. Despite the intelligence and optimism that she chronicled in Are You Somebody?, the story affirms that what goes missing in our earliest years creates wounds that never heal.
Are You Somebody?: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman Nuala O’Faolain | Henry Holt and Company First Owl Books Edition 1999