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A Personal Memory of Nuala O‘Faolain

by Jane Shortall

Nuala O’Faolain was once again standing beside me at the counter of a café called Bewleys in Dublin. I often saw her there, waiting to buy a little cake to take back to her office, as I was waiting to buy my little cake to take back to mine.
Way back then, we both worked in the busiest, and the buzziest part of Dublin City, in two streets which form a sort of triangle between two of that city’s best known landmarks, O’Connell Bridge and Trinity College.
Sometimes I would see Nuala sitting in the café with some of the other Irish Times journalists, taking her morning coffee there, as we from our office did when we were flush, usually just after the end of the month, when the salaries had been paid in.
As Nuala ordered her little cake, watched it being parcelled up and thanked the woman behind the counter, I watched her.
Her face was full of character, her eyes were large and bright and her hair, well, it was just there, looking natural, shiny, thick, a bit unruly, not blow dried into a straight bob as mine was. That kind of hair looked great on her, suited her look. She looked real, interesting, strong, a person with opinions, the epitome of a true woman of substance.
I, a good bit younger than her and feeling that I lacked, for the moment at any rate, that certain substance, looked at her in awe and longed to pluck up the courage to say something to her. Just something simple, not grovelling, a sentence along the lines of “Hello, I’m thrilled you are standing beside me, I love your Opinion column in the paper.”

I wanted to impress on her how very much I loved her writing, her observations on the world, a world I was just starting out in. To say how much I found her spirited columns said exactly what so many of us felt, but were unable to articulate in those days. To tell her how glad we were that she and other women journalists like her were hauling us into the future.
Then I saw an advertisement in The Irish Times looking for staff for it's own office, and I positively ran, with my CV stuffed into an envelope, from Westmoreland Street around the corner to D'Olier Street.

My letter must have impressed someone, because I was contacted and invited to come in for an interview where I met two lovely people, a man and a woman. What follows is so daft in today’s world but it’s true, and because it all seems like a hundred years ago now, I can admit that being thoroughly over excited, while composing my excellent letter of application, I had not in truth, really, fully read and understood the job description.
Of course it took the two Human Resources gurus no time at all to figure out that I was, at that time, the most unsuitable person in the world to take on a job in the hurly burly world of telesales, where what you didn‘t achieve today was tacked on to tomorrow targets.
Once this was established, everything became much more relaxed, they were lovely people and we three ended up having a hilarious conversation in which I announced that I would willingly come in each day and make the coffee in The Irish Times offices, if I could get to talk to my heroines, the writers Nuala O'Faolain, Maeve Binchy and Nell McCafferty.
I went happily back to my travel agency office round the corner, and, despite seeing her again and again, I never did speak to Nuala. Back then, whether it was shyness or politeness, I just could not bring myself to intrude on her, to break through that invisible barrier and strike up a conversation. And now it’s too late.
Because Nuala O’Faolain is dead.
On a Saturday morning just a month ago, Ireland‘s most professional and best loved broadcaster, Marian Finnucane, announced at the beginning of her popular radio programme that today would be a full length recorded interview with Nuala O’Faolain, who had been diagnosed with cancer. Marian gave a sort of warning at the beginning that what followed might be difficult for some people to cope with.
I, for one, could not switch it off, nor carry on with what I had proposed to do that morning. I sat, and stood for part of the time, looking out at the Couseran hills in southern France, as, thanks to the magic of satellite, I listened spellbound, feeling no doubt the same as many other listeners, as these two women, friends now for many, many years, talked about Nuala’s approaching death.
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Copyright©2008 Jane Shortall for SeniorWomenWeb
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