On the morning of April 12th, from the confines of a Montrose broadcasting booth, a terminally ill woman began a national conversation on death.
On Friday last, just four weeks after that remarkable interview with Marian Finucane, Nuala O’Faolain, the catalyst of that discourse, drew her last breath in Blackrock Hospice.
That Saturday morning interview was the talk of kitchens and canteens across the country. O’Faolain’s brutal honesty in facing her own death had firmly struck a chord with the masses.
The conversation, majestically handled by the ever consummate Finucane, stirred something inside people in a way that most talk radio, let alone Saturday radio, rarely achieves.
The author spoke of how everything had turned black and how the goodness had evaporated from life following her diagnosis with Metastatic cancer on February 8th.
Nell McCafferty, who was O’Faolain’s partner for 15 years, commented: “The culture of dying has changed, Nuala has changed that and the culture of loving has changed.”
Few of us like talking about death. Life’s too short to talk about dying, more than a few of us would surely suggest. Yet it’s the only certainty that each and every one of us faces.
And Nuala O’Faolain’s frankness, steeped as it was in fear of what lay ahead of her, virtually wept from our radio speakers, as she spoke about the deathly shroud descending upon her.
Yet it was that same brutal honesty which won her international acclaim through her memoir ‘Are You Somebody – The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin woman,’ of which 300,000 copies were sold in the United States between 1996 and 1999.
It’s odd (and unplanned) that I find myself touching upon death for the second successive edition following last week’s offering on Ernest Hemingway, another much loved writer and multi-layered individual.
The manifestations of their respective deaths were somewhat different. O’Faolain, despite her failing health in recent months, embarked upon trips to the Berlin Opera, art museums in Madrid, the boulevards of Paris and, just days before her death, to the island of Sicily.
Hemingway, as we know, ended matters via a single discharge from a double-barrelled shotgun in his Idaho home.
Depression, exacerbated with his inability to compose a message for the Presidential inauguration of John F Kennedy six months previously, arguably led Hemingway to his fateful decision.
Yet he too had some travel in mind around the period in which he would end his life: two tickets for a pending bullfight in Pamplona were later found in his desk drawer.
Hemingway, the man who grinned (and growled) while holding counsel in a heaving Havana bar, died far from the crowds.
O’Faolain, whose greatest literary achievement found its roots in her loneliness as a single, 55-year-old woman, died in the embrace of her family and friends last Friday.
“I think there’s a wonderful rule of life that means that we do not consider our own mortality,” she told Marian Finucane.
“I know we seem to, and remember, ‘man thou art but dust’, but I don’t believe we do. I believe there is an absolute difference between knowing that you are likely to die, let’s say within the next year, and not knowing when you are going to die – an absolute difference.”
She was completely correct in that respect. The manner in which we embrace life is undoubtedly influenced by the manner in which we live, not by the manner in which we evaluate our mortality. After all, we’re socially engineered to live, to forage, to survive – not to die.
In my view, Nuala O’Faolain didn’t seek to garner pity from her radio interview, nor did she single herself out as being exceptional in her suffering.
She was merely doing something she had already done times over through the composition of her many well-considered utterances. She bore her soul, only this time, as another newspaper commented, “with bleak courage”.
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master,” Hemingway once said in a quote which applies as much to life as it does to writing.
In the opinion of more-clued in folk than I, Nuala O’Faolain’s work, be it as author or columnist, reached heights that few modern Irish writers have ascended to.
And in the discourse of her death, she has found a place in the hearts of ordinary Irish people in a way she could never have foreseen.
To close, I again return to Hemingway, with a quote of enormous resonance in the aftermath of a national treasure’s death.
“Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”
Has the culture of dying changed in Ireland? The many conversations, columns and broadcasts devoted to death and the manner of our dying in the past month would suggest it has since the morning of April 12th.