An Irish Life Examined
Are You Somebody?: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman
By Nuala O’Faolain
Holt 1998, 2nd edition 2009
Reviewed by Julie C. Graham
“My life burned inside me. Even such as it was, it was the only record of me, and it was my only creation, and something in me would not accept that it was insignificant.”
In light of the recent Brexit vote, and Hilary Clinton’s rise to become the American Presidential Democratic nominee, I revisited a book I read a few years ago, Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody?: the Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Women. Although the Republic of Ireland remains firmly in the EU, it was good to review this memoir to be reminded of how far Ireland has come, in part due to its membership in the European Union, and how far women have come around the world.
O’Faolain explores the provincial mindset of 1950’s – 1980’s Ireland through her own life as an Irish Catholic, from childhood to her current age (at time of writing) in her late fifties. Through the lens of a girl raised in a household with six siblings, a philandering father and an alcoholic mother, the Irish Catholic female experience of mid-twentieth century is deftly revealed.
Nuala O’Faolain has the quintessential Irish gift of story telling. Much like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, (to which she self-deprecatingly assures the reader she should not be compared to, that this sets the bar too high) her story begins with her impoverished childhood. Instead of the rural Ireland of McCourt, her childhood setting is the city of Dublin.
The book moves from desperate childhood to teenage romance and secret sexual liaisons against the backdrop of the draconian Catholic Church. The journey continues as she escapes her life to attend college in London. “I didn’t feel Irish in anything, except that I still often went to Sunday mass. I liked nineteenth century England: provincial, working-class, football-club England. I knew a lot about England…But I knew almost nothing about Ireland.”
When she returns to her home country seven years later to study Gaelic in County Clare, having been nudged by a friend to do so, she rediscovers Ireland. “I fell completely in love with an Ireland that turned out not to exist. Yet this visionary Ireland gave me the impetus to break my links with England.”
Her writing career began with journalism in London, but she finds work in Irish television when she returns to her native country. She is one of the very first female television journalists in Ireland. Later, O’Faolain becomes active in the Irish Women’s Movement and proudly fights for the cause of terribly suppressed women in that country.
O’Faolain is a brilliant and very quaffable writer. Her lyrical style has a lot to teach the lay reader with little knowledge of the extreme adversities of Irish women and children of the last century. However, it’s not clear what the real center of the story is – the through line is a little muddy. The plight of mid 20th century women and children in Ireland, the growth of the Women’s Movement there, the return of the prodigal daughter to her roots and Ireland’s cultural revival all vie for center stage. At any given time within the book one could argue for any of these as “what the book is about.”
Are You Somebody? also has odd time jumps that make the reader work hard to figure out where and when the “sudden scene” is taking place. This happens often enough to be disorienting. The many mentions of British and Irish celebrities of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, that the reader may not know due to age or culture, may also slow the flow of the book for some.
Are You Somebody? brings up good questions in terms of the craft of memoir. How, in a life story memoir, does the author define the center of the work? With so many possible “centers,” how to choose one as the central theme and let the other lesser themes step down, away from the spotlight? If there is any roughness about the flow of this book, it is merely that there are so many parts of O’Faolain’s life to shine a light upon.
O’Faolain wrote to educate while moving hearts. Though she wrote about many subjects that were taboo to speak about in her own country Are You Somebody? was lauded in Ireland and world-wide. By the time the book was published in 1996, Ireland had progressed forward significantly in terms of women’s rights. O’Faolain long career in broadcast journalism was certainly a cornerstone of that progression. We can thank Nuala O’Faolain, and women like her, for creating ripples that have stretched across society to affect glass ceilings everywhere.
(Note: the cover displayed here is from the iconic first edition. S.G.)
Julie C. Graham holds an MFA from Antioch University. Her essay “Trailblazing Women Explorers,” a discussion of the first solo women adventurers, the Victorians, appeared in the online arts and literature magazine Storyacious. You can find her own travel stories at travelswithjulie.com. She is currently working on a memoir about her adventures surrounding studying Japanese.