Only What You Do

Enlightenment is on the side of those who turn their spotlight on our blinkers – Pierre Bourdieu

The life of the writer Nuala O’Faolain has finally come to a close. Since her announcement last month that the ends were closing in on her, it was only a matter of time before they would meet in the middle. If there is any silver lining on this cloud it is that her condition was diagnosed in New York. In Ireland, 'this damp little shambles of a democracy on the edge of the Western world', as O’Faolain once put it, discovery of her cancer might have waited until stumbled across by a pathologist during an autopsy. Too late the diagnosis for it to have been of any value to her should she have chosen to battle the disease. She died a few weeks after publicly discussing what remained of her future on RTE. Time left to her was little but she did manage to visit a city as beautiful as Madrid. Now, that’s something that gives human meaning to life in a world which, were it not for human meaning would be void of any.

Apart from an odd column here and there I had never read her material. As John McGuffin said there are so many good books that have to be read but still there are bastards writing more. I now intend to read her memoir which she claimed to have ‘sneaked out’ when ‘no one was looking.’ That comment alone was replete with imagery of tip toeing past the censorious attitudes that incessantly whisper ‘hush’. I am pulled by the lure of what had to be sneaked out. I don’t expect to be disappointed but if I happen to be, a negative review will not bother her now.

What stirred my belated interest was her unbridled willingness to be frank and open about her pending death. And she did it in her own way. Not for her any pseudo brave-facing it for the sake of others. In this she found support from the psychiatrist Patricia Casey, who simply said ‘there is no right way or wrong way, only what you do.’

Quoting Shakespeare’s King Richard II, Casey said ‘The worst is death, and death will have his day.’ We will all get there eventually. Most of us hope to push its boundary back, gain a little time, do one more thing one last time, or one new thing for the first time in the sure knowledge that we will always be bowled out before the close of play. Death is never like some elastic which if pushed hard enough will give way and snap. Nor is it a fence over which a merry skip and the last rites will take us spiritually to the other side.

This was O’Faolain’s view. She believed in no afterlife. Surrounded by a din of utterances from those enchanted by the notion of intelligent design, she refreshingly spoke up for intelligent choice. It might have struck her in the days before she died that god was demonstrating how he loved humanity with his heavenly cyclonic gift to Burma. An interventionist god that will not intervene when it is most needed but who only refrains because he loves us – even let his son be crucified for us a lot of centuries back - is a great measure of how self delusional people can be. Religion is a paradox at the root of the human condition. Our exclusively human ability to reason leads us off in pursuit of unreason where we irrationally invent supernatural beings who we believe sent us cyclones and then worship them for having done so.

My own lack of faith sustains me. I am never troubled by thoughts of being eternally tormented by devils or having to go through the indignity of endlessly eulogising some heavenly big brother who demands that we praise him each minute of our eternal life. Being dead is a tantalising prospect compared to that. As Mark Twain said, he had been dead for millions of years before he was born and not one iota had it harmed him. Now, life forever - what a dread-inducing thought it would be were we to contemplate that someday we would have to praise the god who presided over the Rwandan genocide or the unholy murder in his holy land of Palestinian children.

Religion is a sick theological double act meant to terrify the wits out of us. Big Yahweh tells us ‘if you don’t fall down on your knees in front of me old Lucifer there will ram his poker up your priest path.’ Well praise the lord for loving us so much that it is just the poker.

Last year I watched my mother approach the finishing line without the slightest need of the ignis fatuus offered by religion. She had neither faith in nor fear of deities and demons, between them pushing and pulling her into the never never land of the hereafter. Their invidious supernatural tug of war is surplus to requirement. Nuala O’Faolain reassures us of that much.


  1. Thanks for this on Nuala. I do think you'll like her work. My mother passed Are You Somebody on to me some years ago. I haven't read it since, but remember her voice well.

    'All say, "How hard it is that we have to die"-- a strange complaint to come from the mouths of people who have had to live.'

    - Mark Twain "Puddin' Head Wilson"

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful observations: I happened to have blogged about her death yesterday, and about the interview on RTÉ with Marion Finucane the week before. Unlike you, I remain much more haunted by my demise, and I admit this was heightened by the Finucane transcript, which Maura Casey in the NY Times this week editorialized upon. O'Faolain's stoicism, anger, and resignation appears to have caused some considerable stir. Compared to the usual elixirs of chicken soup for the soul that are peddled by the media here...

    I too have never read her work, although I stumbled a couple of years ago into a back room at a bookstore to find her reading to promote whatever her inevitable sequel was to "Are You Somebody." Since I bought Nell McCafferty's memoir, I might as well buy hers now! O'Faolain mourned that with each of us so much knowledge dims, but with your typically wry nod to McGuffin, perhaps that's a blessing. Intriguing if what we write online will be "eternally" visible in forms that in print will not.