In praise of difficult women

By | May 20, 2008

Note: Sunday’s column. Thanks to all the commenters on my earlier posts for different perspectives…

The accounts of Nuala O’Faolain’s funeral were very moving, in particular the eulogy by Marian Finucane. Though we knew a lot about O’Faolain through her writing, we’ve learned even more in the short few weeks since Finucane conducted that final interview with such great skill. The writer’s many friends have told us about her sense of humour and her compassion. The same friends readily admitted, as the author herself did, that Nuala could be a difficult woman : her relentless honesty about herself and others was both inconvenient and painful.

I couldn’t help wondering then why, this difficult, honest, woman had a catholic funeral. In that last interview she made perfectly clear though she had a spiritual life she did not believe in God. She said that were she to cave in to faith as her death approached, it would be proof that her brain tumours had affected her sanity. But still the prayers were said and the last rites performed. Going with the flow and having the funeral mass is the easy thing to do : it reassures the living and the rites are so familiar to us they are themselves a comfort to the bereaved. But listening to her friends speak about her, it struck me that the last thing Nuala O’Faolain did in her life was take the path of least resistance.

On the other hand it was just these inconsistencies that told us so much about her and ourselves. Don’t we all struggle between ideals and doubts? We share her confusion between what we’ve been taught, what we questioned, what we feel and what ultimately we accept we’ll never really know. We each end up trying to get through the day and our lives as best we can. Some people can do it easily enough by simply knuckling down and getting on with it. Others, like Nuala struggle all their lives in an effort to bridge the gap between what’s expected of us and what’d we secretly like to say or do.

They’re the ones who change things either directly or simply by keeping us company in our private struggles. There’s nothing worse than feeling miserable or angry and worrying that you are alone. There’s nothing like the huge relief of discovering that other people feel just like you. That’s the gift that writers like O’Faolain give to us. They are willing to take huge risks, and get it wrong. But every now and then they’ll get it right and lift a burden from our shoulders.

We loved her writing, and that last interview, because it was honest if unnerving. She raged against death and the drink that consumed too much of her life. She raged on behalf of women. I always feel like slapping hard the face of bleached, tanned, successful women who simper that they aren’t feminists. Have they no idea what was done for them by women like O’Faolain, Nell McCafferty and Finucane?

Women who instead of keeping quiet and getting on with it, through their writing, their broadcasting and their campaigning, won us so much. Not just equal rights through legislation, but the right to simply express ourselves without being considered insane and rebellious.

Your Sunday papers will be littered today with female columnists like me who can casually complain about the oppressiveness of religion, children, marriage and housework. Forty years ago a woman making those complaints would have been considered insane and prescribed valium.

O’Faolain never flinched from telling uncomfortable truths about her family, herself or Irish society. In so doing, she educated us about humanity and encouraged us in our compassion. Her rage did much for us.

Of course, sadly, it seems like it didn’t do her much good. She confessed she found relationships difficult and experienced great despair and loneliness. That’s the problem with being difficult. A difficult person might be hard on those around them, but principally they are hardest on themselves. Others benefited from the anger of say, Noel Browne, a notorious crank who did so much for our health system. Goal’s John O’Shea is forever ranting on the airwaves. Politicians like Patricia McKenna or Michael D. Higgins are so passionate that they really look perfectly miserable. Truth be told, we don’t take angry people all that seriously. Anyone that emotional can’t be in control. We reserve our admiration for the cool heads; the compromisers; the deal makers. If you lose it, you’ve lost it.

Personally, I love difficult people because they are so compulsively honest. Difficult women are especially rare. The ideal woman is submissive, selfless and gives up herself for others. The truly feminine woman will smile sweetly, smooth over disagreements and never put a foot wrong. What a bore. I’d rather stick forks in my thighs under the table than preserve that rictus grin on my face as I sweetly absorb the hypocritical nonsense of others.

The interesting woman won’t hold back. She’ll tell inappropriate intimate details to people she just met. She’ll curse, disagree, force others to tell the truth and call it like it is. I’m fortunate, and unfortunate to know women like this. They can be the best in the world and the worst. That energy and ruthless honesty can be fabulous but tiring and occasionally hysterical. But you’ll feel alive in their presence instead of sitting around with a pain in your face from the effort of not causing offence.

But the pressure to do just that is immense. I’m forever torn between wanting the easy life and wanting to scream my head off. But screaming hurts my head before it hurts anyone else’s and I go through phases of deciding to keep quiet. That works for a while but eventually it starts to hurt too. Do you ever read something, hear a voice or see a painting and loudly exhale? And you realise you haven’t been breathing? You haven’t been able to open your mouth properly for fear of what might escape. People like O’Faolain opened their mouths and screamed so the rest of us could breathe.

Of course, I’m identifying with her which is a bit self-obsessive but also an inspiration. Women like her beat back the bushes and made a path for women like me to walk down. Thinking about her last week, I remembered a day when I came home from work after a row with some over-testosteroned boss. I wept to my boyfriend, now husband, wishing that I hadn’t caused the row by speaking up about some corporate injustice. “I should just stay quiet” I resolved. “No you shouldn’t” he said, “because then you become a blip. And you are not a blip”. This cheered me up no end. I would not be a blip.

O’Faolain was no blip. She was a force of nature: stormy, cyclonic, changeable, blowing from different directions, powerful, sunny and miserable too. I wish we had more like her.

3 thoughts on “In praise of difficult women

  1. dc

    Bravo Sarah. Stirring article .”People like O’Faolain opened their mouths and screamed so the rest of us could breathe.” Precisely.

    I’m not Irish, but I’ve read one of her books. Courageous stuff. She was unflinching. The world could seriously do with more women like her.

    RIP Nuala…

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  3. graham

    On tuesday night, RTE re-aired the interview with Nuala O’Faolain from the Late Late Show in 1996. It was both uplifting and very sad.

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