Julia O’Faolain tells Lee Randall about growing up in the shadow of Ireland’s War of Independence with passionately political parents
‘Who are you?” Julia O’Faolain’s husband asked, after reading a draft of the prologue to her memoir, Trespassers. Finally she answers: “I am a writer who has lived in London, Dublin, Rome, Florence, Paris, Los Angeles, Portland (Oregon), and, more briefly, in New York and Venice.” But, she insists, she has little interest in thinking about the inner Julia – she’d rather know what others are getting up to.
O’Faolain is the author of seven novels – including No Country for Young Men, shortlisted for the 1980 Booker Prize – and four collections of stories. With her husband, the American historian Lauro Martines, she co-authored Not In God’s Image, an exploration of women throughout history. She is also – and here we dive into the emotional heart of her memoir – the daughter of writers Sean and Eileen O’Faolain.
Sean and Eileen met during Ireland’s War of Independence. Both were members of the Irish Volunteers (later renamed the IRA), and passionate nationalists who initially rallied to de Valera’s cause. In 1926, Sean won a scholarship to Harvard in Boston, where Eileen travelled to marry him. Julia was born in London, in 1932. The family returned to Ireland in 1933, initially living in a remote corner of County Wicklow. When Julia was a toddler, Eileen told her, with some regret, that she’d “missed all the excitement”.
O’Faolain is composed and elegant, and seems bemused that I want to interview her, warning that she is prone to “senior moments”. It’s quickly clear that she, unlike her younger brother, was much doted upon, forged a close bond with her parents, and adheres to their middle-class values. This is underscored by the final lines of Trespassers: “I write to exist more, to extend my scope and get a better look at life than you do while living it... I suppose, too, that I write because Sean and Eileen did. Je suis un enfant de la balle – I ply my parents’ trade.”
Given their past, did she sense that her parents were dangerous people? She brushes this away. “Actually as these things go, neither of them were very dangerous. For instance my father didn’t get a gun until the civil war. He was doing propaganda, really.” Her mother, however, was shot by a Black and Tan during a skirmish, but, O’Faolain reminds me, pointing to a spot on her own neck corresponding to her mother’s scar, “As she said herself, it was because she was gawking, lifting her chin to see what was happening”.
Julia wasn’t at all attracted by Fianna Fail’s emphasis on Gaelic, though she went on to fluency in Latin, French, and Italian. But from an early age she was captivated by her mother’s folk and fairy tales – the scarier the better, despite the ensuing nightmares. “You are terrified and don’t want to be frightened, but you enjoy it as well. Years and years later I took up karate, and indeed, horse riding, neither of which I was very good at, and was thrilled by this same blend of fear and excitement. You don’t get the same excitement unless you are afraid,” she says with a glint in her eye.
Before the family moved to Killiney, on the outskirts of Dublin, life was a daily battle against tedium. “When the real war came, the Second World War, nobody could get out. My father used to, because the BBC would give him the odd job, and as he said, ‘You could breathe the air of London’ which was very exciting after the dullness of Dublin. For my generation – we didn’t do anything. We didn’t fight. We didn’t write that much. There wasn’t even paper around when I was growing up. I think the English publishers felt that our parents weren’t sharing the difficulties of the Blitz, and why should they publish them or give paper to Irish writers? It was a bitter time,” she says with a laugh I will hear often, signalling her affinity for life’s absurdities and contradictions.
“There was no television, nor indeed much radio, because you had to not waste a battery,” she continues, “so you did tell stories. And of course when my parents were learning the Gaelic in the 1920s, they talked in Gaelic as much as they could to the local people in West Cork. That’s how they found out a lot of stories.” Her mother eventually published two books of these folk and fairy tales and was planning another when she died.
Sean, meanwhile, was a renowned author and intellectual, who, having fallen out with de Valera thanks to his outspoken anti-clerical stance, turned the family into “pariahs”, to use Eileen’s phrase. This mystifies me, because my sense, from Trespassers, is that their home was always full of visitors – fellow writers such as Frank O’Connor, Richard Ellmann, Celtic scholar D A Binchy and the Marxist activist Peadar O’Donnell.
“It depended on the time. When we were in rural county Wicklow not too many people come. Then comes the war and no petrol, and then people come and Sean founded The Bell, this magazine, and all sorts of people started coming on open Sunday nights. And they were very lively. It was a good time.”
Sean was eventually given Freedom of the City of Cork, and elected Saoi, the highest honour Irish artists can confer on one of their member. Pariahs don’t get laurels. “That was quite late in his life. Of course my mother’s use of the word pariah was partly Celtic hyperbole. I make a lot of the number 59 bus in the book, because if the people on the bus had been reading what your father had written they very often looked the other way. We were, indeed, somewhat pariahs. But my mother was exaggerating, of course. She liked exaggerating.”
O’Faolain favoured her father, going so far as to help him publish a second version of his memoir, Vive Moi! To spare his wife’s feelings, an edition published in the Sixties had made no mention of his love affairs. Later, though, he wrote about these in an expanded version. Although this was intended to be published after his death, Eileen was devastated by the prospect and died in 1988. While she knew Sean had been perennially unfaithful – with women such as Elizabeth Bowen – that wasn’t the same as everyone knowing.
Did Sean’s philandering colour her ideas about relationships? Her answer runs the gamut of possibilities in one short paragraph: “There must have been many families like that all over the world. I have no balm or way of getting over it. Yes – in fact I think I wrote this memoir partly because I hadn’t stood sufficiently by my mother.”
The occasion when she felt guiltiest about this is easy to recall. One day Eileen phoned in London to ask her to look after Sean while she went into hospital. She refused, and Eileen, to her great surprise, died the next day. “I feel guilty about that. She was ill all the time. Both Sean and the doctor – men! – often felt that maybe she put on a bit of an act, and I suppose at the end I felt guilty. But we’d just bought this house. I had one electrical light bulb. One! On a very long cable which I’d bring up and down with me, because the workers played me up and didn’t come, things like that. And suddenly Eileen says I need you to look after Sean, and I thought why? What’s wrong with him? I was unsympathetic, that’s true.”
Julia was sharp and studious, earning several advanced degrees at universities in Ireland, France, and Italy. She jokes: “It was the one way to get abroad. I was thrilled the first time I went abroad to a French family, and felt I wanted to go back at once! I never wanted to go home. You know the food in Ireland was terrible and I’m quite greedy.”
Both Sean and Eileen pressured her to write. “What they realised was that like everybody in my generation I wanted to leave. There was a great outpouring of the Irish to places like Canada and the US, and England, and for good reason, there weren’t any jobs,” she tells me, though on the page she writes: “We didn’t just leave to find jobs. We needed to be with a peer group and decide who we were.”
In any event, you could get a proper job only if you had connections, and her parents had none, because “they’d annoyed too many people in various moments during the civil war and later. So I wanted to go and they wanted to keep me back. Eileen thought that if I could get a job in the diplomatic corps that I would be in reach.” She reasoned that if Julia finally learned Gaelic she could get work as a diplomat based in Ireland, which would allow her to travel but always bring her home.
“I finished at the University of Paris, finished with [my lover] Jean Paul, and I was pretty much at a loss, working a dreadful job at the Moo Cow Milk Bar just outside Victoria Station, as a short order cook. I was mourning my affair and trying to keep from thinking about it, so I did two jobs a day. Sean wrote and said, ‘Do intelligent jobs, don’t do rubbish jobs.’ And so I started to write.”
Yet there’s very little in Trespassers about the act of writing, and I finished the book unconvinced that I had an answer for the question put to her by her husband. “I didn’t want to write about myself,” she says. “I put a certain amount in, but I wasn’t going to go between the sheets. And I suppose I’d been waiting so long because of my very proper parents. Sean wouldn’t have minded, but Eileen had already put up with things she didn’t want. I think I didn’t write what I knew they wouldn’t like. They had enough to put up with.”
Plenty of other memoirists, I point out, wouldn’t have been so understanding. “Well, some might need revenge. But my parents were very nice to me.”
• Trespassers, A Memoir, is out 14 March from Faber and Faber, priced £14.99 paperback and £12.99 ebook