11 years ago today, just months after learning she had cancerous tumors in her brain, liver, and lungs, the Irish journalist and writer Nuala O'Faolain passed away.
Less than a month before her untimely death, she transfixed Ireland with a candid, heartbreaking live interview on RTE with her close friend, the presenter Marian Finucane.
That interview became iconic and is widely considered one of the best and most extraordinary in the history of Irish broadcasting.
The interview was recorded in Galway, where O'Faolain was having radiation therapy. After Finucane and her producer Anne Farrell discussed whether the interview should be aired on mainstream radio on a Saturday morning due to the heavy content, they agreed to go ahead with the completely unedited interview, but with an explicit warning at the beginning of the program.
O'Faolain, author of Are You Somebody, Almost There, My Dream of You, and The Story of Chicago May, passed away in the night on May 8, 2008, at age 68.
Two years later, writing about the interview and how it came to be, Finucane would recall, "It became obvious to me that, for Nuala, being interviewed live provided her with an important means of understanding herself. It was as if answering questions under pressure marshaled all of her considerable gifts, allowing her to speak with her wonderful blend of candor, wit, and passion.
The following are some of the most moving quotes and exchanges from that interview; listen to the full conversation below.
MF: Nuala O'Faolain you've been on the programme a number of times in connection with your writing and you wrote your memoir "Are You Somebody" in a way that it seemed it explained yourself to you and now you're doing this interview in a completely different context and I understand that it's to explain yourself to yourself as well as to us as well.
NO'F: Yeah, it must look as if I'm an awful divil for publicity altogether and, in a sense, since I wrote "Are You Somebody" and it reached what is truth to say was a huge response, I have in a sense put myself out there. And the interviews I gave back then 10 or 11 years ago are like one bookend in which I presented myself and lots of people didn't like me and lots of people did.
But one way or another it was company for me who happens to be a childless middle-aged woman.
Now I am actually dying and I have Metastatic cancer in three different parts of my body.
And, somehow or another, it helps me to set up the other bookend and to say to those people who were interested in me and did care about me to say to them 'well this is how it is for me now for what its worth'.
MF: Very often you hear of people being told 'oh, you have got to have a positive attitude' and 'a positive attitude is what gets you through' and I have betimes thought that this put a lot of pressure on the person that was told to have a positive attitude. What's your own view on that?
NO'F: Yeah, I was just reading about some best-selling man who says 'Live your dream to the end' and so on and I don't despise anyone who does, but I don't see it that way. Even if I gained time through the chemotherapy it isn't time I want. Because as soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life.
MF: I think that's a very interesting thing. Because, as I understood it, for you life was very sweet, you had sorted out your American life, you had your life in Ireland, you had your life in universities, then you were going to write. So life was very sweet for you at that point. Why does it not seem to you that if you went through treatment life could not be sweet again?
NO'F: It's the time that I would get at the end of the treatment. I'm not even thinking about the treatment itself. It amazed me, Marian, how quickly life turned black, immediately almost.
For example, I lived somewhere beautiful, but it means nothing to me anymore -- the beauty. For example, twice in my life I have read the whole of Proust. I know it sounds pretentious, but it's not a bit. It's like a huge soap opera. But I tried again the week before last and it was gone, all the magic was gone from it.
Nuala O’Faolain shook the whole country by announcing her imminent death of cancer on Marian Finucane’s show in April 2008!
This portrait pays homage to the life and the ‘fierce intellect’ of an extraordinary woman, but also reflect on her choice to make her death public. pic.twitter.com/aJO8bysalV— London Irish Centre (@LDNIrishCentre) May 4, 2018
And I'm not nice or anything -- I'm not getting nicer. I'm sour and difficult you know. I don't know how my friends and family are putting up with me, but they are, heroically. And that is one of the things you learn.
But, in general, every year since I was 60 me and the sisters and brother and sister-in-law have gone to Italy and sat on a beach. And I thought: 'Well, I will keep that goal', but now I am wondering if I would sit on the beach thinking what? I would be thinking 'God, was I a bit breathless last night? Am I going to choke? Is my right leg swelling and is it hurting?' There's so much you can't know.
You see, the cancer is a very ingenious enemy and when you ask somebody how will I actually die? How do you actually die of cancer ?... I don't get an answer because It could be anything.
It can move from one organ to the other, it can do this that or the other. It's already in my liver, for example. So I don't know how it's going to be. And that overshadows everything. And I don't want six months or a year. It's not worth it .
MF: Do you believe in an afterlife.?
NO'F: No, I do not.
MF: If there are people who have cancer or loved ones who have cancer and passionately believe that the treatments are going to work for them, there is the possibility that this could cast a despair over them.
NO'F: My despair is my own, their hope is their own. Their spirituality is their own. My way of looking at the world is my own. We each end up differently facing this common fate.
I wish everybody out there a miracle cure.
Every single professional will tell you that they cannot say how long it will be... and it is my choice not to go the route of chemotherapy.
Funnily enough I don't care about losing the hair. What I do care about is that sometimes I see people frightened or repulsed and that is why I went and got a wig in which I look like a rather striking but elderly chorus girl.
Nuala O'Faolain died 10 years ago today. Her work is as vital as when it was written. No subject was taboo, her honesty refreshing. 1/ Her final interview: https://t.co/cOV0BHeamN 2/ New edition of AYS?, intro by @junecaldwell: https://t.co/YGsm85Uz0L pic.twitter.com/anD78ElNm5— Susan Tomaselli (@STomaselli) May 8, 2018
Now I am beginning to put the auld bald head out there and I still have a few eyebrows, but what do I want them for? I don't care about anything any more. I know everyone says the hair matters, but that is not true. You can put a little cap on or something for the hair. That is irrelevant compared with having to leave the world behind.
MF: You said it wasn't so much you leaving the world as the world leaving you.
NO'F: I thought there would be me and the world, but the world turned its back on me, the world said to me that's enough of you now and what's more we're not going to give you any little treats at the end.
Did you hear O'Faolain's interview live on air back in 2008? Share what you thought in the comment section.