In the powerful documentary, Nuala, Marian Finucane remembers her friend and colleague, the late Nuala O’Faolain. Donal O’Donoghue meets her

“There were lots of tears”, says Marian Finucane. The broadcaster smiles then, caught briefly in some faraway moment as she remembers a friend and colleague.

Quite a few tears make it into the TV documentary Nuala, an unflinching look at the life and death of the late Nuala O’Faolain. It is presented and co-produced by Finucane, a good friend of the best-selling writer and broadcaster. They worked together, socialised together and on April 12, 2008 made one of the most remarkable pieces of radio ever broadcast in this country.

That was less than a month before O’Faolain died of cancer at the age of 68. The radio interview – heartbreaking, angry and human – was effectively O’Faolain’s last testament. At times it was almost impossible to listen, as O’Faolain spoke of her anguish at leaving this world and her decision to reject chemotherapy. But its ripples still beat against the tide.

Nuala, a 90-minute TV portrait, is as raw, honest and unsentimental as its subject. Through meetings with family, friends, colleagues and lovers, Finucane resurrects O’Faolain in all her brilliant and ragged glory. “I knew Nuala pretty well and the idea was that it had to be warts and all”, she says of a documentary, directed by Patrick Farrelly and Kate O’Callaghan, both of whom also produced. “And that’s what we did. But it was always going to be about Nuala O Faolain and not about me. That was almost like a mantra for me right through the making of the programme.”

Even so, and perhaps inevitably, Finucane invests some of herself in Nuala as she recalls a dear friend, who was her rock when her own daughter, Sinéad, died at a tragically young age. “At [Sinéad’s] funeral I described Nuala as my Valium because she would come over to my place most mornings and we’d walk for maybe an hour”, says Finucane. “That settled me down and got me ready for the day. She was very good to me.”

Does she feel that she is giving Nuala O’Faolain something back with this documentary? “I don’t know”, she says. “Somebody asked me before we went into the [Dublin Film Festival] screening, how would Nuala feel about you doing this and I said one bit of her would tell me to stop nosing about her life and the other bit would be thrilled. In a way for me it was revisiting an old friend. So it was both difficult and a pleasure.”

Nuala tells of a complicated life. As you watch you find yourself pulled hither and thither by its subject – at times hardened by her toughness, at times softened by her idealism. We hear from O’Faolain’s sisters, Grainne, Deirdre and Noreen, three very different souls who share their sister’s openness and honesty. Just as there are tears, there are also some hard words. Her final partner, John Low-Beer, tells of their rows and difficulties, one of her first teachers tells of her wide-eyed wonderment.

If Nuala is as full a story as can be told, there are some pieces missing from the jigsaw. The end credits tell us that Tim Hilton and Nell McCafferty, two of O’Faolain’s former partners, declined to be interviewed. “We tried but both refused for personal reasons”, says Finucane. “Tim Hilton was furious about the book I believe.”

Finucane’s own role began on a professional basis. “I first met her in Clare Duignan’s flat”, says Finucane. “We were doing a Women Today radio programme on convent school education. Doireann [Ní Bhriain] had met Nuala and said that she would be really good. We filmed the programme and she was just hysterical. I remember getting a letter from a bloke after we put it out saying that we were nearly responsible for his death because he was laughing so hard that he nearly ran into a wall. I always remember that letter.”

Was Nuala O’Faolain a happy person? “When she was on top of the world there was nobody like her, she just shone with an absolutely devastating sense of humour”, says Finucane. “But she could go into terrible melancholy and think ‘I’ve failed or blown it all again’.”

O’Faolain was the second eldest of nine children. Her father, Tomas, was a social diarist who wrote under the pen name Terry O’Sullivan for the Evening Press. He was one of Ireland’s best-known figures, a debonair man-about-town and a relentless philanderer. Her mother, Catherine, was a reluctant stay-at-home mum and an alcoholic who lived a tragic life. The family moved house on umpteen occasions, sometimes to keep one step ahead of the rent collectors.

It was a difficult childhood, which O’Faolain chronicled with devastating candour in a 200-page preface to Are You Somebody? At one point in that book she writes: ‘The most useful thing I bought out of my childhood was a confidence in reading.’ These lines are etched onto the screen of Nuala. “It’s sad in a way but that was the truth for her”, says Finucane.

A brilliant student – after dropping out of UCD she studied English at the University of Hull followed by a postgraduate degree at Oxford, both on scholarships – O’Faolain found the non-academic side of her life difficult to reconcile. Throught the ’70s she worked at the BBC and then RTÉ (where her Plain Tales TV series won her a Jacobs award). In 1986, she started writing a weekly column for the Irish Times for which she won journalist of the year. The sensational publication of Are You Somebody? in 1996 made her an international star, and it was followed by three more bestsellers: the novel, My Dream of You (2001), a sequel to her memoir, Almost There (2003) and The Story of Chicago May (2005).

Towards the end of the documentary – in the wake of her diagnosis – a number of O’Faolain’s words appear on screen. They are from emails to friends: ghost words that punch through in carefully timed phrases. One stands out: ‘13 February 2008/I am brokenhearted Was loving life, Am afraid. Question is how to bear the time, the regret. I am desolate, think of me, Nuala.’ “I think she was afraid”, says Finucane of those final weeks. “But she told me that no matter how sour she got to stick with her, which of course I would have. But like I said in the documentary she wasn’t going to wait for death to come in the door to her.”

Now when Finucane thinks of Nuala, the scene is lunch in Dublin when her friend first told her that she was dying. “Typical Nuala”, says Finucane. “She rang from New York and said meet me in Dublin for lunch. We met in Dobbins resturant. When she came in she had a walking stick and was dragging her leg. Before she even sat down she said that she was dying – very much Nuala style. She then went on to talk about a whole lot of other arrangements while you’re still trying to absorb what she has just said. That was the day that she said to me that she’d like to do the radio interview. I tried to tell her to take it one step at a time but she said: ‘No, I haven’t got an awful lot of time.’”

They recorded the interview in the RTÉ studio in Galway (O’Faolain was undergoing radiotherapy in the city hospital): a last-minute change from a hotel room. Finucane believes the clinical intimacy of that space played its part in what was a ripping up of the rulebook as O’Faolain poured out her heart in all its brokenness and regret. The response from the public was overwhelming: an avalanche of mail and email, much from people who were themselves dying. Afterwards, O’Faolain raised the possibility of a second interview. “(Nuala) said it to me and we discussed it”, says Finucane. “She figured at that point that she had more time. I think that she wanted to say to the listeners’ that their response had lifted her heart. She was very moved by that response.”

It never happened. Nuala O’Faolain passed away on May 9, 2008, surrounded by family and friends. The last words she spoke – the day before she died – were in a telephone conversation with Finucane. “Goodbye dear friend”, she told the broadcaster, who was en route to Damascus. Knowing that her time was nearly gone, Finucane flew directly back to Dublin. She made it to her friend’s bedside some ten minutes or so after she left this world. “It’s a very Irish story but it’s universal because we’re all going to have to face those final moments”, says Marian Finucane of Nuala. “We all like to not think about dying.” Does she think about it? “Not a lot, no”, she says.

All her life, Nuala O’Faolain quested and questioned: even the title of her most famous book is a query. Over the closing credits of the documentary we hear a 7½-year-old Nuala recite a nursery rhyme. It is a poignant coda to a life that definitively affirms – not that there was any doubt – that Nuala O’Faolain was a somebody; a person who faced the darkness and in doing so shone a light. The documentary asks questions of life and death: of how to live and how to die. But does it give any answers? Finucane shakes her head. A private and sometimes wary person, she is at for once at a loss. “I don’t know”, she says. “I don’t know.”

Watch Nuala on the RTÉ Player.