Photograph of a stone carving of the three saints over a doorway at the Rock of Cashel in Ireland


How is it that we can be so affected by the death of a writer we have never once set eyes upon? Well, it is because readers and writers make unusual connections, they are engaged in conversation, even though the writer may be unaware of the existence of a particular reader. I have read a couple of Nuala O'Faolain's books - her novel, Dream of You, in which a brave exploration of the grey area of middle age combines seamlessly with a lengthy evocation of Ireland's past, and her starkly honest memoir Are You Somebody?. Having admired O'Faolain's writing from the distant and yet intimate perspective of the reader, it was with the greatest surprise and sadness that I learned of her death on 9th of May at the age of only sixty-eight.

I had just returned from Sydney, flying high after winning the 2008 Kibble Award, while she was in Dublin at the very end of her life. In an interview given shortly before she died, O'Faolain spoke frankly of her feelings, of her fear of death and of how all appreciation of beauty had deserted her as the world darkened. Even Proust, she said, which she had read in its entirety, had lost all its magic when she tried to re-read it for the last time. It was this fact, I think, that saddened me most, for in some obscure way I have always relied on the power of literature to comfort and distract.

None of us knows on which ordinary day The Reaper will suddenly reveal his interest in us or, as in O'Faolain's case, have one of his medical minions coldly deliver the terrible verdict. Now, I have a shelf of books I plan to read some time, but what if that time never eventuates, what if time is shorter than I know, shall I die without experiencing the beauty of Proust's great literary labour?

The desire to re-order one's own life always surfaces when death pounces unexpectedly on someone we had not expected to mourn. Resolutions are made thick and fast, we resolve to stop whining and prevaricating, to get up off our backsides and live well. I remember it happened to me when Linda McCartney died, and also when I heard that Laura Nyro - one of my song-writing heroines from the 1960s - was gone. Now it's the turn of Nuala O'Faolain to shake me into reassessing what I am doing with my own precious time on earth.

Open her memoir at random and a spirited voice leaps from the page; she is so very warm and alive there, so bursting with knowledge and rich experience, it is impossible to believe this writer has left the planet. In describing her own often painful life O'Faolain has written a memoir of Ireland in the last half of the 20th century, never flinching from dealing with the difficult bits, never shying from examining the unfashionable yet very real anguish of feminine middle-age.

Writers of outstanding bravery like Nuala O'Faolain can make us both less and more afraid of death. And often - with our carping about a perceived lack of tone, colour and content in our days - more fear is what we need to organise our priorities. So I tip my hat to Nuala O'Faolain, while making this stern note to myself: wait not a moment longer, begin reading Proust today, while the beauty and magic of A la recherché du temps perdu remains intact.