Before passing away of lung cancer, the feminist writer Nuala O’Faolain moved to Galway. She had a thirteen year relationship with Nell McCafferty but didn’t live to see the marriage equality referendum pass, a change for which she would have been a staunch supporter. She was an icon who was inspired by icons, one unusual one of whom she wrote in particular.
Nuala O’Faolain was a complex character, probably bisexual more than lesbian, with McCafferty saying O’Faolain should not be labelled, though Nuala herself said she ‘would walk over 29 women for one man.’
Defying labels, seeking identity
She had something of a fascination for women and their stories who she thought of as fitting her complexity in this regard. She wrote a book on one of these, about Chicago May, and infamous Irish lady gangster. In it she dwells on how there are parallels between the subject and herself. The book shows how her love of iconic figures inspired her.
What makes the Nuala O’Faolain book interesting to fellow writers like me, and to feminists in general, is that she broke every rule in the biography genre. Nuala O’Faolain wrote of how the subject of the book related to her and of her reactions to Chicago May’s life, ambitions, and times.
The Longford Connection!
Being from a Longford family, Nuala O’Faolain’s book on Chicago is of double interest to me. Indeed a triple one as Duignan’s homestead is up the lane from my cottage, which I had owned for a couple of years never knowing her story!
May Ann Duignan (Chicago May’s real name) legged it from the family homestead on the day her sister was born. She went to Liverpool, then America. She became, among other things, a chorus girl on Broadway, and then ended up in a life of sleaze working in bordels. But being from Longford, not as any ordinary prostitute, but a badger (trick, who blackmailed her clients).
An unusual heroine for Nuala O’Faolain
This might seem like an odd icon for someone of Nuala O’Faolain’s type. Those who met her in Galway and elsewhere through her life would not box her with May Ann, whatever other labels they tried to put on her.
But it was the drive of this Longford girl, at a time when women had few freedoms, that captured Nuala O’Faolain with the sheer romance of the story.
Duignan ended up in South America where she did a few engagement scams, one leading to a mans suicide. Then in France in partnership with her then boyfriend Eddie Guerin, she partook in the American Express robbery in Paris. It which was the world’s biggest at the time, making her the Ronnie Biggs of her day.
May Ann Duignan had many names and identities, was forever a weaver of stories and enthralled O’Faolain.
Strong women, strange lives
This was remarkable in any age, but particularly at a time when women did not even have the vote. While in jail in England, Chicago May shared cells with Constance Markiewicz, who remembered her. In America before independence, Constance shunned dignitaries for whom she was giving a talk, and hugged Chicago May and spoke with her, to the horror of the Irish events organisers.
These strong women, no strangers to violence in their fields, gave hope if nothing else to women in their home areas. Markiewicz was the first female MP in the House of Commons – and by default the first TD as well as she didn’t take her seat. This is something oddly the UK will commemorate this year. How Nuala O’Faolain would have enjoyed the irony of it!
The dusk of life
As O’Faolain faced the imminence of the end, she spent her final months in Galway, before passing away in the Blackrock Clinic in Dublin.
Leaving behind a legacy of writing on modern feminists, she was and is an example of standing on your own ground to women. Perhaps she too invented a sub genre of intimate biography, where the writer not alone tells the story of the subject, but reacts to the story and weaves how the subject affected the writer for good or ill.
Maybe, that was the worlds first real biography, telling the story of the subject and how the autor relates and reacts to the subject.
The Book, and other books of Nuala O’Faolain
The best known book written by Nuala O’Faolain would be her own autobiography ‘Are You Somebody’. I have a copy of myself, but have yet to read it. I hope it will shed more light on how she was attracted to the story of those on the wrong side of the tracks such as the subject of her book ‘Chicago May’.
If in Longford, take a spin up Edenmore Lane to see the hinterland that gave the background to one of the most remarkable women Ireland has produced – back in a time when they had no voice and little influence in society.
Copies should be available in Charlie Byrnes, or he can order them for you. Failing that, they can be purchased online.
And as you close the last page, you will feel that you were having a conversation with the author. It is as if you were talking with her about Chicago May as opposed to reading a book about the subject. That is the true mark of a great storyteller, who lived among us, even if only for a short few months.