Lily McCafferty died just before Christmas, soon after the book was published. McCafferty is very glad now that her mother got to see it. “Thank God I got the book out. It would have been a big ache in me if I had not got a chance to show it to her. She could not read it, she was blind at the end, but my sister Carmel read parts of it to her. She read the opening paragraph, which was enough… And mammy saw me on the Late Late Show telling parents watching with their secretly gay children to tell them they loved them.” She says Derry was the ‘acid test’ – what would the reaction be of old neighbours, her mother’s friends. The Saturday after she had been on TV, she was in Derry for her mother’s 94th birthday. And in they all came, ”with in one hand a gift for my mum and in the other my book, asking me to sign it. I knew then it was OK.”
Another interesting thing about Nell is that it is dedicated to two nuns. It was a surprise to me that someone who has been so critical of the Church has such admiration for “holy women”. “I was blessed by them; two nuns who listened to me, showed me compassion, made it possible for me to go on when I was discovering what it meant to be gay. When I confessed to a priest that I was in love with another girl, he refused me absolution. I walked away and never went back to the Church after that day. But the nuns were gentle with me and I am full of gratitude for that. I was very religious growing up. It was what kept us going: we were God’s children. Protestants might have everything else but they would not go to heaven. It was real opium for the masses – and we believed that one day we would be free! I envy people now who have faith. In the lead up to my mam’s death, I can see how it is a comfort to people. And there is a lot of good sense in the Ten Commandments: give us today our daily bread – that phrase is people demanding their right; to be free from hunger; it is a civil rights demand. The holy men have just got in the way of the message of social justice. But I still have faith in the holy women”
The book is also a very personal, very intimate portrait of its author. Several chapters describe McCafferty’s relationship with Nuala O’Faolain, who McCafferty describes as “the love of her life”. Why did she feel it important to record it in such detail – and was she not worried about being so open about something so deeply personal? Does it not make her vulnerable? “No, not at all. I think that is what you do when you tell a love story – and I could not tell the story of my life without including it. I am more worried about what I did not include – I think there was much more to say! I wish I had captured more of the joy, more about our travels, things we did together. I am surprised when people ask me this – do they not think I had a domestic life, that I just walked around carrying placards all day? My only worry about this is whether I was fair to Nuala. I am not worried about saying I love someone. To me it is one of life’s greatest achievements. “
The last few months have clearly been difficult for McCafferty. She says she has not been able to sleep at night since December 16th – the day her mother died. Having spent the last four years caring for her mother, and also writing her book, a very disciplined life has given way to what she describes as “living in the twilight zone”. “I am glad though that I can take the time to absorb it. I have not really had a chance to talk or think much about what next. Right now I have no vision, no ambition, no objective. I am a woman in waiting. I am not usually very good at metaphors, but a friend of mine, Margaret McCurtain, does not say how are you – she always says “how does your garden grow?”, What I am thinking now is, I forgot to plant bulbs, I was busy doing other things – but sure something will come up in spring. I like figuring out problems, there is an answer to everything. But right now I have not got the energy to identify the problem. But I am sure that will come, in time”.