The writing of Julia O’Faolain, who has died aged 88, reflected a cosmopolitan life and impressively well-stocked mind. Her novels are set in France, California, Italy, as well as Ireland – an international scope that marks her as unusual among the Irish novelists of her brilliant generation – which includes John McGahern, Edna O’Brien and Jennifer Johnston, all born around 1930.
While the range of her geographical locations, and also her literary and cultural frame of reference, are exceptionally wide, her main characters are generally Irish, and so, frequently, are her themes – No Country for Young Men (1980), which was shortlisted for the 1980 Booker prize, concerns Irish civil war politics and IRA issues in the later 20th century.
The Obedient Wife (1982), located in California, uses what has become a classic Irish trope of a relationship between a woman and a priest. An abiding interest in nuns is reflected in her historical novel Women in the Wall (1975), dealing with a sixth-century Gallic anchoress, Radegunda.
It is as if her schooldays in Irish convents remained firmly etched in her memory and fuelled her imagination, as did Irish history and politics – not surprisingly since her parents had been active in the struggle for Irish independence and in the civil war, and indeed belonged to a kind of Irish aristocracy of heroes, even if their opinions were often at loggerheads with those of the emerging nation.
Above all, O’Faolain’s fiction explores the lives of girls and women, as they struggle with the contradictory messages produced by evolving notions of gender equality on the one hand, and traditional sexual rules, on the other. She writes in The Irish Signorina (1984):
‘In those days,’ Mummy had told her, ‘you could be arrested for kissing on a park bench.’
‘A Fascist law, I suppose?’
‘Fascism was long gone. Do you think I’m your grandmother?’
Money helped then as always. There was talk of girls going to London to have a hymen implanted and to Switzerland with an inconvenient pregnancy. Mummy revelled in the outrageousness, and when Anne praised recent changes in the law for putting an end to hypocrisy, she didn’t see it at all. ‘Pish and tush!’ she’d say. She had the Irish preference for breaking rather than changing laws …
Born in London, O’Faolain was brought up in Killiney, a scenic and affluent suburb on Dublin’s south coast. Her father was the great short story writer Seán Ó Faoláin, and her mother, Eileen, a successful writer of children’s books. On Sundays, their house, Knockaderry, was a mecca for writers and artists, some of whom walked the 10 miles from Dublin to attend the weekly “at home”. As a girl, Julia served tea and sandwiches to Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, Frank O’Connor and Norah McGuinness, among other stars of the Irish literary scene.
Although her father was outspoken in his criticism of the Catholic church, Julia attended convent schools: Loreto Abbey, Dalkey, and Sacred Heart in Monkstown. She went on to study Italian and French at University College Dublin. An outstanding student, she received scholarships to funded further studies at the University of Rome and the Sorbonne.
Following her postgraduate years, she worked as a translator for the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and as a supply teacher and waitress in London (at the Moo Cow Milk Bar near Victoria station). In 1957 she married Lauro Martines, an American historian, and their long life together was spent mainly in the US and in London.
It was when she was in London in the 1950s that her father suggested she try writing fiction. A play was broadcast on BBC radio and her first stories were published in the New Yorker and Vogue magazine, in what she described as a “false start”.
After a hiatus of over a decade she published her first book, the novel Godded and Codded (1970), which tells the story of a young Irish woman studying in Paris. She published six further novels – including The Judas Cloth (1992) and Adam Gould (2009) – and four collections of short stories: Man in the Cellar (1974), Melancholy Baby (1978), Daughters of Passion (1982), and Under the Rose: Selected Stories (2016).
Trespassers: A Memoir, appeared in 2013. She also translated novels from Italian, and co-edited, with her husband, Not in God’s Image: Women in History from the Greeks to the Victorians (1973).
Physically beautiful, personally somewhat reserved, and scintillatingly intelligent, she observed people with wry amusement, and wrote about their foibles and moments of grace with a sharp pen and keen insight, in rich elegant prose.
“I have given no thought to the inner Julia and am more interested in observing other people’s behaviour than my own,” she wrote in her wonderful memoir. It is the mark of the true novelist.
She is survived by Lauro and their son, Lucien.
• Julia O’Faolain, novelist, born 6 June 1932; died 27 October 2020