JG Farrell had moved to Ireland to write after feeling oppressed by life in London
In the moments before he died, JG Farrell, the prizewinning novelist, locked eyes with Pauline Foley, a walker who had come upon him by chance. They were only feet apart, caught in a violent storm on wild Irish coastland — a scene that has haunted Foley for more than 30 years.
“He didn’t look frightened,” said Foley, speaking about the tragedy for the first time this weekend. “He was looking at me all the time. Just looking. I can see him as clearly as if it happened today.”
At the time of Farrell’s death in a remote part of Co Cork in August 1979, people talked of MI5 plots, the Provisional IRA and suicide. They could not understand how the most promising British novelist of his day, aged just 44, had come to such a sudden, terrible end.
Farrell won the Booker prize in 1973. But his talent was recognised again last week when Troubles, his novel set in the War of Independence, was posthumously nominated for the “Lost Booker” — an award for works published in 1970. A change in the prize conditions meant that books from that year were never eligible to win. He is on a longlist that includes Nina Bawden, Joe Orton, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Ruth Rendell and Melvyn Bragg.
Farrell’s mystique may grow after the testimony of Foley, the only adult to witness his death. She reveals how the author may have sacrificed his life to save hers. Foley was moved to speak out after reading a book review in The Sunday Times recently in which the writer Robert Harris mentioned Farrell’s drowning. She knew it was not the full story.
In the summer of 1979 Foley and her family were living on a small farm in the west of Ireland. On August 11, two days before storms killed 15 people in the Fastnet yacht race, the weather was already bad, too bad for her son to go fishing, she thought. So Foley decided to take her young daughter, Sarah, her son, James, and one of her son’s friends, Scott, for a walk along the coast where Farrell lived, near Bantry Bay.
“His was a little farm on a turning down to the sea,” recalled Foley. “It was very rough and we went to see the sea. I was clutching my daughter — she was only six — and the two boys were above the rocks about 25 yards back from the water.
“When we got near the top, and I was coming up behind them, we saw Jim [Farrell] on a ledge about 8ft from the sea.”
By coincidence, Foley had just read The Siege of Krishnapur, the novel which had won Farrell the Booker six years earlier. At that time, however, she had no idea who the man on the ledge was.
A complex, solitary figure, Farrell was a newcomer to the area. Tall and handsome, he had been a keen rugby player in his youth. At Oxford University he played regularly until struck down by polio. Weakened in his arm and shoulders, he then spent years struggling to make it as a writer.
He suffered from a recurring nightmare “in which he was being pulled underwater”, according to Lavinia Greacen, his biographer. It may have been a legacy of his time hospitalised in an “iron lung”, which sometimes gave people nightmares and a sense of claustrophobia.
When at last he did achieve success, Farrell grew oppressed by the intrusions of London life and, abandoning a succession of lovers, retreated alone to Ireland to work on his next book. On August 10 he had written to his publisher, saying he hoped to deliver the work by the end of the year “barring some unforeseen disaster”.
The next day he went down to the sea. When Foley, who now lives in Surrey, saw him, he was standing on a ledge, wearing wellington boots and holding a fishing rod. Fishing was the first sport Farrell had been able to enjoy since contracting polio. The illness had left him unable to cast the rod overhead with one hand, so instead he tucked the rod under his arm and cast by twisting his body. It made balancing tricky. “It was very rough, splashing up on the rocks, but there weren’t killer waves,” recalled Foley. “He turned and waved to the boys. The boys waved back.
“He turned back, started to cast and slipped. I think it was more of a slip than the waves.” Farrell made no attempt to save himself. Foley said: “I called to him, ‘I’m coming’, and I took Sarah to the boys and tried to make them get back. My son [James, 11] got very frightened and said ‘Don’t go down there, Mummy; don’t go down there.’
“I said, ‘I’m not.’ There were some rocks a bit back. I thought if I went down there I could take off my coat, then he [Farrell] could get to me and grab it and I could pull him in.
“I started to go down there. It was just his head in the water. There was no waving, no call to me. He was just looking at me. All the time he looked at me. I don’t even want to think what he felt.”
Amid the wind and spray James was terrified and called out, desperate for her to come back. She tried to calm him and said she was just going down to the ledge.
“I took the kids back again and said, ‘Please, I won’t go in the water, I’m just going down to the ledge’.
“I started to go over again and looked across at Jim and he just went under. He looked at me and he went under.”
Farrell’s body was washed up days later.
Foley’s son, although only young at the time, has always believed the author “wanted to die”. Yet Farrell had much to live for. “Swifty” Lazar, the powerful US literary agent, had recently taken him on as a client and further success was beckoning.
Greacan believes that when Farrell hit the sea he was paralysed by shock and hypothermia which can cause the body to shut down within minutes.
Foley, who had once helped to save a man from drowning in Spain, remains puzzled that Farrell did not wave at her or cry out. She dismissed suicide, but added: “I think that when he heard the child scream he thought I would come down into the water. He seemed to know that if I had gone in that water, neither of us would have got out.”
Did Farrell choose not to save himself in order to protect Foley and her children? “That could well be,” said Foley. “He could have thought that. I think he stoically knew he was going to drown. I think he was a brave man.”