Born: December 17th, 1956
Died: January 26, 2023
Growing up in Ballyfermot, Dublin, author and activist Noel McFarlane must have been a perplexing child to the adults around him. He spoke with a pronounced stammer, but the written words flowed from him. He had the vocabulary of an English professor, but couldn’t accurately name the parts of speech. He was fiercely intelligent, but never thrived in a classroom.
His teachers, at least some of them, had the good sense to get out of his way. They put him in the library where he was surrounded by the things that inspired, taught and nurtured him – books. In that silent classroom, the boy from Ballyers was able to fulfil his love of language, writing, poetry and James Joyce.
We don’t know when this war will be over, but we know this: Ukraine will be a strong, sovereign and independent nation
By age 13, Noel was writing his own plays. By 15, he had joined The Irish Times as a courier and copy boy. By 17, he had penned the ground-breaking novella Down the Corner. Written in the vernacular, Down the Corner spans three days in the lives of working-class Dublin boys.
Published in 1975, the book was distributed throughout Dublin schools as an incentive to read. In 1977, Noel wrote the screenplay for a film version by Joe Comerford.
By intent, the book gave working-class kids a story to which they could relate, in a language they could understand. By example, the author showed these same kids that nothing was impossible and that they need not be defined or constrained by the name of a street or a neighbourhood.
Noel rose through the ranks of the Irish Times to become sub-editor and has been widely recognised as a brilliant and perceptive writer. He wrote extensively for The Irish Times – both in Ireland and from the United States – as well as numerous other publications, periodicals and anthologies.
He was at his finest, perhaps, when writing about things in which he believed. A steadfast member of the Workers’ Party, Noel used his literary gifts to champion the causes of humanism, socialism, feminism, anti-racism, non-sectarianism and trade unionism. And he did more than champion them; he lived them every day. He did so without compromise and without apology. He never sold out.
He also never lost his sense of humour. Noel saw the absurdities of life and found them funny. Few, if any, could match his wit and there are people walking the earth today who still laugh out loud remembering something he said years ago. Noel’s close friend, author John Banville, recalls one instance of many: “I was always about half Noel’s size. One day I told him I had been given a bonsai tree, and that I was very fond of it. Without missing a beat, Noel said, ‘Ah sure J-J-John, aren’t you a g-g-g-grand little b-b-b-bonsai yourself!’”
Noel will be remembered for his unwavering commitment to the working classes and for his prodigious talent as a writer.
He will be missed, however, for his humor, his humanity, his friendship and his ability to impart the simplest and most astonishing words of wisdom when they were most needed and often least expected.
Noel was predeceased by his parents, Walter and Margaret McFarlane of Ballyfermot, and by his siblings, Bridget, Phillip and Patrick. He is survived by his brother Shay, nieces, nephews, friends and comrades.