Monday, December 5, 2016

IRELAND | Is Francie Based on Francis O'Neil? Yes and No

When Ireland Was Poor.
Francie on the Run is the second of my late mother Hilda van Stockum's "Irish Trilogy", which starts with The Cottage at Bantry Bay and ends with Pegeen. The books were originally published by Viking Press when the children's book editor was the truly great May Massee.

My Mom told me that Massee urged her to stick with the old rural Ireland that she knew, where children like her (she lived in Ireland as well as Holland when she was growing up) ran barefoot. Some of Mom's Irish friends wanted her to show that Dublin and other urban areas were catching up, becoming more like New York City. All the more reason, said Massee, to capture the way it once was.

The three Irish books had a huge following during the late 1930s into the 1950s. In the 1960s the fashion in children's literature started to shift to diversity issues and the portrayal of long-ago family life was crowded out in the schools by newer books. Viking let the books go out of print. Bethlehem Books in North Dakota loved the Irish Trilogy and they reissued the books and have kept them in print. Catholic homeschoolers love the book and doubtless many of them have Irish roots.

The year after my mother died, in September 2007, I was delighted to received this message from Francis Joseph O'Neil:
I knew Hilda van Stockum from Georgetown, Washington DC. I ran away and went to the zoo at age three. The zoo was about six miles from my home on M Street. A policeman at the zoo asked me where my parents were and when I couldn’t tell him he took me to the police station. I remember them setting me up on the desk way up high in the policeman’s chair and it had two lights, one on each side. The lights had a long slender post with a globe of white glass mounted on top and I remember then bringing me ice cream. They eventually found my father [William John O’Neil] and took me home. The story of my runaway made its way into the Washington papers and soon after your mother contacted my parents. That’s how I came to know her. From what I can remember she became a good friend of my mother [Virginia Dare O’Neil]. We lived at 3029 M Street and I believed your mother lived up the hill from me about R street [it was 3728 Northampton Street]. I remember my brother and I [the other two boys in the family are Robert Evert O'Neil and Regis Terrence O'Neil] went to your mother’s house to sit for her illustrations. Years later, I heard from my parents that I might have been the inspiration for Francie. I am very sorry to hear of your mother’s death and wish I could have found her before she passed away. 
Francis O'Neil (Opp, AL)" [Opp is on the southern end of Alabama, near the Florida border. It is called Opp because it is a “City of Opportunity”.]
I have been doing some followup research on the origin of the Irish books. The Cottage at Bantry Bay I had heard was based at least partly on the Murray family. Some members of the Murray family  came to stay with us. On Francis O'Neil's claim, I can report:
  • Yes indeed, the drawings and character of Francie in Francie on the Run do seem to be based on Francis O'Neil.
  • However, the character of Francie in the earlier book, The Cottage at Bantry Bay, is not. 
  • The O'Sullivan family is based on the Murray family, which really did include twins–Francie and Liam–and an older boy called Michael and a girl called Brigid (Bridey). 
  • The character of Francie in Francie on the Run is much more independent and from information collected from my sibs Olga, Brigid, Sheila and Lis, it appears that the character of the older Francie and the drawings of him in the book are based on Francie O’Neil.
HvS got to know the Murray family (possibly as many as nine Murray children) when May Murray worked for Olga van Stockum, HvS’s mother, in Ireland in the late 1920s. May was reportedly a bit in love with Jan, HvS’s younger brother. HvS’s world-class editor, May Massee, insisted that the family be pruned down to four for The Cottage at Bantry Bay. Francie Murray came to visit the Marlin family in Blackrock, Dublin when the Marlins moved there in 1952. Bridey stayed with the Marlins later on Harbour Road in Dalkey.

Much later, in Canada, May and Agnes Murray came to work for HvS when her mother, our granny, was ill (and eventually died) in 1949.

It would be good to find the original story in the Washington Post or wherever it was. I did a Google search and nothing came up that looked plausible given Francis O'Neil's age. But Regis Terrence O'Neil came up and it appears to be Francie's brother, born in 1934 in Ohio, same age as my eldest sister Olga:

Regis Terrence O'Neil (Brother of Francis, "Francie" in Francie on the Run) Born March 3, 1934 in Ohio Mother born in West Virginia Father: William John O'Neil, born in Pittsburgh, Pa. Source: Ohio Birth Index, 1908-2011, record count #13,254,340, Ohio Dept. of Health. File date: March 8, 1934. Certificate Number: 1934019747

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