Although Francis O’Neill left a memoir, it contains very little mention of the tragedies of his personal life: he and his wife Anna lost 6 of their 10 children. Most died in childbirth or quite young– two died on the same day. Yet the biggest tragedy of all was the loss of his cherished son Rogers to meningitis in 1904. He was only 18 years of age.
It is difficult for us to understand, 150 years later, why Francis only made passing references to such loss. One explanation is a blend of the Victorian and Irish Catholic sensibilities of the time: suffering should be kept private and not shared. For whatever reason, we can only speculate at the grief they shared.
One glimpse into how they dealt with this tragedy are the O’Neill scrapbooks that survive, held privately by his descendants. They are fascinating, containing mostly clippings from newspapers and magazines. There is little organisation beyond making sure that every space on the page is filled. The clippings range from articles O’Neill himself wrote, on music and other matters; to poetry, devotional pieces and even scientific treatises. There are also a good many sly humorous pieces about husbands and wives. Given Francis’s dry sense of humour, I believe this shows he shared the scrapbooks with Anna.
One page in particular stands out from the others, it depicts an older man at the bedside of a child. We cannot tell if the child is alive or not but the eiderdown is covered in flowers. The caption simply reads “Easter Lilies”.
In the Catholic church, the Easter lily represents the resurrection of Christ three days after crucifixion. Furthermore, the white Easter lilies were a dedication to the Virgin mother. Perhaps this picture was pasted in by Francis as an under-stated way to grieve with Anna. Perhaps it was for their Rogers or another of the younger children they lost.
Another page is pasted into the same scrapbook. It depicts a female figure by lilies. The caption partially reads: “She had planted the lilies for Francis of Asissi”. Even today, Saint Francis is the namesake of many a resident of County Cork. Did Anna paste this picture in response to the previous? We will never know.