Author of around 50 children’s books and around 200 short stories, Patricia Lynch, who died 50 years ago on September 1, was described as the “godmother of Irish children’s literature“. She was one of the most popular children’s writers in the newly independent Irish state. But the facts of her own childhood are shrouded in mystery, so much so that one commentator said it sounded like a plot line in one of her novels.
According to Robert Dunbar, who wrote Lynch’s entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, she was born June 4, 1894, in Cork, the daughter of Thomas (also known as Timothy) Lynch and Nora Lynch, who were close – probably first cousins, and already parents of a son, Patrick Henry. Dunbar acknowledges that details of his childhood are sparse and come mostly from his autobiography A Storyteller’s Childhood (1947), “although the extent to which this is reliable is uncertain”.
Denise Dowdall (www.historyeye.ie) believes she was born Winifred Lynch in London on June 7, 1882, her parents’ third child and second daughter, and abandoned Winifred in favor of Patricia some time after ‘serious illness led her to quit her job at the Royal Mail in London around 1912. Dowdall thinks it is likely that she saw little of her beloved Cork and the other rural settings of Munster she had described in his writings and that his childhood was spent mainly in London.
His father seems to have dabbled in various trades and appears in his autobiography as a wandering adventurer who traveled to Egypt, where he was joined by his mother. As a result, five-year-old Patricia was cared for by a Mrs Hennessy in Bantry, who was well known as a storyteller and from whom she inherited a love for Irish tales and legends.
According to Lynch herself, her father died in Egypt when she was six; in reality, according to Dowdall, he died in London in 1883 when she was barely eight months old. This left his mother in a precarious situation with young children and no obvious source of income. Money-related issues became a frequent theme in his later fiction. The family has also moved around a lot – another common theme in fiction. Cousin Kate, who comes to the rescue in difficult situations in some stories, was probably based on an actual maternal cousin.
Her beloved brother, Patrick Henry, worked to support his widowed mother and siblings. He became a socialist and trade union activist and was friends with James Connolly and English activist RM Fox, whom Patricia later married. Patrick died prematurely of pneumonia in December 1916 and is likely the inspiration for many of his fictional characters, such as the fiddler Jimmy in The Green Dragon and Hugh Patrick in Delia Daly of Galloping Green.
Patricia’s traveling existence meant she attended various schools and she worked for a few years in London for the Royal Mail (under the name Winifred Lynch), according to Denise Dowdall, until a serious illness took her her retirement around 1912. She reappeared as Patricia Lynch as an activist in the East London Federation of Suffragettes and wrote for its spokesperson, The Women’s [later Workers’] Battleship. Sent by Sylvia Pankhurst to Dublin to cover the 1916 rising, her next article, “Scenes of the Rebellion”, was “one of the oldest and most graphic eyewitness accounts” of the event, according to Robert Dunbar.
In October 1922 she married the English writer, socialist and pacifist, RM Fox, who had a long interest in Irish history and politics, and they settled in Dublin. Her early children’s stories were published in the Irish press and her first children’s novel, The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey, was first serialized there. The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey series and the Brogeen the Leprechaun series were probably her most successful novels and she proved a prolific writer in a wide variety of genres which included realistic adventure stories, historical fiction and fantasy with lots of references to Irish legends and folklore. Many of his books have been illustrated by famous Irish artists such as Jack B Yeats, Seán Keating and Harry Kernoff. Childhood rejection, loneliness and emigration were common themes in his more realistic fiction, according to Robert Dunbar. His work has been translated into several languages and has won numerous national and international awards.
Following his forensic examination of the details of Lynch’s childhood, Denis Dowdall reflected on his many contradictions: the uncompromising political radicalism of his early journalism versus sweet and magical fictional children’s tales; the Cork accent she gives herself in autobiographical dialogue passages versus her lifelong London accent; a Londoner preoccupied with rural Irish settings while simultaneously being an archetypical Irish writer whose books have found a home with a non-Irish publisher.
These contradictions were somewhat explained by the ex-director of the National Library of Ireland, Pat Donlon, who pointed out that the subject matter of Lynch’s writings was now part of the official iconography of the new Irish state. That would have been a very good reason for her to assume an imaginary Irish upbringing.