BY Edward L. Shaughnessy
Before he pours the baptismal waters, the priest makes a ritual inquiry of the candidate: "What do you ask?" Godparents answer for the infant, "I ask faith." Thus does the believing community pass on its inheritance to a new member. This gift must be defended at all costs, for faith is first among the theological virtues.
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Mary Ellen Quinlan neither questioned nor resented her duty to grow in virtue. Indeed, she found the task wholly agreeable. Pious by nature, she was drawn to the devotional mode. But the shelter and peace of contemplative life were not to be hers. Faith eventually failed her, or she failed it. Many years after his mother's death, Eugene O'Neill created a character to memorialize this tragic fate.1 His dramatization of her vulnerability brings to the modern stage a moment of almost unbearable poignancy. "What is it I'm looking for?" she wonders. "I remember when I had it I was never lonely nor afraid. I can't have lost it forever, I Would die if I thought that. Because then there would be no hope" (LDJ 172, 173). It was not just something, but everything, for faith had been the very spine of her identity. Yet trouble surfaced in the years just following her protected and blissful days in the convent academy, when Miss Quinlan fell in love with and then married the immensely popular actor, James O'Neill. Whatever happiness she knew at first, however, the change of name seems to have threatened her deepest identity. Many years later Eugene saw in his mother's history reminders of the oldest theme in literature, a theme whose roots can always be located in the lost days of youth.
* * *
Thomas J. and Bridget (Lundigan) Quinlan, who had likely known the bittersweetness of an American wake and had surely experienced a fearful journey into the new world, apparently never lost heart. In America they prospered, first in New Haven and then in Cleveland. But in the flood of immigrants they surely encountered the same obstacles as all other famine refugees in the 1850s-1870s. Announcements were posted everywhere: "No Irish Need Apply." Some "greenhorns" were undeterred, of course. Thomas, clearly an entrepreneurial type, started his own business in stationery supplies, dry goods, candies, tobacco and liquors. By age forty Quinlan had done so well, in fact, that he was able to provide his children with the amenities of gracious living: a sound education, a proper library, music lessons and a pianoforte, as well as access to the theatre. (Quinlan's store was less than two blocks from the Cleveland Academy of Music, a flourishing hall where the dashing James O'Neill began appearing as early as 1870.)
The Quinlans' fortune was one played out thousands of times in the 19th century, of course. In a union defined by Irish Catholicism, these exiles from Tipperary must have seen their opportunity as something providential. Nor is it hard to suppose that Thomas and Bridget encouraged their son and daughter, as no doubt their own parents had enjoined them, to keep the faith. The Quinlans, having succeeded in the United States, did all they could to keep Mary Ellen secure in a Catholic world. She was its perfect type, lovely and polite to a fault. Perhaps she possessed some measure of quiet assertiveness: in 1872 she chose to have her name inscribed as "Ella"2 in the St. Mary's matriculation book. In the main, however, she gladly accepted the givens of her life and situation.
Let me try to make concrete what I mean by a "Catholic world." Bound by cords of religion and ethnicity, its inhabitants were in large part formed by their very parochialism. To outsiders they may have seemed eccentric or clannish, but within their circle the group exchanged a currency of idiom and values.
From the mid 19th century through the period of Vatican Council II (1962-65), the practice of Catholicism in America was in certain ways more conspicuous than it is today. The Catholic world was visible in the garb worn by priests and nuns; in objects and "style" (holy water, the rosary, candles, medals, Gregorian chant, meatless Fridays); in its language (infallibility, novenas, college of cardinals, purgatory). A sacrament (e.g., baptism, matrimony) was said to leave "an indelible mark." A newly ordained man was solemnly reminded, "Thou art a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek." Recollections of all this may explain why O'Neill was moved to record in his notes for Days Without End, "Once a Catholic always a Catholic" (Floyd 155). For such language was reinforced in grammar school texts like Sadlier's Excelsior Catholic Readers and The Baltimore Catechism, in use from 1884 to the 1950s. All members responded to the same authority and saw in traditional icon and ritual the symbolism of deeper realities. These daily reminders of faith no doubt produced a lasting imprint on memory. So vast a currency, constantly in circulation, was certain to influence one's way of interpreting events and behavior, one's world view. Thus it is no exaggeration to say that an individual's very identity was created by her world-familial, psychological, spiritual. Such was the Catholic world of Mary Ellen Quinlan.
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The Quinlans, having arrived in Cleveland by way of New Haven, where Mary Ellen was born, joined St. Bridget's Parish on Cleveland's east side. It had been founded as a mission of St. John's Cathedral by the first bishop of Cleveland, Amadeus Rappe. "St. Bridget's, 2508 East 22nd St., was founded in 1857 to serve east side Irish Catholics in the vicinity of Woodland Avenue" (Cook 6). This community differed markedly from St. Patrick's on the west side of the city, a parish that was made up of mainly laboring Irish, a large force in the vicinity from 1850 to 1945 (Callahan and Hickey 182). The Quinlans' neighborhood was "bounded by East 22nd Street, south of Prospect and north of Woodland extending east to the city limits at East 55th Street. This was St. Bridget's Parish, once the home of the Irish of moderate wealth. It lasted as an Irish neighborhood until about 1900.... However, St. Bridget's Parish did not last as an Irish enclave much more than one generation" (Callahan and Hickey 182-83).
The more confident Irish, like Thomas J. Quinlan,3 seemed to respond to this challenge with a sort of high zest, for they were well experienced in meeting discrimination.
Quinlan eventually went into business with Ambrose Spirnaugle at 204 Superior Avenue. Their specialties, as reported in the city directories of 1872-74, were candies, cigars, smokers' articles, and a Plain Dealer distributorship. Their store was nearby the opera house and John Ellsler's Academy of Music.
The Quinlan children, William Joseph and Mary Ellen, clearly enjoyed advantages. Although St. Bridget's had erected a parish school in 1858, Mary Ellen attended the Ursuline Academy at 50 Euclid Avenue, a classic incubator of Catholicity designed to foster faith and develop character. Its rigorous academic program prepared girls for advanced work at other institutions and laid the groundwork for Christian motherhood. "Many prominent young ladies were educated at this convent, which had a fine reputation for its music and other courses" (Wilson 209). These Ursulines, beckoned from Boulogne-sur-mer in France by Bishop Rappe, operated both St. Bridget's grammar school and the Academy. This latter, founded in 1850, accepted both boarding and day students. The convent, once the home of a local judge, Samuel Cowles, was now flanked by wings with classrooms and dormitory facilities. It was a short walk from the Quinlan residence at 208 Woodland. Mary Ellen was probably a day student.
Although early records have been lost, we can now say with certainty that Miss Quinlan was a student in this Academy. Let three reports, available through oral history, confirm this assertion. Sister Michael Francis Hearon, O.S.U., wrote the centennial history of the Cleveland Ursulines (The Broad Highway, 1950). In the 1930s, as a novice, she cared for Mother M. Berchmans, O.S.U., who had been born in 1850 and had been taken to the convent academy in 1855. Mother Berchmans knew the original cast of characters and confirmed the presence of Ellen Quinlan among the Academy students in the 1860s and 70s. Sr. Michael Francis, now retired, also tells of one Sr. M. Evangelista Duffy, who supplied data for the centennial book. A nonagenarian, this woman had served the order for some fifty years as a cook. She, too, remembered the girl who became the mother of Eugene O'Neill. And finally, when Sr. Michael Francis was taking graduate work at Notre Dame, she had a conversation with Sr. Madeleva, C.S.C., poet and president of St. Mary's College. Sr. Madeleva was well aware of Ella's having been with the Cleveland Ursulines before coming to South Bend.
Whether boarding or day student ("the teaching technique was identical in the two schools" (Hearon 127)), a child who studied with the Ursulines was encouraged to develop both spiritual and intellectual virtues. By the time Ellen was a student in the 1860s, two wings had been added to Judge Cowles' home, now the convent. It had, in fact, come very much to resemble the convent in Boulogne.
In this room, completed in 1863, Mary Ellen no doubt began to develop her habit of piety, by which she was remembered thereafter.
In each room of the Euclid Street Academy the girls were reminded of their primary models: "Every classroom contained a crucifix, a statue of the Blessed Virgin, and the picture of the patron saint of the division" (Hearon 129). In addition, the Ursulines attempted to put bone and muscle into this training in spiritual life. The predecessors in Paris had been considerably influenced by the Jesuits. Indeed, the latter group helped the sisters draw up their Reglements in the early 18th century. It is not surprising, then, to discover in their theory of education certain reminders of the Ratio Studiorum, conceived by Ignatius of Loyola (1491¬1556) and formally promulgated in 1599. Such was the philosophy upon which the training of Mary Ellen Quinlan was grounded.
St. Mary's provided Ella's "finishing," yet another indication of her father's aspirations for her. Indeed, Thomas himself may have accompanied the shy girl of 15; his name is entered on the registration sheet on the date of her matriculation (11 September 1872). Her experiences there have been well documented by biographers (Sheaffer, the Gelbs, et al.) and by her own son, who called her Mary Tyrone in his play. Even so, we may be able to provide greater detail than has so far been revealed about Ella's life there. How deftly the Holy Cross Sisters announced their goals, a sort of steel-in-velvet philosophy: "The Disciplinary Government is mild, yet conducted with such vigilance and energy as always to secure perfect order and regularity." What parent could resist their tact: "as soon as (the students) enter the Institution they become the children of the House, and the Sisters watch over their best interests with the solicitude of mothers" (Catalogue 9).
The very texts the students used suggested the virtue of self-effacement. For instance, Sadlier's Excelsior Readers, a series prepared in gradations of difficulty, seldom identified their compilers. The books were typically edited "by a Member of the Order of the Holy Cross" or "by a Catholic Teacher." These anthologies offered a potpourri of titles assembled to broaden one's general knowledge (e.g., "St. Peter's" (basilica), "Ireland and the Irish," or "Rome Under Nero"). Each book opened with a treatise on elocution and suggested what should be sought by students like those at St. Mary's:
The rules discouraged too close friendships. Other severe rules obtained: "In order to avoid all objectionable correspondence, letters written or received are examined by the Superior..." (Catalogue 10).
A story (probably thought to be true) grew up about the romantic meeting and courting of Ella Quinlan and James O'Neill in South Bend. It has no standing in fact, but that it gained any credence whatever now seems astonishing. The account, given this way, carries all the baggage of error typical of such legends.
The story about Nathan's mother is equally problematical: "Mr. Nathan (says that) his mother lived in Ft. Wayne, when she was a student here. She afterwards married Charles Naret Nathan of Lorraine, France.... She and Ellen Quinlan O'Neill were schoolmates and lifelong friends" (Holy Cross Courier 29). Perhaps, but the college archivist insists that no record exists of Miss Nirdlinger's presence at St. Mary's. Indeed, says Sr. M. Rosaleen, the registers give no evidence that any student from Fort Wayne was in attendance there during Miss Quinlan's years, 1872-75.
Ella quickly adjusted to the modus vivendi at St. Mary's and therewith gained a reputation for piety and amiability. She studied piano and voice with Mother Elizabeth (Harriet Redman Lilly), who developed a conservatory of music that gained considerable prominence in its day. In addition, Ellen found those places that remained forever sacred in her memory. She loved the privacy and quiet of the college as it was in those days. "During her time at St. Mary's Ellen (Ella) would have found the chapel at the top floor of Lourdes Hall" (Sr. M. Rosaleen, personal letter).
* * *
Thus had Ellen's Catholic sensibilities been formed. She was at home in a semi-cloistered life of convent academies. Small wonder that she was inclined to consider for herself a life like that of her beloved Sisters. The girl who would become Eugene O'Neill's mother had, before her marriage, known little of the world. How bewildering, therefore, when, being groomed in all that is chastened, she came upon the matinee idol in her own home, the guest of her gregarious father. She was but 13 years old, her earliest fantasies of adolescent romance just forming. In the years that followed, before her father's death in 1874, James O'Neill became a familiar figure on Woodland Avenue. Well met and handsome as he was, however, Jimmy O'Neill was not the man Thomas Quinlan could have had in mind as his daughter's lifelong partner. A match certainly did not suggest itself to Bridget, who took a "dim view of all actors, even one Irish and a good Catholic" (Sheaffer I, 15). If, occasionally, Ellen had been to the theatre, that was for moments of frivolous play-life, not a world to be taken seriously. Yet, her father's approval of this man must have seemed to her implied, and Ellen loved Thomas and respected his judgment. Then, at age 41, Quinlan died. What other man might take his place?
The history of the O'Neills' marriage cannot be reviewed here in any depth. Ella married James, overcoming her widow-mother's admonishments. Three sons were born within ten years, each of whom she loved. But she suffered both grief and guilt over infant Edmund's death by measles at age two. Further insult of fate: a drug prescribed to comfort her in fact enslaved her. Over time, as the shabbiness of James's deeper preferences was revealed, the drabness of her situation must have become excruciating. As his career accelerated, the color was drained out of her life. No doubt the convent school graduate became embittered, and bitterness spoils the grace of faith.
Nevertheless, to believe in what she had been taught was Ella's second nature. Hence her attempt to reclaim faith, which was both a torment and a method of coping. Neither philosophy nor rationalism could answer her need. A few years after his mother's death, in a letter to Carlotta Monterey, Eugene made a shrewd observation about Ella:
We do an injustice to call her view anti-intellectual, for intellectualism hardly seems relevant to the matter. To Eugene's mother mere logic could not have seemed an adequate substitute for faith. When nurtured and made into virtue, it transcends reason's capacity to know the truth. Nor could any person satisfy her need. All whom she had trusted failed her in some way or other: her beloved father; James O'Neill; Jamie and Gene.
It is well known that, following the difficult birth of Eugene, Ella O'Neill endured the infernal agony of morphine addiction for a quarter century. This "curse," as James called it, led directly to a series of familial disasters: Ella's own crippling diminishment of self-esteem, her attempted suicide, possible self-induced abortions (Sheaffer II, 510-511), and' virtual internecine conflict with husband and sons. Added to all this was the price she paid in unrelenting guilt. Yet, somehow, this very guilt may have constituted her saving grace, for it reminded always of her lost faith. In time, having attempted cures in various sanatoria, Ella returned to the only haven of peace she knew, the convent (Sheaffer I, 280-281). To go there must have required heroic courage, however. (The Gelbs suggest that she had stayed with Carmelite nuns, who kept vigil over the corpse the night before her funeral (500). Sheaffer says (Ranald confirms 531) she had stayed in a Brooklyn convent. There seems to be some question about the facts.)4
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Louis Sheaffer cites but does not present the full passage (I, 280) where Mary Tyrone imagines her recovery of faith. Appropriately, she speaks the lines to Edmund (Eugene), thereby permitting our inference that O'Neill recalled with authority his mother's anticipated redemption.
The play ends, not in laughter, of course, but in an eerie silence emptied of hope. "She stares before her in a sad dream. Tyrone stirs in his chair. Edmund and Jamie remain motionless" (176). In its magnificence, the tragedy fairly crushes us. Let us not seek here, therefore, by some heartless alchemy, to cancel the play's proper darkness. But let us remember that Eugene O'Neill's own mother lived eight years on the other side of darkness. It would be presumptuous to declare that these years were happy in any conventional sense. She seems to have become again something of the doting mother and, now, the indulgent grandmother. But she hardly became giddy in her release. Of course, she never had been. Mary Ellen Quinlan had been a child of grace and virtue. If, in her descent into the shadows, Ella O'Neill lost faith, she never lost the memory of it. Its imprint remained. Perhaps we do not presume, then, to suggest that she regained her identity, an identity forged by faith.
1. In commenting on the Tyrones we must repeatedly cross the line that separates fiction from the quotidian. The O'Neills' story-hardly differs from that of the characters in the plays. Indeed, all critics agree that Eugene O'Neill's work is unqualifiedly autobiographical (at least in his late period). It seems futile, therefore, to speak of his Tyrone plays without acknowledging this truth. Thus, I offer no apologia for equating art with life.
2. The use of Mrs. O'Neill's given name poses something of a problem. She was born Mary Ellen Quinlan (13 Aug. 1857). At St. Mary's College she seems always to have been called or known as "Ellen," although her entrance on 11 Sept. 1872 is marked as "Ella." In adult life she apparently preferred Ella, the name Eugene O'Neill had placed on the family stone in St. Mary's Cemetery, New London, Connecticut. For the purposes of this study, I have attempted to call her by the name appropriate to the stage of her life under discussion.
3. Information on Thomas Joseph Quinlan in the Cleveland city directories provides an interesting history. He is not listed in the 1857 directory, the year of Mary Ellen's birth in New Haven, Connecticut. Directories are not available for 1858 and 1859. His name is first registered in 1860 (p. 148): "QUINLAN, THOMAS J., news dealer, 173 Ontario." In 1861 the entry includes news of his business: "books, periodicals, magazines, &c. 174 Ontario, res same" (p.195). Information on residence (the same as business address) remains consistent through 1866. In 1863 "bill poster" is added (p. 174) and carries through 1865, when "bakery" is added (p. 216). (In that year, which saw the end of the Civil War, a Bridget Quinlan is included, "wid. Michael, h(house) 82 Champl'n.") In 1866 Quinlan is advertised as "dealer in books, stationery and fancy goods; also bread, cakes and confectionery" (p: 229). His name is not given in 1867 (apparently a year when the family changed its residence). In 1868 "Quinlan, John Thomas (sic), city circulator, Plain Dealer" (p. 262) is given. The residence is changed to 208 Kinsman and remains the same through 1870 (p.243). Apparently, Kinsman was a name interchangeable with Woodland Avenue; both names are still shown on Cleveland city maps. At any rate, the Quinlan residence is given as 208 Woodland Avenue in the 1872-73 directory (p. 387). In that same entry is noted Quinlan's having joined with A(mbrose) Spirnaugle in "Cigars, tobacco, smokers' articles and sample room. 204 Superior." (Doris Alexander indicates (p. 41 that this partnership began in 1870. No doubt she is correct.) The 1872-73 data remain the same in 1873-74. We know that Thomas J. Quinlan died on 25 May 1874. The 1874-75 directory, which carries information gathered through April, 1875, still lists the partnership but at 204'/2 Superior. Another entry is given: "Quinlan, W. J., Bookkeeper, R. C. Barrett, r(residence) 208 Woodland." This would be Mary Ellen's brother, William Joseph.
4. The circumstances in which Ella O'Neill conquered her morphine addiction are now called somewhat into question. Louis Sheaffer carefully reviewed the New London papers for news of O'Neill family activities in the period of her recovery. Ella was away from husband and sons in the spring of 1914. "None of the news items said anything about Ella being at the hotel (the Prince George in Manhattan, where the O'Neills had taken rooms for the winter and spring) or in a hospital; the only clue to her whereabouts is the mention of the father and sons going to Brooklyn to be with her. Presumably the convent where she underwent her final struggle and achieved her great victory was located in Brooklyn" (1, 281). The Gelbs indicate that, when (in 1922) her body was taken to the Catholic church on East 28th St. in Manhattan, "... Ella's friends, the Carmelite nuns who had helped her conquer the narcotics habit, prayed over her through the night" (500). Asked to verify this information, Mother Josefa Marie, D. C. (Discalced Carmelites), of the Monastery of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (745 St. John's Place, Brooklyn), writes the following:
Works Cited and Consulted
By a Member of the Order of the Holy Cross. Book of Oratory: Compiled for the Use of Colleges, Academies, and the Higher Classes of Select and Parish Schools. New York: D. & J. Sadlier, 1867. St. Mary's College Archives.
Callahan, Nelson J. and William F. Hickey. Irish Americans and Their Community in Cleveland. (Cleveland Ethnic Heritage Studies.) Cleveland: Cleveland St. UP, 1978.
Catalogue (Twentieth Annual), 1874-1875, St. Mary's College. Notre Dame, IN, 1875. St. Mary's College Archives.
Cook, Richard J. "The Irish in Cleveland: How They Became Part of the Community," Unpublished paper. Chancery Archives, Diocese of Cleveland. 8 March 1989.
Creek, Helen (Sr. Mary Immaculata, C.S.C.). "A Panorama: 1844-1977." St. Mary's College. Notre Dame, IN, 1977.
Dunleavy, Sr. M. Rosaleen, C.S.C. Personal letter, 15 Apr. 1991.
Fontaine, Nicholas. The History of the Old and New Testament, Interspersed with Moral and Instructive Reflections. Tr. J. Reeve. 1780.
Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O'Neill. Rev. ed. New York: Harper, 1973.
Hearon, Sr. Michael Francis, O.S.U. The Broad Highway: A History of the Ursuline Nuns in the Diocese of Cleveland, 1850-1950. Cleveland, 1951.
Historical Report of the Parish of St. Bridget's (no date). Chancery Archives, Diocese of Cleveland.
Holy Cross Courier (the Alumnae magazine of St. Mary's College), Vol. 10, Feb. 1936. St. Mary's College Archives.
Houck, George F. (A) History of Catholicity in Northern Ohio and in the Diocese of Cleveland, From 1749-1900, Vol. 1. Cleveland: Press of J.B. Savage, 1908.
Hynes, Michael J. (A) History of the Diocese of Cleveland: Origin and Growth (1847-1952). Diocese of Cleveland, 1953.
McCandless, Marion. Family Portraits: (A) History of the Holy Cross Alumnae Association of St. Mary's College. Notre Dame, Indiana, 1879-1949. Notre Dame, 1952.
McCandless, Marion. Letter to Doris Alexander, 6 Jan. 1955. St. Mary's College Archives.
O'Neill, Eugene. Long Day's Journey Into Night. New Haven: Yale UP, 1956 (called LDJ in text).
O'Neill, Eugene. Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill. Bogard, Travis and Jackson R. Bryer, eds. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988 (called SL in text).
Parishes of the Catholic Church, Diocese of Cleveland: History and Records. (Prepared by the Ohio Historical Records Survey Project Service Division, Work Projects Administration.) Cleveland: Cadillac Press, 1942.
Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill, Son and Playwright. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968 (called Sheaffer I in text).
Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill, Son and Artist. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973 (called Sheaffer II in text).
Sheaffer, Louis. Letter to Sr. M. Madeleva, C.S.C., 19 Feb. 1961. St. Mary's College Archives.
Wagner, Sr. Monica, C.S.C. Benchmarks. St. Mary's College, How It Grew. Notre Dame, IN, 1990.
Wilson, Ella Grant. Famous Old Euclid Avenue of Cleveland: Ursuline-East Campus, 1932. Archives of the Ursuline Nuns of Cleveland.
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