Nelly O’Neill had her day in those earlier and quieter reaches of the Victorian era when the privilege of microscopic biography was reserved for the great and the criminal classes, and when the Bohemian celebrity (who is perhaps a cross between the two) was permitted to pass—like a magic-lantern slide—from obscurity to oblivion through an illuminated moment.
Thus even her real name has not hitherto leaked out, and to this day the O’Keeffes are unaware of their relative’s reputation and believe their one connection with the stage to be a dubious and undesirable consanguinity with O’Keeffe, the actor and fertile farce-writer whose Wild Oats made a sensation at Covent Garden at the end of the eighteenth century. To her many brothers and sisters, Eileen was just the baby, and always remained so, even in the eyes of the eminent civil engineer who was only her senior by a year. Among the peasantry—subtly prescient of her freakish destinies—she was dubbed “a fairy child”: which was by no means a compliment. A bad uncanny creature for all the colleen’s winsome looks. The later London whispers of a royal origin had a travestied germ of truth in her father’s legendary descent from Brian Boru. He himself seemed scarcely less legendary, this highly coloured squire of the old Irish school, surviving into the Victorian era, like a Georgian caricature; still inhabiting a turreted castle romantically out of repair, infested with ragged parasites: still believing in high living and deep drinking: still receiving the reverence if not the rent of a feudal tenantry, and the affection of a horsey and bibulous countryside. When in liquor there was nothing the O’Keeffe might not do except pay off his mortgages. “He looked like an elephant when he put his trousers on wrong—you know elephants have their knees the wrong way,” Eileen once told the public in a patter-song. She did not tell the public it was her father, but like a true artist she learned in suffering what she taught in song. One of her childish memories was to be stood in a row of brothers and sisters against a background of antlers, fishing-rods, and racing prints, and solemnly sworn at for innumerability by a ruddy-faced giant in a slovenly surtout. “Bad luck to ye, ye gomerals, make up your minds whether ye’re nine or eleven,” he would say. “A man ought to know the size of his family: Mother in heaven, I never thought mine was half so large!” These attempts to take a census of his children generally occurred after a peasant had brought him up the drive—“hat in one hand, and Squire in the other,” as the patter-song had it. At the moment of assisted entry his paternal dignity was always at its stateliest, and it was not till he had gravely hung his cocked hat upon an imaginary door-peg in the middle of the hall and seen it flop floorward that he lost his calm. “Blood and ’ouns, ye’ve the door taken away again.”