Posted by: SJS | April 19, 2018

The O’Neill Bros

This striking photo of my mother, Rita Marie’s, five brothers takes me all the way back to my earliest impressions of them as a young child.  I was in awe of them and forged relationships with them that have given me memories that will last a lifetime.

Growing up, it was through the lens of the O’Neill family that I came to have some understanding of another Irish Catholic family–the Kennedys–which would come to have such a profound impact on the history of our country and the world.  Through the family of my mother, I was given insights into the Kennedys, especially John F. Kennedy, whose WWII experiences on the PT boats of the South Pacific have brought me to a deeper understanding of my father, George “Red” Stahley who did similar service as a young man.  Somehow, it all fits together in ways that go deeper than I could ever say.

Pictured left to right are Rob, Ed, Tim, Al, and Bud.  I believe the photograph is from Tim’s wedding day.  Each of these uncles, of whom I was extremely proud, played major roles in my earliest years.  Although I did not remain as close to some of them as others as the years passed (for reasons I do not fully comprehend), their imprint on my childhood was deep and enduring.

Ed, the Army veteran who lost half a leg as part of the Normandy invasion in 1944, was my godfather.  Among my most cherished early memories are of Uncle Ed getting down on the living room floor to play with his nieces and nephews at family gatherings.  Since Ed was the last of the brothers to marry and start a family, he was free to shower boatloads of attention on the emerging O’Neill generation–and we were only too happy to soak up as much of that gentle Eddie energy as we could get.  Known affectionately by his nickname “Oats” to the grown ups, he was always Uncle Eddie to us kids.  His broad smile and easy laughter are deeply and gratefully at home in my memory.

Tim, third in line after Peggy and Bud was the parent of my cousins with whom I spent many happy summer days–Timmy, Kevin, and Brian.  Somehow the four of us could play baseball games consisting of four players that went on for many innings and involved several close plays at first  base.  Many of those plays were hotly disputed if memory serves.  I remember Uncle Tim for his sharp wit and warm welcome every time we had the opportunity to visit.

Because of Al, I learned the meaning of words like “urbane” and “sophisticated” much sooner than most kids in the second grade.  And even as a child, I could tell that Uncle Al  had a sense of humor that was somehow more subtle but more expansive that other adults.  I remember at one family gathering, a First Communion party after several of us had just taken that momentous step that loomed large for all Catholic children, I found myself between Uncle Al and Aunt Peggy (Sister Margarella, OSF) who were having an intense discussion about the new pope–the jovial and rotund Angelo Roncalli who had become Pope John XXIII–the pope who would convene Vatican II and change the course of the Catholic Church.  Along with my cousin Frankie Morris, I was wearing my sparkling white first communion suit on that long ago day.

As Aunt Peggy went on at great length about the virtues of the new pope,  I watched Al’s smile grow wider and saw a mischievous look in his eye. “Oh, Peg, he’ll do alright but you know he’s not perfect,” Al said.  For the briefest of moments,  he held his big sister in a stunned silence.  “After all, he’s not Irish–right Stephen?” Al said, looking at me with a wink.  I’m quite sure it was the first “grown up” joke I ever got.  I started to laugh so hard I almost spilled my glass of orange soda all over my white suit–almost.  I’ll always be grateful to my Uncle Al for letting me in on the joke.  That gift of Irish humor–irreverent, earthy, and loaded with paradox–began to take root in me that day.

Bud, the oldest of the boys, was the father of my cousins Terry and Patrice who grew up with my sister Maryellen and I in the same Philly neighborhood with the Morris family–cousins Michael, Frankie, and Robbie before all the other siblings and cousins showed up in our families–Marguerite, Joan, Teresa Stahley, Jay, Helene, Marita O’Neill, Eddie, Danny, Bernadette, and Tommy Morris.  It felt like a branch of the extended O’Neill clan owned that portion of Philadelphia real estate between Front and B Streets.

I will always remember Bud’s keen interest in poetry, philosophy, and theology.  He loved nothing more than an intense discussion (or better, debate) about a line from a W.B. Yeats poem or a concept in the work of St. Augustine.  Uncle Bud was more tuned in to the controversies generated by the doctrine of Original Sin than most of my seminary theology professors.  Bud was a businessman all his life but I don’t think that profession engaged him nearly as much as the challenges he found through his wide ranging intellectual interests.  Like his brothers, Bud’s sharp wit and Irish penchant for stories were always captivating and offbeat at the same time–an engaging combination for sure.

Rob, whose contagious laughter and bottomless generosity formed my first impressions of him as a child and the memories of my final visit with him a few days before his death, was the O’Neill sibling who did more than any other to stay in touch, offer assistance, and openly express his loving affection for everyone in the large, complicated, and deeply conflicted O’Neill family.  And there were no exceptions.

Uncle Rob’s deepest joy and greatest happiness came when he was in the company of family–and the more the merrier.  And nothing could change that.  One of the core teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that love is stronger than death.  And as his nephew, I had the great good fortune of learning this from my Uncle Rob long before the Sisters of Saint Joseph taught me the lessons of the Baltimore Catechism or my theology professors at Catholic University guided me through the nuances of the New Testament and the soaring beauty of the prophets and psalms in the Hebrew Scriptures.  His tender care for his three sisters Peggy, Rita, and Helen in their declining years was a profound lesson in familial love, unfailing loyalty, and kindness that knew no bounds.

Like his twin, Al, Rob served in the immediate post war armed forces–Al in the Army and Rob in the Navy.  They both contributed to helping to secure the Allied victory that had been purchased at such a high price by veterans like their older brother Ed.  As in the service of his country, Rob’s service to his family was deep, generous, and cheerful.  While each of the eight O’Neill siblings were gifted with an Irish sense of humor, none could match the robust and deeply joyful humor that Rob took everywhere he went.   His smile in the photo above–broad, genuine, and warm–only grew larger as the years passed.  Every life that Rob touched got better and the example he left us only grows more beautiful over time.

My deepest thanks to my cousin and dear friend, Paul O’Neill (Rob’s son) who shared this remarkable photo with me.  How privileged I am to share it with you.

 


Responses

  1. A large family indeed. Holiday get-togethers must have been remarkable. My family was so small, I’m trying to imagine. My mother had wanted a big family, so always invited as many friends as she could for holiday dinners.

    • Thanks, GP. My father was an only child and my mother was one of eight so we were really fortunate on both sides of the family. With my dad’s parents, we had those grandparents all to ourselves and on my mom’s side, we shared those grandparents with 35 cousins. It felt like we had the best of both worlds.

  2. No wonder this photo brings you so many wonderful family memories. Thank you for an excellent post.

    • Thanks very much, Jennie. I am deeply grateful for your continued support as well as the gorgeous photos on your blog. Until we’re able to get to Ireland to see those wonders in person, your excellent work is giving us a visual tour that is superb. Keep up the great work.

      • Thank you very much!

  3. Thank you for sharing your memories, Stephen. They are a handsome, intelligent and witty bunch!

  4. I really appreciate your kind words, Cyndy–they mean so much. And please tell Michael that I was so pleased and grateful for his lovely card. Those encouraging words are sentiments I deeply treasure. Hope all is well with you guys these days.


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