An Interview with Tony Flynn
by Ciara Aoife O’Síoráin
Tony Flynn is a Ph.D. candidate researching marginalia and inscriptions left by early 20th Century child readers in the Pollard Collection of Children’s Books at Trinity College Dublin. He has previously written articles and reviews for Books Ireland and Inis Magazine, among others. He works as Facilities Coordinator at MoLI.
Ciara: I first met you in June 2019 when I was blown away by your presentation during the Trinity College Children’s Literature Summer School! I’ve been dying to interview you for Children’s Literature at the Museum of Childhood Ireland since! Could you talk me through what your project was about?
Tony: It was a project that began in 2017, when I was doing the M.Phil. in Children’s Literature at TCD. Myself and the other students of the M.Phil. were brought in on a project to research and curate, along with the course directors, an exhibit on Irish Women and Children’s Books.
While working in the Department of Early Printed Books at Trinity College, I came across a book published in 1907 called The Story-Spinner by an author named Winifred M. Letts. In every town and village, there lives a Story-Spinner, who records the stories of the people in his village. In the book, the Story-Spinner is focused on Rosanne, a young girl who has recently been orphaned, and who is being sent away to live with her Godfather.
From the first line of this book, I was completely drawn into it. The plot unfolds in this really interesting way, where first an unnamed narrator introduces the Story-Spinner, and then the Story-Spinner introduces Rosanne, who for all intents and purposes is the protagonist of the story, yet we keep coming back to the Story-Spinner and the unnamed narrator, so just as a tale about narrative and narrative perspective, it’s fascinating.
Then at some point while reading the book, I flipped to the back fly-leaf, and I found that an inscription had been written:
Annie Faires is my name / Northbrook Rd is my / station and when I / am dead and in my / grave and all my / bones are rotten / this little book / will tell my name / when I am quite / forgotten
Ciara: What was your initial response to finding the poem and its accompanying marginalia? I imagine it must have been somewhat spooky! Did you have a research project in mind before finding the poem? If so, was it difficult to change course or were you absolutely sure once it was found that this was what you wanted to research?
Tony: I was completely overwhelmed on reading the inscription. Suddenly it felt like the book had completely transformed in my hands. I wasn’t just studying a text anymore. I realised the book was more than that. It was an object with its own history and its own owners who had carried and handled it long before I had. I became struck by how fragile it was. The delicacy of the spine, the missing pages, and of course, Annie Faires’ writing.
Ciara: How did you begin researching for a project of this kind? I imagine it is a lot less straightforward than the average project!
Tony: I began by looking at the address that Annie Faires had provided, 5 Northbrook Road, which I discovered was the location of an organisation called Carr’s Child and Family Services, which is a charity that works with children and their families. In the 1920s, it had been an orphanage established by a woman named Lizzie Hawthorne Carr. I made contact with Carr’s Child and Family Services, and from their records, they were able to tell me that Annie Faires had been an orphan who had lived with them for a short time from 1921-1922, when Annie would have been thirteen years old.
Ciara: Woah, there is something I find so fascinating and special about finding out so much from just one book! It really brings Annie’s life into full colour. Were there any moments of serious revelation for you during the project? What were your findings?
Tony: Carr’s Child and Family Services were able to share information from some of their old record books with me, so I found that Annie Faires had been referred to the orphanage by Rev. E. Savell Hicks of the Dublin Unitarian Church. The Dublin Unitarian Church were then able to direct me towards the Royal Irish Academy, who hold The Dublin Unitarian Church Collection. From looking at their records, I found that Annie Faires had been a student of the Singleton School which was situated on Mespil Road, and which is described in a statement submitted in 1921 to the Commissioners of Charitable Donations and Bequests in relation to the Singleton School, as “…a boarding school for girls in which instruction shall be given to render them good and efficient domestic servants.” The Story-Spinner itself seems to have been gifted to Annie in November 1921 by the matron of the Singleton School, a woman named Jessie Davidson, as evidenced by an inscription at the front of the book which reads “from dear Miss Davidson”.
From further examining this statement, it seems that, due to altered conditions in the aftermath of the war, and due to the limited funding generally provided to the school, the school was forced to close in 1921 and arrangements were made for the remaining nine students to be boarded elsewhere. This is how Annie Faires came to live at Northbrook Road, where she stayed for a short time before it is believed she moved to Colwyn Bay, Wales to work as a maid on June 1st 1922. Later, it looks like she went to Bolton, into the service of a physician and surgeon named Norman Garfield Thornley who lived at 66 Chorley New Road, where one of Annie’s sisters, Flora Belle Faires, looks to have already been employed. The 1930 Electoral Register shows both Annie and Flora Belle living at this address.
Then in 1931, Annie was married to a man named Arthur Nowell, and the 1939 National Register shows them both living together in Oldham. Arthur is described as a Boot shop manager and Annie as a housewife. They also appear to have had a son named Alan, whose birth is registered in 1934, with Faires listed as the mother’s maiden name.
Ciara: How do you feel your research speaks to the childhood of Annie Faires and other children like her? Did you find that this project, and marginalia research more generally, documents historical child readers in unexpected ways?
Tony: I think what the inscription does is make the history of Annie’s childhood in this period so much more tangible. Archive documents such as census records or electoral registers are incredibly important to this kind of research and in tracing a history and a timeline, but the inscription is the thing that gives us some sense of how Annie Faires herself may have been feeling at this time of her life. It’s a first-hand statement from her childhood. That’s an incredibly important thing to find and to preserve. And how strange that The Story-Spinner, which is a book that tells the story of a young orphan, should itself carry the name of another young orphan, who gave her name to the book so that it could be remembered after she was gone. That’s really incredible.
Ciara: Incredible is the word! Your research is fascinating. Do you recommend this line of study for other students interested in childhood in Ireland or Children’s Literature more generally? How does one begin?
Tony: For me, the starting point was the M.Phil. in Children’s Literature at Trinity College Dublin, and I can absolutely recommend this course for anyone who is interested in Children’s Literature. The course covers such a broad range of topics and offers such a comprehensive overview of the field which then allows you to focus in on the specific lines of research that you find the most appealing or interesting, whether it be Victorian Literature, Picture books, Young Adult fiction etc.
It’s funny, but when I started the course, I had no specific interest in archives or special collections. It wasn’t something that I had ever thought of. My main interest was in things like Grimm’s Fairy tales and Hans Christian Anderson stories. That’s what I thought my focus would be. Then I found The Story-Spinner in the Pollard Collection of Children’s Books, and there was no turning back. I can see now just how life-changing a moment it was for me when I found the Annie Faires inscription. I’m now researching a Ph.D. on Inscriptions and Marginalia in the Pollard Collection, under the supervision of Dr. Jane Suzanne Carroll, who has supported and guided the research on the Annie Faires inscription right from the very beginning. I wouldn’t be doing this Ph.D. if it weren’t for finding a Poem that was written by a young girl in a book she was given a hundred years ago.
Ciara: Lastly, to end our Research in Children’s Literature post, I’d love to hear what your top 3 Children’s Books are, and why?
Tony: So I’ll start with a picture book that I remember from when I was very young. The Park in the Dark by Martin Waddell (writer) and Barbara Firth (illustrator). There’s something so wonderfully uncanny and strange about this book, and how it takes something completely innocuous – a walk to the park – and transforms it into something so strange and mysterious – the park in the dark! And it’s not people going to the park, it’s three toys, sneaking off there while the rest of the world sleeps! It’s an amazing, weird, hypnotic story.
Speaking of the uncanny and the strange, that’s definitely at play in Ray Bradbury’s amazing novel, Something Wicked this Way Comes, which tells the story of two young friends, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade (the best character name of all time!) and of a mysterious carnival which comes to town. There is imagery in this book which has always haunted me, none of which I want to spoil for anyone who hasn’t read it, but what’s really amazing is how the book articulates the relationship between adulthood and childhood, and the mysterious and fascinating ways in which one views the other.
If Something Wicked This Way Comes keeps one foot in the real world, then A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin dives deep into fantasy, and what amazing fantasy! I’ve loved Middle-Earth, I’ve loved Discworld, and I’ve loved Neverland and Wonderland, but nothing compares to Earthsea. It’s a stunningly realised world, and a book that I only read for the first time a few years ago, but which instantly became an absolute favourite.
Ciara: What a brilliant selection! Thank you so much Tony for speaking to me about your research. I really look forward to seeing what comes from your research and wish you all the best in your Ph.D.
If you would like to read more about the Pollard Collection and Trinity College Children’s Literature Staff and Student research, I encourage you to follow the link below to the Irish Women and Children’s Books exhibition curated by Trinity College. Tony Flynn’s work is on display here alongside some fascinating research by other Trinity students & staff: https://www.tcd.ie/library/exhibitions/story-spinners/