O'Faolain, Eileen (1900–88), author of children's books, and wife of writer Sean O'Faolain (qv), was born 10 June 1900 at 5 Lee Rd, Cork city, one of five children of Joseph Gould , engineman, and Julia Gould (née O'Connell). After the early death of her mother, she and her siblings were reared by their maternal aunt in comfortable circumstances in the family home at 4 Walls Terrace, Sunday's Well. She received primary and secondary education locally, and graduated with a degree in economics from UCC (1923). From an ardent ‘Irish Ireland’ household – from girlhood she spent summer holidays with Irish-speaking families in west Cork – she met O'Faolain at an Irish-language summer school in the Presentation Brothers College from which he had just graduated (1918); when he followed her to attend the Irish summer college in Ballingeary, there blossomed a relationship that, notwithstanding periodic ebbing and varied vicissitudes, would endure for seventy years. With a classical profile, deep brown eyes, glowing complexion, and dark ‘cloud of hair that I chose to think of as the colour of thunder’ (O'Faolain, 106), Eileen was a wilful, high-spirited, outdoors-loving extrovert, in sharp contrast to O'Faolain's demeanour of aloof gravitas. An incongruous couple throughout their student years at UCC, they were bonded by sharing a high intelligence, love of literature, and devotion to the cultural and republican movements.
Active as a Cumann na mBan courier during the civil war – she distributed the underground anti-treaty newssheet prepared by Sean as director of publicity for the IRA 1st Southern Division – she was arrested in February 1923 and imprisoned for several months. Her altered view of republican intransigents as ‘abstract idealists’, driven not by love of country or of their countrymen, but by ‘love for [their] own ruthless selves’ (O'Faolain, 165), momentarily strained the relationship, but was soon adopted, and developed with eloquent vigour over many years, by Sean himself. After teaching in a national school in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway (1923–5) and a technical school in Naas, Co. Kildare (1925–7), Eileen succumbed to desperate entreaties from Sean, now a Harvard postgraduate student, and joined him in the USA (1927–9). They lived and she worked in a settlement house run by friends of Sean in a multi-ethnic Boston slum before moving to 10 Appian Way, Cambridge, where she did secretarial work. After marrying in Boston's cathedral of the Holy Cross (3 June 1928), they honeymooned on a two-month motor-camping trip across America. During their residence in London (1929–33), where Sean taught in a Twickenham training college and published his first short-story collection, Eileen taught commercial subjects at a convent school in Isleworth. Their return to Ireland in 1933 coincided with Sean's determination to work full-time as a writer. They resided successively at Killough House, Co. Wicklow, a rented premises (1933–8); in a house they built at Knockaderry, Killiney, Co. Dublin (1938–71); and at 17 Rosmeen Park, Dún Laoghaire, Co. Dublin (1971–88). They had two children, Julia (b. 1932), a distinguished author of short stories and novels, and Stephen (b. 1938).
During the 1940s Eileen O'Faolain wrote several children's novels which, published in handsomely illustrated editions, were well received by critics and achieved a substantial readership: The little black hen (1940), later reworked into two titles in the 1945 Parkside Press children's series, The fairy hen and May Eve in fairyland; The king of the cats (1941); Miss Pennyweather and the Pooka (1942); The children of Crooked Castle (1945); Miss Pennyweather in the springtime (1946); The shadowy man (1949); and The white rabbit's road (1950). Artfully crafted, imaginatively plotted, and exhibiting considerable empathy with child and early adolescent psychology, each book introduces a set of ordinary children in contemporary rural or suburban Ireland to unexpected adventures amid engagingly eccentric adults, wild wandering ‘tinkers’, animals, and fairies. Her typical narrative involves an adult's relating to the children a wonder tale, the circumstances and characters of which soon become real in the children's experience. For the material of her later children's books she turned to Ireland's mythic and historical past: Irish sagas and folk-tales (1954) is a retelling of stories of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and from the Ulster and Fenian cycles; High sang the sword (1959) is an historical novel set against the battle of Clontarf; and Children of the salmon and other Irish folktales (1965) incorporates her translations of stories recorded in Irish by folklorists.
From the 1940s Eileen suffered near-chronic illness, some of her ailments being psychosomatic in nature – the ‘stress-maladies’ ascribed by her daughter Julia to her anguish over Sean's serial infidelities. Afflicted with stomach ulcers and arthritis, she fell victim to dietetic fads and valetudinarian obsessions. She accompanied Sean on several of his overseas excursions, to Italy and elsewhere, pursuing material for his lucrative travel writing, and lived in the USA during his tenure as visiting professor at Princeton university (1959–61). Hospitable but snobbish, shrewd in finances, she was an avid and artistic gardener, especially on the property at Knockaderry. Admitted to St Vincent's hospital, Dublin, with a recurrence of internal bleeding, she died 20 September 1988 of a stroke. Her body bequeathed to TCD for medical research (as Sean's would be on his death three years later), her ashes were subsequently scattered in the lake of Gougane Barra, west Cork, her favourite spot since the first summer of their courtship.