An item on a late afternoon radio show in 2004 changed the trajectory of Fran O’Brien’s life.
She was on her own in Terenure-based Just Curtains, the company she ran with her sister Mary, when she “got sort of gripped” by a tragic story coming over the airwaves.
“Jane McKenna was being interviewed on RTÉ about the tragic loss of her and Brendan’s only two daughters, Laura and Lynn. I was very moved, and stopped work to listen," she says.
By the time the interview ended, Fran knew she wanted to help the couple raise funds for a children’s hospice to be built in their daughters’ memory. Sixteen years on — and with €580,000 raised by Fran and husband Arthur McGuinness for LauraLynn Children’s Hospice — Fran tries to put words on what motivated her to help at that early stage.
“It was just something I felt I had to do. Jane and I often say it was meant to be. Things happened over the years and we’d say ‘that’s the girls’. We’re fatalistic like that and we believe there’s a meaning in everything.”
From the minute Fran went home that long-ago evening and told her husband — a former film editor who worked for RTÉ and the BBC — he was on board too. “I was in a writing group and I thought, 'this is how we’ll do it, I’ll publish a book'. So Arthur and I invested money and set up a publishing company, McGuinness Books, and in 2005 published," she says.
Fran had just turned 60 and that was a factor too. “I thought, yeah, I’m 60, I’m going to do this now. And then, strangely, it was hard to get a phone number for Jane and Brendan. It took a couple of months, but I sort of kept at it. And that was the odd thing — I just kept at it.
“It wasn’t any particular thing. It may have been Arthur and I didn’t have children — we’re both in second-time around marriage — and they had tragically lost their children. And because we didn’t have children, we felt it was almost difficult for us to understand. If you’re not in that position, can you really understand it?
"We used to say Jane and Brendan have to get up every morning and face that loss. And we often say our children are LauraLynn’s children.”
Back in the noughties, you could get a book into shops easily enough, says Fran, recalling how she and Arthur, on Friday evenings, would head off in the car to various shops, having phoned ahead to ask would they take six books, or maybe 10? From Toomevara, Tipperary, where they mostly live now, they’d do a big circle, taking in Cork and Limerick, and, when travelling from their Dublin home, they’d head to Wexford. “We did different sweeps of the country and in 2005 made around €9,000 for LauraLynn,” says Fran, who has by now published 13 novels, a mix of historical, love stories, and thrillers.
“I’m currently editing number 14," she says. "I’m always writing. It’s my hobby; I enjoy it.”
Along the way, Fran and Arthur’s project has met tremendous goodwill. About 10 years ago, for example, Cyclone Couriers stored Fran’s books and delivered them to shops free of charge — her books sold in 150 shops nationwide. Around 2013, they began selling at big shows such as Bloom, the National Ploughing Championships, and Ideal Homes Exhibition. "Two shows give us a free stand; others give us a 20% discount; and others we pay in full but we’re delighted with any discount and always manage to make money for LauraLynn," she says.
The shows are usually three to five-day affairs. “We set up our stand with LauraLynn signs and sell the books and various LauraLynn merchandise," she says. "We enjoy the shows, though some are tiring — we start off for the ploughing at 5 in the morning!” While they understandably raise far more funds at big shows, Fran says she doesn’t think big, she thinks small. “If we get little bits of money, it all adds up.”
When lockdown hit this year, she and Arthur were disappointed not to be travelling the country, raising awareness and funds for LauraLynn. “Dublin’s our formal place of residence, so we belted back there and the weather was so good, we decided to put a few books outside the gate," she says.
Over the lockdown months, outside their home on a cul-de-sac in Templeogue, passers-by would put donations in the box.
“We had a sign, ‘please take a book and if you like make a little donation to LauraLynn’. Some people didn’t take books, but still put money in. People are generous — we made about €1,000.”
Before Fran heard of Laura and Lynn’s tragic story, she was a “workaholic” and she and Arthur “sort of floated around”. They had a nice lifestyle. “We were into theatre and we love opera. Life was good. We’d go out to a play, catch dinner. We met Jane and things changed. Saturday nights out with dinner and a show didn’t happen — we were getting up early on Sunday to go to farmers’ markets to sell books. But sure you can’t be doing the same thing your whole life.”
The couple have never had any pets, except after Fran’s dad died and they looked after his dog, but a couple of months ago, standing at her gate in Toomevara one night, a kitten made its way into Fran’s life. “And now we have a cat. It just whirled out of the darkness that night, something white.”
Much like a story of a tragic loss came out of the blue 16 years ago and touched her to the core.
National Volunteering Week runs from today until September 27. LauraLynn, Ireland’s Children’s Hospice, say volunteers play an integral role within their organisation. “We’ve 170 registered volunteers, more volunteers than staff. LauraLynn simply couldn’t be the service it is without these incredible people.”
LauraLynn is the only children’s hospice providing hospice and palliative care and support for children with life-limiting conditions and their families from all across Ireland. LauraLynn provides symptom management, planned short breaks, crisis and end-of-life care, as well as family supports and bereavement care, to children with life-limiting conditions within their family unit.
The charity receives no direct government funding and in 2020 alone must raise €4.6m through fundraised income. They’d initially envisaged a very dramatic decrease in donations this year, and while there’s still uncertainty about what the remainder of the year will look like, LauraLynn has been very fortunate in how generous supporters have been in response to various appeals and challenges.
However, they’re very concerned about Covid-19 impact on their ability to raise funds in 2021 and beyond because their strategic goal of building sustainable revenue through direct debit acquisition has been severely curtailed.
They’ve adapted their conventional means of fundraising towards virtual forms, in particular some very successful Facebook fundraising challenge events.
For more info on how to get involved in fundraising events or how to support LauraLynn, visit https://www.lauralynn.ie/donate.