Irish funeral traditions

‘The Irish funeral cry is at all times a wild and melancholy sound … and as it mingled fitfully with the wind that moaned without, it occasionally assumed an unearthly cadence, that might seem to a fanciful mind, the wail of some wandering spirit’. So wrote Thomas Crofton Croker in his Legends of the Lakes; or, sayings and doings at Killarney (1829).

'Irish funeral procession trailing over the mountains' (MS 4571 folio 8)

‘Irish funeral procession trailing over the mountains’ (MS 4571 folio 8)

Croker (1798-1854) was a man whose biography proves that, when it came to talent, a little went a long way in the nineteenth century when one was ‘well connected and respectable’.

To give him the principal credit to which he is entitled, Croker was among the earliest of the Anglo-Irish gentry to display an interest in the culture of their impoverished countrymen and women. His earliest publication was on the subject of the caoine (keen, literally ‘crying’ – the Irish version of the ritualised lamenting with which some cultures still express grief in public). He was barely in his teens when he published this.

Croker went on to publish Fairy legends and traditions of the south of Ireland (1825) ‘the first book purporting to contain material collected from oral tradition in the British Isles’, which was translated into German and published by no less a luminary of the world of folklore than William Grimm.

'Och! then 'tis myself is glad to see you' (MS 4571 folio 5)

‘Och! then ’tis myself is glad to see you’ (MS 4571 folio 5)

There were two key criticisms made of Croker. The first was that he was not always entirely frank about who had done most of the work for his publications; in the case of Fairy legends, he had managed to lose the manuscript just before publication and several friends contributed material to save the day. A much more serious criticism was that not alone had he little knowledge of Irish history, and none of the Irish language, he found the ‘superstitions’ about which he wrote deeply unattractive. This does not a good folklorist make. Later critics allege that Croker’s work ‘contributed to the development of the stereotypical view of the Irish as fey, impractical, wistful, and jocular’.

'An Irishman loves fighting well, whiskey better, and dancing best of all' (MS 4571 folio 4)

‘An Irishman loves fighting well, whiskey better, and dancing best of all’ (MS 4571 folio 4)

Trinity College has a few of Croker’s scattered papers including a little notebook which contains some of the illustrations used in his Legends of Killarney. This book was based on the work of a friend of Croker’s, Adolphus Lynch, whose name appeared on the first edition of Legends but not the second.

The text of Legends is of the snide and condescending ‘Tim Ryan, my jewel, and is that you, your ownself, that I see with my own two eyes’ variety. It is matched for the most part by the attitude expressed in some of the imagery. However it seems clear that there was more than one hand at work in the illustration of the book because the funeral procession, shown here, is observed objectively, not un-sympathetically and with more skill.

Renowned artist and fellow Corkman, Daniel Maclise (1806-70) is said to have illustrated this publication but he cannot be supposed to have been the author of all of the pictures, given the poor quality of some of them.

The drawings in the manuscript notebook are on separate pieces of paper, which have been pasted onto the pages. The quotations which accompany them make it clear that the note book was constructed after the publication of the published book. It is possible that the images were traced from the published book; the paper is thin enough to allow this. It is also possible that they are originals and if so it would be very desirable to identify the author of the best one.

Quotations are from the Dictionary of Irish Biography

Jane Maxwell

A portrait of his love

It isn’t everyday that one finds oneself – as an archivist in an academic library – handling a piece of artwork by an internationally renowned painter. But that is what your humble author was doing recently.

Among our collections are the papers of Canon James Owen Hannay (1865-1950), Church of Ireland clergyman and, under the pseudonym George A. Birmingham, also a novelist. Hannay tried in his work to reflect with honesty the complex social circumstances he experienced in Ireland. However as a Protestant clergyman criticising any aspect of Catholic life, his early works attracted criticism. He was the target of a boycott, and he felt he had to withdraw from the Gaelic League in the wake of protests about the tour of his successful play General John Regan. Later Hannay found his métier when he deployed his comic voice; he was a gifted farceur whose philosophy was that ‘if we didn’t extract food for laughter out of failure we should go under’. Recently his reputation as a shrewd observer of the Irish society of his day has revived (Dict.Ir.Biog).

Photograph by Bassano, 23 March 1927. (The National Portrait Gallery).

Photograph by Bassano, 23 March 1927. (The National Portrait Gallery).

In 1889 he married his third cousin Adelaide Susan ‘Ada’ Wynne (d. 1933), with whom he claimed literally to have fallen ‘in love at first sight’. They had a happy marriage and four children. Adelaide shared her husband’s scholarly pursuits; his devotion to patristic study led to his appointment as Donnellan lecturer for 1901 at Trinity. These lectures, instituted in 1794 by the bequest of musician and woman-about-town Anne Donnellan, were initially held under the auspices of the School of Hebrew, Biblical and Theological Studies. Hannay’s lectures  were subsequently published as The spirit and origin of Christian monasticism (1903).

As part of the Library’s continuing engagement with the College’s Decade of Commemoration activities, the Hannay papers were prioritised for conservation treatment; Hannay served as an army chaplain from 1915 to 1918 and his experiences are described in A padre in France (1918). While the papers were being prepared for transfer to the Department of Preservation and Conservation an illustrated letter was noticed, in a strangely familiar hand; familiar in the sense of being almost illegible and yet recognisably the hand of Jack B.Yeats. The item had been correctly described by the cataloguer in the ’60s, but hadn’t been indexed under the artist’s name. So a would-be researcher would only find it if, like the Isla de Muerta in the Pirates of the Caribbean*, she already knew where it was.

Letter from J.B.Yeats to Ada Hannay.  (MS 3457/28)

Letter from J.B.Yeats to Ada Hannay.
(MS 3457/28)

This is a letter to Ada Hannay in which Yeats thanks her for her criticism – not of his art surely? – and hopes that her husband will soon visit to give Yeats ‘a good opportunity’ presumably to sketch him. The postscript reads: ‘I send you here with suggestions for hanging those sketches’. When the letter is turned upside down we can see Yeats’ sketch of the Hannay family struggling to examine poorly hung paintings. While most of the figures are hurriedly drawn, the picture includes an attractive portrait sketch of Mrs Hannay, observing her young daughters.

'A certain kind of portrait should be hung either very high up or very low down'.

‘A certain kind of portrait should be hung either very high up or very low down’.

Irish writers, possibly particularly Anglo-Irish writers, have long been the subject of enthusiastic research by Japanese scholars. James Hannay is no different. One such scholar is Masahito Yahaka , Director of the Department of Community Studies, Beppu University Junior College, who has visited Trinity on several occasions and whom we hope to welcome again next year as a Long Room HUB Fellow. He says he was attracted to Hannay ‘because he wrote about the conflict between Nationalists and Unionists with humour. He teaches how important humour is to solve human conflicts and to lead a meaningful life’. Masahito Yahaka maintains a website dedicated to Birmingham.

* Popular cultural reference (!).

Jane Maxwell




Graveyard shift

MS10878-L-3_0004Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s  magnificent novel, Cré na cille, was published in 1949 and is consistently ranked as the most important prose work in modern Irish; until recently no translation for English-language readers has been available. Alan Titley’s vigorous new translation, Dirty Dust (Yale University Press), full of the guts of Ó Cadhain’s original, at last brings the pleasures of this great satiric novel to wider audience it deserves.

The fact that all the novel’s characters lie dead in their graves does not impair their appetite for news from the recently deceased, about their neighbours above ground. Told entirely in dialogue, Ó Cadhain’s daring novel listens in on the gossip, rumours, backbiting, complaining, and obsessing of the local community. The ‘after’ life, it seems,  is very like the ‘before’ life – mostly talk, much of it petty, often vindictive.  In this merciless yet comical portrayal of a closely-bound community, Ó Cadhain remains keenly attuned to the absurdity of human behaviour and delivers a stridently unromantic view of rural Ireland.

Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906-1970) worked as a primary school-teacher in his native Galway; he was dismissed from his post, and interned, for his republican activities. He was not the first writer to find his period of incarceration key to his creative work. While in the Curragh camp Ó Cadhain learned Russian and French and read widely in world literature.  His republicanism was informed by his awareness of the need to improve the lot of the rural poor, and of the parlous condition of the Irish language. In 1969 he was appointed to the chair of Irish in TCD, and was elected to fellowship of TCD in 1970. As a lecturer he exercised a profound influence on many of his students.  He married, in 1945, Máirín Ní Rodaigh who was a teacher in an all-Irish school, and they lived in Dublin. An extensive literary archive was presented by the Ó Cadhain family to Trinity College Library. (Dictionary of Irish Biography).

While no doubt nothing can replace the experience of reading Cré na cille in its original Irish, there is another way for the interested party to experience this excoriating work. Robert Quinn’s film version, which was made to mark the centenary of the author’s birth, was screened on TG4 on 26 December 2006. It is well worth seeking out.

M&ARL and the Booksale Fund

Michael de Larrabeiti Exhibition, October 2009 Ð November 2009

Today is World Book Day and the Trinity Booksale starts today.

Over the past 25 years the Booksale has been of considerable benefit not only to the social, personal and recreational life of College, but more especially to those Library departments which traditionally have been under-funded. In the case of M&ARL, grants from the Booksale have permitted the purchase of a steady flow of items which fit with existing holdings. Three recent accessions are described here.

In the literary category, the papers of Michael de Larrabeiti (1934-2008), purchased from his family in 2009, form an important recent acquisition. Larrabeiti studied at TCD between 1961-65. His works were short listed for numerous literary prizes including the Whitbread award and the Booker prize (for Foxes’ Oven). Born in Battersea, London, he drew on his surroundings and upbringing when he created his best-known work The Borribles (1976), which on one level is a savage satire on the popular children’s TV show, the Wombles. The Borribles trilogy is now attracting considerable interest from film-makers.

Cromwell letter 11378M&ARL has particular strengths in early modern historical material, the most valuable collection being the famous 1641 Depositions. The figure of Oliver Cromwell dominated the 17th century, but letters signed by Cromwell during his time in Ireland are scarce. The opportunity arose to purchase one such item in 2010: a letter of protection for Redmond Roch [Roche], Ballyhendon, Co Cork, and his family, signed by Cromwell in his distinctive hand.

Medieval codices, represented most spectacularly in the Library’s collections by the Book of Kells, form an important collecting strand. A decorated Italian 15th-century breviary (church service book) is one such recent acquisition. The charming detail of Virgin and Child was used for the Library’s 2012 Christmas card.

Bernard Meehan and Caoimhe Ní Ghormáin

Waiting for Murphy

Beckett rear view

We admit to an oh-so-brief, and unworthy, frisson of covetousness at the news that Reading University has been successful in acquiring at auction the manuscript draft of Samuel Beckett’s novel Murphy. At the same time we whole-heartedly rejoice, as must all who are interested in Beckett research, that this manuscript is at long last available for study. Congratulations to Reading!

The Library has a close relationship with Beckett International Foundation at Reading.  In the 1990s the Beckett Estate (the author’s nephew Edward Beckett and niece Caroline Murphy) – very generously – donated to each institution half of a body of notes and diaries of Beckett’s; the institutions then provided one another with copies of the part of the gift each had received.

Trinity College Library is one of the Beckett world’s great destinations.  The Beckett collection in Trinity, based on a gift by the author himself in the 1960s, has been built up over the years by purchase, bequest and donation until its international repute is of the highest order. A key distinguishing characteristic is the presence of so much personal correspondence – the letters from Beckett to the poet Thomas MacGreevy, and those to the theatre director and translator Barbara Bray, are central to any biographical study of the Nobel Laureate, and contain much that gives insight into Beckett’s creative process and literary work.  There are also literary papers – including the highly significant draft of Imagination dead imagine;  there are photographs; notes taken by Beckett’s students in Trinity in the 1920s; College exercises; a prompt copy for the first performance of Godot;  there is even a little programme for a boxing tournament in which 10-year-old Beckett took part.

In the Long Room at the moment is a small exhibition drawn from the Library’s Beckett materials. This was installed to coincide with, and with the support of, the third annual Beckett Summer School to be run by the Department of Drama Film and Music in Trinity in August. The Library will be further involved in this venture by facilitating a class to be led by Dirk van Hulle, Professor of English Literature at the University of Antwerp’s Centre for Manuscript Genetics, and  Mark Nixon,  Reader in Modern Literature at the University of Reading and  Director of the Beckett International Foundation; both are co-directors of the Beckett Digital Manuscript Project (BDMP) with which the Library also collaborated.

Jane Maxwell

Stoking the imagination


TCD MUN SOC HIST Officers 1872-73
Bram Stoker seated centre

Today is the 165th anniversary of the birth of Bram Stoker (1847-1912), well-known civil servant and author of The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland, which he published to some acclaim in 1879. He wrote the more popular, but considerably less practical, novel, Dracula, almost 20 years later. Stoker was a graduate of Trinity, a top-class student athlete (despite being quite ill for most of his early childhood) and a member of the student societies the Hist and the Phil. The Library has a good collection of manuscript material relating to the Stoker family generally, although only a small amount of it relates to the great man himself.

One of the items in the collection supposedly links the idea of Dracula – with its themes of blood infection and the ‘undead’ – to an epidemic of cholera which was witnessed by Stoker’s mother, Charlotte Thornley, in Sligo in 1832. Stoker scholars believe Charlotte’s vivid descriptions of the suffering she had seen may have fuelled her son’s Gothic imagination in later life. Among the papers in the Library is a copy of Charlotte’s account of the onslaught of the disease.

Cholera epidemics were not unheard-of in the nineteenth century but the one in 1832 was particularly virulent; infection was believed to be so rapid that a man, becoming infected on one side of town, was said to have fallen from his horse, dead, at the other. It was thought more than 1,500 people died from the epidemic; that carpenters were unable to keep up with the demand for coffins and local legend suggested that some people were buried alive, so great was the haste to dispose of the corpses.

TCD MS 11076/2/3

TCD MS 11076/2/3 f2 Stoker, Mrs CMB (Thornley) Experiences of the Cholera in Ireland ?1832

Jane Maxwell