Celebrating Lafcadio Hearn

An Irishman’s Diary about a protean literary genius and traveller

Mon, Aug 18, 2014, 01:00

It was a marvellous night for a romance on the Ionian island of Lefkada in Greece recently as more than 1,000 people gathered after a glorious sunset in the outdoor Open Theatre looking out onto a beautiful blue lagoon to savour a magical performance by a leading puppet theatre from Kumamoto in Japan.

The play, Yuki-Onna (snow woman), is an ancient Japanese folk tale as reworked in his collection Kwaidan by Lafcadio Hearn, the Greek-born wandering Anglo-Irishman who made his name as a journalist and writer in the United States and the French West Indies before becoming the West’s foremost interpreter of Japan, until his death there in 1904.

The show was part of a series of events, civic, artistic and academic, held in Athens, Lefkada and Corfu as part of an international symposium, The Open Mind of Lafcadio Hearn: his spirit from West to East, to mark the 160th anniversary of the writer’s birth. The main symposium focus over two days was the delivery of papers and presentations by invited Hearn writers and readers from Japan, Greece, the USand Martinique. Included were two from Ireland, Hearn biographer Paul Murray and today’s diarist.

Hearn’s career as a writer included ground-breaking journalism in an enormous volume of reports, feature articles and essays for US newspapers and magazines in which he pioneered the literary narrative style of the late 19th century and anticipated the new journalism of the mid-20th. His enormous and eclectic oeuvre spans African-American folklore and music, literary criticism, Creole cuisine, world cultures, religions, crime, travel writing, cartoons, illustrations and ghost stories; then there are his translations of the leading French writers like Maupassant and Flaubert, a proto-magic realism book, two novels, and finally 14 books on Japanese culture and folklore.

Hearn was named Patrick after the country of his father, Charles Bush Hearn, an Irish surgeon-major in the British army (then in occupation of the Ionian Islands) and Lafcadio after Lefkada, the island on which he was born and in honour of his Ionian mother, Rosa Cassimati. Before his birth, his father was posted to the West Indies, and in 1852 Rosa brought two-year-old Patrick Lafcadio to live in Dublin. When his parents’ marriage ended, he was raised by a grand-aunt in Rathmines.

Patrick Lafcadio would forever remember the Greek island mother who was lost to him at an early age when his father dropped her for a woman from his own background in Dublin. Rosa would become for Lafcadio the personification of the other and the outsider; a loss idealised in his fragment The Dream of a Summer Day. She became the mother of all the exotic outsiders he wrote about everywhere he travelled; in Cincinnati, New Orleans, Martinique and many parts of Japan, where he changed his name to that of his wife, to end his days as Koizumi Yakumo, by which name he is still well remembered there today.

Attendees at the events on Lefkada – which were mainly organised by Hearn’s great-grandson, Bon Koizumi, and his wife, Shoko, Greek art dealer Takis Efstathiou and the American College of Greece in Athens, plus local civic officials – included tourists, academics, students, diplomats, journalists and doughty Hearn relatives from New Zealand and Australia. The Irish embassy in Athens was among the parties that supported the symposium and was well represented throughout.

For townspeople, perhaps the key symposium event was the opening of the Lafcadio Hearn Historical Centre. The opening of the centre came soon after the most significant ever Hearn event in Ireland, when on June 27th work began on the new 2.5-acre Lafcadio Hearn Gardens in Tramore, Co Waterford. When completed next spring, the gardens will become not only a key cultural attraction for tourists, but also a fine local amenityand a promising educational facility.

Meanwhile in Dublin, there is considerable excitement that a Hearn exhibition will go ahead in the Little Museum of Dublin next year, at long last putting on on the map the city that raised him, to stand with with New Orleans, New York, Tokyo, Matsue, Durham, Athens, Lefkada and Tramore.

Should a Dublin exhibition take place, the ghost of Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, magnificent traveller, pioneering citizen of the world and Ireland’s long-lost literary fugitive, will finally be coming home.

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