Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn's Japanese descendant makes pilgrimage to Cong

Tue, Sep 18, 2012, 01:00

“I had a Connaught nurse who told me fairy tales and ghost stories. So I ought to love Irish things, and do.” – Lafcadio Hearn in a letter to WB Yeats

HE IS regarded as one of the West’s foremost interpreters of Japanese culture. But when Patrick Lafcadio Hearn was growing up in Dublin and spending long summer holidays with relatives in Tramore, Co Waterford, and Cong, Co Mayo, only in his wildest dreams could he have expected that, more than a century and a half later, his Japanese great-grandson would be retracing his footsteps and meeting his long-lost relatives.

Over the weekend in Cong, such a dream became a reality when Prof Bon Koizumi arrived in town with his wife Shoko and met his Irish relatives Margaret and Eamonn Elwood (parents of Connacht rugby coach Eric). Hearn’s aunt Catherine married Capt Thomas Elwood, an ancestor of Eamonn Elwood.

The Koizumis are in Ireland this week to visit people and places associated with Hearn. In Cong they met the Elwoods on the site of Strandhill, the family home of Thomas Elwood and Catherine Hearn Elwood. This is where Hearn spent the memorable summers he would write about in Kwaidan (Ghost Stories), which references an incident at Strandhill, and which was made into an award-winning film in 1964. “It’s a very emotional moment,” said Prof Koizumi to his distant cousin Eamonn on meeting. “It took you a long time,” joked Eamonn, referring to the century and a half since the Hearns and Elwoods were last together in Cong.

Prof Koizumi said: “This was a very special place for Lafcadio. His Connacht nurse, Kate Ronane, told him the fairy tales and ghost stories that would feature strongly in his writing.” Eamonn said he felt very emotional meeting Prof Koizumi on the site of Strandhill.

Film-maker Sé Merry Doyle was also in Cong and is planning a film on the life of Hearn. Other members of the Hearn clan from New Zealand also happened to be visiting and held an impromptu celebration in Ryan’s Hotel.

The Japanese Hearns are now Koizumis because Patrick Lafcadio changed his surname in 1895 to that of his wife so he could fully immerse himself in the Japanese culture he would write about in 14 books. He became the foremost interpreter of that country’s extraordinary culture for readers in the West, having begun writing in the US.

Strandhill was a chateau-style lodge on Lough Corrib beside Ashford Castle. It featured in another award-winning film, The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, as the home of the Widow Tillane. It was demolished in the 1970s.

The fantastic themes young Hearn encountered in Cong – the fairy tales, ghost stories, folklore, music and people from the margins – would become central themes in his writing. After emigrating to the US in 1869, Hearn went on to achieve world renown as a literary journalist, writer and translator in Cincinnati, New Orleans, Martinique and finally Japan.

In Japan Prof Koizumi is curator of the Lafcadio Hearn Museum in Matsue, which receives more than 30,000 visitors every year. Shoko is the curator of an exhibition, The Open Mind of Lafcadio Hearn, which has been shown in Japan, Greece and New York.

After a visit to the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin today, the Koizumis will travel to Tramore to meet the mayor, Cllr Joe Conway, other Hearn fans and distant relatives. They also plan to visit sites linked to Hearn, who learned his love of sea stories from seafarers in Tramore. A reception will be held in the old coast guard station tomorrow.

Next month The Open Mind of Lafcadio Hearn will open in New Orleans, where Hearn spent 10 years writing about the city’s culture. The Koizumis hope the exhibition can be held in Ireland next year as part of a Japanese contribution to the Gathering.