Absorbing family history offers an intriguing window on our shared past

The Invention of Memory: An Irish Family Scrapbook 1560-1934, by Simon Loftus

Jonathan Swift: poked fun at Dr Dudley Loftus. photograph: Getty

Jonathan Swift: poked fun at Dr Dudley Loftus. photograph: Getty

Sat, Dec 14, 2013, 01:00


Book Title:
The Invention of Memory: An Irish family scrapbook 1560-1934


Simon Loftus

Daunt Books

Guideline Price:

One of the many things to relish in this book is the way the author subjects to informed and rigorous scrutiny some objects and artefacts that he has to hand: an 18th-century account book, a gold medal embossed with the seated figure of Hibernia, black silk Volunteer banners adorned with shamrock.

These, and others, spark off a dense and extensive contemplation of the worlds in which they first appeared, leading him back and back into distant, and not so distant, historical settings, and all the complexities and upheavals peculiar to imperfectly conquered Ireland.

The Invention of Memory is a scrupulous undertaking, and one of its aims is to disentangle fact from hearsay, at least as far as family myths are concerned. It is above all a family history, but it can also be read as a general history, a history of ethics and social life and forms of aggrandisement and domestic vicissitudes and landowners’ responsibilities. Behind the succession of intriguing family stories looms a background story of maladministration, injustice and chicanery. This is Ireland, from the 16th century on, with all its scope for outrage piled upon outrage, and endless political manoeuvring.

We start with Adam Loftus, archbishop of Dublin and vice-treasurer of Ireland, well established in his high office by the mid-1560s, while a spirit of rebellion is brewing in different parts of the country.

Simon Loftus is fortunate in dealing with a family – eminent, confident and exorbitant – whose affairs are largely in the public sphere. Plentiful documentation has aided his research. Wills and codicils, title deeds, marriage settlements, family papers, contemporary reports, autobiographical notes: all these contribute authenticity and make a fertile starting point.

But it’s in his creative engagement with such source material that the author makes an impact. Evading the dryness of the strict historical account, he goes about his ancestral excavations with elegance and aplomb. Diversions and dishevelments alike gravitate towards him.

He has, indeed, a lot to get his teeth into. A house book for the years 1808-12, for instance, furnishes him with insights into the amiable character of the current Sir Edward, who “procured a local schoolmaster to teach the children of the poor”, and was pleased to record the arrival at his estate of “two small fat cows”. Or take the 17th-century orientalist Dr Dudley Loftus, butt of a jibe by the youthful Jonathan Swift, who singled out the elderly scholar’s “short feet and rhinoceros nose” for satirical comment. The nose is a recurrent feature, as are the names Dudley, Adam, Nicholas, Edward and Henry. Among the bearers of these names, some were more inclined than others to look down their long Loftus noses at indigenous uproar or disaffection.

“The Irish Catholiques are very busie in raising of men,” Dr Dudley Loftus wrote to Lord Clarendon in 1688. It took a long time before the Protestant Ascendancy ceased to regard itself as wholly English, and found common ground with the Catholic Irish in opposing the agents of “colonial” administration. The Volunteer movement and Grattan’s parliament epitomised this shift.

The Loftus families of Wexford, Dublin and Kilkenny, viscounts, high sheriffs, magistrates and all, were embroiled in the great events of the day, even while mad Anglo-Irishness flourished apace.

We hear of another Dudley, a friend of Buck Whaley, who played a part in contemporary Dublin extravaganzas; and a couple of old insane sisters who wore red pocket handkerchiefs stitched together and shared a dinner plate with a parrot.

There are stories here concerning the arrival, in a thunderstorm, of the devil in person at Loftus Hall; and the ghost of a drunken kennelman eaten by his hungry dogs.

Among the issues for the rich are disputed entitlements to land and property; and the danger to heiresses of abduction rackets. Whether wayward or conservative, those in the network of interconnected families are conscious of their position in the Irish world and the need to maintain it.

But upholders of social justice aren’t absent from the Loftus family story. You can point to the 18th-century Sir Edward Loftus, for example, his involvement in the Volunteer movement and alignment with “the liberal wing of Wexford politics” – though, when it came to 1798, he stopped short of United Irish affiliation.

Simon Loftus presents a vivid account of the savagery that erupted in 1798, on both sides: battles raging in the narrow streets of New Ross, maddened horses running loose dragging corpses behind them. But he doesn’t mention Scullabogue, and this is odd, as three captives were said to have escaped from the infamous barn before it was set alight, including one named Loftus Frizzel; surely the forename implies some family connection.

What else? The only Irish phrase in the book, the line already garbled in “Lilliburlero”, is newly garbled here. And “Sinn Féin” means “Ourselves” pure and simple: no “Alone” or “Only” about it.

“Sinn Féin” brings us up to the 20th century, the partial exodus of the Anglo-Irish and the woeful destruction or abandonment of many Irish great houses. Architectural adversity doesn’t fall within the author’s brief, but it’s a facet of 20th-century life nonetheless. Otherwise, The Invention of Memory – more than a scrapbook – adds up to a series of beautifully rendered evocations of landscape, people, attitudes, emblems and events. It treats the sweep of a melancholy history with the utmost poise and discernment.

The Invention of Memory: An Irish Family Scrapbook 1560-1934, by Simon Loftus (Daunt Books, £30)

Patricia Craig is an author and critic. Her most recent book is A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland, published by Blackstaff Press in 2012.