“He is the writer in our language who can best be compared with Hans Christian Andersen and the brothers Grimm”
- US literary historian Malcolm Cowley
Almost a century and a half since he left these shores for the US at the age of 19, Patrick Lafcadio Hearn is set to have perhaps his most significant year in Ireland. The eclectic, exotic and at times esoteric subject matter of his writing was only matched by the story of his distant travels and dramatic life experiences.
On June 26th, the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Gardens in Tramore, Co Waterford will be opened. This is the first major, and permanent, memorial in Ireland to celebrate this much-neglected writer. He was raised in Ireland by his father's family as Patrick Hearn; but is better known in the rest of Europe and the US as Lafcadio Hearn; and he took up citizenship, married and raised a family as Koizumi Yakumo in Japan, where he wrote 14 books on his adopted country's culture and folklore, and where to this day he remains Japan's best-known Irishman.
From an Irish perspective, one of the great pities of our lost literateur’s untimely death at the age of 54 is that in his final years Hearn had become increasingly interested in his Irish upbringing and had carried out some tentative work on a memoir, which did not to materialise. However, in some of his other work and letters he clearly revealed the significance of his upbringing in Ireland and his studies in England.
The seeds were sown for much of Hearn's later interests during his boyhood years in Rathmines, Dublin, while on holidays in Tramore, Co Waterford, and Cong, Co Mayo, and during his four years at boarding school in the elite St Cuthbert's Catholic College in Ushaw, Co Durham, in northern England. These included translations of 19th-century French masters Gautier, De Maupassant and Flaubert; his writing on themes connected to the sea, other cultures and their folklore; on religion and philosophy; and especially for his innumerable tales of the gothic and ghostly in three continents.
Hearn's early years in Ireland were largely spent in the care of women of considerable influence: his mother Rosa, from the Greek island of Lefkada (after which his second name was taken); his grand-aunt and guardian Sarah Brenane; and his aunts Catherine Elwood and Jane Stephens, sisters of his usually absent father, Charles Hearn, who was a staff-surgeon in the British army.
But perhaps the most influential woman of all was his nurse, Catherine “Kate” Ronane, who cared for him throughout his period in Ireland and England, told him ghost stories, Irish folk tales and sang lullabies. In a letter to WB Yeats from Japan, he wrote that, while growing up in Dublin: “I had a Connaught nurse who told me fairy-tales and ghost stories. So I ought to love Irish Things, and do.” She is likely to have been the prototype of the ordinary working women he wrote about everywhere he travelled, in the US, the West Indies and Japan.
Hearn's connection to Cong, in Co Mayo, is a strong one. The town provided the location for a story, Hi-Mawari (Sunflower), which appeared in Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, perhaps his most enduring Japanese work. Towards the end of his life in Japan, Hearn wrote of an encounter he had as a boy in Cong while playing with his cousin, Robert Elwood. A local musician, Dan Fitzpatrick, arrived at the Elwood residence called Strandhill, to play his harp and to sing Thomas Moore's Believe Me, if All Those Endearing Young Charms, from which the Sunflower title of the Kwaidan story is taken. Hearn wrote the story as a memorial to his cousin Robert who later drowned in the South China Sea while trying to save a sailor who had fallen overboard. Hearn himself would die the year Kwaidan was published. It was his last published memory of Ireland.
Re-published in recent years, however, was another story of Irish interest, which Hearn wrote as a 26-year-old while covering a Cincinnati newspaper's police beat in 1876. Gibbeted, a fine example of his pioneering New Journalism, was his eyewitness account of the botched hanging of an Irish boy, James Murphy. It was included in True Crime: An American Anthology (2008), a collection by the Library of America of the best American crime stories of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Hearn lived in Dublin from the age of two until at he was at least 13. Although it seems that most of the Hearn family records are now lost, we do know he was in the city up until shortly before his departure for the US in 1869 at the age of 19. His bedroom in Upper Leeson Street was of particular significance in that here he endured the terrible nightmares that later featured in his gothic material. His leading Irish biographer, Paul Murray, has collected his accounts of these themes in Gothic Horror: The Dublin Haunting of Lafcadio Hearn, performed recently in dramatised readings by the Dublin Shakespeare Society, and which is expected to be performed again in October at an exhibition, Coming Home: the Open Mind of Lafcadio Hearn, at The Little Museum of Dublin.
On holidays in Tramore as a boy, Hearn developed his interest in gothic and ghostly subjects. And his abiding interest in the sea was likely to have been sparked by the tragic story behind the Metal Man statue, which stands on a promontory abutting the sea overlooking Tramore Bay. The statue was erected in the early 19th century as a warning to sailors to avoid the bay following the sinking of the Sea Horse troop carrier, with the loss of the lives of more than 300 British soldiers and their families. A section of one of Hearn's novels, Chita: the story of Last Island, is included in the Library of America's collection American Sea Writing: a Literary Anthology (2001). There's a serendipitous Deise connection, too, in that when Hearn emigrated alone to the US in 1869, it was as a passenger on the Cella, a liner built at the Pegasus Shipyard in nearby Waterford City.
The construction for the almost 10,000sqm gardens, which will recall Hearn's life, came about following an invitation to Tramore by the town's then mayor Cllr Joe Conway, a long-time Hearn activist, to Hearn's great-grandson Bon Koizumi and his wife Shoko, in 2012. During that visit, local woman Agnes Aylward came up with the idea for the gardens, and her work with a team of experts culminated in discussions between An Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which resulted in funding from the Japan Cultural Foundation.
Among the many dignitaries attending Friday's opening of the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Gardens will be Bon and Shoko Koizumi, the Japanese Ambassador to Ireland Chihiro Atsumi, the Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin, and Cllr Lola O'Sullivan, Mayor of the Metropolitan Waterford Area.