Postcard from the Edgeworths’ Town – An Irishman’s Diary about literary Longford

Edgeworthstown in Co Longford will be forever associated with the great novelist Maria Edgeworth, whose 250th anniversary falls next January 1st. But that it retains her family name today was no mean feat.

In 1934, the town was officially rebranded as Mostrim. Which was indeed an old Irish name for the area – from Meathas Troim, “frontier of the elder tree” – albeit in a time before the Edgeworth family founded a town there.

At least some confusion ensued.

In 1949, this newspaper’s Irishman’s Diarist reported the recent case of a parcel addressed to Mostrim that had been floating around the GPO for several weeks because postal officials had not been notified of the new name and nobody knew where it was.

And as late as 1964, a letter-writer to this page complained of frequent consternation on the Dublin-Sligo train as passengers noticed a station they had never heard of before and wondered if they had somehow missed their stop.

Pragmatism reasserted itself the 1970s, when the name Edgeworthstown returned, although even today, Mostrim continues to be used in some places, including the GAA club.

We’ll come back to the Edgeworths shortly, but first a melancholy detour. For as well as the author of Castle Rackrent, the Longford town can claim association with another famous literary family, via the tragic story of Isola Wilde.

The younger sister of Oscar, she might have grown up to be something brilliant in her own right. There were all the signs of it. But we’ll never know, because in 1867, two months short of her 10th birthday, she died – probably of meningitis – while staying with an uncle in Edgeworthstown.

The female children of the Wilde family seem, in general, to have been doomed, as if they were paying for the sins of their philandering father.

Two older half-sisters of Oscar and Isola, the offspring of one of Sir William Wilde’s extramarital affairs, were by then growing in Monaghan, reared discreetly by another uncle. Both were to die in a grotesque accident at a dance in 1871, when their dresses caught fire.

But being himself only 12 at the time, Oscar was deeply affected by Isola’s death. A 1996 book by an US academic went much further – too far, most critics thought – by suggesting an erotic attachment between the siblings that, ending so traumatically, explained most of what followed, including the sexuality, en route to his own early demise.

The shock of bereavement certainly stayed with him long afterwards. He visited her grave often and, years later, wrote a poem about it with the lines: “Peace, peace, she cannot hear/Lyre or sonnet,/All my life’s buried here/Heap earth upon it.”

Isola Wilde died 150 years ago this month. To mark the anniversary, the Edgeworth Society will hold an afternoon of free commemorative events at the local St John's Church on the Sunday nearest the date, February 26th.

This is a busy year for the Edgeworth Society. Maria's impending milestone apart, it will also mark the bicentenary of the death of her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth.

He was the man who, more than most, built the town, and he also did his best to populate it – fathering 22 children from four marriages.

On top of that, he somehow found the time to be a writer, an MP (in Grattan’s Parliament), and an inventor. His bright ideas included caterpillar wheels – a “cart that carries its own road”, as he put it – although he didn’t follow through on the plan.

Working on a castle owned by his neighbouring Packenhams, however, he did complete something revolutionary, Ireland’s first private central heating system.

An impressed Maria wrote in 1813 that the place was so warm now “that you never have any fear in going from room to room, and the children play in the hall from morning to night”.

Nor was her father the only other family member to make a mark on history. A relative who converted to Catholicism, the Abbé Edgeworth, was the priest who stood by Louis XVI on the scaffold in Paris in 1794, reportedly comforting him with the words “Son of St Louis, ascend to heaven” as the blade fell.

But as the 2017 Edgeworth Literary Festival will remind us, the town’s fame now mainly rests on Maria, whose innovation of recording the habits and speech of ordinary people inspired many other writers, including Scott and Turgenev.

The festival runs from May 5th to 7th. And as with the Wilde commemoration, details are available (somewhat ironically) at Mostrim.org