Sterne reminder – Sean Byrne on Tristram Shandy and Mullingar

An Irishman’s Diary

On Wednesdays, classes in Coláiste Mhuire Mullingar in 1970 finished early but the school bus did not depart until 4.30pm. I spent the two hours in the town library, located in what had been the Market House.

One of the novels I read on those Wednesday afternoons was Laurence Sterne's eccentric comic masterpiece, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

My enjoyment of the novel would have been greater had I known that Sterne probably visited Mullingar when, as a child, he spent a year living at Tullynally Castle in Castlepollard. which was then owned by a relative of his,

Laurence Sterne was born in Clonmel in 1713. His father Roger Sterne was the grandson of the wealthy and influential Richard Sterne, the archbishop of York, but inherited little of his wealth and was obliged to enlist as an army officer.

During the first 10 years of Laurence's life, the family never lived for more than a year in one place, moving from Clonmel to Dublin and from there to Devonshire, the Isle of Wight, Wicklow and Drogheda.

The stress of this life of constant travel with little money may have contributed to the death of Sterne’s two younger brothers and two of his three sisters during those 10 years.

In Laurence's tenth year, his father was posted to Mullingar where, in the words of Laurence's autobiographical sketch, "by Providence, we stumbled upon a kind relation, a collateral descendant from Archbishop Sterne, who took us all to his castle, and kindly entertained us for a year".

The "kind relation" was Brigadier Robert Sterne and his account of his experiences in Flanders in the Nine Years War (1688-1697) may have provided Laurence with the material for Uncle Toby's reminiscences of his military career in Tristram Shandy.

After their year in Castlepollard, Roger Sterne sent Laurence, aged 11, back to Yorkshire where his wealthy uncle Richard funded his secondary education.

Laurence never saw his father again as Roger died of malaria in Jamaica in 1731.

Laurence won a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge, and was ordained a minister in the Church of England though his religious faith seems to have been negligible.

While a student at Cambridge, Sterne contracted pulmonary tuberculosis from which he suffered for the rest of his life. In 1741 Sterne married Elizabeth Lumley who also suffered from tuberculosis. Elizabeth and Laurence were not compatible and the marriage was unhappy. Sterne's infidelities led to Eliza having a mental breakdown. She had several still-births, and only one child, Lydia, survived.

At the age of 46, Sterne published Tristram Shandy which was a huge popular success and brought Sterne fame and money which he greatly enjoyed.

Writing in The Irish Times in 2018 on the 250th anniversary of Sterne's death, his biographer Ian Campbell Ross observed that Tristram Shandy is a great comic novel that is stalked by death.

Sterne himself is depicted in Tristram Shandy as Parson Yorick who dies early in the novel. His epitaph is “Alas poor Yorick” and the page opposite that describing his death is a black leaf, one of several typographical conceits in the novel. Another such conceit is a page containing only a curlicued line depicting the twirling of Tristram’s walking stick.

Tristram Shandy has many of the features of the postmodern novel. It was a major influence on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

In 1900, Joyce spent a year in Mullingar with his father, who was employed by Westmeath County Council, then located in the courthouse at the end of Mount Street, which until the early 19th century had been called Sterne Street after an ancestor of Laurence. Joyce and his father had meals in Connellan's Bar, now Wallace's, the window of which had a sign declaring "Teas, Teas, Teas" which Joyce in Ulysses depicts in the window of a Dublin shop.

Ruth Illingworth, the historian of Mullingar, suggests that it likely that Joyce posted letters in the Victorian letterbox still intact on the wall of Wallace's pub.

Reading Tristram Shandy again, 50 years after I first read it, overlooking a street where Sterne may have walked, the words in the final volume, “Time wastes too fast, and every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen”, have a sharper resonance than they had for a boy of 16.