The Hardy way – An Irishman’s Diary on Thomas Hardy in Ireland
Thomas Hardy: fortnight-long visit to Ireland in May 1893. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Thomas Hardy, one of the great English novelists, had little interest in Ireland, but a fortnight-long visit he paid here during May 1893 did have a long-term impact on him.
Hardy had been a friend of the father of Lord Houghton, who had been appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland less than a year previously. Lord Houghton had written some minor verse and, because of that literary interest, he and Hardy also became friends. He invited Hardy and his first wife, Emma, whom Hardy often called “Em”, to stay with them in the vice-regal lodge, now Áras an Uachtaráin.
His first observation there was that their bedroom windows faced the Phoenix Park and the Wicklow Mountains. He noted that the building dated from the 18th century, 1751 in fact. Later, he referred sardonically to the “little court” at the vice-regal lodge.
He and his wife had been met upon arrival by Mrs Florence Henniker, sister of the lord lieutenant, and Hardy had been immediately smitten.
She was in her late-thirties, 15 years younger than Hardy’ s wife, and he found his new companion attractive and intuitive, independent and intellectually ambitious. She had already had three novels published.
That introduction began Hardy’s long infatuation with Mrs Henniker, who although married to an aristocratic and military man high up the social scale, was happy to pursue a friendship with a married man, an unusual quest for late Victorian times. Hardy also became keen to have a physical affair with her, but she soon made plain to him that his passion was futile.
But their friendship continued for 30 years.
Enthused with his new-found friend, Hardy soon found another subject in which to invest considerable interest, the murders in the Phoenix Park in May 1882 of Lord Frederick Cavendish, who had only just been appointed the chief secretary for Ireland, and Thomas Burke, the permanent under-secretary, the most senior civil servant in Ireland. Not only did Hardy inspect the scene of the murders, but he also went to the chief secretary’s lodge in the Phoenix Park. There, he saw the room where the bodies of the two men had been taken and relished hearing the gruesome details of the subsequent discovery of a roll of bloody clothing underneath the sofa. Hardy noted that the room had not been cleaned since the time of the murders, which he found intriguing.
Also in Dublin, Hardy ventured into the city to see the public buildings and saw some comical drunken women dancing in the street.
He also visited Bray, where at “the grey hotel by the shore”, he met the chief secretary and the lord chancellor, as well as plenty of magistrates.
The last visit by Hardy and his wife while they were in Dublin was to the Guinness brewery, where they and Mrs Henniker went for a trip on the narrow-gauge railway that then circumnavigated the brewery. Hardy reported that all of their party had been splashed with either porter or dirty water, ruining the ladies’ clothes.
That afternoon, Hardy and Emma took the 3pm train from Kingsbridge to Killarney, where they stayed in the Great Southern Hotel beside the railway station. The next day, they went to see Ross Castle and the Middle Lake, and in the afternoon, walked around Killarney town, where Hardy found that cows stood about the street like people. His further adventures outside the town took him to the Black Valley, which he found deeply impressive, as well as to the Upper Lake.
In those far-off days, Killarney and the lakes were the prime tourist destination in Ireland, popularised by Queen Victoria’s earlier visits, and on that trip, Hardy and his wife behaved like typical Victorian tourists.
After their return to Dublin, the pair went straight to Kingstown, where they stayed at the Marine Hotel, now the Royal Marine, until early the following morning, they took the ship to Holyhead.
After their arrival back in London, Hardy and his wife immediately returned to the aristocratic social scene, to which he had gained entry because of his literary fame rather than his family background. His father had been a stonemason and builder.
That fortnight-long tour to Ireland made comparatively little impression on Hardy, but his new found friendship with Mrs Henniker did have substantial consequences.
In his final great tragic novel, Jude the Obscure, published in 1895, the heroine, Sue Bridehead, was clearly constructed on the character of Florence Henniker. Her health was uncertain, but she and Hardy maintained a close friendship until her death in 1923, five years before Hardy’s own passing.