The Leaving of Limerick – Frank McNally on Robert Graves’s uneasy relationship with his ancestral city
Robert Graves: Limerick struck him as “war-ravaged” even in peace. Photograph: Bob Gomel/The Life Images Collection via Getty Images
When the poet and novelist Robert Graves was born 125 years ago this week, the event took place in London and not, as it might have, in Limerick, a city where his paternal ancestry went back centuries. He would later consider this a lucky break.
His father had also ended a tradition of the patriarchs being Irish Protestant clergymen. These included Graves’s grandfather, who was Anglican bishop of Limerick (although he had a Catholic-sized family of, in his grandson’s words, “eight – or was it ten? – children”).
But in the classic memoir, Goodbye to All That (1929), Graves made particular mention of his father’s move to London, viz: “. . . he broke the geographical connection with Ireland, for which I cannot be too grateful”.
The old man would not have thanked him for his gratitude. On the contrary, in his own subsequent autobiography, To Return to All That (1930), Alfred Perceval Graves gave his son a polite telling off for the memoir’s “bitter and hasty criticism of people who never wished him any harm”.
Fated to be overshadowed by his offspring, AP Graves had been a major figure in the cultural life of this island, largely responsible for the Irish literary revival of the late 19th century, alongside WB Yeats and others.
He also shared with Yeats the distinction of creating one of the best-known Catholic clergymen in poetry. By contrast with the old priest Father Gilligan, Graves’s “Father O’Flynn” was a dynamic and cheerful figure, whose heroics were set to a jig:
“Don’t talk of your Provost and Fellows of Trinity/Famous Foriver at Greek and Latinity/Dad and the Divils and all at Divinity/Father O’Flynn’d make hares of them all.”
The song’s enormous popularity circa 1890 made its publishers a fortune, while Charles Stanford, who received a royalty for contributing “a few chords” to the setting, did well from it too.
But Graves Snr had sold all his rights for a guinea. And although he never felt bitter about it, this was the root of another thing for which his son would always thank him: “[…] he has more than once impressed on me almost religiously never to sell for a sum down the complete rights of any work of mine”.
Along with Mark Twain, Robert Graves became one of the select group of people to have enjoyed reading their own obituaries. In his case, it was after the Battle of the Somme (1916), in which he certainly came close to dying.
Having survived that and the war in general, he then had the dubious honour of being posted back to the garrison in his ancestral city, a place that struck his as “war-ravaged” even in peace. There were “holes like shell-craters” in the Limerick streets and many buildings seemed on the point of collapse, even though the deprivation resulted from mere poverty rather than shells.
Paraphrasing an old family friend he met while there, Graves wrote: “Everyone died of drink in Limerick except the Plymouth Brethren, who died of religious melancholia”. Elsewhere, he described walking down O’Connell Street once at 9am, the time at which the city came slowly to life: “When the hour chimed, the door of a magnificent Georgian house flew open and out came, first a shower of slops, which just missed me, then a dog, which lifted up its leg against a lamppost, then a nearly-naked girl-child who sat down in the gutter and rummaged in a heap of refuse for filthy pieces of bread; finally, a donkey began to bray. I had pictured Ireland exactly so, and felt its charm as dangerous.”
If he retained a romantic attachment, it may have been kicked out of him during a rugby match he played for his army team against a local side replete with republicans. “We were all crocks,” recalled Graves, “and our opponents seemed bent on showing what fine fighting material England had lost by withholding Home Rule.”
But it was a different sort of threat that precipitated his departure. Like many soldiers at war’s end, he caught the Spanish Flu. Reluctant to trust his lungs to a Limerick hospital, he fled for England before official demobilisation and thereby became a deserter, until a chance meeting with a demob officer supplied the covering documentation.
It should be said that in Goodbye to All That, Graves was bidding farewell to England, mainly, and to a way of life he believed the war had ended. From the late 1920s, he spent most of the rest of his days in Majorca, where he died in 1985. In the meantime, he returned to Limerick at least once in old age.
And as he admitted then, he remained “very attached to it in a roundabout way”.