On a trip to the west of Ireland a few weeks ago, I decided to make a bit of a pilgrimage to an unusual spot – the village of Loughrea, Co. Galway. Although a pretty place, Loughrea is not a popular tourist stopover, but, then again, the sight I was seeking wasn’t the usual tourist attraction either. In fact, I was looking for the parish church to which the Anglo-Irish writer and clergyman, Charles Robert Maturin (1780-1824), was first sent after being ordained as a Church of Ireland minister in 1803. Given the size of Loughrea, my mission wasn’t that difficult to complete, but imagine my dismay when, arriving at the parish church (on Church Street, of course), I was informed by a placard that the church had been constructed in 1821 – much too late for Maturin, who returned to Dublin in 1806 to assume the position of curate at St. Peter’s Church in Aungier Street (one he would maintain until his death in 1824). According to my husband, who patiently accompanied me on my pilgrimage, my face fell, and I descended into a state of morose disappointment. Until, that is, I discovered another placard only steps away stating that the current building – no longer a church but a city library – had, in fact, replaced an earlier building. The placard also happened briefly to note that Maturin had served there. Success!!
I took pictures of the church and the placard, for posterity’s sake, and the following week continued my investigation into the sights of Maturin’s life. In a country in which writers are revered, remembered, and celebrated on a regular basis, I hoped to find some preservation of Maturin’s cultural memory. Thomas Moore (1779-1852), for instance, has an annual festival devoted to him, Oliver Goldsmith (1728-74) an annual summer school, and Edmund Burke was lauded last year with an exhibition at TCD marking the 260th anniversary of his graduation. Maturin, however, seems to have slipped from the realm of cultural memory altogether. Not only has the 230th anniversary of his birth this year passed all notice, but the principal sights of his life have also been destroyed. The church in Loughrea is gone, as is the house he occupied in Dublin – it was torn down to make room for the expansion of The Royal College of Surgeons. St. Peter’s also shut its doors for good in the late twentieth century, and in its place now stands a popular youth hostel.
With St. Peter’s went what the Maturin family probably believed to be Maturin’s final resting place. At its closure, the graves in St. Peter’s were excavated and their bodies exhumed, to be re-interred in a communal grave in the crypt of St. Luke’s church in the Coombe. This church is also now closed, and though there are plans to refurbish both the church building and its crypt, nothing identifiable now remains of Maturin, not even a grave site at which to pay one’s respects.
My disappointment at this cultural erasure of Maturin’s memory is obviously biased, deeply invested as I am in Maturin’s life and works. (If I ever finish it, my book should come out with Manchester UP in 2011, titled Charles Robert Maturin and the Haunting of Irish Romantic Fiction – a little shameless self-promotion!) Ask the average Irish (or British, or European, or American) person if they know who Maturin is or what he wrote, and I guarantee you’ll get more blank stares than answers. Yet, his most famous novel, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), has never been out of print since 1892 and is sold today in most major bookstores, an indication of the text’s continuing popularity. Why, then, don’t we know who Maturin is anymore, and why don’t we care about preserving his memory? I’ll reserve my own answers to these questions and ask instead for your suggestions.