Cultural Memory – A Fickle Beast

By Christina Morin

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.

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5 Responses to “Cultural Memory – A Fickle Beast”

  1. patrick maume Says:

    I have my own interest in the Maturin family, to some extent in Charles robert but also in his son William and grandson whose name in religion was Basil. Between them the three seem to mirror a lot of the religious divisions of nineteenth-century Ireland; Charles the Gothic writer, deeply aware of Huguenot descent and its memories of Catholic persecution, with a very Anglican interest in reason and its limitation in matters of religion, William the High Anglican Ritualist whose church at Holy Trinity Grangegorman was the scene of riots by ultra-Protestants aggrieved at his celebrating the service in the “eastward position” (i.e. facing the altar with his back to the congregation as in the Tridentine Rite), Basil the celebrated preacher who converted to Catholicism and was drowned on the Lusitania in 1915. Perhaps one answer to your question is that society at large no longer takes such an interest in theological debate, and without this MELMOTH loses much of its force.
    BTW I recently came across a very fine essay on Maturin by A Norman Jeffares in his essay collection IMAGES OF INVENTION: ESSAYS ON IRISH WRITING.

  2. Tina Says:

    Hi Patrick,

    Thanks for your response! I would agree that interest in the kind of theological debate as well as the central theological/religious issues at the heart of Melmoth as well as Maturin’s other texts are rarely au courant today. Nevertheless, I think there’s more to it than that, and I believe that a lot of it has to do with literary criticism’s retrospective labelling of Irish Romantic literary production. Because the first two or three decades of the nineteenth century are now seen as the preserve of the national tale and the historical novel in Ireland, Maturin’s consistently Gothic-minded texts are seen to fall outside the norm and are therefore judged somehow lacking and unworthy of attention.

  3. Felix Larkin Says:

    Another good reason to visit Loughrea is to see the RC cathedral. Its interior decoration is a monument to the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement. Quite stunning! Particularly noteworthy is the stained glass – by Sarah Purser, Michael Healy, Evie Hone and others. Much of this work was commissioned by Fr Jeremiah O’Donovan who was administrator of the cathedral circa 1900 but later left the priesthood and (as Gerald O’Donovan) wrote novels, of which the most popular was the semi-autobiographical FATHER RALPH.

  4. Tina Says:

    Thanks for the tip, Felix! It was late enough on a Sunday afternoon when I arrived into Loughrea, so I concentrated on finding the Anglican Church. Next time I’m in the area, though, I’ll definitely have a look at the RC cathedral.

  5. patrick maume Says:

    Anoter significant author associated with Loughrea is the early twentieth-century novelist and short story writer seumas o’Kelly (d.1918, best remembered for his novella THE WEAVER’S GRAVE) a quiet writer who can often be sharply critical of early C20 rural society (more n his plays than his books). I don’t know if there is any memorial to him in Loughrea, which was his birthplace, but many of his stories are clearly set in “te town by the grey Lake”.
    I keep on meaning to visit Loughrea and look at St Brendan’s Cathedral, but I never actually get round to making the trip!

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