I used to feel like a stalker. I suspect that anyone who has researched and written a biography or a study of someone’s career feels the same way. You doggedly unearth and scrutinise various sources to uncover the most intimate and mundane details of your subject’s life. It becomes an obsession.
My quarry was Bulmer Hobson (1883-1969). He was that rare combination of a Belfast Protestant (a Quaker no less) and an ardent Irish nationalist who played a leading role in the advanced nationalist movement until 1916 when he was sidelined as a result of his opposition to the Easter Rising. In researching my PhD thesis on his nationalist career, I reconstructed Hobson’s life in the early twentieth century through a combination of letters, newspaper articles, and police reports. I realised that I was turning into a stalker when I created a database to track his nationalist activities. I was able to chart everything from public speaking engagements to yuletide visits to his parents’ home.
Then came the pilgrimages. One rainy day in Belfast I ventured out in search of the red-brick terraced houses where Hobson grew up. In the area behind Queen’s University I found 5 Magdala Street, his first home. Rain drops dripping off my nose, I gazed at a run-down house divided into student flats. Then I hopped on a bus heading north and asked the grumpy driver to tell me when we got to Hopefield Avenue. Every few minutes I wiped the condensation from the bus window and peered out. By chance I spotted street names like Indiana and Kansas that suggested we were passing through an area dubbed ‘Little America’. I got off the bus and headed back towards my destination. I had been warned that the house may no longer exist, the area having been bombed during the Blitz. Sure enough there was a stretch of modern housing before I got to Number 6 where Hobson spent his childhood and youth. What had been an attractive middle-class home one hundred years ago had paint peeling from its red door and dirty lace curtains too small to cover its windows. It too was divided into flats. There were no commemorative plaques on either house; Hobson’s legacy is too divisive for that.
I also made pilgrimages to places in Dublin and Connemara. Despite changes in street names and house numbers in the intervening years, I found 76 Cabra Park, the house in Phibsborough where Hobson’s comrades in the Irish Republican Brotherhood held him captive during the 1916 Easter weekend because they feared he would scuttle their plans for a rising. When Hobson’s former marital home, the Mill House on Whitechurch Road in Rathfarnham, was up for sale in 2003, I attended the open house. Wandering through the rooms of this Country Georgian house, which was in need of refurbishment and surrounded by modern suburbia, I wondered what it was like when Hobson and his young family lived there. Had he used the room kitted out as a library as his study? Another day I picked my way through the uneven grassy ground to find Hobson’s flat grave stone near the back of the seaside cemetery in Roundstone where he spent much of his retirement living alone, his marriage – forged so romantically while on the run – having failed.
The fruits of my inadvertent obsession became public after I published my revised PhD thesis as a monograph two years ago. Now I get letters and emails from people seeking or sharing information about Hobson. Perhaps we are all stalkers at heart.
MARNIE HAY is the author of Bulmer Hobson and the nationalist movement in twentieth-century Ireland (Manchester University Press, 2009).
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