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Ireland’s Huguenots (Dublin Review of Books)

The Irish Huguenots were originally French Calvinists who, following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, departed from France rather than convert to Catholicism. The Dublin writer Charles Maturin, who it was said used to sit in Marsh’s Library with a host pasted on his forehead to indicate that he was composing and should not be disturbed, was from a Huguenot family. The practice may also have served to demonstrate his low opinion of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. It was a point he laboured at some length in his celebrated Sermons on the Errors of the Roman Catholic Church, published in 1824, in the course of which he denounced transubstantiation as “absurd in point of reason”.

At the time Scripture was treated by Anglicans engaged in attacks on Catholicism as having an almost scientific validity and as something to be held up and valued in stark contrast to Rome’s dependence on tradition, irrationality, superstition and the like. A few decades later the discoveries of French geologists were to leave claims for the Bible as a source of objective and historical truth in shreds. Both Maturin’s son and grandson were to respond to the increasing impossibility of rational Protestantism in different but related ways in the course of the following century, ways which would have alarmed the author of The Milesian Chief, a novel written by Maturin under the pseudonym Denis Jasper Murphy.

In all about forty thousand Huguenots settled in England, with perhaps a quarter of that number coming to Ireland. The literary impact of the Irish Huguenots in their host country was significant in relation to their overall numbers, especially in the nineteenth century. The English Huguenots barely registered in the area of literary production over their first two centuries in England. Daphne du Maurier, who published in the twentieth century, is that community’s most notable literary figure.

On arrival in Ireland many if not most Huguenots conformed to the Established Church, as was expected of them by the authorities, and a good number of them prospered within the politically and economically dominant world of Irish Protestantism. The name La Touche is long associated with banking in Dublin. The original David La Touche fought with King William at the Boyne and later laid the basis of his fortune through astute land purchases in the St. Stephen’s Green and Aungier Street areas of the city. D’Olier Street is named after Jeremiah D’Olier, a Huguenot who was High Sheriff in Dublin and a founder of the Bank of Ireland. Thomas Lefroy, who was to become Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, was another. Lefroy is more famous to-day as the man who flirted with, and may have even toyed with the feelings of, the incomparable Jane Austen. Austen was working on Pride and Prejudice when she knew Lefroy. Some say Darcy is modelled on Lefroy while others maintain it is the character of Elizabeth Bennett that is based on the quick-witted Anglo-Irish Huguenot.

The Church offered other possibilities for Irish Huguenots. They were warmly welcomed by Church of Ireland luminaries conscious of the demographic challenge in Ireland: Jonathan Swift himself preached to the émigrés in their own tongue. Gabriel Jacques Maturin became Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral following Swift’s death in 1745. Maturin’s own father had been Dean of Killala in Mayo, later the site of a military engagement in which French troops, supporting Irish rebels, played a small part. The grandson of Swift’s successor was Charles Robert Maturin, Dubliner and author of the classic Gothic terror novel Melmoth the Wanderer, generally recognised as a late Gothic masterpiece.

Maturin’s father — unlike his son and his forebears — did not take Holy Orders. Rather he held a position in the General Post Office, which was then located on Fishamble Street, close to the grocery shop run by the parents of the poet James Clarence Mangan who, as a young man, greatly admired Charles Robert and observed him closely when the former worked as a scrivener a few doors from the Gothic novelist’s house on York Street. Around 1808 things took a turn for the worse in the Maturin household; the father lost his position in the Post Office, having been accused of malversation, which means having one’s hand in the till or comparable corruption. Thereafter the burden of supporting the family fell on the shoulders of the young Maturin, who can thus be counted among that considerable number of Dublin writers whose male progenitors failed to provide. (It has been said that the father was later found innocent but, if this is so, he does not appear to have been reinstated.)

Maturin’s financial difficulties further increased when he stood bond for a man (thought to be his brother) who subsequently went bankrupt, leaving the author to bear his debts. As a result of these burdens, financial worry was Charles Maturin’s constant companion for the remainder of his days, an unfortunate fate for one who, more than most, enjoyed a life of parties, wine and above all dancing. (Evidently the French Calvinist heritage had largely washed out by this time! Indeed in his sermons on the errors of Rome he took a well-aimed side swipe at the Calvinists.) His love of entertainments and parties was widely known. In 1804 he had married the acclaimed singer Henrietta Kingsbury and it is said that notwithstanding his wife’s high colour the clergyman insisted on her wearing rouge, such was his love of gaiety. Taking the wider view, perhaps we should be grateful to those who contributed to his financial woes considering that he turned to writing primarily in the hope of relieving them.

Charles Robert Maturin had been ordained in 1803 and after a period in Loughrea became curate in St. Peter’s Church on Aungier Street. St. Peter’s, which was one of largest Church of Ireland parishes in Dublin at the time, had been built on lands forfeited by the Whitefriars at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. The Whitefriars had come to Dublin in the wake of the Norman Invasion, settling on what was probably a Celtic Christian site. John Fitzgibbon the Earl of Clare, known as the Black Earl to many, and whose property-owning Catholic family conformed to the Established Church some time in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, was buried there. While en route to an engagement Fitzgibbon had developed a nose bleed in his carriage from which he eventually expired. It is said that his symptoms were consistent with cirrhosis, which may well be true as the diminutive earl was well known to enjoy a drink. The Black Earl, who had a fearsome reputation, was not at all popular with the plain people of the city and it is said that his funeral resembled a carnival, with dead cats and other noxious debris being flung at the cortège as it made its way to St. Peter’s. Actually, Fitzgibbon was buried twice. The second time was in 1983, which occasion was also signally deficient in dignity.

The graveyard to the side of St. Peter’s was used as a burial ground by sections of the city’s Huguenot community. Indeed this association may have assisted Maturin in gaining his appointment. James Clarence Mangan witnessed Maturin preach at several funerals held in St. Peter’s and found him impressive in the performance of his duties. The church itself was demolished in 1983 — the site is now occupied by a Y.M.C.A. hostel and gym advertising ballet sculpt classes among other services. At the time of the demolition the mortal remains of the Huguenots were moved to a mass grave in Mount Jerome. Fitzgibbon was dumped in along with the others.

Property speculation in the area, which has clearly continued into contemporary times, began with the activities of David La Touche, who had begun his commercial life in Dublin with a poplin shop on High Street. La Touche developed residential sites on Aungier Street and in the Liberties. Indeed his impact is still evident on the street, which contains some of the city’s oldest residential buildings; some of these date from the early seventeenth century and probably have a La Touche connection.

Just a short distance away and on the opposite side from St. Peter’s stood the grocery shop run by Thomas Moore’s family — now J.J.’s public house. That building, or an earlier version, might also have a La Touche connection. Young Tom shared a small room upstairs with one of the shop’s curates. Another upstairs room, the parlour, housed a pianoforte, where the future Bard of Erin’s parents entertained their friends with patriotic songs of their country’s woes at the end of a hard week behind the counter. It was also where the young Tom Moore performed to delighted guests. Moore, in adult life, went on to form the closest of bonds with Lord Byron who, as it happens along with Sir Walter Scott, held the highest opinion of Maturin’s writing. When Coleridge criticised Maturin’s play Bertram, Scott advised him not to respond as Coleridge would soon be forgotten!

The politics Moore imbibed on Aungier Street were national, and the young man, as a first year student in Trinity College, supported the 1798 cause. Following the defeat of the rebels, the Lord Chancellor, John Fitzgibbon, was determined to weed out any students sympathetic to the rebel cause and personally interrogated suspects, including the young Moore. In his answers Tom was somewhat Jesuitical or, as we say nowadays, economical with the truth and happily he survived to complete his degree.

Maturin’s grandnephew by marriage was one Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde who, during his last broken days in Paris, discarded his family name and, in a reference to his relation’s great work, took on the name Sebastian the Wanderer. Maturin’s wife, Henrietta Kingsbury, was a sister of Sarah Kingsbury who married Charles Elgee. Their daughter, Jane Francesca Wilde (née Elgee), was Oscar’s mother. She was also Speranza of The Nation, author of stirring national verse celebrated in Ireland and abroad and especially in the United States throughout the nineteenth century. Indeed when Wilde went on a speaking tour in the U.S. it was often this connection — which he learned to push — more than interest in the Æsthete movement for which he was ambassador, that drew an audience. Oscar was not the only member of the family to lecture in the United States. Maturin’s grandson — and Wilde’s second cousin, who like his grandfather was also a clergyman — preached in the United States. Indeed he drowned returning from a visit in 1915 when the Lusitania was torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale.

The drowned man’s father and Maturin’s son was William Basil Maturin, an Irish Anglican clergyman with Tractarian tendencies, which is to say he had drifted towards Newman’s crypto-Catholic Oxford Movement. His son (Maturin’s grandson) was Father Basil William Maturin (1847-1915). Like his father and grandfather he was originally an Anglican minister but with similar religious tendencies to his father. In due course, and like Newman himself, Basil William “swam the Tiber” and converted to Rome. His body was recovered at sea and identified. The funeral Mass was held at the famous Brompton Oratory in Kensington, the London centre of Newman’s followers.

Returning to the history of the Irish Huguenots, if many from this community conformed to the Established Church on arrival in Ireland some declined to do so on principle, drifting instead towards the more doctrinally congenial Presbyterian Church. There was an element — to say the least — of political expediency in the Huguenot willingness to conform to the Anglican Church given that its episcopal structure stood in sharp contrast to the democratic Calvinist model over which the Huguenots had made a principled stand in France. Perhaps they were just tired of making principled stands.

Of course, not all French Huguenots became religious refugees. Many were pragmatic and, as it were, took the soup and simply converted to Catholicism with its hierarchical model and other features unattractive to Calvinist Protestants. For them, it seems, property and position were “worth a Mass”. A similar trend existed in Ireland and many property-owning Catholics, such as Lord Clare’s family, conformed to the Established Church in order to maintain property and position. The family of Edmund Burke offers another example. Indeed throughout the eighteenth century several thousand property-owning Catholic families, in the language of Leopold Bloom, crossed the street to the other shop.

Nevertheless, the situation for refugee Huguenots in Ireland conforming to a hierarchical Anglican model must have been psychologically difficult. After all, there was in the Presbyterian Church a non-hierarchical Protestant church to hand. It is hardly surprising there were some tensions in the refugee community between those who conformed and those who did not. These tensions, like the speaking of French and other Gallic traits, largely disappeared in the course of the eighteenth century. But again it would hardly be surprising if there was within the Anglican Huguenot community a less than complete identity with the values and interests of the Ascendancy. The Irish Ascendancy had a specific origin in the Williamite and Cromwellian confiscations, a formative event which was the ultimate source of that community’s cohesive energy. The Huguenots were for the most part late arrivals who purchased whatever property they had and were therefore at a remove from the Ascendancy’s expropriation-based self-understanding.

It may not be entirely fanciful to suggest that, at least at an emotional level, a certain reserve regarding the Anglican Establishment continued to characterise Irish Huguenot thinking. In any event, when in the nineteenth century that Establishment was forced to face existential questions regarding its purpose and future, two Dublin writers of Huguenot origin — while maintaining an external loyalty — depicted indirectly and allegorically in their fiction the position of Irish Protestantism as impossible and even indefensible. These were Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and Charles Robert Maturin.

Maturin was one of the first Protestant Romantic authors who struggled to square the circle of a rational and desirable Palladian social order and a native population which had to be included on its own terms. The exotic worlds which the Gothic offered had the advantage of removal from the identifiable politics of the day and allowed the author to struggle with deep and troubling matters through allegory and metaphor. In Maturin’s case it is the struggle that is illuminating; there is no resolution. Indeed in Melmoth, it seems, the more he struggled for resolution the more chapters and subplots he added. We witness authorially desired but impossible and unequal marriages between natives and settlers in remote parts. The more he endorses the ideologies of the settler figures, the more he gives moral authority and virtue to the native. Reconciliation and harmony remain permanently elusive.

In public Maturin pursued the official anti-Catholic position. His sermons on the errors of popery are good examples of a genre ubiquitous in the 1820s. By then he really had few hopes of advancement in the Establishment. He had turned to writing to improve his financial lot. (His position in St. Peter’s earned him a modest income of around £80 a year.) However, in 1816 his play Bertram was a great success, earning him around a thousand pounds. Some thought it atheistic in tendency and Coleridge — still busy sliding away from earlier opinions — denounced it for its Jacobinism. It was not calculated to please the Irish Church authorities and unfortunately he had to acknowledge authorship in order to collect his earnings. Thereafter his hopes of preferment in the Church were at an end.

There were huge divisions in his life: he was in the Church but denied advancement there, he was of the Ascendancy but an outsider, he was on the side of the colonised but virulently anti-Catholic, he was attached to good living but was permanently short of money. It seems these divisions had their equivalent at a sartorial level. He was known as something of a dandy at parties yet on the street he was a dowdy and eccentric dresser. Mangan saw in him a Romantic hero, and followed him several times:

The second time I saw Maturin he had been just officiating, as on the former occasion, at a funeral. He stalked along York Street with an abstracted, or rather distracted air, the white scarf and hat-band which he had received remaining still wreathed round his beautifully shaped person, and exhibiting to the gaze of the amused and amazed pedestrians whom he almost literally encountered in his path, a boot upon one foot and a shoe on the other. His long pale, melancholy Don Quixote, out-of-the-world face would have inclined you to believe that Dante, Bajazet, and the Cid had risen together from their sepulchres, and clubbed their features for the production of an effect. But Maturin’s mind was only fractionally pourtrayed, so to speak, in his countenance. The great Irishman, like Hamlet, had that within him which passed show, and escaped far and away beyond the possibility of expression by the clay lineament. He bore the “thunderscars” about him, but they were graven, not on his brow but on his heart.
The third and last time that I beheld this marvellous man I remember well. It was some time before his death, on a balmy autumn evening, in 1824. He slowly descended the steps of his own house, which, perhaps, some future Transatlantic biographer may thank me for informing him was at No. 42 York Street, and took his way in the direction of Whitefriar Street, into Castle Street, and passed the Royal Exchange into Dame Street, every second person staring at him and the extraordinary double-belted and treble-caped rug of an old garment — neither coat nor cloak — which enveloped his person. But here it was that I, who had tracked the footsteps of the man as his shadow, discovered that the feeling to which some individuals, rather over sharp and shrewd, had been pleased to ascribe this “affectation of singularity,” had no existence in Maturin. For, instead of passing along Dame Street, where he would have been “the observed of all observers,” he wended his way along the dark and forlorn locality of Dame Lane, and having reached the end of this not very classical thoroughfare, crossed over to Anglesea Street, where I lost sight of him. Perhaps he went into one of those bibliopolitan establishments wherewith that Paternoster Row of Dublin then abounded. I never saw him afterwards … An inhabitant of one of the stars dropped upon our planet could hardly feel more bewildered than Maturin habitually felt in his consociation with the beings around him. He had no friend, no companion, brother: he and the “Lonely Man of Shiraz” might have shaken hands and then — parted. He — in his own dark way — understood many people; but nobody understood him in any way.

The description of Maturin’s appearance may be substantially accurate but in Mangan’s speculations regarding the author’s lonely soul it is clear that James Clarence is really talking about himself. Mangan was given to extraordinary flights of romantic fancy and regularly described oppressions visited upon him that were hardly possible. His description of conditions at the York Street attorney’s where he was employed as a scrivener make those experienced by Bob Cratchit in Scrooge’s office seem positively cushy, and Mangan’s unending accounts of his tortured soul make the Young Werther seem like a trainee accountant. Yet his account of Maturin is valuable and, of course, there is the wonderful poetry in which he rejects the rational in all its pretentions.

’Tis idle:— we exhaust and squander
The glittering mine of thought in vain;
All-baffled reason cannot wander
Beyond her chain.
The flood of life runs dark — dark clouds
Make lampless night around its shore;
The dead, where are they? In their shrouds —
Man knows no more.

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Correction:  Charles Maturin’s father did not work in Fishamble Street. The Post Office moved from that location in 1709. It had previously been located on High Street. After Fishamble Street it moved to Sycamore Alley and in 1755 to Fownes Court. In 1783 it moved to a five storey building in College Green. This was probably where Maturin senior was employed. In 1818 the G.P.O. moved to its present location on Sackville Street, now O’Connell Street.

[The essay above was composed by a contributor to the Dublin Review of Books, Issue 49, 2014]

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