The Stories We Shouldn’t Keep Hearing

On 17 June 1994, when I was twelve and in form one, an ex-pupil with a grudge came to Sullivan Upper School in Holywood, Northern Ireland. He carried with him an improvised flamethrower, with which he attacked the sixth-form pupils who were sitting their A-Levels in the assembly hall. Six boys were hurt, three of them seriously enough to need skin grafts.

In the last years of the armed conflict known as the Troubles, naturally some of us thought it was a terrorist attack. And as many people observed at the time, it is a painful outcome of the Troubles that we had considerable medical expertise locally in treating burns injuries. Afterwards, the school community raised funds to buy the hospital a new skin grafting device.

Then as now, non-Troubles-related attempts at mass murder were rare in the UK. Two years later, the Dunblane Primary School massacre occurred, in which a former scout leader murdered sixteen children and their teacher, and injured fifteen other people. The standards of media behaviour in the 1990s were such that, when the Dunblane news broke, journalists turned up outside our school and harassed pupils going in for their thoughts on the events in Scotland.

The wider public response was one of horror. Both of these attacks, and the March 1994 knife attack at Hall Garth School in England, in which a twelve-year-old girl was murdered, were regarded as incomprehensible. The pupils at Hall Garth wrote to us all after it happened – then the one other school community in the UK who understood such a thing. Later, the Dunblane incident led to a ban on most private ownership of handguns in the UK, and in the longer term, increased surveillance and security became more standard in schools around the country.

When the Sullivan pupils were attacked, there was a fully operational British army base virtually next-door. The response from the Bomb Squad and emergency services was extremely fast. It says everything about Northern Ireland back then that, within a couple of days, the story was eclipsed in the news cycle by the subsequent Loughinisland massacre, in which six were murdered and five injured. Yet only now, watching the aftermath of yet another horror in America, does it fully settle for me just how many illegal weapons circulated in Northern Ireland back then, and how lethal the attack might have been had the attacker been obsessed not with fire, but with guns.

As it was, his victims suffered life-changing injuries, lifelong scarring. And the more we learned about the attacker and his motivations, the less sense it all made. In the days that followed, the details came through local gossip and news stories. Of course we turned out to know people who knew him – Holywood (and Northern Ireland at large) is like that.

He’d rented 18-certificate videos and then tutted to the video shop owner about their violence. His relationship with his family was typified by an arson attack at his brother’s home. He’d displayed a sticker calling Sullivan “the Skoda of the education system” – on his Skoda. The motive for the attack had been, he claimed, inadequate careers advice. To sum up, he was a man whose motives were incomprehensible even to himself, looking to lethally blame others for his problems.

I remember that a local newspaper at the time made a lot of hay with a mental health diagnosis the attacker might or might not have had, one I won’t further stigmatise by connecting it with his crimes. Reportedly, he’d had treatment, but that’s not some gotcha: an awful lot of us in Northern Ireland, have had, or lacked, mental health treatment. Damned out of his own mouth, not by his mental circuitry but his actions, unable to explain his behaviour or make sense of his plan, he got six life sentences, and died in prison three years later.

And I never ever thought, back then, that we would all become so familiar with boys and men (usually) like him; with seeing our entire social media timelines get into the psychological brace position when the first reports come out for what is always, somehow, the same story. I see that bracing in my American friends who’ve lost people to gun violence, or whose kids have to go to school the day after another atrocity. My friends here who’ve felt sectarian violence. My many friends with psychiatric and neurodevelopmental conditions that will inevitably get thrown around online as the investigation proceeds, because it’s easier to scapegoat already marginalised people (who are more often victims than perpetrators of violence) than question the public’s access to weapons designed for war zones.

As guns and the politics of fear continue to damage another society, I think about how hard it was for us to get rid of our guns, here. How incomplete that work is. How incomplete peace is. How important it still is to try and build it. Most of all I hate that I’m seeing friends experience that repetitive dread and horror that we grew up with, that we know is not over so much as constantly, conscientiously and imperfectly held back by political process.

I’m old enough to remember that sick feeling of inevitability, the way we never went into town on a Friday, the adjustments and affordances ordinary families made in an unnatural situation, and whose equivalent American communities make now, as small children take part in active shooter drills. I want my friends there not to have to hope for the complicated relief of reading that the latest attacker is not of their ethnicity, their neurotype, their political persuasion. They are not about to witness a trial that debates whether people who share their diagnosis know right from wrong. Community stigma is a thing we know about over here too.

The situations of Northern Ireland, the UK and the USA are not identical, and it’s very important that, in laying these histories side by side, I don’t deny the white supremacist hold the gun lobby has on American powerbrokers. I draw parallels not because I would fatuously prescribe what worked, somewhat, here to a culture on the other side of the world, but because I remember when attacks on schools were rare, bizarre – not yet normalised or politicised. I remember being able to respond to ours as a horrifying one-off, something we didn’t have to fear would happen again. Because enough time has passed, because my classmates and I were unscathed, stories of school shootings don’t automatically bring it back, every time.

But sometimes, like this past week, I do think about it and it doesn’t let go – because I remember the time before this was routine.


My Father’s Voice

My father, Brendan Adams, was dialect curator at the Ulster Folk Museum at Cultra, and in that capacity he spent an enormous amount of time gathering and preserving the Ulster dialect, both in the field and via the ambitious Ulster Dialect Survey.

Dad wasn’t partisan when it came to language: he spoke both Irish and Ulster-Scots fluently (amongst other languages) and he believed strongly in the value of people getting together and talking to each other. So often in Northern Ireland, language and culture are weaponised to exclude and build walls between us, but Dad believed that the languages and dialects of our island belong to us all. 

Dad died right before I was born in 1981, so not only have I never met him, I’ve barely even heard his voice. Until now, the only audio sample to which I’ve had access was a snippet on a dictaphone he’d used for work, and which had been partially recorded over. 

But now Donal McAnallen at UFTM is heading up a project to digitise the museum’s old dialectology recordings, including some recordings of school children in Co. Armagh in the 1960s. Those children, now in their 60s, have been able to hear their childhood voices, as have their grandchildren, and we can all hear just how the enormous social change that has taken place in the decades since has influenced both accent and dialect.

And my father’s voice is on those newly digitised tapes too. This morning BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster played some snippets, which begins a little past the 1:25 mark.

You can read more about the project and my dad’s work on the BBC website.

BBC followed up with Angeline; she talks about the experience of hearing her father’s voice here.

Brendan Adams, with his uncle Richard Hayward, founders of the Ulster Dialect Survey


Dracula’s Bridesmaid

(This appeared in Verbal Magazine in October ’10 as BRAM STOKER: ALWAYS THE BRIDESMAID, NEVER DRACULA’S BRIDE)

Recently, Vampire Diaries star Paul Wesley exclaimed in an interview: “They’ve made this whole vampire thing recently like a sex thing.Back in the day it used to be like Dracula. They were genuinely frightening but now it’s a very sexual tone.”

As for many people, his image of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is that of a neck-chasing stalker with an opera cape and a thick Hungarian accent. Mainly responsible for this image is the – it has to be said – toothless movie with Bela Lugosi. If people who are put off by this creaky Count read the book, they’d find a story filled with adventure, strong characters, romance and, indeed, sex: everything you’ll find in The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, Being Human and Twilight

Stoker’s book of blood is a surprisingly modern read: events happen in ‘real time’ through the use of letter fragments and diary entries. Victorian gadgetry blends scientific authority with folklore. It further convinces the reader because, unwittingly or otherwise, Stoker wrote about the things that kept him awake at night, and populated his novel with the people he knew.

In Count Dracula, beneath the disguise of the Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes, it’s easy to recognize the distinguished actor Henry Irving, who employed Stoker as manager of his Lyceum Theatre. Likewise, the equally celebrated actress Ellen Terry doubles as Stoker’s resolute, independent heroine Mina Harker. Irving and Terry were married but Stoker often found himself their go-between. Where Irving was years their senior, Stoker and Terry were of the same age and shared the playful, friendly manner of honeymooners. Terry nicknamed Stoker, “Ma” and herself “dutiful daughter”. 

Their relationship was more affectionate – though not necessarily intimate – than that of Stoker and his wife. It’s often been claimed that Florence Stoker was frigid and that the sexual undercurrents of Dracula represent Bram’s repressed sexuality boiling over. This is most notable in this scene, early in the book, in which Stoker’s protagonist is beset by a trio of female vampires:

“I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips. It is not good to note this down, lest some day it should meet Mina’s eyes.”

And even more explicitly: 

“I lay quiet, looking out from under my eyelashes in an agony of delightful anticipation. The fair girl advanced and bent over me till I could feel the movement of her breath upon me.”

Legend has it that Bram dreamed this scene after a too generous helping of dressed crab. This seems a bowdlerized version of events, even if it’s still terribly Freudian. Perhaps Stoker did have that nightmare, prompted by his subconscious, but the truth about Florence’s frigidity is less than straightforward.

Born in Dublin in 1847, by 1877 Bram had a respectable career as a civil servant at Dublin Castle. He had just finished a “dry as bones” book on the reformation of clerical duties, but also wrote theatrical reviews. Florence Balcombe, then 18, had been Oscar Wilde’s first love, but she chose security and a stable life with Bram. As she told Oscar: “He never gets into debt, and his character is excellent.” Irving beckoned and they married hastily, similar to Count Dracula summoning Harker on the eve of his wedding.

Florence was stunningly beautiful. She enjoyed a rich social life in the absence of Stoker, who worked long and late for Irving, with only weekends set aside for his wife. While pregnant, Florence realized that further pregnancies would destroy her looks, and that she wanted to entertain artists, not children. So, not so much the loveless marriage of rumour, as a rational choice by an emancipated woman who enjoyed her freedom – there’s more than a bit of Mina in Florence, too. 

While “Mrs. Bram” was a social butterfly, Stoker himself was well enough liked and hugely respected. Respect, however, was not to be had from the one person of whom Stoker seemed to require it the most: Henry Irving. A mesmeric figure onstage and off, his Hamlet unsurpassed, Irving rose from shoestring provincial tours to the London stage before opening his Lyceum in 1878. Stoker flattered Irving in a review, and when they met, he became hysterical with adoration. Irving’s ego was so tickled that he hired Stoker as his manager on the spot, but despite Stoker’s hard work and evident worship, Irving treated him as a mere servant. 

It’s revealing that the characters in Dracula are defined by their response to the magnetic figure of the Count, either resisting him or becoming enthralled. Stoker got caught by Irving’s gravitational pull and reflected this, perhaps in buried resentment, when he depicted Dracula as a monster of heartless manipulation and ambition. 

When Stoker did a reading of Dracula with the Lyceum cast, Irving watched a while from the back, then exclaimed, “Dreadful!’, before striding off. Dracula only made it to the stage in 1925, well after Stoker’s death in 1912, and then only as a “barnstormer”; actor-producer Hamilton Deane was a far cry from Irving, and the play was a far cry from Shakespeare. Yet it was this crowd-pleaser that was eventually adapted into the film with Bela Lugosi. 

Stoker didn’t live long enough to experience – or coast on – Dracula’s eventual fame. Despite ill health and stroke, his later years were quietly spent writing horror potboilers and articles, including a bizarre expose of Elizabeth I as a male imposter. The hallucinogenic prose of his last book, The Lair of the White Worm, prompted later suspicions that he was crazed by syphilis, contracted from prostitutes supposedly visited when Florence wouldn’t oblige.

Since Stoker’s death, increasingly bizarre theories have been posited, casting the author as a repressed homosexual, the victim of ‘haemosexual trauma’, and a conspirator hiding Jack the Ripper’s identity. It seems that in reality, Stoker was the perfect Victorian gentleman, and perhaps that inspires the search for a literary fatal flaw. 

If anything, he lacked a risk-taking spirit and was conservative. He was a writer but could never become a true artist, and lived this ambition through Irving. Consequently, if one character in Dracula sums up Stoker, it’s Renfield: the dedicated solicitor who ends up as a minion and herald of the Count, catching flies, then spiders, wanting a kitten but never getting a shot at the ultimate reward. 

Maeve Binchy

We did this portrait of Maeve Binchy (1939-2012) years ago for Verbal Magazine, in our series ‘A Bluffer’s Guide To Irish Writers’ – something we’d love to pick up again!

Maeve Binchy has described her childhood in the rustic town of Dalkey as unsuitable for an Irish writer: it was a happy childhood. Books were read, stories were told, and nobody possessed the gift of blarney as wee Maeve did.

Had not her pupils pooled their pocket money to send her to Israel, hopefully out of gratitude, she might well have remained a school teacher. But her father sent her holiday letters to the Irish Independent, where they saw print, and an author was born.

She specialized in slice-of-life columns and settled into a cottage a mere stone’s throw from where she was raised. She and her husband wrote side by side, their happiness only marred by abject poverty. Luckily, the novel she’d written on the side turned out an instant hit and the wolf was kept from the cottage door for good.

She knows that hers is not an audience of scholars, but people who mark their page in a book by folding the corner. At heart, every American is Oirish, and when Tara Road was chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s book club by that Queen of Daytime Television, they clasped Maeve to their collective bosom.

She may be a world famous author, winner of numerous awards and be the Godmother of Irish chick lit, but Maeve remains unspoilt by her success. Doing the cottage up a bit has been her only authorly extravagance to date; for Maeve Binchy, there’s no place like home.

The Soul Cages

We’ve recently been rewatching Babylon 5, and came across the feature-length episode with the Soul Hunters. Soul Hunters, in J. Michael Straczynski’s universe, well-meaningly capture the souls of the dying for posterity – and in so doing, drive those souls mad. Something about that story was familiar, but tracing its path would take us from the vastness of the universe to the bottom of the sea. And in every form the story takes, one question nags: what do we owe the people around us?

“There is an old British folktale about the souls of the dead being kept under the sea in the lobster cages of a creature who is half man, half fish. Anyone who dares try to free the souls of the dead must go under the sea himself and drink with the creature. If he drinks him under the table, the souls will go free. If, on the other hand, the creature prevails, the challenger will be imprisoned forever in the cages at the bottom of the sea. You need a strong stomach to treat with this creature.” – Sting, Lyrics by Sting (2007)

On this day in 1991, Sting released The Soul Cages – a meditation on bereavement, family and birthplace, with salt in its veins and religion and folklore in its imagery. The album was a personal exorcism that followed three years of writer’s block, and a response to the death of his father. It’s scaffolded on the waning of the Newcastle shipbuilding industry, and the image of a ship recurs, representing both the hope of going out into the world to adventure, and a sealed coffin. The fourth single, the title song, directly references a folk tale that Sting was familiar with.

The boy child is locked in the fisherman’s yard
There’s a bloodless moon where the oceans die
A shoal of night stars hang fire in the nets
And the chaos of cages where the crayfish lie

I’ve loved this album since I was eighteen. It gave me an imaginative route to dealing with my feelings about own late father and my waning faith. Also, the gloom of a declining shipyard is familiar to anyone who grew up around Belfast Lough, with the great cranes of Harland and Wolff as part of our mental landscape. In his 2013 musical The Last Ship, Sting would return to that theme with a focus on the impact on a community of its shipyard closing, but The Soul Cages is mostly about the intuitive, inner response to loss, and that last single dramatises it as a conflict with evil beneath the sea.

He’s the king of the ninth world
The twisted son of the fog bells’ toll
In each and every lobster cage, a tortured human soul

In the song, a boy seeks to reclaim his father’s soul from the sea bed, where men’s souls are the captives of “the Fisherman,” a fiend who functions more like the Devil than an old sea dog. The boy offers the Fisherman a wager, bringing him a cask of magical wine, which he says is wrung from the blood of those sailors. He challenges the Fisherman – in effect challenging the sea itself – to match him drink for drink: “If the drink leaves me standing, a soul shall go free.” But if the Fisherman is the last one standing, the boy will be caged with him forever.

A body lies open in the fisherman’s yard like
The side of a ship where the iceberg rips
One less soul in the soul cages
One last curse on the fisherman’s lips

The boy prevails and the monster is defeated, yet the prize seems so slight: one less soul in the soul cages? Why not bargain for all the dead? Why not open the rest of the cages and let the souls go? Of course, the reasons are making the lyrics fit and the rhyme scheme, and thematically the story is really about just one soul, one dead father. The last verse repeats the bridge and coda of album opener “Island of Souls”, which is the inverse of “The Soul Cages.” In its modern industrial landscape, the boy’s father is simply injured working at the shipyard. The imagery is prosaic compared to that of “The Soul Cages”:

They brought Billy’s father back home in an ambulance
Brass watch, a cheque, maybe three weeks to live

Billy dreads his life inevitably taking the same tack: miserable job, wages drunk away rather than saved, health destroyed. But in the chorus, he dreams of the ship going out into the world, of himself and his father leaving the town behind forever, to sail to the Island of Souls. Sting would also knit that idea into The Last Ship decades later. But while “The Soul Cages” is more heavily folkloric than Sting’s later project, the bridge hints at modern life in a north that, at the time he was writing it, had long been hammered by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government:

These are the souls of the broken factories
Subject slaves of the broken crown
The dead accounting of old guilty promises
These are the souls of the broken town

So, “The Soul Cages” and “Island of Souls” are the same story told from realistic and fantastical perspectives. Only in his dreams can Billy win his father’s soul back and save himself from a grim life. In reality, Sting left the city, and he finally transcended his own grief by writing about it, even though the north would eventually pull him back to write about its people and its industry in more direct terms.

I had wondered for years about the folk tale “The Soul Cages” was based on, and finally researched it when Remco and I were writing our own story about the sea and the dead. The northern Dutch history that inspires us is also riven with maritime tragedies, and we’d woven together the fishing disaster of Moddergat with the local belief in divination. Inevitably, I listened to The Soul Cages a lot while working on it, and decided it was finally time to trace the song’s folkloric roots. What emerged was a strange history, with unexpected layers.

“The Soul Cages” was first published in volume 2 of T. Crofton Croker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1825 – 28). In Croker’s collection, “The Soul Cages” is the story of Jack Dogherty, a fisherman and beachcomber living on the coast of Co. Clare on Ireland’s Atlantic coast. Jack had always wished to see a Merrow – a creature that (as in Sting’s memory of the story) is somewhat like a man, and somewhat like a fish:

“One tremendous blustering day, before he got to the point whence he had a view of the Merrow’s rock, the storm came on so furiously that Jack was obliged to take shelter in one of the caves which are so numerous along the coast; and there, to his astonishment, he saw sitting before him a thing with green hair, long green teeth, a red nose, and pig’s eyes. It had a fish’s tail, legs with scales on them, and short arms like fins. It wore no clothes, but had the cocked hat under its arm, and seemed engaged thinking very seriously about something.”

The Merrow, whose name is Coomara, turns out to be a very friendly sort of fellow, and because this is Ireland and someone always knows one of your relations, Jack learns that the Merrow and his grandfather were old friends. Coomara invites Jack to his home under the sea for a slap-up meal, lending him a hat which lets him breathe underwater. Jack is perturbed about entering the briny depths, but finds Coomara’s home perfectly civilised, if a little rustic. Overall, the feeling of the story up to this point is that a Merrow is just another kind of person – odd-looking, but somehow still ‘one of us’.

After a long, elaborate dinner and an impressive amount of alcohol (they’re both in the habit of rescuing bottles from shipwrecks, and the cool under the sea prevents it going to their heads), the Merrow shows Jack around, inviting him to admire his various treasures, and that’s when a cultural gap emerges. Coomara has a collection of lobster pots which he proudly introduces as the Soul Cages:

“Arrah! what souls, sir?” said Jack, in amazement; “sure the fish have no souls in them?”
“Oh! no,” replied Coo, quite coolly, “that they have not; but these are the souls of drowned sailors.”
“The Lord preserve us from all harm!” muttered Jack, “how in the world did you get them?”
“Easily enough: I’ve only, when I see a good storm coming on, to set a couple of dozen of these, and then, when the sailors are drowned and the souls get out of them under the water, the poor things are almost perished to death, not being used to the cold; so they make into my pots for shelter, and then I have them snug, and fetch them home, and is it not well for them, poor souls, to get into such good quarters?”

Jack is “thunderstruck” (though not enough to spurn his host’s excellent brandy), and after Coomara sends him home, he devises a plan to release the sailors’ souls. Sending his unknowing wife off on a trip to a holy well for the sake of their own souls, he invites Coomara to dinner and attempts to get him drunk. Adding tension to the story, his first try leaves the Merrow perfectly clear-headed, but luckily Jack’s wife’s journey is a multi-day affair, and Coomara doesn’t question two dinner invitations so close together.

Jack’s secret weapon is poitín – an illicit and very strong drink distilled from potatoes. Apparently his grandfather never introduced the Merrow to that one! While Coomara is insensible, Jack borrows his hat and makes his way back to the Merrow’s home on the seabed. To Jack, the souls are invisible, so as he lifts one lobster pot after another to release them, he has to content himself with “a sort of little whistle or chirp” as each soul leaves its cage. There’s a brief worry over whether he’ll be able to return to the surface without Coomara’s tail to hold onto, which is how he managed it before, but a big fish comes by and all is solved.

Here the story veers into broad comedy. Jack’s wife returns to find the Merrow passed out on her kitchen floor, and assumes her husband has “made a beast of himself with drink” until she runs into Jack outside. Her anger abates when she hears of his saving of the souls, and, rather anticlimactically, we are told that Coomara “never missed” them. Jack’s acquaintance with the Merrow continues for several years, and as Coomara continues collecting souls, every so often Jack repeats the whole procedure, until Coomara is seen no more, and Jack assumes he has died or left that part of the country. So that’s it: this creature, who has behaved monstrously without ever thinking of it that way, is a good pal until he dies or moves house.

Croker collected the stories he anthologised from a number of contacts in Ireland. He also larded them with a literary style, humour and stereotypes, which may be unfortunate given that the collection was to increase the profile of Irish folklore in the wider world. Most significantly, Croker had lost his original manuscript, and the published version is what he could reconstruct with the help of other writers, including Thomas Keightley, a pioneer in the study of folklore. However, when the second volume was published, containing “The Soul Cages”, it bore only Croker’s name. This brought criticism, as on folklore blog Writing in Margins, which calls it a ‘Fake Folktale‘.

Keightley republished “Soul Cages” in The Fairy Mythology (1828), and in a later edition would admit that it was not a piece of folklore collected in the field, but a story of his own devising, based on the German tale “Der Wassermann und der Bauer” (“The Waterman and the Peasant“), no. 52 in the Deutsche Sagen published by the Brothers Grimm. The story’s provenance has been viewed as Keightley hoaxing the other folklorists, but in an 1829 letter to Wilhelm Grimm, Keightley claimed that it had been Croker’s idea to cobble the story together, and that Croker made changes after it left Keightley’s hands.

Keightly’s confession is further complicated by his claim to have afterwards found sources in Ireland, in Cork and Wicklow, who knew the story as Keightley himself had written it, except that the souls were in upturned flowerpots, rather than lobster pots. It’s also possible that in the intervening years, book distribution and people’s memories of the story being read to them in childhood, by way of Grimm even, could have reintroduced it to the oral tradition.

And what of its cultural afterlife? The literary critic Richard Pine has argued that it’s the basis for Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale “The Fisherman and his Soul,” which involves a fisherman, a mermaid, and a detached and wandering soul, though to my mind the resemblance is slight when looking at the story as a whole. Going back to Newcastle, by 1851, the North East of England had the fourth largest Irish population in England and Wales combined, so if the story was being told by Irish people, it might eventually have found its way to Sting through their descendants. Given the Deutsche Sagen route of dissemination, a version of “The Soul Cages” must appear in any number of books.

Whatever the truth of its origins, reading it now, we might ask: what’s the moral of this story? Should we keep inviting our own Watermen and Merrows to our tables, and simply accept that it’s our responsibility, every now and then, to go and release the souls that they just keep on capturing? Or should we tell the Watermen to stop their activities once and for all, and leave other souls at peace?


The Wuthering Heights of Down

We wrote this a decade a go for Northern Ireland’s much-missed Verbal Magazine, when Twilight was all the rage.

Wuthering Heights is back in the book shops! Clad in the black, red and white of supernatural teen novels like Twilight, with a sticker proclaiming it “Bella and Edward’s favourite book”. Perhaps not altogether coincidentally, a new film adaptation is in the making of what has been hailed as the greatest love story ever told. It’s been filmed before, most notably in 1939 with Laurence Olivier and in 1992 with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche.

Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer in Andrea Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights” (2011)

The latter version opens with Emily Brontë striding over the moors. She’s got the requisite period bonnet and voluminous dress, but as played by Irish dilettante pop artist Sinead O’Connor, we can imagine a pair of Doc Martins underneath. She is everything we expect, all wild eyed and in a world of her own, haunted by the spectres she sees amongst the standing stones. And if we hear a faint trace of the Irish in the prologue narrative, well… the Irish accent of the Brontë sisters has been commented upon!

Their father, Patrick Brontë, didn’t always go by that name, but was born as Patrick Branty (or Prunty; spelling was fast and loose) in Rathriland, County Down. When he moved to Cambridge to study theology in 1802 he Anglicised his name and added an extra flourish, the umlaut on the ‘e’, to make sure people would pronounce it with two syllables. This schoolmaster’s precision stayed with him through life; before escorting his daughters to Brussels he compiled a notebook of “conversational terms, suitable for a traveler” which, he admonished himself, “must be fully mastered”.

Patrick Bronte’s birth ‘house’

Patrick married and became a parson, moving his family to Haworth in 1820. When he lost his wife to cancer, he was faced with not only tending to his flock but also to his 6 small children. He thought to have the perfect solution in a recently opened boarding school for poor clergy children, but living conditions turned out to be poor and when his eldest daughters died there of tuberculosis Patrick decided to tutor the surviving children himself. And, being the peculiar man that he was, he had his own ideas about this.

Unusually, he taught them to think for themselves and he instilled in them a love for literature. Where other girls embroidered and learnt to become good wives, the Brontë sisters, with their brother Branwell, read Wordsworth, Byron and Scott. Their unusual education, lack of family roots in Yorkshire and their social position as parson’s children resulted in them growing up with a sense of themselves as strangers. Charlotte sought social acceptance and instigated the publication of first their poems and later their books, but Emily was happy enough to be on her own and keep her poetry to herself.

From Kate Beaton’s “Hark, A Vagrant!”

Ironically, when the name of Brontë is mentioned, what springs to mind first is not Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, not even Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, but Emily’s Wuthering Heights. And it is the most powerful of the books, dealing with the obsessive bond between the spoilt Cathy Earnshaw and the unkempt Heathcliff, broken when Cathy rejects him for a genteel marriage. Heathcliff then embarks on a generation-spanning campaign for Cathy and for the house of Wuthering Heights itself; beating, kidnapping, manipulating and disinheriting all who stand between him and his desires. This is a story of revenge, not love.

Critics were impressed by the novel’s power, its morals and structure merely raising some eyebrows, though some female writers of a certain standing found it “too odious and abominably pagan”. Emily didn’t care. She had not sought publication, did not depend on the opinion of others, and in any case, she died soon afterwards. Charlotte however wanted to be one of the ‘worthy women’ and believed that her society would never accept a female author calculatedly producing a character as wild and coarse as Heathcliff. It reflected badly on her sister, and by association on herself.

Sinéad O’Connor as Emily Brontë (1992)

Her introduction to the second edition of Wuthering Heights reads like pre-emptive damage control and emphasizes its flaws. She attributed the book to “fate or inspiration”, with Emily as the “Mystic of the Moors”, a sort of literary shaman who had unconsciously channeled the primal energies of that bleak landscape and its inhabitants onto the page. After Charlotte’s death, her friend and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell went one further, launching the image of Emily as a savage, beating her dog to a pulp and communicating in grunts.

This view was probably inspired by Heathcliff’s brutality, and though much of his character was rooted in hers, Emily kept the parsonage going, and tended to her almost blind father, the elderly servant and her wastrel brother who slowly drank himself into his grave. Wuthering Heights exposes her buried urges, the needs that are rejected by circumstance and society. Emily’s displaced identity is in Heathcliff too; it has been theorised that he was an Irish Traveller, and the unknown language he spoke could have been a homage to the accent that marked Patrick Brontë and his children as outsiders in Haworth.

Heathcliff, Wild and Windy!

The crude, uneducated Heathcliff also represents a more personal rejection, and it doesn’t take much to find in the dark halls of Wuthering Heights the unhappy, uncultured life that the former Patrick Branty escaped. Oddly, the dialect spoken by the zealous servant Joseph isn’t quite Yorkshire but owes more to Ulster vowels, and it seems that for this pious character Emily has reached back for the words of her father’s boyhood.

By 1855, Patrick had outlived all his children. He’d always been active on behalf of the community, instigating the building of a Sunday School and fighting against laws that would replace local charity with the dreaded workhouse. The health of his children had been undermined when the adjoining graveyard poisoned their well, and their death now sparked off a new crusade; thanks to his efforts the people of Haworth finally had clean water in 1856. He died at the parsonage 6 years later at the age of 84, to the intense grief of his parishioners.

Patrick Brontë

Patrick was born in a hovel and grew up as a peasant without shoes. He got a rudimentary education but had a passion for poetry, and knew Paradise Lost by heart as a boy. He had a variety of odd-jobs, until his intelligence earned him an appointment as schoolmaster, and when Patrick was asked to go to Cambridge, he jumped at the chance. If his 1811 Cottage Poems romanticized the rough cottages and hand-to-mouth existence of his childhood, it was in the manner of one who enjoys a peek but would not choose to live like that. Patrick himself only returned to Ulster once, upon his ordination, and only briefly at that.

Heathcliff’s brutality in Wuthering Heights may disturb us, but we do admire his infiltration of a class-bound world, his rise from a pauper background to a man of standing. The same admiration we owe this shoeless County Down peasant who became a pillar of Yorkshire society. The 7th of June this year will mark the 150th anniversary of Patrick’s death – perhaps the perfect opportunity to embrace this prodigal son again and visit the Brontë Homeland in County Down.

More information on the Brontë Interpretative Center and the Brontë Homeland trail can be found here.