Thursday, January 7, 2010

Inaccurate antiquarians, doomed outlaws and bird psychologists ...

The problem with ecclesiastical history is passages like this:
He was curate of Howth (1750-53), and of Kilgobbin and Taney, also in Dublin (1753-8), rector of Nathlash in the diocese of Cloyne (1749-58), and from 1758 domestic chaplain to Richard Pococke (qv), bishop of Ossory. In 1761 Pococke gave him the livings of Agharney and Attanagh in Ossory which Archdall held until 1785, when he became rector of Slane in the diocese of Meath; he was also prebendary of Cloneamary (1762-4) and or Mayne (1764-72), both in Ossory.
Well, I'm glad we got that straight. Mervyn Archdall, the Dublin divine with the fascinating c.v. just quoted, was in fact quite an interesting antiquary who said of his own work what should be the motto of us harmless drudges everywhere: "I have left that inaccurate which could not be exact, and that imperfect which cannot be completed." I feel his pain. 

On the left foot, as it were, of canonical hardship was Richard Archdekin, the 17th century Jesuit who adopted the nom de plume MacGiolla Cuddy (yes, McGillicuddy, the joke name of so many characters in Hollywood screwball comedies). He knew English, Irish, Latin, Hebrew and Flemish, fled for his life before Cromwell's armies, taught scripture, Hebrew and moral theology in Flanders (Louvain and Antwerp) and published prolifically, in Irish and English. Seven years after his death, in 1700, "an error was discovered in his teaching on philosophical sin, and as a result his book" - a guide for missionary priests in Ireland - "was placed on the prohibited index." No Archdall-style diffidence for him: the "error" was "corrected" in subsequent editions, the "inaccurate" and the "imperfect" being ruthlessly eliminated in his absence.

There are worse ways of correcting error. In 1798, a Ballymena presbyterian, Tam Archer (called "Tom" in the DIB, but I think the Ulster-Scots version may be demotically correct), reacted to the failure of the United Irishmen's rebellion, in which catholics and presbyterians joined forces against the mostly anglican establishment, by engaging in a number of outrages against loyalists, including robbery, torture, rape, murder and arson before being executed in 1800. He's since been romanticised as a pioneer of Ulster protestant resistance and a "glamorous, doomed outlaw." Naturally, a plaque has been erected to his memory in Ballymena.  

After that, it's a relief to turn to the apparently more peaceful Armstrongs. Arthur of that ilk, a Belfast artist who moved to Dublin, was late to be recognized - he was 48 when he became a full member of the RHA - but he was finally acknowledged as a significant landscape painter. Then there were Edmund John and George Francis Armstrong, brothers and forgotten poets: I found them both in my copy of the 4-volume revised edition of the Cabinet of Irish Literature (1902). Dated, fusty stuff in the main, but I found myself quite liking this verse from Edmund's Mary of Clorah:
She was all alone, sweet Mary
Tripping lie a winsome fairy
   Through the woods at break of morn
Laughing to herself, and singing
Rustic snatches that went ringing
  Through the glens like laughs of scorn.
(It's the "Rustic snatches ... laughs of scorn" bit I somewhat like, not the "winsome fairy" stuff.) As for George, I'm sorry the Cabinet chose to reproduce an extract from his verse tragedy Ugone - "favourably received by the chief organs of criticism" - than the more promising-sounding Songs of Wicklow. Some sub-Shakespearean lines from Ugone:
Poor fallen king of men, my own Ugone,
Thou on whose shoulder I hav elaid my head
How many a time, when tears o'erran by face,
And the child's heart withinin me ached for grief,
Touched by the world's indefinite agonies,
Liest thou thus? . . . O, blind my eyes, great Heaven!

Oh dear.  Still, they don't appear to have raped, tortured or murdered anyone. I also warmed to Edward Allworthy Armstrong, author of Bird display: an introduction to the study of bird psychology, and Reg Armstrong, winner of 7 motorcycle World Grand Prix events, including the Isle of Man TT. He had the Honda motorcyle distribution franchise in Ireland in the 1960s: I remember my mother being taken for a spin in Killiney village on one of the first models; always demure, she asked if she could ride sidesaddle. Henry Armstrong, an otherwise apparently conventional Ulster unionist politician, who provided funds for Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe (at a time when the government in the Republic behaved in a less than exemplary way in dealing with the issue).

Also, Robert Williams Armstrong, co-founder of the legendary Belleek pottery. Although a lot of the company's current output, while commercially successful, is somewhat clunky and kitsch, the old stuff can be quite beautiful. I have a small collection of the Tridacna line, much like those illustrated, which is very delicate and lovely. It always makes me think of home.

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