Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The bigamist, the Balkanist, the banker, the big speech and the big house

The Dublin-born actor-playwright Dion Boucicault's bigamous marriage to a 25 year old Australian actress - he was 65 at the time - landed him much attention and helped fill theatres in America while he disentangled himself from his prior entanglement. One play of his at this time was called Lend Me Your Wife. Given the fate of the first Mrs. Boucicault - it was said he pushed her off a mountain-top in Switzerland - the wronged second was probably lucky to get things sorted out in the courtroom. He was very familiar with the legal system, having been declared bankrupt three times, but in his chaotic life, now largely forgotten, he pulled off some real achievements. He wrote around 150 plays, and some of them were big hits in London and New York. He is credited with the invention of the theatrical matinee, obtaining royalties for playwrights in the English and American theatres and changes to the U.S. copyright law that gave the authors the right to print and publish their work. He had a very public affair with another actress Emily Jordan, that culminated in a farcical encounter with her husband. Boucicault was visiting Emily in her rooms (she had moved out of her husband's home) when Mr. Jordan turned up. Boucicault hid in the rooms of another lodger, a Colonel Gibbon, who was out. As Col. Gibbon returned home, the marital brouhaha was in full swing, and the colonel was asked to intercede, which he did by calling the police and having Jordan arrested. Jordan sued Gibbon for false arrest and in the ensuing court case, Boucicault's adultery was made very public, although it took the then-Mrs. B another 19 years to get around to divorcing him. (The DIB calls the wronged husband Gibson, but I think that's incorrect.)

The DIB has a standard format for presenting its entries: surname, forename (birth year-death year) and professional description. It's the last piece that so often makes you want to read on: thus, "BOURCHIER, James David (1850-1920), journalist and Balkan intermediary". If I'd known I could have been a Balkan intermediary I would have studied harder at school. (A fellow postgraduate student ended up as head of the Bulgarian service of the BBC, so even then I should have known it was feasible.) Bourchier, a Limerick man, became a journalist because he went deaf following an attack of measles and had to stop teaching. The DIB entry has a segue that begs a thousand questions: "Having engaged in some journalism - the Globe published some articles he had written on evictions in Ireland - he was offered in 1888 the post of Balkan correspondent of The Times." Of course he was. In Byronic fashion, he threw himself into advocacy of anti-Turkish independent movements, which in a journalistic sense somewhat vitiates the "honesty and disinterestedness" with which the DIB credits him, although that refers more to his relations with the independence-seeking locals. It's claimed he won "the trust and affection of presidents and peasants alike", which sounds like gilding the lily.  Regardless, he appears to have been indefatigable in the Bulgarian cause, and was very disappointed when it sided with Germany and Austria-Hungary in the First Wold War; despite this, he believed that the post-war Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine, which forced Bulgaria to pay substantial reparations and hand over land to Greece, Romania and the newly-formed Yugoslavia, wss unfair. The Bulgarians certainly appreciated his efforts: declared national mourning when he died, named a street in Sofia after him and put his face on three different stamps. If he hadn't caught the measles he probably would have died a schoolteacher.

The de Burghs arrived in Ireland  with the Normans around 1175 and spawned a vast array of surnames: de Burgo, de Burca, Bourke and Burke. There are 17 pages of Bourkes in the DIB, but I couldn't get involved with many of the predictable procession of aristos and clergy. However, one such, Patrick Bourke, interested me a lot. His father, a grocer and publican, lost his business and Patrick had to leave school at the age of 14, whereupon he joined the civil service. Two years later, he transferred to the Inland Revenue, and two years after that, he entered Trinity College Dublin, while continuing to hold down his full time job. (Ironically, Trinity was regarded as the establishment - Protestant - college, while University College Dublin, more broadly based and Catholic-identified turned him down because it didn't believe he could make the lectures.) He won a foundation scholarship, three gold and four silver medals. He graduated in four years, began training as a barrister and topped his class in the final exams. All the while, he continued to work as the Inland Revenue, where he became the youngest-ever full inspector of taxes, at the age of 22. He crossed over into the private sector and became a banker, where he oversaw the consolidation that created Allied Irish Bank, one of the country's major retail banks.  Just his c.v. made me exhausted.

Thomas Francis Bourke had one of those lives which seems impossible but which in the nineteenth-century revolutionary movement was almost typical. His family was uprooted from Tipperary by the famine and moved around north-eastern American and southern Canada. He became a peripatetic house painter and found himself in New Orleans at the outbreak of the civil war.  He joined the confederate army, fought at Antietam and Gettyburg, was wounded, taken prisoner and spent the rest of the war in Fort Delaware, or rather the swamp by the fort, in which more than 2,000 prisoners died. After the war, he returned to New York, joined the revolutionaries of the Fenian movement and was sent back to Ireland to take command of the Tipperary district in the 1867 rebellion. His health was so poor that when he was interviewed by the police upon arrival, they believed his story that he wanted to see friends before he died. The rising was a fiasco, and Bourke was taken prisoner, tried for treason and sentenced to death (the sentence was later commuted). His speech from the dock was considered by contemporaries to be one of the great ones, to rival that of Robert Emmett, another leader of a doomed rebellion:
I have ties to bind me to life and society, as strong as any man in this court. I have a family I love as much as any man in this court does his. But I can remember the blessing received from an aged mother's lips, as I left her the last time. She spoke as the Spartan mother did—" Go, my boy. Return either with your shield or upon it." This reconciles me. This gives me heart. I submit to my doom, and I hope that God will forgive me my past sins. I hope, too, that inasmuch as He has for seven hundred years, preserved Ireland, notwithstanding all the tyranny to which she has been subjected, as a separate and distinct nationality, He will also retrieve her fallen fortunes—to rise in her beauty and her majesty, the sister of Columbia, the peer of any nation in the world.
God, mother, nation: the pillars of old-style Irish nationalism, particularly in the physical force tradition that Bourke embraced. How alien all of that would have been to Elizabeth Bowen, born in Dublin but with a family seat in Kildorrey, Co. Cork, less than 40 miles from Thomas Francis Bourke's birthplace. Although identified in so many ways with England, where she was mainly raised, educated and lived, she was connected umbilically to Bowen's Court, the Big House built by her family following the Cromwellian settlement and which she strove to preserve, despite huge financial strain, into the 1960s, when she finally yielded and sold the site for later demolition. In her last years, she remained nearby and was buried in the church next to where the house had been. In one cultural sense, Bourke's story is the quintessentially Irish one, with displacement, burning national identity, anger, resistance and the embrace of martyrdom. But Bowen, like so many others of her class and background, was also yoked to the place, the land, the culture and the country, sometimes with ambivalence, but ultimately with a similar determination.

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