Saturday, March 13, 2010

The source of bunburying, the harp antiquarian, an expensive architect and the first of the De Burghs

Selina Bunbury is one of those writers you've never heard of who turn out to have been quite important in their time. She published more than 100 books. A few have come back into print through public domain publishers and there's been some academic study of her, but I doubt she'll be a big rediscovery. She wrote like this:
In the gloomy turret-chamber of a strong tower, near to the coast, lay a wounded English knight who, after having won his spurs by early and valiant service with the noble Sir Philip Sidney, and afterwards with the gallant Essex, was reduced to the sad mortification of having had not only his life endangered, but his good looks, for the time at least, very seriously damaged, by the rude stroke of an Irish club.
Much more of that, and you'd want to take a rude stroke of an Irish club to Selina. I only mention her at all because of her surname, and its connection to a bettter Irish writer, Oscar Wilde. In The Importance of Being Earnest, "bunburying" is, of course, the diplomatic excuse for leaving town, on account of the illness or near-death of a friend called Bunbury. While there's a story that the so-called "wickedest man in the world", Aleister Crowley, claimed that Wilde had coined the word through a conflation of the English towns Banbury and Sudbury, it seems far more likely that he was well acquainted with the name, which is not particularly uncommon in Ireland (it has Norman roots). Wilde's fabulous mother Speranza was very well plugged into the Irish literary scene and it seems improbable that Oscar would have been unaware of Selina, or of the mellifluous name on which he conferred immortality.

By the early part of the 19th century Edward Bunting, from Armagh, was already a prominent musician, church organist, piano teacher and performer. He had become fascinated by the Irish harp through his participation in the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792, whereupon he traveled around Ireland collecting tunes which might otherwise have been on the verge of extinction. He published three collections of the "ancient music of Ireland", all of which are miraculously available, for free, on the internet. He tussled with Thomas Moore over the political significance of traditional Irish music but above all preserved the best for all of us. Derek Bell's recordings of the great blind harpist Turlough Carolan, whose work Bunting notated extensively, are sublime examples. I also found a nice harp version of a Carolan piece here.

And with Edward Bunting, I end the first volume of the DIB. 'Flu has pushed me quite far behind schedule, but it's not as if these lives are going away. I turns out that volume 1, at 989 pages, was just a minnow. Step forward volume 2, a muscular 1148 pages! Much work to be done.

It's not explained in the DIB what "legal reasons" prevented the burial at St. Fin Barre's Cathedral, Cork of its architect, William Burges, and I'd really like to know. He won a competition for the commission in 1863; even though the cost of building the cathedral was capped at £15,000: not unusually for major architectural works, the actual building vastly overran its budget, and eventually cost more than £100,000. Burges, who was English and a leader of the gothic revival, sounds like a sympathetic figure: he dressed like a medieval architect, liked pubs that mounted rat hunts (maybe not so sympathetic) and "often greet[ed] his friends with a parrot on either shoulder" (not sure if this means one parrot alternating shoulders or two, split between each shoulder). Even though he didn't get his funeral in Cork, there was a memorial service: according to the DIB, all the church bells were silent on that day.

I imagine that when William de Burgh was en route to Ireland in 1185, bent on conquest and the acquisition of more wealth, at both of which he proved very successful, he little imagined that 800 years later his direct descendant would become famous for composing and performing Patricia the Stripper, surely one of the most dismal attempts at commercial salaciousness of all time. Chris de Burgh isn't in the DIB, although I suppose he will be one day, but there are plenty of William's direct and indirect progeny - de Burghs, de Burgos, Burghs, Burkes and the like - to take us through 74 pages of volume 2. A lot of them were in the conquering and subduing business, and tend to merge together in my mind. But there are some other pleasures to be found, among them Thomas Burgh, a military engineer and architect, who built the magnificent library at Trinity College, one of those sights that all guide books steer you to see but which never disappoints. He also wrote a book on how to measure the areas of rectangles. (I thought you multiplied one side by the other, but it's obviously more complicated than that.)

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