Saturday, 21 January 2017

Aubrey Thomas de Vere, Askeaton’s
own poet, died 115 years ago today

The plaque at the entrance to Saint Mary’s Churchyard, Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am beginning to get to know my new parish, and one of the advantages of the Rectory in Askeaton is finding myself just a short distance from Saint Mary’s Church, the churchyard, and the heart of the village.

The noticeboard outside the church needs to be repainted, but one of the charming features of the churchyard wall is a plaque pointing out this is the burial place of Aubrey Thomas de Vere (1814-1902), who was once regarded as one of Ireland’s great poets and who was a key figure in the Celtic revival in the late 19th century.

Aubrey Thomas Hunt de Vere was born on 10 January 1814 at Curraghchase House (now in ruins) at Curraghchase, Kilcornan, Co Limerick. He was the third son of the poet Sir Aubrey Hunt, 2nd Baronet (1788-1846), and his wife Mary Spring Rice, a daughter of Stephen Edward Rice and Catherine Spring, of Mount Trenchard, Co Limerick.

He was a nephew of Lord Monteagle and a younger brother of Sir Stephen de Vere, 4th Baronet. His sister Ellen married Robert O’Brien, the brother of William Smith O’Brien.

In 1832, his father dropped the original surname Hunt by royal licence, assuming the surname de Vere in reference to his claim to descent from the Earls of Oxford through Jane de Vere, a granddaughter of the 15th Earl, who married Henry Hunt in 1572. With his change of name he become Sir Aubrey de Vere.

The younger Aubrey de Vere, who would also become a poet, was a close friend of the astronomer, Sir William Rowan Hamilton, and through his father’s interests he came to know and admire the work Wordsworth and Coleridge. He was educated privately at home and in 1832 entered Trinity College Dublin, where he read Kant and Coleridge. Later he visited Oxford, Cambridge, and Rome, came into contact with the Oxford Movement, and soon fell under the influence of John Henry Newman. He was also a close friend of the English dramatist Sir Henry Taylor.

His readings in theology and his questions about faith led him to the Roman Catholic Church, and he was received into that Church by Cardinal Manning in Avignon. For a few years, he was a professor in the Catholic University established by Cardinal Newman in Dublin.

Aubrey de Vere’s poetry is known for its serious quality and its religious enthusiasm, and in many of his poems, notably in the volume of sonnets called St Peters Chains (1888), he made rich additions to devotional verse.

However, WB Yeats described de Vere’s poetry as having ‘less architecture than the poetry of Ferguson and Allingham, and more meditation. Indeed, his few but ever memorable successes are enchanted islands in gray seas of stately impersonal reverie and description, which drift by and leave no definite recollection. One needs, perhaps, to perfectly enjoy him, a Dominican habit, a cloister, and a breviary.’

On the other hand, Helen Grace Smith described him as one of the most profoundly intellectual poets of his time. A critic in the Quarterly Review in 1896 said his poetry, that next to Browning’s, showed the fullest vitality, the largest sphere of ideas, covered the broadest intellectual field since Wordsworth.

He is remembered today for the impulse which he gave to the study of Celtic legend and Celtic literature.

His works in verse include The Sisters (1861); The Infant Bridal (1864); Irish Odes (1869); Legends of St Patrick (1872); and Legends of the Saxon Saints (1879). His works in prose include Essays Chiefly on Poetry (1887); and Essays Chiefly Literary and Ethical (1889). He also wrote a volume of travel-sketches, and two dramas in verse, Alexander the Great (1874); and St Thomas of Canterbury (1876).

He regularly visited the Lake Country in England, where he stayed in Wordsworth’s house, and he regarded this as the greatest honour of his life. His veneration for Wordsworth was singularly shown in later life, when he never omitted a yearly pilgrimage to the grave of that poet until advanced age made the journey impossible.

In the 1901 census, he gave his profession as ‘Author.’ He died at Curraghchase 115 years ago today on 21 January 1902, at the age of 88. He never married, and the de Vere name and title died out soon after. He was buried in Saint Mary’s Churchyard, Askeaton.

The grave of Aubrey de Vere, poet, in Saint Mary’s Churchyard, Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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