Sunday, 30 July 2017

‘Westward Ho!’ takes me
from Mungret to Kilcoole
and childhood reading

‘Westward Ho!’ in Mungret, Co Limerick … on the road back to memories of early childhood reading (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

On the road from Limerick to Askeaton, Mungret is an attractive village that is quickly being absorbed into the city as a village. Mungret, Co Limerick, has a large, historic monastic site, and is also known for the former Jesuit college that still dominates the skyline.

But for some years Mungret has had only one pub, known as Westward Ho!, and this is now on the market to lease as ‘a substantial pub/restaurant.’ It includes a large lounge area, bar area, four rooms on the first floor and large afrea suitable for a beer garden.

But it was not the pub or its location that first caught my imagination.

For many people on their way from Limerick heading west to the port at Foynes or the beach at Ballybunion, the name may seem appropriate. But the name is also a reminder of Westward Ho!, the historical novel by Charles Kingsley published in 1855.

I still remember first reading Westward Ho! when I was a boy of 8. We were spending the summer in a house in Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, and I remember the year because it was the year of the Rome Olympics.

It was a house with a sunny veranda, close to the coast, filled with books and the only house my parents ever found that also had a piano. Nearby were the ruins of an old house with bats that provided interesting watching as those summer days came to a close.

I have often tried to locate that house as an adult, but I have never managed to find it. Perhaps it has been rebuilt beyond recognition, or is hidden behind high walls.

The house was close enough to Dublin so that it allowed my father to commute into work during the day, while he seemed to spend the summer evenings and the weekends playing golf. The beach was close by, and we had no fear of crossing the Dublin-Wexford railway line on our way to the shore. On those sunny days, we also enjoyed picking blackberries on the way to and from the beach, so it must have been about this time of the year.

I can still recall playing in the gardens in front of this house, with a small brook running by a tall stone wall. And I still have a clear memory of the books in the house I read that summer as an eight-year-old: Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley, Kidnapped and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which was attractive to someone of my age not because of its religious fervour but because its ghoulish illustrations had a certain hold over a boy’s imagination, as had the adventures described by Charles Kingsley in Westward Ho!.

As my sisters and cousins were reading Little Women and The Water Babies, or learning to pick out ‘Chopsticks’ on the piano, I was enthralled by the books in the house, and even ventured into my first reading of the King James Version of the Bible.

Westward Ho! was written by Charles Kingsley eight years before The Water-Babies (1863), a tale about a chimney sweep, and ten years before Hereward the Wake (1865), which was regularly serialised in boys’ comics during my childhood.

If my parents were ever aware of Kingsley’s alleged racism in his descriptions of Irish people, they never alluded to it, and they never stopped us reading his books. Perhaps they had little care about what we read, just as they cared little whether we had any musical education yet never stopped us playing on the piano in the house in Kilcoole.

Kingsley wrote in a letter to his wife from Ireland in 1860, telling her: ‘I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country ... to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black one would not see it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.’

The vile anti-Irish images continue in The Water-Babies. There is the fisherman Dennis, who always tells his masters pleasant lies, ‘but, instead of being angry with him, you must remember that he is a poor Paddy, and knows no better.’ There are the ‘wild Irish’ who ‘would not learn to be peaceable Christians,’ but prefer to ‘brew potheen ... and knock each other over the head with shillelaghs, and shoot each other from behind turf-dykes.’

There are the simian-like Doasyoulikes, an indolent and lazy people who ‘lived very much such a life as those jolly old Greeks in Sicily, who you may see painted on the ancient vases.’ But they may be an offensive, thinly-veiled metaphor for the Irish, whose ugliness is explained by their diet, for ‘when people live on poor vegetables instead of roast beef and plum-pudding, their jaws grow large, and their lips grow coarse, like the poor Paddies who eat potatoes.’

In Hereward the Wake, the hero finds refuge in Ireland among the Vikings, who are civilised and live in cities like Dublin, Waterford and Limerick, while the native Irish are deceitful, dishonest and treacherous.

It was only later in life that I realised Westward Ho! was also a lesson in what Kingsley saw as the faults and failings of Roman Catholicism in the Reformation period. Kingsley was also highly critical of Cardinal John Henry Newman, accusing him of untruthfulness and deceit, which prompted Newman to write his Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

And so, given a strong Irish perception of Kingsley as a writer who was prejudiced against Irish people and against Roman Catholics, it surprised me that a popular pub in Ireland could be called ‘Westward Ho!’ It is even more surprising as the pub is so close to a former Jesuit college and the novel repeatedly attacks the worst excesses of the Spanish Jesuits and the Inquisition.

But my childhood excitement at reading Kingsley’s Westward Ho! over half a century ago still returned with joy to my memory when I noticed the name of the pub in Mungret, and I have had a life-long affection and respect for many of the political and theological values of the Revd Charles Kingsley (1819-1875).

Kingsley was an Anglican priest, university professor, social reformer, historian and novelist. He is particularly associated with Christian Socialism, the working men’s college, and labour co-operatives that led to the working reforms of the progressive era.

Kingsley was born in Holne, Devon, the elder son of the Revd Charles Kingsley, and he spent his early childhood in Clovelly, Devon, where his father was the curate (1826-1832) and later the rector (1832-1836). He entered Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1838 and graduated in 1842.

From 1844, he was Rector of Eversley, Hampshire. In 1860, he became Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge. Kingsley resigned from Cambridge in 1869 and from 1870 to 1873 he was a canon of Chester Cathedral. In 1873, he was made a canon of Westminster Abbey. When he died in 1875, he was buried in Saint Mary’s Churchyard, Eversley.

Kinglsey was a friend of prominent Victorians such as Charles Darwin, John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens and Alfred Lord Tennyson. He was one of the first public figures to welcome Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, and had a lengthy correspondence with Thomas Huxley about Huxley’s early ideas on agnosticism. Darwin added an edited version of Kingsley’s remarks to the next edition of On the Origin of Species, and when a heated dispute developed over human evolution, Kingsley gently satirised the debate, known as the Great Hippocampus Question, as the ‘Great Hippopotamus Question.’

His books include The Heroes (1856), a children’s book about Greek mythology, and several historical novels, including Hypatia (1853), Hereward the Wake (1865) and Westward Ho! (1855).

The Water-Babies (1863), a tale about a chimney sweep, illustrates Kingsley’s concern for social reform. Kingsley’s social and political values were influenced by Frederick Denison Maurice.

Westward Ho! is based on the adventures of an Elizabethan corsair Amyas Preston, who becomes Amyas Leigh in the novel. The book celebrates England’s victories over Spain in the Elizabethan era and is based on the real-life Preston Somers Expedition in 1595. This was a daring raid in which the Spanish inland colonial city of Caracas in South America was captured and plundered by English privateers led by Amyas Preston and George Somers.

In Westward Ho!, Amyas sets sail with Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and other privateers to the New World, where they battle with the Spanish. Amyas is an unruly child and as a young man he follows Sir Francis Drake to sea. Amyas loves local beauty Rose Salterne, as does almost everyone else, and much of the novel involves the kidnap of Rose by a Spaniard.

Amyas spends time in the Caribbean coasts of Venezuela seeking gold, and eventually returns to England at the time of the Spanish Armada, finding his true love, the beautiful Indian maiden Ayacanora, in the process. Yet fate had blundered and brought misfortune into Amyas’s life, for not only had he been blinded by a freak bolt of lightning at sea, but he also loses his brother Frank Leigh and Rose Salterne, who were caught by the Spaniards and burned at the stake by the Inquisition.

The title of Charles Kingsley’s ‘Westward Ho!’ recalls from the traditional calls of boat taxis on the River Thames (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A prominent theme of the novel is the 16th-century fear of Roman Catholics, and it repeatedly shows the Protestant English correcting the worst excesses of the Spanish Jesuits and the Inquisition.

The full title of the book is Westward Ho! Or The Voyages and Adventures of Sir Amyas Leigh, Knight of Burrough, in the County of Devon, in the reign of Her Most Glorious Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, Rendered into Modern English by Charles Kingsley. It is an elaborate title intended to reflect the mock-Elizabethan style of the novel.

But the title also recalls from the traditional call of boat taxis on the River Thames, which would call ‘Eastward Ho!’ and ‘Westward Ho!’ to show their destination and to attract passengers. The title is also recalls the play Westward Ho! (1604) by John Webster and Thomas Dekker, who satirised the perils of the westward expansion of London.

The tomb of Bishop George Augustus Selwyn in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Kingsley dedicated the novel to Sir James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak, and Bishop George Selwyn, two leading Victorians he saw as representatives of English heroic values that harkened back to the Elizabethan era.

George Augustus Selwyn (1809-1878) was the first Anglican Bishop of New Zealand. He was Bishop of New Zealand (including Melanesia) from 1841 to 1858, and then Primate of New Zealand from 1858 to 1868. After returning to England, Selwyn was Bishop of Lichfield from 1868 until he died in 1878. He gave his name to Selwyn College in Cambridge. Sir James Brooke (1803-1868), was a born under the British Raj in India, who became the first White Rajah of Sarawak in Borneo.

Westward Ho! is set in Bideford in North Devon during the reign of Elizabeth I, and so became the inspiration for the unusual name of Westward Ho!, a seaside village near Bideford and the only place name in Britain to include an exclamation mark.

Because of the success and popularity of Kingsley’s novel and a growing Victorian fashion for seaside holidays, entrepreneurs in Bideford realised the opportunity to develop tourism in the area. The Northam Burrows Hotel and Villa Building Company was formed in 1863, and was chaired by Isaac Newton Wallop (1825-1891), 5th Earl of Portsmouth and the landlord of Enniscorthy, Co Wexford.

The company prospectus admitted ‘the recent publication of Professor Kingsley’s Westward Ho!’ had ‘excited increased public attention to the western part, more especially, of this romantic and beautiful coast. Nothing but a want of accommodation for visitors has hitherto prevented its being the resort of families seeking the advantages of sea bathing, combined with the invigorating breezes of the Atlantic …’

The hotel built by the company was named the Westward Ho! Hotel, and the adjacent villas were also named after the book. As the development expanded, the settlement also became known as Westward Ho! … with the exclamation mark.

The United Services College was founded in the village in 1874. Rudyard Kipling spent several of his childhood years at Westward Ho!, attending the United Services College, which has since been absorbed by Haileybury College, now in Hertfordshire. His collection of stories, Stalky & Co (1899), is based on his school days there.

The village has become more residential as holiday camps closed and houses and flats were built. Today, Westward Ho! is known for its surfing seas and the long expanse of clean sand. The seaward part of the village lies within the North Devon Coast, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

So, in some remote way, Westward Ho! not only brings me back to my childhood and early reading, but also has connections with Enniscorthy, Lichfield and Cambridge.

The Westward Ho! pub in Mungret first opened in 1896, and there was widespread concern when it closed its doors two years ago.

However, the management insisted at the time that it was ‘business as usual’ at the bar and that the premises had closed only to carry out renovations. It is the last remaining pub in Mungret village. The only bar facility in Mungret is the local GAA club, but it is often booked out for private events.

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