Monday, 8 October 2018

Westward Ho and memories of
a boy’s swashbuckling books

The Westward Ho restaurant-bar in Mungret, Co Limerick (photographs: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

On the road from Limerick to Askeaton, Mungret is an attractive village that is quickly being absorbed into the city as a suburb. In recent months, Westward Ho, the only pub is Mungret has been refurbished and reopened as a restaurant bar.

For many people on their way from Limerick heading west to the port at Foynes or the beach at Ballybunion, the name Westward Ho! seems very apposite. 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. I still have a clear memory of the books I read that summer: my first attempted reading of the King James Version of the Bible, as well as Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley, Kidnapped and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which was attractive to a boy of my age not because of its religious fervour but because its ghoulish illustrations had a certain hold over a boy’s imagination.

Westward Ho!was published eight years before The Water-Babies (1863), and ten years before Hereward the Wake (1865). If my parents were ever aware of Kingsley’s alleged racism, they never alluded to it, and they never stopped us reading his books. Kingsley wrote to his wife from Ireland in 1860: ‘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.’ These anti-Irish tirades continue in The Water-Babies, with references to ‘pleasant lies’ told by ‘a poor Paddy’ who ‘knows no better.’ 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.

But my childhood excitement at reading Westward Ho! still returns when I pass through Mungret, and I have retained a respect for many of the values of the Revd Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), an Anglican priest, professor, social reformer, historian and novelist. He is particularly associated with Christian Socialism, working men’s colleges, and labour co-operatives. He was a friend of prominent Victorians such as Charles Darwin, John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens and Alfred Lord Tennyson, and was one of the first public figures to welcome Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859.

Westward Ho! is based on the adventures of an Elizabethan corsair and is based a real-life on the events surrounding the Spanish Armada and an expedition in 1595. A prominent theme is the 16th-century fear of Roman Catholics, and the book describes repeatedly an English view of the worst excesses of Spanish Jesuits and the Inquisition.

When I pass Westward Ho in Mungret, I also think of Kingsley’s Irish-born friend and neighbour in Cambridge, the Revd Professor FJA Hort. When Westward Ho! was about to be published, Kingsley sent the printer’s proofs to Fenton Hort, perhaps seeking not just a second opinion but approval too. Hort was particularly engaged with the descriptions of the Desmond rebellion in Limerick and Kerry, including references to Hort’s ancestors in the FitzMaurice family and the destruction of Carrigafoyle Castle on the Kerry coast, between Ballybunion and Tarbert. Hort could hardly suppress his excitement and wrote eagerly to his friend the bibliophile Henry Bradshaw (1831-1886), a master at Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham (1854-1856). Hort told Bradshaw he had ‘just been reading in the sheets of Kingsley’s Westward Ho!, a capital description of the attempt of the Spaniards to effect a lodgement in Munster in 1580.’

Rev Charles Kingsley

Westward Ho!

Revd Prof FJA Hort

This full-page feature is published in the October 2018 edition of ‘Newslink,’ the diocesan magazine of the United Dioceses of Limerick, Killaloe and Ardfert [p 20]

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