28 January 2021

‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity’

The house at 10 Ashfield Terrace (now 418 Harold’s Cross Road), Dublin, where WB Yeats lived during some of his schooldays (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing a week ago about my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford (1867-1921), and how he died a lonely death in hospital 100 years ago, on 21 January 1921, after his harrowing experiences during World War I in the Dardanelles and Thessaloniki.

Some years after my grandfather’s death, my widowed grandmother, Bridget (Lynders) Comerford, moved to 5 Ashdale Park, Terenure, close to the junction of Terenure Road North, Brighton Square (which, to be honest, is a triangle) and Harold’s Cross Road.

Although my grandmother’s family, like their neighbours, always considered Ashdale Park a part of Terenure, it was still listed as part of Rathmines District for many years. It was an area with interesting literary associations: James Joyce was born at No 41 Brighton Square in 1882, and William Butler Yeats lived part of his childhood, from 1883, at 10 Ashfield Terrace, now 418 Harold’s Cross Road.

But Yeats seems to have been ashamed of his family’s home between Terenure and Harold’s Cross, describing it in 1914 as ‘a villa where the red bricks were made pretentious and vulgar with streaks of grey slate.’ Perhaps this explains why he fostered the myth that he was from Sligo and not from Dublin – or from London.

Today marks the anniversary of the death of the poet William Butler Yeats, who was born in Sandymount Avenue, Co Dublin, on 13 June 1865 and died near Cannes on 28 January 1939.

He was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival, one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre, and in 1923 he was the first Irish writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature: he was followed by George Bernard Shaw in 1925; Samuel Beckett in 1969; and Seamus Heaney in 1995.

Once again, much is being written, said and performed to mark the Yeats anniversary this year. It is interesting that a Dublin-born poet is so often presented as a son of Sligo. His mother was from Sligo, but the myth that he was from Sligo was boosted in recent years by the visit of Prince Charles to the grave of Yeats in Drumcliffe churchyard.

The myth was also recycled by Leonard Cohen at a concert in Lissadell House in 2010. It was a night of poetry and music beneath the slops of Ben Bulben and Cohen was visiting the house where Yeats stayed when he visited the Gore-Booth sisters, the young Eva and the future Countess Constance Markievicz.

To applause, he quoted those lines from Yeats about the sisters:

The light of evening, Lissadell
Great windows open to the south
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle …

Perhaps Yeats would have enjoyed this too as someone who worked and reworked Irish myths and legends in his poetry.

In the grounds of Lissadell House at the Leonard Cohen concert ten years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When the future poet was only a child of two, the Yeats family moved to England in 1867, and in 1877 he was sent to the Godolphin School in Hammersmith, where he spent almost four years.

Although family holidays were spent at his mother’s family home in Sligo, he was born in Dublin and spent most of his childhood years in London.

When the family returned to Dublin in 1880, they lived in Howth, first at Balscadden Cottage and then at Island View, before moving in 1883 to 10 Ashfield Terrace, now 418 Harold’s Cross Road.

Later, my father grew up around the corner in Ashdale Park. But Yeats was ashamed of his family’s home between Terenure and Harold’s Cross, describing it in 1914 as ‘a villa where the red bricks were made pretentious and vulgar with streaks of grey slate.’ Perhaps this explains why he fostered the myth that he was from Sligo and not from Dublin – or from London.

In Dublin, Yeats was sent to the High School, then on Harcourt Street. Despite some misconceptions, he was never a student at Trinity College Dublin – from 1884 to 1886, he was a student at the Metropolitan School of Art, now the National College of Art and Design (NCAD).

After seven years, the family returned to London in 1887. Two years later, in 1889, he met Maud Gonne, who was English-born without any Irish ancestry. He visited Maud Gonne in Ireland in 1891, when she rejected his first proposal of marriage. He would propose to her three more times – in 1899, 1900 and 1901, but she rejected him each time in 1903 married Major John MacBride.

The rise of violent nationalism caused Yeats to reassess his own nationalism, and in Easter, 1916 he wrote:

All changed, changed utterly
A terrible beauty is born

John MacBride had been executed for his role in the Easter Rising, and Yeats made one last proposal to Maud Gonne in mid-1916. Then in 1917, he proposed to her 21-year-old daughter, Iseult Gonne. Later that year, he proposed to 25-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees, and they were married on 20 October 1917.

The world was so changed and transformed WB Yeats could open his poem The Second Coming with these lines about Europe in the aftermath of World War I:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The same could have been said about American politics in recent years, or about British politics throughout the Brexit and post-Brexit debates.

At first, TS Eliot expressed distaste for Yeats, and even mocked Yeats’s membership of the Theosophical Society. Later, following his attendance at the first performance of Yeats’s one-act play, At the Hawk’s Well, and after the publication of ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ in 1919, Eliot softened his opinion of Yeats’s poetry.

No 5 Woburn Walk … the Bloomsbury home of WB Yeats in London from 1895 to 1919 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yeats returned to live in Ireland in 1919, but distanced himself from the passionate intensity of Irish politics until 1922, when he was appointed a Senator in the new parliament of the Irish Free State, and was re-appointed for a second term in 1925.

Meanwhile, in December 1923, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In one speech in the Senate, referring to the Church of Ireland, he said: ‘It is one of the glories of the Church in which I was born that we have put our Bishops in their place in discussions requiring legislation.’

When the Irish Free State was poised to outlaw divorce in 1925, Yeats delivered his famous speech in the new Senate:

I think it is tragic that within three years of this country gaining its independence we should be discussing a measure which a minority of this nation considers to be grossly oppressive. I am proud to consider myself a typical man of that minority. We against whom you have done this thing, are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence. Yet I do not altogether regret what has happened. I shall be able to find out, if not I, my children will be able to find out whether we have lost our stamina or not. You have defined our position and have given us a popular following. If we have not lost our stamina then your victory will be brief, and your defeat final, and when it comes this nation may be transformed.

It was not until 1935, in the Criterion, that TS Eliot publicly praised Yeats, when he called him ‘the greatest poet of his time.’ Eliot continued to praise Yeats, although in a lecture in Dublin in 1936 he regretted that Yeats ‘came to poetry from a Protestant background.’

But there was a nasty streak in Yeats too, and it should not be forgotten. His friendship with Ezra Pound introduced him to Benito Mussolini, whom he admired, and at one time he wrote three marching songs for Eoin O’Duffy’s fascist Blueshirts.

Yeats died in France at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, on this day 82 years ago, 28 January 1939, and was buried in the hilltop cemetery at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. After the death of Yeats, Eliot was invited to give the first annual Yeats lecture to the Friends of the Irish Academy in 1940.

Yeats had frequently spoken about his death with his wife George, who said he told her: ‘If I die bury me up there and then in a year’s time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo.’

In 1948, what was said to be the body of Yeats was moved in a coffin to Ireland on the naval corvette LÉ Macha. The operation was overseen by Maud Gonne’s son, Sean MacBride, who was then the Minister of External Affairs.

The coffin laid in state in Sligo Town Hall before it was given a full state funeral in Saint Columba’s Churchyard in Drumcliffe on 17 September 1948. The scene at Drumcliffe was set by Yeats himself. In his last poem, published in The Irish Times, he wrote:

Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliffe Churchyard Yeats is laid …

The committal service was taken by the Bishop of Kilmore, the Right Revd Albert Edward Hughes, who had been the chaplain to the last Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. As the words ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ were said, a handful of soil was thrown on the coffin. The epitaph on the grave quotes the last lines of Under Ben Bulben:

Cast a cold Eye On Life, on Death. Horseman, pass by!

But the bones moved from Roquebrune were never identified with certainty – his body had been exhumed and transferred to a communal ossuary sometime between 1939 and 1948, before the 10-year-lease on the grave had expired, and bones from other graves were mixed together.

Some writers have identified the actual remains with those of a man Alfred George Hollis who died on the same day and was buried in the same graveyard at the same time.

But then, as Yeats himself once wrote:

Though grave-diggers’ toil is long,
Sharp their spades, their muscles strong,
They but thrust their buried men
Back in the human mind again.

Perhaps my favourite poem by Yeats is ‘Sailing to Byzantium’:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre, And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

WB Yeats was born at No 5 Sandymount Avenue, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Healy 2010/South Dublin County Libraries)

Haunton Church has links
with Pugin, Oxford Movement
and Staffordshire missions

The Church of Saint Michael and Saint James in Haunton … part of Staffordshire’s Catholic history (Photograph: Parish Facebook page)

Patrick Comerford

When I was researching the story of Haselour Hall at Harlaston, I came across the story of the small and unique Catholic community in nearby Haunton, where the church has close links with the de Trafford family of Haselour Hall and the Mostyn family who were descended from the Comberfords of Comberford Hall, and with AWN Pugin, the architect of the Gothic revival in 19th century England.

The Church of Saint Michael and Saint James in Haunton reflects not just Haunton’s but also Staffordshire’s Catholic history. The church has its roots in the three great strands of the Catholic revival in the 19th century: the Oxford Movement, the Gothic revival associated with Pugin, and the new freedoms that enabled old Recusant or Catholic families to fund building churches and schools.

Haunton, a village in southeast Staffordshire, lies on the River Mease, about 11 km north of Tamworth, 15 km east of Lichfield, 10 km north-east of Comberford, and half-way between the neighbouring villages of Harlaston and Clifton Campville. The local authority is Lichfield District Council

The name of Haunton is believed to be Old English, meaning Hagena’s or Hagona’s farm. The chapel of Saint James the Greater at Haunton is mentioned in Domesday, and the chapel at Haunton was part of the parish of Saint Andrew, Clifton Campville, until the Reformation, when the chapel fell into disrepair.

Haunton has a number of listed buildings, including the Grange, the Church of Saint Michael and Saint James and the nursing home, formerly Haunton Hall. The more recent history of Haunton Hall is closely linked with the Church of Saint Michael and Saint James and a community of French nuns.

A Catholic mission was started in Haunton in 1845 by Colonel Charles Edward Mousley (1819-1887), who had inherited Haunton Hall, built in the 1820s. Colonel Mousley also inherited his Catholicism from his Spanish mother and through his father’s links to Staffordshire’s Catholic past.

The Mousley family commissioned AWN Pugin in 1845 to design a chapel at the Hall dedicated to Saint Mary. Soon it too small for a growing Catholic population and there was talk of building a new church on land opposite the hall. The chapel was blessed by Bishop Nicholas Wiseman (1802-1865), later Cardinal Wiseman and Archbishop of Westminster; like Colonel Mousley, Cardinal Wiseman was also born in Spain.

At first, the chapel at Haunton Hall was used mainly by the Mousley family, and Mass was celebrated there seven times a year by the parish priest of Tamworth, who reported in 1852 that there was a congregation of about 10.

In the decade that followed, the influence of the Oxford Movement came to Haunton through the Revd Henry John Pye, Rector of St Andrew’s, Clifton Campville, and the son of the Lord of the Manor of Clifton Campville. Pye was educated at Cambridge and in 1851 he married Emily, daughter of Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873), Bishop of Winchester and previously Bishop of Oxford and Dean of Westminster. Emily was a granddaughter of William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaigner.

After a long and complex spiritual journey, Henry and Emily Pye decided to become Roman Catholics in 1868. It was a difficult decision, Pye had to resign as rector, and for a time he was cut off from his family at Clifton Hall and from his inheritance.

Henry became a barrister and a magistrate and in time was reconciled with his family. By 1880, Henry and Emily had returned to Haunton and they decided to build a new Catholic church to replace Pugin’s chapel. They donated a site but needed more money to realise their dream.

Meanwhile, Augustus de Trafford had moved into to Haselour Hall, about 5 km from Haunton, in 1885. He was a son of a baronet and a member of an old Lancashire Catholic family. Around the same time, the recently widowed Lady (Frances) Mostyn (1826-1899) moved into Haunton Hall as a tenant. The Mostyns are descendants of the Comberford family of Comberford Hall; her husband was Sir Pyers Mostyn (1811-1882), and her son, Francis Mostyn (1860-1939), later became Archbishop of Cardiff (1921-1939).

Together, the Mousley, Pye, de Trafford and Mostyn families found the finances to build a new church on Pye’s land opposite Haunton Hall in 1885. The new church, dedicated to Saint Michael, was extended, using masonry from the ruins of the Chapel of Saint James, and was rededicated to Saint Michael and Saint James. Pye also built a presbytery and gave the whole site to the diocese.

The first burial at the new church was of Colonel Mousley, the effective founder of the mission, who died in 1887.

The church was replaced in 1902 by a new church designed by Edmund Kirby of Liverpool, a pupil of Pugin’s oldest son, Edward Pugin, and was built by Isaac Ward & Son, contractors of Uttoxeter.

Archbishop Edward Ilsley of Birmingham laid the foundation stone of the new nave on 23 May 1901. The church was built of red and white Hollington sandstone with Broseley tile roofs. At the opening on 22 May 1902, Lady Mostyn’s son, Archbishop Mostyn, presided at a Pontifical High Mass and Archbishop Isley preached.

The church was financed with little debt and was consecrated on 20 June 1907, when a new high altar and organ were introduced. The altar was presumably designed by Kirby. The Tablet said ‘the columns are of pavanazzo marble and the super-altars are also of rich marble. The tabernacle is of pure white alabaster, beautifully carved with angels and the emblems of wheat and the vine.’

The original altar in Pugin’s chapel was taken to the Church of Saint John the Baptist in Tamworth ca 1907, but has since been lost but for one panel.

Kirby’s church is a handsome and substantial stone building in the Early English style, with a small timber bell tower. The architectural historian, Sir Niklaus Pevsner, in his guide to Staffordsbire, notes that it looks ‘entirely like’ a Church of England church.

The church is built in red and white Hollington sandstone with a timber bellcote at the west end. It has a distinctive heavy scissor-trussed roof, and the interior fittings are of high quality. It retains the late 19th century chancel and incorporates mediaeval masonry and contains.

The font is in a late 12th century Romanesque style, but its provenance is uncertain. It may have been found next to the River Mease, but another source says it was imported from Treviso. Whatever its origin, it was probably not designed as a font as it displays no obvious Christian symbols.

The 20th century oak pulpit and communion rails are said to have been carved by a nun, although The Tablet reported in 1906 that a pulpit then newly installed was made by Burns & Oates. The proposed west end gallery was never built.

The collection of early 20th century glass in the nave and chancel is mainly by Hardman and Co of Handsworth. They are influenced by Pugin and have strong gothic characteristics. Hardman’s east window is a memorial to Lady Mostyn. Hardman’s nave windows are mostly memorials to members of the Trafford, Pye and Mousley families. The most recent Hardman window in the chancel commemorates Oswald de Trafford who died in 1942.

The Lady Chapel is a later addition. The chapel’s side windows by Alexander Gascoygne were commissioned in 1925 by the Donisthorpe family of Enderby Hall, Leicestershire. Their appearance is almost pre-Raphaelite in style when compared with the Hardman windows.

‘Considerable repairs’ were carried out in 1958 and the church was redecorated in 2002, when a new floor was laid, and new heating and lighting were installed.

The church stands in a large burial ground with mature planting, a presbytery (1905) and the former school. Together with the other buildings and burial ground, the church makes a notable contribution to the local conservation area.

After the church was completed, a community of French nuns, the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Bordeaux, set up a convent in Haunton Hall in 1904. This later became Saint Joseph Convent School for Girls. The school closed in 1987 and is now a community hall. The nuns moved to a new convent, and Haunton Hall became a nursing home. The nuns moved to a house near Clifton Campville in 2010.

Today, Saint Michael and Saint James is a small parish and the Parish Priest, Father Eamonn Corduff, is based at Barton under Needwood. The parish is active and has strong ecumenical links with its Anglican neighbours at Saint Andrew’s Church in Clifton Campville.

Inside Haunton Church (Photograph: Haunton Parish website