August 2014 sees the bicentenary of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s birth in Dublin’s Dominick Street. Le Fanu was the son of a clergyman of the Church Of Ireland, the family having originally been Huguenot refugees. As a youth in Limerick and as a student at Trinity, Le Fanu was to become aware of the peculiar position of his caste in Ireland, a position he found impossible to reconcile politically but which he addressed imaginatively in his fiction. His boyhood days, however, were sheltered from the poisonous realities of early nineteenth century Ireland. His father, Thomas Le Fanu, was rector of the military school in the Phoenix Park and as the extract below from WJ Mc Cormack’s biography of Le Fanu shows, the park offered to the young Le Fanu a perfect idyll of artificial calm.
The Le Fanus stayed eleven years at the Military School, during which Joseph passed through an impressionable childhood. In Seventy Years of Irish Life, William provides examples of his brother’s early genius … the boy’s life was regulated by their father’s clerical duties, and by the military tone of a social world governed by the comings and goings of the highest dignitaries in the land. The nearest parish church was in Chapelizod, and the quaint little village between a weir and a bridge on the Liffey soberly impressed young Le Fanu with its antiquity.
An exception to the routine occurred in 1821. George IV had come to the throne in the previous year amid general celebrations, and he was anxious to consolidate his popularity with a tour of his Irish kingdom. Thomas and Emma were included among the guests at a levee and a drawing-room; as part of the Lord Lieutenant’s retinue, the chaplain to the School was presented to His Majesty. The children watched the king’s procession into Dublin from their grandfather’s house in Eccles street. The Phoenix Park with its official residences and vast open spaces was the ideal arena for military displays, and while the king presided Joseph and William Le Fanu watched a grand review of infantry regiments marching past in their white knee-breeches and long black gaiters … Display, symbol, gesture dominated the military life of Dublin in the years between 1814 and 1826; the disturbed countryside was almost as remote as Waterloo. Of course, the Chief Secretary and his political staff were constantly in touch with developments across the country but that was a side to their activity hidden from a young boy. To him the officials were essentially ceremonial; their duties were public demonstrations of a political orthodoxy. The Phoenix Park, to an imaginative child, was an open-air cathedral, the liturgy political as well as religious, for the two can never be separated in nineteenth century Ireland. Doubtless his father knew all about the implications of city life ‑ the shopkeepers and their bills, relations and their little problems. The boy only saw the splendid integrity of the Phoenix Park, its utter difference to the city and the countryside alike. It was an artificial landscape populated by symbolic figures.