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Bohemian Rhapsodist

Mícheál Ó hAodha

Walter Starkie: An Odyssey, by Jacqueline Hurtley, Four Courts Press, 320 pages, €49.50, ISBN: 978-1846823633

How does on recreate or resituate a “character” and a Renaissance man-type personality as complex and as multifaceted as Walter Starkie?

Some would say you would be foolish to try to place this chameleon-like figure within the social, political and intellectual currents of his times; certainly, both the zeal of the scholar and the stubbornness of the detective would be required. Yet this is the huge task that Jacqueline Hurtley has set herself in this biography to which she diligently devoted the best part of two decades. The results are extremely impressive. This is a hugely comprehensive biography of a man for whom it would have been difficult for most scholars to trace thoroughly even one of his many personas.

Starkie’s talents and interets are difficult to enumerate: a noted Hispanic scholar, fluent Romani speaker, musician, part-time reporter or interlocutor with the dictatorial regimes of Generals Primo de Rivera and Franco and Italy’s Mussolini, travel writer, theatre director, part-time diplomat, academic, folklorist, noted authority on Gypsy (Roma) music across a wide range of countries including France, Spain, Romania and Hungary, British colonial representative, or “stage-Irishman” as the contingencies of the moment required; an Anglo-Irishman who associated with the leading figures of the Irish Literary Revival and yet who had a more expansive vision and insight regarding Gaelic culture than most of his contemporaries. Starkie was a Europhile – before the term even existed ‑ and a man who despite his Victorian-romantic or bohemian image was politically astute beyond his years; he was a “spin-doctor” long before such a word existed or carried some of the negative connotations that it now has.

Because Starkie became better known for his travel books, including Raggle Taggle – subtitled “Adventures with a fiddle in Hungary and Roumania” – the fact that there was much more to him was to a degree occluded to a great degree, at least until the appearance of this compelling new biography.

The salient biographical facts are as follows. Born in Killiney, Co Dublin, in 1894, Walter Starkie was the eldest son of William Joseph Myles Starkie and May Caroline Walsh. His father was a noted Greek scholar and the last Resident Commissioner of National Education for Ireland when it was still part of the United Kingdom. His mother’s family was from Kerry. His aunt, Edyth Starkie, was an established painter, married to Arthur Rackham, and his godfather John Pentland Mahaffy, tutor to Oscar Wilde. Starkie grew up surrounded by writers, artists, bohemians and academics, including the academic Enid Starkie, who was his sister.

Educated at a British public school (Shrewsbury) and Trinity College, Dublin, he was an excellent scholar and graduated in 1920 with first class honours in classics, history and political science. Though the young Starkie won first prize for violin at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in 1913, his father was keen on a more traditional career than music for his son and consequently turned down an opportunity for Walter to audition for Sir Henry Wood, then conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Starkie’s early musical influences were prestigious. His violin teacher was the Italian virtuoso Achille Simonetti, who had himself been taught by Camillo Sivori, a pupil of Paganini.

Initially, it seemed as if Walter would enter academia, given his family connections and predilections in this area. His father was appointed president of Queen’s College, Galway in 1897 and Walter was taken aged five on family boating trips on Lough Corrib. On such trips he acquired his first impressions of “wandering fiddlers”, jarveys, boatmen and others deemed to be lower on the social scale or existing on the margins of mainstream life. Like other Irish writers and artists of the period, Pádraic Ó Conaire for example, he was in later life to seek out the company of such people.

Starkie was drawn to the adventurous and bohemian life; this attraction would take him half-way across the western world and see him witnessing the profound changes blowing through Spain and Italy, together with other parts of Europe, in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. This began in Italy during World War I, where the warmer climate eased his chronic asthma and where, having joined the YMCA, he provided both education and entertainment for British troops. It was following the armistice of November 1918, in the town of Montebello Vicentino, that he first immersed himself in Gypsy (Roma) music, having befriended some Hungarian prisoners of war. Starkie’s promise to visit these Gypsies subsequently – he did so years later ‑ once they were safely repatriated to their home country, would prove a defining moment in terms of his life, his travel writing and his own personal development as a violinist. It was also in Italy that he met his wife, Italia Augusta Porchietti, a Red Cross nurse and part-time operatic singer. Like him, she entertained the troops with music – in her case by singing to the wounded at a hospital ward in Genoa. Starkie and Italia married in 1921 and had a son and a daughter. Starkie’s sojourn in Italy was an important one, and not just in personal terms.

In 1926, he was appointed the first professor of Spanish at Trinity College Dublin, also becoming a lecturer in Italian. Although Ireland was in the early 1920s  teetering on the edge of extreme violence and chaos, the timing of Starkie’s appointment could not have been more appropriate given the state apparatus the then Cumann na nGaedheal administration under WT Cosgrave was developing, one which Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh has described as “under very effective, if often very discreet or hidden, British control”. While bohemian in outlook, Starkie was a smooth operator, and the archetypal “Irishman living on his wits” on the political front. His rather ambivalent position – a minor member of the Anglo-Irish gentry who was also a Catholic, an Englishman who was also an Irishman – stood to his advantage given the make-up of the socio-political milieu that was the nascent Irish state. He lost no time making links with the most powerful political and cultural players in Dublin, describing Cosgrave and his ministers in particularly laudatory terms: “[pursuing] relentlessly the path of duty” with “strong, fearless government”, “strong policy”, “productive of a movement of progress which will restore a country shattered by revolution”.

In 1927, he established an even more prominent position in Irish cultural life when he was appointed director of the Abbey Theatre, a job that he would hold until 1942 but one which would entail mixed blessings. As Jacqueline Hurtley intimates, Starkie was seen as a “safe pair of hands” for this role by both Lady Gregory and Yeats, given the fact that he wasn’t a particularly exclusivist Catholic, had a cultural cachet that encompassed a number of traditions simultaneously, and more importantly still, could be easily manipulated. As Lady Gregory put it:

10 January. L[ennox] R[obinson] writes about the new Director: [Ernest] Blythe [Minister of Finance in the Cosgrave Government wants a Catholic, hasn’t any ideas beyond wanting that. He suggested (a.) Walter Starkie; (b.) T.C. Murray; (c.) Daniel Corkery. George O’Brien suggested [Thomas] Bodkin. Yeats and I favour Starkie, who is of course the obvious choice from the point of view of mental qualifications, he is young, very interested in the theatre, has just published his book on Pirandello, is Professor in T[rinity] C[ollege] D[ublin] in Italian and Spanish, will be Provost some day. But he isn’t a very good Catholic. He is very tractable and wouldn’t give us any trouble. I have written that Starkie is the man, neither of the others would do. We must “have someone we can talk freely to and before”.

1927 saw Starkie back visiting Italy where he met and interviewed Mussolini in Rome’s Palazzo Chigi and where the Italian dictator apparently expressed his admiration not only for “Machiavelli’s doctrines” but for the recently assassinated Free State minister for justice Kevin O’Higgins. In April of the following year, while on a visit to Spain, Starkie would interview General Primo de Rivera, in this case in his capacity as a British representative.

In an article headed “Dictator’s Call to Religion”, where Primo de Rivera lamented what he saw as the egoism then prevalent in modern Europe and called for a return to spiritual values in order to counter this: “We need today more than ever before, a stronger religious feeling in order to cope with the egoism and indifference which is rampant everywhere.” Of particular interest to historians will be Starkie’s thoughts on the burgeoning fascist movement in Europe and the hope that it might act to combat the threat of communism, producing a “new dawn” on the Continent, a hope expressed by many other intellectuals and writers at the time. In answer to his own question, posed in an article: ‑“Whither is Ireland heading – is it Fascism?” ‑ Starkie observed: “In the last five years there are not wanting signs that there is a spiritual awakening among a people that had endured years of anguish, and it is quite possible that Ireland may come to assimilate a great deal of fascist political doctrine, properly understood.”

Starkie’s reign as director of the Abbey would prove difficult on occasion, primarily because of the factionalism and the poisonous politics (deriving largely from the ideologial positions of the major figures – Yeats, Lady Gregory etc ‑ and how those influenced their acceptance or rejection of new plays). In 1928, while Starkie was away in Italy, Yeats, along with Lady Gregory and Lennox Robinson rejected Seán O’Caseys The Silver Tassie, a decision which caused a great deal of controversy and which embittered O’Casey against the Abbey for the remainder of his writing life; to his credit, however, Starkie stuck to his guns and voiced his disagreement with the other board members on his return to Dublin. The play was subsequently performed in London. The Abbey board also rejected Denis Johnston’s modernist play Shadowdance. Starkie was given the unenviable task of giving Johnston the bad news. Returning his play to its author, Starkie wrote on its draft title-page (with reference to Lady Gregory) “The Old Lady Says No!”, a phrase which Johnston subsequently used as a new title for his play, which was produced to considerable acclaim at Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 1929 and which contributed significantly towards building that institution’s international reputation.

The beginning of the Second World War saw the British Council sending a Catholic to Spain (prompted by the Spanish government) as its first representative. Starkie went to Madrid and stayed on for fourteen years, resigning from his directorship at the Abbey in September 1942 and renouncing his fellowship at TCD in 1947.

Having founded the British Institute in Madrid, he went on to open branches in Barcelona, Bilbao, Seville and Valencia. The institute was backed by the British Council and through classes in English, lectures and exhibitions worked to influence Spanish opinion during World War II, whilst helping maintain Spanish neutrality. Although Starkie took the job on the understanding that he would disengage from his studies of Romany Gypsies and their music, the fact is that Spain’s non-belligerent status ensured that it became a place of asylum for refugees from all over Europe, including many Roma who had been driven from their homelands. Starkie became a leading figure in the Madrid arts world and was a catalyst for a great number of cultural occasions and events in the city. During the war the Starkies allowed their house to be used as a refuge for escaping prisoners of war and Jewish refugees fleeing persecution.

Starkie meanwhile kept his hand in on the academic front. Between 1947 and 1956 he was professor of comparative literature at the Complutense University of Madrid, and after he retired from the British Institute he accepted lecturing positions in a number of US universities, finishing up as professor-in-residence at UCLA, where he worked for almost a decade (1961-70). Upon his retirement, he and his wife returned to live in Madrid, where they died within six months of one another in 1976/77. In addition to his recordings, Starkie published a number of texts in translation, among them the version of Don Quixote published by Macmillan in 1954.

It is difficult, in a short review, to do justice to either the quality or the depth of the research which Jacqueline Hurtley has brought to fruition in this compelling biography. Neither is it possible to give more than a glimpse into the many-faceted nature and experience of Walter Starkie, a man who lived by his wits and manipulated his image and identity and whose cultural mark was made across a range of disciplines within both the national and international spheres.

Dr. Mícheál Ó hAodha is a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of History, University of Limerick, Ireland. He has published many books in Irish and English on the history of Irish migration and Irish nationalist history. In addition, his research interests include oral history, subaltern history and the history of “outsider” groups in Ireland. He also writes fiction and poetry. His books have been published with Palgrave (Manchester University Press), Lexington/Rowman and Irish Academic Press amongst others. His next two books are due out shortly with Routledge and New Island. Between 2006 and 2008 he was an AHRC scholar in the School of Arts, Histories and Cultures, University of Manchester. He is a regular contributor to the Irish-language columns of The Irish Times where he writes primarily about art and culture. A recent anthology of short stories relating to the Irish diaspora and written by the twenty or so finest short story writers in Irish is: Thar Toinn: Scéalta Anall (Across the Waves: Stories from Over There) – (2013) – http://www.coisceim.ie/thartoinn.html A book on film is: An Scáileán Mór: Aistí Scannánaíochta; (Dublin: Coiscéim: 2014).



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