The exhibition Ireland and the English Lake Poets continues in the Long Room of the Old Library this month, running until the end of May. Amongst literary treasures on show, the exhibition features a rare print of Killarney’s Lower Lake by Charles Hunt (after Andrew Nicholl). In this blog post, curator Dr. Brandon Yen explores the impression Killarney made on Wordsworth and his fellow writers.
By the time the English poet William Wordsworth visited Ireland in 1829, Killarney in County Kerry had evolved into a major tourist attraction. In early spring 1813, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his first wife Harriet (née Westbrook) took a cottage on one of the islands in Killarney. Despite complaining about the ‘discomfort and miseries endured at Killarney’, Shelley later wrote of ‘Killarney’s cloud-girt Paradise’ and opined that Italy’s Lake Como exceeded anything he had ‘ever beheld in beauty, with the exception of the arbutus islands of Killarney’.
Wordsworth’s close friend Sir Walter Scott toured Killarney with the Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth in August 1825. Scott’s son-in-law John Gibson Lockhart, who was with them in Killarney, did not think all that highly of the lake scenery there: ‘On the whole, Killarney disappointed us all.’ But Lockhart described an interesting, though somewhat macabre, scene in Killarney’s Muckross Abbey: ‘The whole place is strewn with skulls and bones, and some Cockneys have written Hamlet’s address to Yorick’s head-piece on half-a-dozen of them’.
In August 1826, Henry Crabb Robinson, another friend of Wordsworth, also visited Killarney. On ‘the Killarney Mail’ from Cork, Robinson happened to sit next to the ‘Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell, with whom he agreed on Catholic Emancipation. In Killarney, Robinson enjoyed ‘roasted salmon’ on Innisfallen, an island which had impressed Lockhart a year earlier with its hollies ‘quite like moderate-sized oaks’. And, like Lockhart and many other British tourists at that time, Robinson noticed the ‘bones and fragments of coffins lying about most offensively’ in Muckross Abbey.
In June 1827, shortly before he met Wordsworth in the Lake District, William Rowan Hamilton (newly appointed Professor of Astronomy at Trinity College Dublin) toured Killarney with the Scottish civil engineer Alexander Nimmo. Hamilton liked the ‘beautiful lakes’ and met the painter John Glover there, who let him ‘look on while he was taking several sketches’.
William Wordsworth expressed his wish to visit Killarney as early as 1821. In May that year, he met his future son-in-law Edward Quillinan, a Roman Catholic born to Irish parents in Portugal. Two months later, Wordsworth said he wished to accompany Quillinan ‘on a Tour through a considerable part of his country, including the two extremities, Killarney and the Giant’s Causeway’. This never happened, however. Touring Killarney in 1823, Quillinan imagined that, had Wordsworth been there, he would have been as much inspired as he had been whilst visiting the Scottish Highlands in 1803. Quillinan remarked upon ‘Pretty Kerry women & cows’; there was ‘One lovely girl black-haired & pure skinned as fit for poetry as W[ordsworth]’s Highland Girl.’
County Kerry – Killarney in particular – did not disappoint Wordsworth in 1829. Rather than lamenting the scattered skulls and bones, he noticed the ancient yew in Mucross Abbey and discussed it with Maria Edgeworth’s half-brother Francis Beaufort, who described the tree evocatively as ‘a kind of strange idol, the Image of Superstition’: rising up ‘over all the cloisters’ from ‘the very middle of the court’, the yew left ‘nothing but an endless twilight underneath’. Later that year, Wordsworth said that County Kerry ‘far exceed[ed]’ the rest of Ireland: ‘so much so it well deserves that a leading artist, and a man of taste and general information should unite their powers to illustrate it.’ Remarkably, whilst staying in Killarney, he conquered Carrauntoohil. ‘The mountain’, Wordsworth wrote, was ‘itself a magnificent object from many points of view – and the prospect from it very splendid; gulphs of awful depth below and sea and land, and inland waters, and bays spread around within a vast horizon.’
Wordsworth did find fault with some aspects of Killarney, including ‘the bog between the town and the lake’, a ‘long tame ridge’, ‘the heavy shape of the highest hill, Mangerton, and the unluckiness of Carrantuohill being so placed as only to combine with the lake from its tamest parts.’ Whereas Killarney’s arbutus (strawberry tree) had attracted Shelley, Wordsworth criticised ‘the want of groves and timber trees’ there. Regarding the trees in Killarney, his travelling companion John Marshall wrote: ‘The wood was nearly all cut down 25 years ago. It is now improving every year. The arbutus grow to trees as thick as a man’s body, but there are few of them, & many die or look sickly when only shrubs & are not ornamental.’
But unlike Lockhart, who seems to have preferred the Scottish loughs, Wordsworth conceded (albeit tentatively) that Killarney as a whole was perhaps more beautiful than any one of his native lakes: ‘Killarney’s three lakes with the navigable passage between the upper and lower lake, take the lead I think of any one of our lakes, perhaps of any one of our vales, but that may be questioned’.
At a deeper level, the allure of Killarney brings to mind a moving incident in Wordsworth’s childhood. In 1843, the old poet still remembered that, whilst a schoolboy at Hawkshead, he had met ‘an Irish boy who was a servant to an Itinerant Conjuror’. He led the boy to the viewing station overlooking Lake Windermere, simply to ‘witness the pleasure [he] expected the boy would receive from the prospect of the islands below & the intermingling water’. Had Wordsworth already known about Killarney, its lakes and its islands? Could Lake Windermere and its islands – like the ‘Conjuror’ with whom the boy was travelling – have summoned up visionary prospects across the Irish Sea? For a brief moment, could the ‘intermingling water’ have permeated the boundaries of time and space, mingling the English Lake District with the Irish boy’s memory of home? Perhaps Wordsworth thought so.
Ireland and the English Lake Poets can be visited in the Long Room of the Old Library in Trinity College Dublin until the end of May. An online version of the exhibition can be accessed here.
By Dr. Brandon C. Yen