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Sunday, 14 September 2014

Branwell at Luddendenfoot

Poet Simon Zonenblick (pictured) showed a preview of his new forty-five minute video about Branwell Brontë this afternoon, in Thornton. The upstairs room of the chic little vegetarian café in South Square was full of people who turned out to be terrifyingly knowledgeable about the young man who is often seen simply as a boozer who was fond of opium, but Zonenblick was not in any way daunted when he answered their questions afterwards. According to the video, which is mainly about his time as a railway clerk at Luddendenfoot, just up from recently-industrialised Sowerby Bridge, Branwell wrote plenty of tolerable verse when he was not busy with account books, and produced a number of  reasonably good paintings. We saw some of these - a Jacob's ladder with angels, reminiscent of Blake, a landscape in which it was not clear whether the sun was rising or setting, a moonlit scene with a bridge over a canal, a figure which could be from a dream or nightmare entitled The Lamplighter... according to one of the people interviewed by Zonenblick, Branwell's landscapes are ethereal, all about "the spaces between places". The poets of today who meet regularly in Calderdale pubs consider themselves to be Branwell's descendants, to some extent, and some of his poems were read by them with great respect, especially the ones dealing with death and burial.

Daphne du Maurier was mentioned (The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë) in relation to his fascination for the wild bargemen, and there is an amusing sequence where people in a pub attempt to write their name on a piece of paper with right and left hands simultaneously. None of them did very well, but Branwell earned drinks in The Black Bull when he wrote words down like that - Greek with the left and Latin with the right.

But enough! The video has yet to receive its final additions and subtractions, and what we saw was really work in progress. It will be more widely available in the new year. The event was organised by Angela Crow-Woods, who marshalled the audience to another café - Emily's. This is situated two hundred yards away in the house where Branwell was born, and it sells excellent coffee and Italian-style snacks. All the well-known portraits of the Brontës are there, and the customers sit at tables made from used school desks.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

The Rathfriland area breathes Brontë

Marina Saegerman (member of the Brussels Brontë Group) writes about her visit to Patrick Brontë's homeland:
Over the years I have been able to visit many places related to the Brontës, both in the UK and in Ireland, but there was one place that I had not yet visited and which is essential to the Brontë history: the place where Rev. Patrick Brontë was born and where he grew up. This was my missing link in the Brontë story. So this year’s mission on our holidays in Ireland was to be a visit to the area where Patrick Brontë was born and lived until he moved to Cambridge, the area around Rathfriland in County Down, Northern Ireland. I have always been fascinated by the Brontës’ Irish ancestry and have read all that I could find on this topic. So you can imagine that I was very excited to see the area where Patrick Brontë spent his early years and to visit the places related to his family.

The day of the visit was to be Saturday 26 July 2014. On our way back home from Boyle to Dun Laoghaire (Co. Dublin) a small detour was planned to Northern Ireland, where I booked us into a B&B in Rathfriland for one night. In preparation of this visit I had been rereading some books on the Brontës’ Irish background. My main guidebook for the trip was to be The Road to Haworth – the Story of the Brontës’ Irish Ancestry by John Cannon. It reads like a Brontë novel. 

The Schoolhouse
We set off in the morning and planned to arrive in the  Rathfriland area around noon. A few days before our departure I had phoned the secretary of the Irish section of the Brontë Society, Miss Margaret K Livingston, to see whether we could meet her when we were in the area. We decided to meet up at 1pm for a picnic lunch at Drumballyroney where the Brontë Homeland Interpretative Centre is situated. The Drumballyroney Schoolhouse and Church are also the start of the Brontë Homeland drive.

The Rathfriland area breathes Brontë: a lot of houses or institutions have a Brontë-related name: Brontë manor, the Brontë primary school, a Brontë nursery unit, there was even a house called 'Villette'. We arrived at 12 o’clock on the dot, the time that the interpretative centre opened its doors. No need to say that we were the first visitors of the day. Since we were well before the time set to meet Margaret, I had some time to browse around in the Schoolhouse to see the video on the Brontë family and read all the information panels, giving information on the various members of the Brontë family, including Patrick Brontë’s parents and their unusual 'country courtship'. The small schoolroom also contained some exhibits related to Patrick Brontë and the Brontë sisters, amongst others a replica of Charlotte Brontë’s wedding dress.

Margaret arrived well on time and was accompanied by another member of the Irish section, Mr Finny O’ Sullivan. The weather gods were not on our side that day, it was pouring outside. But a  picnic was planned, and a picnic we would have! Margaret decided to have a picnic in the schoolroom: since we were the only visitors at that moment, this was not a problem. We were treated to a real picnic feast: lovely fresh sandwiches, biscuits, cake, strawberries and cream, tea, coffee and juice… too much for our poor bellies!
Finny, Margaret and Marina

During lunch we received all the information about the Irish section of the Brontë Society, the Irish ancestry and the Drumballyroney site - schoolhouse, church and Brontë burial plot.

The schoolhouse at Drumballyroney was the place where Patrick, at the age of twenty-one, taught for four years, before going to Cambridge. Next to the schoolhouse is the Anglican Church where Patrick and his brother William were christened and where Patrick gave his first sermon after graduating from Cambridge University.  We also visited the graveyard at the back of the schoolhouse and church, where the Brontë family burial plot is situated and where Patrick’s parents and other family members are buried.

Margaret and Finny had planned to drive us around the Brontë homeland sites, so we set off in Margaret’s car. In the meantime the weather had cleared up and the sun was shining again. The drive was very well sign-posted , we just had to follow the brown signposts with the book symbol. Next stop on the homeland drive was the Brontë Homeland picnic site at Knockiveagh where we had wonderful views over the Mourne Mountains and the area where Patrick grew up. The picnic site contains the ruins of an old shebeen - an illicit drinking house.
We continued to follow the 'Brontë road'. We passed the two-storey house near Lisnacreevy where Hugh and Alice brought up their family of ten children, we passed the 'dancing glen' where they secretly met according to local legend, and arrived at the next stop on the drive,  Alice McClory’s cottage in Ballynaskeagh. This cottage was the childhood home of Patrick’s mother, and is still owned by the McClory family. The cottage was very overgrown with bushes and ivy, and it was very difficult to see how it would have looked like. Nothing has been done to keep it in a reasonable condition, and it is in a very bad state at the moment. What a shame!     

The highlight of the homeland drive was of course the Birthplace Cottage at Emdale, a small two-roomed cottage where Patrick Brontë was born on St. Patrick’s Day 1777.  Or to describe it in Patrick’s own words, from the poem 'The Irish cabin':

“A neat Irish cabin, snow proof
Well thatched, had a good earthen floor,
One chimney in midst of the roof,
One window, and one latched door.

Little remains now of the original thatched cottage, but it gives a clear impression of how an Irish family must have lived in those days.  However, to modern standards, it is difficult to imagine that a family with two children could actually live in such a small space. A lot of work has been done  to restore the walls, the site is now protected and in 1956 a commemorative plaque was unveiled at the site.
Glascar Church
We continued the homeland drive to its final stop , Glascar Church and Schoolhouse, where Patrick had his first teaching post in the 1790s. He was said to have used creative teaching methods in order to bring out the best in his pupils. He was dismissed from this post because he had formed a romantic attachment with one of his pupils. After this incident he took up the teaching post at Drumballyroney schoolhouse and so the Brontë homeland circle is  complete.

In the Glascar Church graveyard we could see many headstones with the Brontë name. Descendants of the Irish Brontës are still being buried here.

We returned to the Drumballyroney Schoolhouse, still enjoying the wonderful views and the countryside that Patrick Brontë knew as a child and a young man. It had been a very interesting and  informative afternoon with Margaret and Finny. One can learn a lot about the Irish Brontë story from books on the subject but having actually seen and visited the sites and having received the information from Margaret and Finny who had so much more to tell about the Irish Brontës and the stories behind the sites, made the Brontë homeland drive so much more interesting to me and gave another dimension to my knowledge on the Irish ancestry.

I was really glad that we had the opportunity of doing the drive with people like Margaret and Finny who knew the places so well. I’m convinced that if we would have had to do the drive on our own, although it is signposted, we would have had great difficulty in finding some of the spots eg Alice McClory’s cottage well hidden behind bushes and ivy. We took our leave from Margaret and Finny, thanking them for the time they had spent with us  and the information we had received.

On our way to the B&B in Rathfriland, very close to the Drumballyroney site, I  reflected on the afternoon and enjoyed the satisfaction that I had finally completed my own Brontë circle.

For further reading, the following books can be recommended:
The Road to Haworth – the story of the Brontës’ Irish ancestry (John Cannon)
The Brontës of Ballynaskeagh ( W. Haughton Crowe)
The Brontës in Ireland (Dr. William Wright)

“The Brontës’ Irish background” (Edward Chitham)

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Brontë Society Conference 2014

Maddalena De Leo, BS President Bonnie Greer, Caterina Lerro 
Maddalena De Leo (Italian delegate) writes:

The Brontë Society Conference was held this year at Warwick University in Scarman Conference Centre from Friday 29 to Sunday 31 August. Its theme was ‘The Brontës and the Condition of England’ and it concentrated on the Brontë sisters' contemporary context, analyzing how it influenced what they thought and what they wrote.

The talks were opened on Friday afternoon by famous Brontë scholar Juliet Barker with her keynote lecture about the Brontës and the ‘world without’ followed in the evening by Melissa Hardie-Budden's work in progress about the Branwell and Carne families from Penzance. On Saturday morning there was a Patrick Brontë panel with a break for questions, followed throughout the day by other two sessions about Religion and Industrial Unrest with Robert Logan, Brian Wilks and Marianne Thormählen as speakers among the others.

On Sunday morning  the second keynote lecture of the conference was Rebecca Frazer’s talk about the woman’s question and Charlotte Brontë, followed by Birgitta Berglund’s brilliant lecture about the Victorian corset debate. Birgitta even showed the audience how difficult for Victorian women was to put on and bear a corset all day, wearing one herself. The last session was about war and empire with Sarah Fermi as last speaker of the conference, and there was a recap at the end by Marianne Thormählen.

Also this year as in 2011, besides the well-known speakers from all over the world, the Brontë Society included some young PhDs who lectured about the chosen topic with competence and skill.

The conference venue, carefully chosen by organizer Sarah Fermi in collaboration with Patsy Stoneman, was the beautiful Scarman Conference Centre with its amenities. A special treat took place after the gala dinner on Saturday when BS President Bonnie Greer OBE gave a speech about the Society's purposes and aims for the future in view of Charlotte’s two hundredth birth anniversary in 2016.

During the conference I took photographs and had the opportunity to speak and change views with my fellow delegates, amongst whom I met with pleasure Jolien Janzing, the author of the novel The Master.

In conclusion I can say that this was again a great Brontë weekend and still another important occasion to share a wonderful Brontë-related experience.