THE LAST MOURNFUL GRACES OF DECAY – THE INSPIRATION FOR IRISH GOTHIC

Posted by Tracy Fahey on January 07, 2008 in Guest Blog, Ms Tracey Fahey tagged with

The story of the Great House literally arises from ruins of the medieval period.   These ruins may be viewed as post-structural with the physical gaps equating to gaps in text.  The Gothic Revival aims to fill in these gaps with literary and architectural constructs based on re-imaginings and contemporary responses

 

While the architectural form of the Gothic arises chiefly from the Anglo-Irish expression of English fashions and the desire to create a family seat of mock-historic lineage, the literary tradition of the Gothic is much less straightforward.  It arises from a mixture of folk-motifs, mythology, the form of Catholicism found in Ireland, colonialism, difference and inevitably, from reflecting the strained political and cultural atmosphere of the 18th and 19th centuries in Ireland.  As Maturin (1812) observes in the preface to the Milesian Chief –

 

it is the only country on earth where, from the strange existing opposition of religion, politics and manners, the extremes of refinement and barbarism are united, and the most wild and incredible situations of romantic story are hourly passing before modern eyes’

 

However, both literature and architecture of the Gothic Revival are haunted by the image of the ruin.  The countryside in Ireland is littered with ruins and monuments from the Neolithic period onwards; passage graves, dolmens, Neolithic houses, ring forts, Ogham stones, monastic dwellings.  Contemporary Gothic writers of fiction echo this in their work – consider the ruined village in Carmilla, or the famous castle in Dracula.  This proliferation of ruins is also documented by contemporary writers of non-fiction.

 

Consider for example Arthur Young’s description of Muckross Abbey in 1776 –

“it is the ruin of a considerable abbey, built in Henry VI.’s time, and so entire, that if it were more so, though the
building would be more perfect, the ruin would be less pleasing; it is half obscured in the shade of some
venerable ashtrees; ivy has given the picturesque circumstance, which that plant alone can confer, while the broken
walls and ruined turrets throw over it "The last mournful graces of decay;" heaps of skulls and bones scattered about,
with nettles, briars, and weeds sprouting in tufts from the loose stones, all unite to raise those melancholy impressions,
which are the merit of such scenes, and which can scarcely anywhere be felt more completely…."This ruin is in the true
style in which all such buildings should appear; there is not an intruding circumstance, the hand of dress has not touched
it, melancholy is the impression which such scenes should kindle, and it is here raised most powerfully."

 

 

 

Image – Muckross Abbey ruins

 

Young, an Englishman, shows the typical Neo-Gothic yearning for the sombre beauties of melancholic ruins first made fashionable by Thomas Gray.  From a colonial point of view, it is interesting that this ruin would have been perceived very differently by the native Irish, as a signifier of English tyranny and suppression of native Catholicism by the English throne.   As David Punter has pointed out, these ruins and monuments –

“speak of history not as a living presence nor yet as an irrecoverable absence, but as inevitably involved in specific modes of ghostly persistence which may occur, when, particularly in Scotland or Ireland, national aspirations are thwarted by conquest or by settlement…”

 

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