As if to disprove the old adage of the prophet never being honoured on native soil, the celebrated author Anne Chambers returned to her Castlebar hometown last week to receive the Wild Atlantic Words Hall of Fame Award.
Her visit was an occasion of celebration, but the author’s genuine appreciation of the Literary Committee’s accolade was seasoned with just a pinch of dismay that so much of the town’s history and heritage was being left neglected.
Early in her career, Anne Chambers had left her job as an executive with the Central Bank to become a full-time writer. Concentrating mainly on biography, she came to be lauded for ‘a rigorous approach to research, a meticulous attention to detail, and a reluctance to accept as truth any fact without double checking its authenticity to her own satisfaction’. (One local wag was heard to remark that, with qualities like that, if she had remained at the Central Bank, the country might have been spared a mountain of financial and banking misery.)
Her contribution to the festival symposium gave her rapt audience a flavour of the often long and lonely toil of the biographer. She described how her latest opus, that of ‘The Great Leviathan: the life of Howe Peter Browne, 2nd Marquess of Sligo (1788-1845)’, had taken six years to complete. She described the pitfalls of biography, and of how writing the life of one’s chosen subject also requires extensive research into the lives of those around them. Howe Peter Browne, for example, was a close friend of Lord Byron, which meant in turn researching Byron’s life lest any misplaced fact or careless observation might in turn reflect negatively on the integrity of the main story itself.
Her best-selling ‘Granuaile, Ireland’s Pirate Queen c.1530-1603’ is regarded as the definitive work on that legendary seafarer of Clew Bay. And it was that book which gave her the unique privilege of access to the ancient archives of Westport House, where she was able to unbind and peruse manuscripts that had lain unopened and unread in the basement for over 400 years.
And then there was her description of the biography of international prima donna Margaret Burke Sheridan, who was born only doors away from Anne Chambers’ childhood home on The Mall. The diva was all but forgotten when Anne took up her story in 1994. Back then, information on the life of the opera star was hard to come by. But then, by glorious chance and unfettered generosity, the author was invited to Luggala estate in Wicklow where the art patron Garech Browne revealed that he held memorabilia of the late singer.
There, Anne Chambers was introduced to a priceless collection: 40 boxes of Burke Sheridan memorabilia, including costumes from her opera roles in Italy and New York, love letters and other correspondence, press cuttings, programmes, hotel receipts and medical bills – her life in storage boxes.
And it was this that brought Anne Chambers to throw out a challenge to her native town. Why, she asked, is there no museum to celebrate our rich history? Why is there nothing of Castlebar’s fascinating past on visitor display in some suitable location? Why are the stories of the Land League, the Races of Castlebar, the Lucan/Spencer connection, the inventor Louis Brennan not being presented as tourist attractions?
And, next year, on the 130th anniversary of her birth, will there be a fitting commemoration to the life of Margaret Burke Sheridan?