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Remembering TH White with ‘The Godstone and the Blackymor’ exhibition

Second Reading

Remembering TH White with ‘The Godstone and the Blackymor’ exhibition


Fr Kevin Hegarty

J.K. Rowling has said he provided her with her inspiration for her ‘Harry Potter’ books. He published 24 books, a mixture of novels, travelogues and nature studies. The Broadway Musical ‘Camelot’ is based on his novel ‘The Once and Future King’.
Yet Terence Hanbury-White is now relatively forgotten. Last Monday however, we remembered him in Belmullet, 75 years after his first visit to the Barony of Erris.
His book ‘The Godstone and the Blackymor’ was the focus of an exhibition launched by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny in Aras Inis Gluaire.
T.H. White was born in India in 1906. His father was a District Superintendent of Police while his mother was the daughter of a judge. Their marriage was marred by alcoholism and violence. White was a victim of their tragic relationship and with considerable understatement he later wrote: “It was not a safe kind of childhood.” He found refuge in the care of his English grandparents.
After taking a first class honours degree at Cambridge, he taught at Stowe, an English public school.
In the late 1930’s he abandoned the position. Bored by teaching, haunted by personal demons, confused about his sexuality and reluctant to fight for Britain in the war he believed imminent, he wanted space to reflect on the course of his life. To add to his woes, he had a passionate interest in Falconry, but had failed to train a goshawk.
So to paraphrase some words of the poet Maírtín O’Direáin, he sought solace on the western shores of Ireland.
On September 1, 1939, the day the Second World War broke out, he came to stay in Sheshkin, an Erris hunting lodge he had rented. It was the first of several visits in the ensuing decade.
‘The Godstone and the Blackymor’ is an engaging distillation of his experiences on the peninsula. The title refers to a stone image which Inishkea Islanders are reputed to have reverenced in the 19th Century and a tall, dark skinned man, who sold his potions at Erris fairs in the 1940s and 50s.
Along with his personal story, the book has memorable evocations of a traditional wake, stilted courtship in Glencastle, goose shooting in December on Inishkea and climbing Croagh Patrick on Reek Sunday. On the summit he encountered an arrogant cleric who gave a ‘sour lemon’ of a sermon.
White was an exotic presence in Erris. His activities aroused interest and suspicion. His occasional peremptory and patronising manner alienated some.
Some thought he was a British spy. His red setter Brownie, usually accompanied him. The dog wore a blanket containing a pocket where White was supposed to hide his illicit charts and maps.
Others thought he was something even more threatening. They argued that he might be a government official, checking on the truthfulness of social welfare claims.
White’s book is exquisitely embellished by the drawings of Edward Ardizzone, the distinguished British War artist and book illustrator. He is noted for his naturalistic style featuring gentle lines but with a forensic attention to detail.
Under the leadership of Katherine Mangan, Cumann Oidhreachta Iorrais has managed to secure eight of the original drawings for permanent display in Aras Inis Gluaire.
Along with An Taoiseach, Ardizzone’s daughter Christianne and his granddaughter Susanna were present at the official unveiling of the illustrations. They hang in the foyer of the building, a telling reminder of Erris’s cultural heritage in a place where new artistic experiences are regularly created.