I escaped for a few days last week to travel through parts of rural England with Irish links, not always obvious, even to the most discerning tourist. My first stop was in the beautiful town of Steyning, just a few miles north of Brighton. It’s a pretty place, with a very active local society which has published an excellent conservation area guide, illustrative of the town’s history and its architecturally important buildings. The society was formed in 1963 by locals with an appreciation of their heritage and since then the society has held a watching brief on local planning applications, with a view to preserving the essentials without unduly affecting progress.
Steyning has two important Irish connections, both strangely enough centered on the same street in that West Sussex town. Church Street is the location of Chantry House where W.B. Yeats lived for the last two years of his life. Just a short distance away at No. 2 Church Street is Gordon House where in the Registrar’s Office Charles Stewart Parnell married Kitty O’Shea in 1891. The house bears a plaque commemorating that event which regrettably led to Parnell’s political downfall.
My next stop was Bronham in Wiltshire, the home for 35 years of Ireland’s poet and celebrated bard Thomas Moore. Moore’s link with this tiny scattered village was due solely to his friendship with Lord Landsdowne, owner of nearby Bowood House and whose son, the fifth Earl will be forever associated with the Luggacurran evictions of the 1880s.
Moore, who married Bessy Dyke, an actress whom he met in Kilkenny, had lost two children before moving to live in a rented house, still called Sloperton Cottage, just a short distance from Bromham. His wife who was an Anglican and Moore who was a non practising Roman Catholic had three further children while living in Sloperton Cottage. Tragically those children would in time die before their parents.
Moore spent 35 years in Bronham where he died in 1852. He was buried in the cemetery attached to the local Anglican Church where two of his children, Anastasia and John, had already been buried. His last son Thomas died while serving as an Army Officer in Africa in 1846 and he is buried there.
On arrival at Bronham I was fortunate to make contact with the local historian Dennis Powney who generously gave of his time and a most interesting account of Thomas Moore and the Bronham connection. The gravestone which lies over the remains of Thomas Moore, his wife Bessy and two of their children was augumented in 1907 with an 18 foot high Celtic cross which today towers over Moore’s last resting place. It was erected at the behest of the then Rector, with financial contributions from both sides of the Irish Sea.
The historic and beautiful Church of St. Nicholas, the Parish Church of Bronham, is part Norman, with additions from the 13th and the 15th century. The east window of the chancel is dedicated to Moore’s widow Bessy who died on the 4th of September 1865, 13 years after her husband. Donated by her nephew Charles Murray the window was the work of the firm of William Morris to the design of Sir Edward Burne-Jones. The association of these two famous names with the window is in itself sufficient to attach great significance to what is a wonderful example of 19th century glasswork.
Thomas Moore is commemorated by a stain glass window on the west side of the nave erected in 1879. It was financed by American admirers of the bard and was the work of Cambridge artist W.H. Constable. The inscription underneath the window reads: ‘This window is placed in this church by the combined subscriptions of two hundred persons who honour the memory of the poet of all circles and the idol of his own, Thomas Moore’.
Later that afternoon I visited Sloperton Cottage where Thomas Moore once lived, but confined myself to viewing the exterior of the building as the present owners were absent. It is I believe little changed from the time over 160 years ago when it was Moore’s residence.
One of Thomas Moore’s principal benefactors was the 4th Marquis of Landsdowne who lived in Bowood House, not far from where the Irish man lived. Indeed it was the ready access allowed to Moore to visit and use Landsdowne Library which prompted Thomas Moore to move to Bronham. I visited Bowood House later that same day and regretfully found no reference, that I could see, to Thomas Moore, in that part of the house open to the public. The original huge mansion which was Bowood House in Thomas Moore’s time was demolished in 1955 and a smaller house adopted to meet the needs of the 8th Lord Landsdowne. If evidence of Thomas Moore was absent from Bowood House, so was any reference to Landsdowne’s Irish estates in Luggacurran, which from 1886 witnessed wholesale evictions which drove many of those evicted to come to live in the town of Athy.
Thomas Moore, Charles Stewart Parnell and W.B. Yeats have all left their mark on different parts of rural England, prompting this Irish man at least to seek out the links which bind the Sassenach and the Gael.