—Exploring the Beginning of Memory
This exhibition uses panels and photographs to depict each period of Hearn’s childhood. It focuses on how his later life was affected by 1) the family and social environment of his early years 2) his encounters with Celtic oral tradition, and 3) the traumas he experienced as a boy. On display are works which describe his experiences in Ireland, letters to his younger brother, first editions of his works which allude to Celtic culture, handwritten manuscripts, and biographical information. The exhibition seeks to explore the resonance between Japanese folk culture, of which Hearn was very fond, and the oral tradition of Ireland.
1) The family and social environment
The Hearn family was Protestant Anglo-Irish, and had served the British Army and the Irish church for generations. The family must have regarded the mother and young child from a foreign country and culture as an odd presence in their lives. The exhibition examines the influence the family and social environment had on Hearn over a period of 14 years, including his time in England, and aims to recapture that period of his life. The people around Hearn at that time included Sarah Brenane, his great-aunt and guardian who converted to Catholicism, his father’s second wife, his younger brother James, who suddenly appeared in his life, and Henry Molynuex, the distant relative whose business failure led to Sarah’s bankruptcy. References used include the following: Hearn’s memories, and letters to his younger brother in The Atlantic Monthly “Lafcadio Hearn’s Brother” by Henry Kneeland (1923), photographs of Ireland during the period Hearn lived there (National Library of Ireland collection), and the following biographies: The Life and Letters of Lafcadio Hearn by Elizabeth Bisland (1906), Lafcadio Hearn by Nina Kennard (1912), Young Hearn by O.W. Frost (1957), and A Fantastic Journey by Paul Murray (1993).
2) Encounters with Celtic oral tradition
In Ireland, the animistic Celtic folk religion of the Druids is fused with Christianity. Originally, the Celts did not have a written language, so traditions were passed down orally. Hearn encountered the Celtic oral tradition through his nurse, Catherine Costello, who was employed by Sarah Brenane. The stories he heard fuelled his imagination, and the fascination and awe he developed for the spirit world run through his works. His retelling of Urashima in “The Dream of a Summer Day” (Out of the East, 1895), and stories of reincarnation such as “The Rebirth of Katsugoro” (Gleanings in Buddha-Fields, 1897), and “Riki-Baka” (Kwaidan, 1904) show similarities with Celtic myths, folklore and fairytales.
3) Traumatic experiences
Lafcadio found Ireland’s long dark winters and the gloomy atmosphere indoors unbearably frightening. In the house, he often saw what he thought were terrifying ghosts and spirits, and believed himself to be haunted by them. This terror remained deep within his soul, and can be seen in abundance in his later works. He recalls the traumatic experiences of his childhood in “Gothic Horror” and “Nightmare-Touch” (Shadowings, 1900). In “Cousin Jane” (handwritten manuscript, Matsue Municipal Library collection), he tells of his encounter with Jane, a guest at his great-aunt’s house, who he saw one day as a faceless ghost. This experience was used in his retelling of “Mujina”, which he wrote in Japan. The terrifying childhood memories and his knowledge of Celtic folklore were sublimated in the Japanese stories he retold.
A letter sent from Hearn to his younger brother James contains negative sentiments about Ireland. However, “Hi-Mawari” (Kwaidan, 1904), which he wrote in his final years, shows glimpses of a heartrending nostalgia for his childhood years in Ireland, as he recalls the faint memory of playing with his cousin Robert.
Also, in a letter sent to the famous Irish poet W. B. Yeats, he made the following remarks about his earlier life:
“I had a Connaught nurse who told me fairy tales and ghost stories. So I ought to love Irish things, and do.”
(Letter to W. B. Yeats, 24 September, 1901)
Hearn never spoke to his family about Ireland, and only expressed his affection for the country to Yeats. Given his experiences, one can imagine the conflicted feelings he had for his childhood home. However, fragments of memories of Ireland come to the fore in his later works, and it can be said that the Japan Hearn portrayed was a world seen through a vivid Irish imagination.