What W. M. Thackeray didn’t reveal about his trip to Derry

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A ten minute love affair; a hotel like a family vault; and a feast at St Columb’s Park. It all happened on a trip to the North West over a hundred and fifty years ago – and it’s no surprise there was a little bit of mystery as well.

On a blustery October evening in the year 1842 a tall, haughty looking man could be seen observing Derry with considerable interest from a vantage point in the Waterside overlooking the River Foyle. This was the renowned writer William Makepeace Thackeray, who’d just reached the city after travelling from Coleraine in a jaunting car. His mission was to make notes for his Irish Sketch Book - a work that has had many people blowing hot and cold ever since it was published in 1843.

Spread out before Thackeray was the panorama of Derry’s old wooden bridge, St Columb’s Cathedral and the famous walls, and on the quay what he describes as “a great thundering and clattering of iron-work in an enormous steam frigate”. This vessel was in fact Captain Coppin’s doomed ship the Great Northern – as long as a street of houses and almost ready to put to sea.

I get the impression Thackeray was not the sort of man you would like. A genius with words and often compared with Dickens, his reputation was tarnished thanks to his sharp-tongued wit and highly supercilious manner. This was the man who wrote dismissively of the Giant’s Causeway – “Have I have travelled a hundred and fifty miles to see that!” And while the North West generally fared well with his comments, Ireland as a whole received few plaudits from Thackeray.

Mystery

In the scheme of things it was no surprise that he should come to Derry to make notes for the Irish Sketch Book. The city, with its colourful history and thriving port, was an obvious choice for the pen of such an eminent writer. However, this visit has always been tinged with mystery – what was behind a letter that he tells us caused him to make a detour to the ‘…lodge of St. Columb’s…’ (now St Columb’s Park House, Waterside)? And why did he linger on in Derry afterwards?

Thackeray does not give reasons but having taken a room at Jones’ Hotel in Bishop Street it seems he drove back to the Waterside the following day. He made another visit to St Columb’s and called at the nearby officer’s mess in Ebrington Barracks (now Ilex) for revelry well into the small hours – in all he had quite a feast and recalls that it gave him a mighty hangover next day. Having been long puzzled by the author’s Derry visit I have now come to believe that the answers to my questions lie within the Irish Sketch Book itself. Before coming our way, Thackeray heaps praise on a children’s school in Dundalk run by the Reverend Elias Thackeray. He does not disclose it but this was his 76 year-old uncle who had been in Ireland for many years. And yet another surprise is in store.

The Derry Connection

My research reveals that in 1800 Elias Thackeray married a Derry girl - Rebecca Hill of Brook Hall, Derry. Later, another of the Hills , Sir George, having married Sophia Rea of St Columb’s, Clooney, Waterside, came into possession of her estate. Thackeray verifies this saying that he’d left a letter ’ ...at St Columb’s … Sir George Hill’s park’. Therefore my conclusion is that the former Rebecca Hill, now in Dundalk, gave Thackeray the letter to deliver to her relatives in St Columb’s. Most likely this was a letter of introduction for the author reveals it was “…the cause of much delightful hospitality”. So the Derry trip was really a bit of a junket for Thackeray.

And by no means had he finished with the city. Thackeray remained to explore the streets and the public buildings and strangely reserves mighty praise for above all things the Lunatic Asylum. This massive building was just off the Strand Road in the grounds of what is now North West Regional College. Opened in 1829, it was demolished in the late 1960s but the perimeter wall still exists.

Nowadays thoughts of a lunatic asylum send a shiver down the spine, and rightly so, for in past times such places were cruel in the extreme. So what was Thackeray up to in extolling the Derry asylum? Here his personal life points the way to an answer.

Thackeray married an Irish girl Isabella Shawe in 1836 and had two young children by the time he came to Ireland in 1842. Sadly, Isabella succumbed to severe postnatal depression and eventually was committed permanently to a mental institution. As a result the writer took a keen interest in approaches to mental treatment. Thackeray would have been aware that the Derry asylum was one of the new style institutions. So, I’ve no doubt this explains his keenness to remain here until he had a chance to visit what he calls ‘This admirable asylum…with every comfort and curative means…’. From a man like Thackeray that is indeed praise.

Yet, I’ve often puzzled over this. In the late 1960s, 125 years after Thackeray’s inspection, I visited the empty asylum building before the bulldozers came in. Without doubt I can say I found it to be one of the grimmest places I’ve ever encountered. What Thackeray obviously did not see were the dark underground padded cells and the stout slotted doors through which food could be passed or refuse extracted.

Ten Minute Affair

Thoughts of Thackeray and his wife Isabella are a reminder that he led an unhappy life. He had liaisons with other women that came to nothing - something that did not improve his caustic manner. That said, believe it or not, love loomed large on his Derry trip. At Limavady he records that in the space of a ten minute stop at the local inn he fell madly in love with Peggy the barmaid. Can he have been so fickle? Apparently yes, for he was so taken aback with the beauty of this girl that he wrote a 15 verse poem in her honour, and later he recalled - ‘Gods! I didn’t know what my beating heart meant.’

I have a feeling Peg of Limavady warmed his heart to this part of the world. Thackeray was kind to Derry but thought Jones’ Hotel was like a family vault as the landlord lurked about the dark passages and creaking stairs. However, he enjoyed the roaring fires and generous amounts of port wine before eventually deciding he must up sticks and say goodbye to the city.

Winter came early in that year of 1842. Setting out for Strabane Thackeray describes Derry’s rickety old wooden bridge frozen over with ice and the hills all around coated white with snow. It would be six years before he would complete his most famous novel Vanity Fair but the rather contentious Irish Sketch Book would help set him on the way to fame.

I wonder as his carriage left Derry behind was he still pondering the great hospitality at St Columb’s or was love still in the air for Peg of Limavady of whom he had this to say...

This I do declare Beauty is not rare In the land of Paddy Yet far beyond compare Is Peg of Limavady.

Incidentally, Sir George Hill of St Columb’s, mentioned above, inherited the title upon the death of his uncle. This latter Sir George is the man reputed to have coldly arrested Wolfe Tone, his boyhood friend, in October 1798 when the French vessel the Hoche arrived off Buncrana in Lough Swilly. Later, so tradition holds, Hill retreated swiftly to the West Indies as a result of financial circumstances and died there in 1839.