Friday, April 1, 2011

Upset by the Big Wind

Upset by the

Big Wind

An Essay on the Shipwreck Memorials

This historic exhibition at the Hunt Museum in Limerick, as part of the 2010 EV+A, is the first showing of the Chadwicks’ Shipwreck Memorials in nearly 150 years. These memorials, paper reliefs mounted on wooden supports, depict the moment immediately after a ship has been claimed by the raging sea—that frightening instant when the ocean begins the process of digesting the man-made barque—leaving only a few isolated spars, a little jetsam, and the slightest hint of a massive descending volume just below the surface. Engraved brass plaques identify the recently vanished vessel and suggest something of the mental attitude the Chadwicks might like the viewer to adopt in memorializing each particular tragedy. This exhibition focuses on vessels lost on or near the Irish coast during the Big Wind of January 6, 1839—the freakish hurricane that devastated ships in the Shannon Estuary and wreaked havoc throughout the island.

Coupled with the Shipwreck Memorials are two informational vitrines organized around the events of the Big Wind—including period study models and a contemporary homage to the event by the editors of the Chadwick Family Papers, art restorer J. Blachly and literary historian Lytle Shaw.

In the early nineteenth century the Chadwicks (a prominent trans-Atlantic family of art connoisseurs, amateur historians, and men of letters) began collecting firsthand accounts of harrowing shipwrecks. They presented this activity as an anthropological effort to preserve a threatened oral culture and to honor those often overlooked deckhands who were routinely lost at sea.

In this sense the family’s project seems to have been inspired by the anthropological turn in European culture that had begun in the late eighteenth-century works of Johann Gottfried Herder, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, James Macpherson, and the later English Romantic poets.

All of these writers sought to complicate the centralizing tendency in European literature by appealing instead to a wide range of regional, linguistically various folk cultures, both historic and contemporary. Such oral literature was thought to roughen and energize the deadened, overly familiar idioms of poetry in the literary capitals, to introduce new forms and new speakers, and to liberate writers from unconsciously aping the concerns of Paris and London.

There is some debate, however, about whether or not the Chadwicks’ memorials fit squarely within this new tendency in European culture. Some of the Chadwicks’ critics, in fact, have characterized the interviews that predate the memorials less as attempts to honor fallen sailors than as so many ploys to gain technical information about shipwrecks that might be used in legal cases. It is well documented that the Chadwick family had massive stakes in most of the British and European shipping lines, and so that the matter of fault in shipwrecks was of more than an antiquarian or abstract moral concern; convincingly demonstrated, it could yield very concrete monetary rewards.

Indeed some critics claimed that Torrent Chadwick, an absentee Irish landlord, shipping magnate and something of a wastrel, used information about his Irish tenants (made available through the Poor Laws instituted in Ireland by his cousin Edwin Chadwick) as the basis for a series of predatory lawsuits by which he reversed initial insurance rulings both on rent-strikes and on Irish shipwrecks. Nor can the Chadwicks’ project be squared with the typically nationalist frame that drove the documentation of folk culture—since the Chadwicks were an English, not an Irish family.

The Chadwicks’ critics have a point when they remind viewers that it was not until after the charge that Torrent was both abusing classified information and manipulating his interviewees that he and other family members began the series of shipwreck memorial reliefs we see before us today—as if to appease skeptical viewers. As editors of the Chadwick archive, however, Blachly and I felt it better not take an explicit position in this debate. We consider it our job merely to document the available facts and allow informed and critical viewers to decide for themselves on the matter. And it is in this spirit that we offer this pamphlet to viewers of the EV+A exhibition.

The pamphlet itself is the result of extensive research conducted over the last six months in a variety of archives: firstly that of Chadwick Manor, where we examined all materials we could relating to the historic shipwreck memorials, including interview transcriptions, song manuscripts, nautical yarns, and insurance claims and legal correspondence—in addition to the paper reliefs themselves, which we restored, polished and attributed, where authorship and dating were at issue. As compelling as the family’s own archives are, Blachly and I gradually came to realize that certain key details would not come into focus unless we cross referenced them with contemporary accounts from outside the Chadwicks’ orbit. And it was for this reason that we traveled to the Limerick City Archives in Merchant’s Quay, where we camped out for a fortnight, piecing our way through Irish accounts of the Big Wind, responses to the Chadwicks’ folk-collections, and press clipping about the family’s lawsuits.

Blachly was moved, in particular, by the unexpected, almost surreal displacements produced by the hurricane: tea cups preserved without fractures in thatching dozens of miles away; playing cards blown three counties and stuck perfectly into barn doors; even slate roofing tiles catapulted several hundred yards into irregular paths leading nowhere. Over our post-research pints, Blachly obsessed about these vanished wind sculptures as he called them, proposing eventually that we re-trace their positions—so as better to conceptualize the power of the Big Wind. Thus we found ourselves on a variety of local √Čireann busses, and short irregular rail services, trying to match the mostly Gaelic names in our records with the since transliterated versions that appear on modern maps. Several times Blachly and I were unceremoniously hustled off soggy fens and bogs that irate custodians reminded us were closed to public exploration—one rural gentleman seeing us to the margin of his driveway at the end of his pitchfork.

Despite the occasional frustration, though, these extended expeditions in the Irish countryside only convinced us all the more firmly of the Big Wind’s singular sweep and magnitude. And it was on our bus rides back from these remote historic locations that Blachly, moved in his own way by the antique hurricane, began conceptualizing his own monuments to the memory of the Big Wind. Accordingly his attention gravitated to stray pieces of fabric and broken umbrellas—contemporary evidence of wind’s unceasing powers of displacement, as he termed it.

My own attentions, however, had been directed in a more focused manner at the scholarly matters at hand. I had cross-referenced most of the Chadwicks’ published songs, garnered evidence about the family’s public reception at the time of the lawsuits, and fleshed out my historical understanding of the Big Wind more generally when, at the end of the first week in the archives my hands passed over a crude period notebook among a poorly sorted pile of Big Wind artifacts. Inside the front cover was the name of one of Ireland’s most remarkable writers: James Clarence Mangan, the nineteenth-century poet and translator who, enlisted for the nationalist cause, tended instead to reflect on problems of translation and authenticity.

Were these really his longhand notations? The matter was quickly resolved with a digital search of established examples of his handwriting: the book was unmistakable. With a little detective work it became clear that Mangan had visited the west of Ireland the week following the devastation, composing memorials. The first poem in the notebook, “Gone in the Wind,” for instance, has long been included in Mangan’s collected works—understood as an allegorical poem, whose key stanza reads:

Solomon! where is thy throne? It is gone in the wind.

Babylon! where is thy might? It is gone in the wind.

All that the genius of Man hath achieved or designed

Waits but its hour to be dealt with as dust by the wind.

But the general march of time begins to look rather different when it is re-coupled with actual places and specific winds, as it is in an early version in the Limerick Big Wind notebook:

Shannon! where is thy fleet? It is gone in the wind.

Ballybunnion! where is thy light? It is gone in the wind.

Mangan’s interest in the Big Wind, however, seems to have extended beyond the particular destruction visited upon the Shannon Estuary. His notebook also indicates that he made tours both of the worst hit sections throughout the island, and of particularly remarkable displacements caused by the winds. Among this latter category were North Atlantic albacore tunas and halibuts blown some 90 miles inland. And it is his fascination with these freak specimen’s of nature’s power that gives us a strikingly new picture of Mangan’s most famous song, Dark Rosaleen,” known as a translation from the Gaelic, which includes in the 1846 version the line:

I dashed through Erne; —the world may learn the cause from love

Reasonably enough, this poem has always been understood as a love lyric that reflects on proto nationalist themes. But in Mangan’s Big Wind notebook we found an earlier version of the poem next to a carefully depicted sketch of a tuna embedded as it was in roof thatching. The original line reads:

Fins dashed through air;—the world may learn to troll above

Apparently it was only after the Dublin university journal saw the poem as too narrowly occasional (and frankly unbelievable to those who had not undergone the hurricane directly) that Mangan re-presented the poem as a translation from the Gaelic original.

Why, then, were the most prestigious Irish literary magazines averse to specific memorials about the Big Wind? What was it about the event that caused it to disappear from discussion at the time? Encountering this phenomenon softened my aversion to Blachly’s makeshift photographic project and I, too, gradually came around to the need for contemporary memorials to Ireland’s terrifying nocturnal gale.

But I must admit that this was not the only factor that softened my attitude. Daily contact with the Irish view of the Chadwicks had given me rather a different sense of the family’s role in British history from that preserved and, well, celebrated at Chadwick Manor. Torrent Chadwick’s role in Ireland especially had raised eyebrows: always pressed to settle gambling debts from Watier’s, Torrent had become an advocate of enforced immigration for what he deemed “overcrowded” farms. This position was developed not through an analysis of the actualities of Irish farming conditions (let alone the role of absentee landlords in the making of these conditions). Torrent was motivated rather through his involvement in several of the prominent shipping lines that ran from Limerick, Cork, and especially Liverpool to Montreal, Boston and New York. Prompted by government subsidies for immigration, the ships would haul lumber to Ireland and England, and tenant farmers back.

Contemporary reports complained of the poor quality and inadequate volume of provisions, the squalid and “immoral” conditions in the hold, and the martial tenor of the crew.

Terrified of losses, Chadwick seems to have hounded his crews about chart reading, dead reckoning and procedures for saving cargo under adverse conditions. And when a ship in his fleet was lost at sea, Chadwick rarely accepted the published reports, captain’s accounts, or testimony from witnesses aboard vessels within sight of the disaster. No storm, according to Chadwick, was sufficient cause for a wreck, and so, when they were unlucky enough to survive the sinking of a company vessel, Chadwick ruthlessly sued his captains, often on the basis of reports gathered from deckhands who may well have been encouraged (and even bribed) to mischaracterize the actions of superiors they had come to resent aboard a rigidly hierarchical ship—Chadwick lines being famous for their unwavering discipline. Indeed Chadwick seems to have doubted reports about the Big Wind itself, accusing Irish reporters of hyperbole and captains of incompetence. What was most striking about Chadwick’s involvement in these cases, though, was the magnate’s refusal to hire a lawyer, and his consequent monopolizing of the stand during the court proceedings. Apparently irritated by his rambling arguments and condescending asides, some of the Irish judges in fact began to refer to Chadwick himself as “the Big English Wind.” In any case, he was able to win few of the lawsuits.

It may well have been to cover the tracks of his interrogations both in Limerick specifically and in the larger Shannon Estuary that Torrent devoted as much time and attention as he did to the Big Wind memorials. We do know that at least a dozen of the 41 ships lost in Ireland during the Big Wind were run by companies in which the Chadwicks owned large or even controlling stakes. We also know, however, that when Torrent was not taking the stand to pursue his cases, he was passionately involved in the pursuit of nautical lore. And if it appears from the Limerick archives that this pursuit could certainly have aided his suits, there is no getting around the fact that Torrent’s fascination with ship models, historic seafaring uniforms, and even pirate and deckhand lingo were real and life-long. Torrent was an avid model builder and, partaking in the nascent spirit of historic revival that gripped Europe in his day, an early enthusiast of reconstructions of historic vessels and famous voyages—a fact that would certainly have endeared him to John Hunt.

Torrent maintained an oak-paneled nautical suite at Chadwick Manor until the time of his death, in which the Shipwreck Memorials were the prized display pieces. Perhaps concerned that others at the family manor would not share his enthusiasm, late in life Torrent grew especially eager that, after he passed on, these works dear to his heart be placed in a secure and permanent venue. This attitude about his occasional handiwork, and about his larger emotional response to the tragedy of the Big Wind, does complicate claims about Torrent’s supposedly unfeeling use of the hurricane. Indeed the memorials themselves demonstrate a knowledge not only of the minute geography of the Shannon Estuary and of the specific manner in which each vessel was lost; they indicate, beyond that, specific attitudes of remorse appropriate to each vessel, be it the great deference shown to a vessel named after the sovereign—

The Chadwicks Bow for the Wellington

Bashed on the Rocks at Bunratty, 1839

the formal homage or memorial directed toward the aristocratic ships—

Homage to the Earl of Caithness

Lost at anchor during the Big Wind, January 1839

Homage to the Henry Hastings

Foundered in the Shannon Estuary in the Big Wind

Memorial for the Diligence

Capsized at Ailroe Beg, 1839

or the more singular acts of recollection and memorialization proposed by the other paper reliefs, in which, depending upon the circumstances, the Chadwicks “pause” (for a graceful, lady-like vessel blown into a violent collision with a sticky tug, the Tar, engaged in harbor maintenance), “gasp” (for a fine military frigate devastated on the bluffs), or “flinch” (as if stuck by the great impact of Dart, cast precipitously like its namesake by the hurricane):

The Chadwicks Pause for the Swan

Run Afoul of the Tar by the Big Wind

The Chadwicks Gasp for the Albion

18-Gun Sloop of War Driven into the Bluffs at Kilrush in the Big Wind

The Chadwicks Flinch for the Dart

Hurled Upon the Mounds at Baysend by the Big Wind

In still other circumstances the Chadwick seem to evoke some impossible recompense for those vessels lost in terrifying conditions, the most poetic perhaps being the last of the collection displayed in Limerick:

A Calm for the Hamilton

Wrecked Upon the Shoals at Moyne, 1839

It was a brilliant stroke of luck that this exhibition came to take place at the Hunt Museum—since the Captain’s Room, in its earlier incarnation as the parlor of the Limerick City Customs House, was a familiar haunt of Torrent’s when he was in the region. But perhaps even more fittingly, the museum in its new incarnation is also close to the Chadwick family, since John Hunt, a name we heard often at the Manor, was a figure well known to the more recent Chadwicks through their Riverdale New York neighbor, Bashford Dean, who worked extensively with Hunt in developing the Metropolitan Museum armor collections, and the larger medieval purchases of the Cloisters, for which Hunt was a special and highly valued advisor. Indeed Dean fondly recounted to the Chadwicks the details of several archaeological digs on which he was able to tag along—unearthing Neolithic axe heads and crucial evidence about a prehistoric settlement Hunt later reconstructed as a kind of theme park. The curiosity was, of course, more than mutual, since Hunt was eager to learn about the famous collectors whose estate was so close to Dean’s countryseat on the Hudson. There may in fact be some basis for speculating that the transhistorical scope of Hunt’s own collection was based in part on the fine model of such an encyclopedic treasure trove popularized by the Chadwicks in the nineteenth century, and later made affordable by the World Wars in Europe in the twentieth. But whether or not the Chadwicks were an explicit model for John and Gertrude’s voyage through world art history, the monument they assembled, now housed so effectively in the former Limerick City Customs House, is precisely the kind of setting the Chadwicks would have insisted upon for the display of their Shipwreck Memorials. Finally, whatever one makes of the specific social concerns that swirl around the moment of their fabrication, the Chadwicks’ Shipwreck Memorials may now be appreciated, with proper distance, as a moving esthetic response both to the terrors of pre-modern navigation and to the tragedy of the most disruptive meteorological event in Ireland’s recorded history.