Our imagination

by Kristof Smeyers


Into the fog

When we travel into unchartered territory, we go prepared. We have a survival kit. It includes a compass that is built by literature, experience, and trawling through archive inventories. But it isn’t until we arrive in the unknown that we know whether the needle is indeed pointing north. If the past is a foreign land, but even if it’s not (and I’m not convinced that it is) we need to be able to rely on our compass. Armed with a survival kit of academically justifiable presumptions we arrive on site. And, as often as not, all compasses and roadmaps notwithstanding, we get lost.

To some degree this is a voluntary, even conscious decision; we are still professionals.

And no survival kit is ever complete. We are aware of this, there’s always something you forget to pack for a trip. This blogpost isn’t so much a warning—‘Be prepared for everything, kids!’—as it is a deconstruction of a historian’s toolkit. What to do when you’ve ventured deep into the fog, and you not only wonder how to get out but also how you got here in the first place? We have all read Hayden White, even if we do not reflect on it or feel uncomfortable about his writings. Maybe this blogpost is a warning, after all: be prepared to use your imagination.

Last October I travelled to Youghal, co. Cork in Ireland, with the generous funding of the Michael Williams Research Fund (Catholic Record Society), to track down the short, intense history of local stigmatics in 1843. I packed pencils, a scarf, sunglasses, notepads (some empty, some full of hopeful references to sources), contextual literature on Irish Catholic history and supernatural beliefs, adapters, itineraries, bus tickets, the material that referred in vague terms to the scandal of 1843. I did, however and much to my detriment, not pack candles. My kit was incomplete, then, but I was pretty confident I had the bare necessities to make this a success: the navigational tools were there. But they, too, often conjure up a world draped in fog, obfuscating more than they help reveal or drawing a map on which the contours of whole continents may be missing or plain wrong.

Sometimes, as in Youghal, the historian’s journey is like trying to find your way through a fog equipped with only a hairdryer.

Looking for something that is(n’t) there

In the last weeks of 1842, religious excitement rippled outward from the Youghal town centre, across the Blackwater all the way across county. From inside the Catholic Magdalene Asylum, managed by the well-known priest John Foley, the wildest rumours emerged about young ‘fallen women’ being saved and going into ecstasy: they ‘died’ only to be resurrected the following morning, when they displayed the stigmata. The three Magdalenes became a sensation for devout Catholics in the area, who for a small entrance fee were allowed to visit the stigmatics in their rooms. On Fridays in particular, the crowds lining up at the gate were large and excitable. A clergyman ensured that every pilgrim or religious tourist was Catholic; Protestants were barred from entry due to their ‘disproportionate scepticism’, which would only disrupt the ecstatic experiences of the women inside. This popular, saintly enterprise worked well—indeed, until Protestants started to slip through Foley’s net.

Today the Catholic Magdalene Asylum of Youghal has been effaced from history (its Protestant counterpart is easier to find; a placard by the front door of the old building marking its existence). It does not feature in the historical surveys of Irish asylums, several local historians strongly reject my suggestion that it ever existed at all, and its location was not recorded anywhere, let alone remembered with a placard by the door. Father Foley’s other institution, a missionary college, was easier to find. But doing history, in this case, quickly proved to be an exercise in absence. My survival kit seemed not to correspond with the reality ‘on the ground’. At a certain point, I began to doubt if there had ever been a Magdalene Asylum with three—three!—stigmatic women in adjacent rooms in a town as small as Youghal. Surely it was almost too good to be true? Were the contemporary newspaper articles a conflation of different titbits and rumours turned into a ‘super story’, as one local historian insisted? If it hadn’t been for the references to letters between Father Foley and clergymen within the Diocese, or for the reports of financial difficulties surrounding the management of the asylum, I might have admitted to having gotten completely lost in the fog.

Wandering through Youghal with a compass pointing in all directions at once, imagination kicked in. There was the Collegiate Church of St. Mary, with its stern portrait of the Reverend Pierce Drew, the Anglican Curate at the time of the upheaval. Further up the hill was the Catholic church, with its plaster Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Down again for the asylum for ‘destitute women’ set up by the wife of the Protestant Reverend Swanzy, who was not at all pleased with the opening of Foley’s Catholic rival institution. Further the alms-houses of the Earl of Cork, and there the ruins of the abbey. A little beyond, still, the house of Sir Walter Raleigh, who according to myth arrived in Youghal from America with tobacco and the potato. Standing in front of Raleigh’s mayoral abode, I again thought of the murky boundaries between fact, fiction, and imagination. There was no sign of the asylum or the stigmatics of 1843, but self-reflexivity is also part of our survival kit, as is the historical imagination. We begin ‘perhapsing’: filling in the blanks with educated guesses based on the blanks in our sources.

In Men explain things to me and other essays, Rebecca Solnit puts it this way: ‘There is so much we don’t know, and to write truthfully about a life, your own or your mother’s, or a celebrated figure’s, an event, a crisis, another culture is to engage repeatedly with those patches of darkness, those nights of history, those places of unknowing.’ I looked up; clouds rolled in from across the ocean and the sky went black.




Youghal caught in a storm, 1876 (copyright Alamy stock picture).

Youghal is an old port town. My accommodation looked out on the Blackwater bay, and beyond the Celtic Sea. In the late 1830s the town was known in the county for its ‘remarkable bigotry’ and its religiously tense situation, further exacerbated by Foley’s asylum ‘competing’ with Swanzy’s institution. When rumours spread about ‘certain discourses in the asylum’, and when swiftly afterwards it became known that several of Foley’s inmates were ecstatics who levitated when in trance and displayed the stigmata, the tension turned into full-blown, interdenominational polemic. This battle of words was fought in newspapers and pamphlets, and rapidly became vicious in both tone and content.

As the sky grew ever darker, and as I was skimming the many back-and-forths in local nineteenth-century newspapers, the Irish government issued a hurricane-warning and a formal recommendation to stay inside. The wind picked up, and on the horizon waves seemed pretty big. Suddenly being right by the coast did not seem like the best of ideas. In town, sandbags lined the streets and windows were boarded up. First the internet went. Then, from my living room, sitting amid a polemic of letters strewn out across the floor, I saw the lights go out outside. Next, inside. The heating stopped working, and a relentless gale hurled sand and seawater against the windows. Occasionally the view was clear enough for a few seconds to see the waves washing the roads and throwing rocks across the asphalt. As I sat in cold darkness with nothing to do I made a mental note to add candles to my historian’s survival kit.

Out of the fog

The next morning is sunny and clear. The hurricane sank my plan to hunt for facts in the diocesan archive, but it also blew away the fog in Youghal. I meet up with Kieran in the morning, a local historian who has written a Little book of Youghal, but in all honesty I don’t expect any grand revelations at this stage. We walk, drive, and talk: about Foley, about the local religious rivalries, about freemasons and Methodists and the temperance movement. On the edge of town Kieran shows me Foley’s missionary college. As we wander through town we pass a small hotel a little off the road. ‘Oh yes,’ my guide says casually, ‘this is where your stigmatics were causing quite a stir.’

Inside, the owner tells me the building is structurally almost identical to how it was a century and a half ago. The central staircase is gone, but the hotel rooms upstairs are where the Magdalenes’ bedrooms were. We walk through these carpeted corridors, and we imagine ourselves queuing to catch a glimpse of the divine; we imagine the excitement that, in a moment, people will come out of the inmate’s bedroom and it is our own turn to be face to face with veritable ecstasy and holy wounds. We look around and try to see people in excited expectation and exaltation at the scene for which they put some money in the deposit box outside. The stigmatic women of Youghal were almost gone. They were becoming like Raleigh’s potato: a myth, a conflation of rumours and tall tales. They were excluded from history before even being considered. But in these rooms our imagination, fuelled by what we have read and by the clues in our kit, brings them back.

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