On Ireland’s bookshelves was Karel Čapek’s novel The Cheat, lent to him by his friend George Dannatt. It’s an interesting book for several reasons. Left unfinished at the Czech author’s death in 1938, it was then completed by his wife Olga Scheinpflugova. It tells of a man who wishes to be a musician and composer of an opera, but who ends up as a musical plagiarist. It was translated into English in 1941, also published under the title The Life and Times of Compose Foltýn. Čapek (shown below) is better known as an important contributor to the development of the genre of science fiction. It was a perceptive choice on the part of Dannatt, as Ireland was drawn both to fictionalised musical worlds and to evocations of the uncanny.
During his time at St Luke’s, Chelsea, Ireland would attend the annual dinner for adult members of the choir, as well as the summer seaside outing for the choirboys, always to either Sussex or Essex. He also, though less regularly, accompanied his young choristers to the pantomime. One such occasion took place on 6 February 1909, when the performance in question was Dick Whittington at the Drury Lane Theatre, a show that had already been highly successful in the previous year.
Ireland was there along with several members of the clergy, including his good friend Paul Walde. The boys were very taken with the scenery, which included a lavish set depicting Highgate Hill, with London seen in the distance (St Luke’s parish magazine, 1909, p.97).
Dick was played by vaudeville star, Queenie Leighton. The highlight for the choristers of St Luke’s, however, was a fleeting appearance in a comic song by Manchester-born Wilkie Bard, a famous music hall entertainer.
Above is a map showing Bowdon in 1879, as the local landscape looked in the year when John Ireland was born. From the map, his family home ‘Inglewood’ can be seen to be a fine mansion house surrounded by other similar properties and backing on to fields. It was built for Alexander Ireland in 1869, on land bought by him from the Dunham Massey estate. Morris & Co.’s Directory & Gazetteer of Cheshire confirms who the neighbours were in 1874. Haigh Lawn was owned by George Hodgkinson. The Johnsons had the other neighbouring house, Silverlands. Bowdon Lodge was the home of John Finnie Esquire, a Scottish merchant who died in 1875. Most of the wealthy owners in this part of Cheshire were businessmen.
The house next to Inglewood, Haigh Lawn, has a fascinating history. Also built in 1869, it was loaned as a hospital during the First World War, as discussed in this interesting article on Bowdon’s heritage. Bowdon Lodge was eventually transformed into Altrincham Grammar School for Girls. When the Irelands left their Bowdon house, it was bought by John Hopkinson, another of Manchester’s successful businessmen. On the death of Hopkinson’s wife in 1910, the house was sold to John Gill, a retired manufacturing chemist.
This area has strong musical and literary associations in addition to those of Ireland and his parents. In 1900, a little after the Ireland family left Bowdon, conductor Hans Richter settled down the road at 27, The Firs. The eminent violinist Adolf Brodsky was also a resident, living in East Downs Road for over 25 years. Arthur Ransome lived very close to the Irelands in the 1870s, in Devisdale House. In the 1920s Alison Uttley wrote the Little Grey Rabbit books while living in Downs House.
On Ireland’s bookshelves was a 1933 first edition of Eleanor Farjeon’s Over the Garden Wall, a collection of poems for children. The remarkable Farjeon (1881–1965) (seen left) was an almost exact contemporary of the composer. He may well have known her personally through contacts with her brother Harry, another composer and friend of Ireland and Bax. Like Ireland, Farjeon was passionate about the Sussex countryside, as manifest in many of her works, notably Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard (1921) and Martin Pippin in the Daisy Field (1937). She was a marvellous wordsmith, whose enchanting and evocative little stories such as ‘Westwoods’ and ‘The Connemara Donkey’ linger long in the memory.
Rutland Boughton, Britten, and Elizabeth Maconchy all turned to Farjeon’s poems. Ireland set ‘Boys’ names’, ‘The boy’ (retitled ‘Looking on’) and ‘Autumn crocus’ as unison songs for voices and piano, all of these poems taken from Over the Garden Wall.
NB Food for thought. Farjeon was sometimes nicknamed ‘Merry Andrew’, which is the title of one of Ireland’s piano miniatures. Might there be connections here too?
Flaybrick Hill Cemetery – now a memorial garden – was established in 1864 as the new municipal cemetery for Birkenhead, sitting in an elevated position above Liverpool and the River Mersey. In this tranquil site sits the grave of Anne Elcock Higgins. This was John Ireland’s Great Aunt Anne. Originally a Nicholson, she married Charles Hayes Higgins and the family relocated from Bristol and Taunton to the Wirral. The middle name ‘Elcock’ seen on the grave comes from the wealthy Barbadian side of the family. Anne Nicholson’s mother was Lucy Reynold Elcock, daughter of Grant Elcock and Elizabeth Reynoldia Alleyne.
It’s quite possible that Ireland knew this great aunt, who died only in 1892. Birkenhead is no distance from Southport, where the composer’s family lived briefly, and also not at all far from Bowdon, the main home of Ireland and his parents Alexander and Annie.
While Ireland did occasionally give lectures, he was not particularly known for this activity. However, on 17 March 1914 he took it upon himself to assist his good friend Thomas Dunhill, who was in ill health. Dunhill had written a paper on ‘Progress and Pedantry’, and it was Ireland who delivered this to the Musical Association (now the RMA). The paper in any case resonated with Ireland as it argued that the study of counterpoint was still an essential part of a composer’s training. Dunhill did propose a relaxing of the rules of harmony and placed great emphasis on the importance of aural training – learning to listen. At the conclusion of the paper a ‘lively discussion’ took place, with theorists such as Stewart Macpherson contributing to the debate.
Source: Musical Times, 1 April 1914, p.247.
John Nicholson Ireland had a cousin going by the same name, born just two years earlier in 1877. This other John Nicholson was the son of Ireland’s aunt Lucy, who was married to Thomas Varty of Stag Stones, Penrith. John Nicholson Varty grew up in Cumberland and, like others in his immediate family, emigrated to Canada following the death of his father in 1898. Sadly, like his brother Henry Alleyne, this John Nicholson died young, aged only 31, in 1908. He is buried in Fort Saskatchewan Cemetery, north of Edmonton, Alberta.