Ireland visited Jersey on many occasions, and lived on Guernsey in 1939 and 1940. The Channel Islands are not, however, only these two biggest and best-known, but embrace three distinct groups of islands. The northern cluster, centred on Alderney, also includes uninhabited Burhou, Ortac, Renonquet, the Casquets and a number of small islets. Furthest south, virtually on the Normandy coast, are the Iles de Chausey, as well as Les Minquiers and Douvres. John Ireland’s islands lie in the centre, and this group includes Jersey, Guernsey, Sark, Herm, Jethou, Brecqhou, Lihou and smaller, fantastically-named reefs such as Les Écréhous, Les Dirouilles and Les Pierres de Lecq. Finally, there are tiny Tintageu and Crevichon, the latter renamed the green cone of Merg by Compton Mackenzie in his 1926 novel, Fairy Gold.
During the years c. 1906–1914 John Ireland visited Jersey every summer, each time spending around 6 weeks there. At that time the railway was flourishing, with a line that ran from the west to the east coast, taking visitors from Gorey, with its castle and pier, to Corbière, with its dramatically-situated lighthouse.
The train ran on a single track and there were regular services, as can be seen from the timetable of 1916. One of the stops was Fauvic, on the Royal Bay of Grouville. This is where Ireland conceived his potent little piano piece, ‘The Island Spell’. Perhaps, then, he made his way there by steam train?
From Fauvic there is a view of France. There are martello towers and a beach whose outlook is radically altered at high and low tides. It is a magical spot still, and before the First World War must have been quite a halcyon place for a composer enjoying a moment of summer solitude.
Many aspects of ‘The Island Spell’ can be mapped on to this landscape experience. The piano miniature has an undulation and sweeping range commensurate with the powerful ebb and flow of the tide in this vast, sandy bay. Surely the right hand ‘tings’ are inspired by the glitter of sun on the sea. And the faint relationship with Debussy’s ‘La Cathédrale Engloutie’ and superimposition of the impressionistic words of Arthur Symons have associations with the Normandy vista seen by Ireland while floating in the sea off Fauvic.
A marvellous collection of photographs shows many of the railway stations as they would have been in Ireland’s time.
When Ireland lived on Guernsey in 1940, his home on l’Erée Bay sat below one of the island’s most important burial mounds, Creux ès Faies.
This megalithic passage tomb and its surrounding fields have long been reputed for their fairy associations. Indeed, the site itself has always carried a ‘fairy’ name. Local folklore believed it to be the entrance to the fairy kingdom on Guernsey, from which sprites might emerge to dance on John Ireland’s other favoured spot, ‘Le Catioroc’. Soon after the composer was evacuated from the island in 1940 (exactly 100 years after the tomb had been excavated), it became part of a lookout on the west coast. Now it has resumed its former secretive peacefulness, hidden under a grassy mound.
When Ireland moved to Guernsey in 1939 one of his homes was in the district of St Martin’s, where he rented a house called ‘Woodside’, set on Blanche Pierre Lane, which sits between the village centre and the sea. In one direction Ireland could walk to the dramatic coastline at Fermain Bay. Going the other way, a short daily walk took him to St Martin’s Church, which held great appeal for the composer for its bringing together of Christian and pagan worship. The church stands on the site of an ancient tomb-shrine, below which emerge two springs. A famous megalith stands outside the church, going by the name of La Gran’mère du Chimquière. This dates from around 2000BC, and historically has seen many offerings from parishioners in search of medical cures or to ensure fertility.
For several summers prior to the First World War John Ireland holidayed on Jersey. In particular he recalled swimming in the sea on the east coast, at Fauvic. Jersey’s east coast as seen in July 2017, with its eerie lunar landscape at low tide, looks much as it might have done 100 years earlier.
When Ireland was living on Guernsey in 1939–40, he may have encountered the island’s Christmas customs. One of these was a festival known as La Longue Veille, which took place on 23 December. On this day a special feast was prepared, consisting of Guernsey biscuits (pictured), cheese, galettes and mulled wine. There are other interesting habits and traditions. Christmas Eve was known as Serveille, and the people of Guernsey shared a folk belief common to a number of English counties that all cattle kneel at midnight in remembrance of the manger at Bethlehem. Another superstition was that on Christmas Eve the water in the wells is turned to wine. Ireland would surely have liked the idea of these distinctive customs, given his propensity for researching English folklore.
Aside from the obvious attractions of its climate, landscape and historic dolmens, there are other reasons why John Ireland might have been drawn to Jersey. It is an island full of the sorts of customs and legends that fascinated him. One distinctive tradition is the Jersey perquage, a sanctuary path leading from the island’s churches to the sea. As long as a person seeking sanctuary remained either in the church or on one of these roads, then they enjoyed the protection of the ecclesiastical authorities. Few traces of these ancient and unique paths remain, however, as land was gradually sold and incorporated into private property. However, the tiny chapel at St Brelade’s Bay still has its perquage, the shortest on the island, given that the chapel is virtually on the beach.