Many Channel Islands

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.

Image result for crevichon island

Creux ès Faies

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.


A Guernsey megalith

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.

Guernsey Christmas customs

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.

Ireland’s pupils: Peter Crossley-Holland

One of Ireland’s pupils at the RCM was the renowned ethnomusicologist, composer and BBC Producer Peter Crossley-Holland (1916–2001). On the face of it very different personalities, they went on to become good friends.

A sequence of letters from Ireland to Crossley-Holland is held at the Royal College of Music. They span a period from 1935–52, and contain many fascinating little observations and revelations. The letters cover a decade when Ireland was living away from London, and end when he was back in his Chelsea home following the end of the war. In the letters Ireland always refers to his former pupil by his surname, and writes fondly of many of his students.

In 1939 Crossley-Holland invited Ireland to his wedding. The latter was then living on Guernsey, and declined the invitation, while suggesting the island as a honeymoon venue – somewhat ironic given that Guernsey was invaded only 8 days later. In the following year, now living in Radlett, Ireland gives his comments on Crossley-Holland’s Piano Sonata, hoping he will not get the ‘Celtic or “bardic” fever – it does not lead to conciseness or clearness of expression or form’ (24 July 1940). His pupil was at this time working as an ARP warden. Crossley-Holland asked Ireland to be the godfather of his new son Kevin in 1941, with the composer politely deflecting the request.

In 1945 they met at the Albert Hall. Crossley-Holland was now living in Wilmslow, Ireland back in Gunter Grove. They met again in 1948, soon after which point the surviving correspondence concludes.

Source: letters from John Ireland to Peter Crossley-Holland, RCM:


Ireland’s pupils: Percy Turnbull

Percy TurnbullThis is the first of a new blog ‘series’ of posts on Ireland’s pupils, making use of information gleaned from the composer’s teaching registers at the RCM. In 1926 one of the names listed for the Christmas term, with lessons on a Friday, was Percy Turnbull.

Percy Purvis Turnbull (1902–1976) was born in Newcastle upon Tyne. His early years were influenced by William Whittaker, conductor of the Newcastle upon Tyne Bach Choir Society, who befriended the young musician. In 1923 he won a Foundation Scholarship to the RCM, where he studied with Holst, Vaughan Williams, and then Ireland, the latter remaining a lifelong friend. On leaving the RCM in 1927 after one last Easter term with Ireland, he became an editor for the Aeolian Piano Company and reader for OUP, also working as a freelance pianist and music copyist. Indeed, it was Turnbull who made the first copies of Vaughan Williams’s fourth symphony and Job.

In the mid-1930s he moved to Chalfont St Giles, close to his friend the composer John Longmire. After Longmire had moved to Guernsey with Ireland, Turnbull visited them in May 1940, shortly before the German invasion of the Channel Islands. In the following month finding himself in the situation of having to wait for an evacuation boat along with Ireland and Longmire. During World War II he served in the Royal Artillery, after which he became principal piano teacher at the Surrey College of Music until its closure in 1956.

Following his divorce from his first wife, Turnbull remarried in 1956, his second wife the Hon Mary Elizabeth Parnell, an associate of the RCM and daughter of John Brooke Molesworth Parnell, the sixth Baron Congleton. In that same year he moved to West Sussex to a beautiful house, West Broomers, located in a rural part of the Downs just north of Pulborough, very close to Ireland’s home at Rock Mill.West Broomers

Much of Turnbull’s work, which includes songs, orchestral and chamber music, remained in manuscript, and was only brought to publication after his death, thanks to the efforts of his wife. Turnbull was clearly strongly influenced by Ireland both in the genres he favoured and in stylistic terms, producing a body of miniatures for piano, including:

  • Seven Character Sketches(1923–7)
  • Eight Short Piano Pieces(published under the pseudonym Peter Thrale) (1931)
  • Six Pastoral Miniatures(1938)
  • Three Winter Pieces(1956–7)

After 1960 Turnbull turned his attention away from music to drawing and painting, favouring in particular landscapes in watercolour. He died on 9 December 1976.


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

RCM teaching registers






La Vallette

During Ireland’s nine-month sojourn on Guernsey in 1939 and 40 he would have known La Vallette, a corniche cut into the rock to create a promenade south of the island’s capital, St Peter Port. Several prominent features had existed long before Ireland’s day. ‘Les Bains Publics’ were famous worldwide, with a horseshoe pool for men built in 1859 and separate private pool for ladies following in 1862. In 1876 female bathers demanded a second, public ladies pool, which was built 10 years later.The lower slopes of La Vallette were laid out as gardens with footpaths passing through them. After Ireland’s departure in 1940, and during the German occupation, a large underground tunnel was cut into La Vallette to provide bomb-proof shelter for fuel storage. But while the composer was living on the island, the area was known only for its tranquillity and sheltered saltwater bathing.

Ireland’s books: De situ orbis

‘Le Catioroc’, the first movement of Ireland’s Sarnia, carries lines from the De Situ Orbis of Pomponius Mela (d. c. AD45), the earliest Roman geographer:

‘All day long, heavy silence broods, and a certain hidden terror lurks there. But at nightfall gleams the light of fires; the chorus of Ægipans resounds on every side: the shrilling of flutes and the clash of cymbals re-echo the waste shores of the sea.’…

Also known by the title De Chorographia, in this work Mela divides the earth into five zones, describes them and includes a number of maps. A key point in his mapping of the world is his defining and naming of the Orkney Islands. His description is in the form of a voyage around Africa, Asia, and Europe. Mela integrates geographical description with historical, cultural, and mythological information. An English translation from the Latin was made as early as 1585, a version given to Ireland by Arthur Machen.

Eric Parkin’s performance of ‘Le Catioroc’ can be heard HERE.