The Irish Connections of Sherlock Holmes

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I’ve been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for a long time now. I’ve been meaning to get on to Basil Rathbone but my personal favourite is probably Johnny Lee Miller. Since my Masters dissertation involves Fenianism in Victorian fiction, I’ve been reading a lot of Sherlock Holmes stories lately..The findings so far have shown a large amount of Irish influence behind our favourite Baker Street sleuth. However, I’d better say straight away that the way I’ve interpreted these influences is pretty subjective and should be taken as opinion. Nevertheless, if you’re interested, my principal sources (aside from the stories themselves) are the works of biographer Michael Coren and Dr. Catherine Wynne (University of Hull).

Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh on 22nd May 1859, son of Mary Foley and Charles Altamont Doyle. Both parents were Irish immigrants. Mary was the daughter of successful doctor William FoleyCharles came from a notably artistic Anglo-Irish family, a legacy which he struggled against (ultimately unsuccessfully.) Regardless, he was known for his Irish nationalism, which his son no doubt absorbed at an early age. Indeed, ‘Altamont’ would be the alias later used by Sherlock in His Last Bow when masquerading as a Fenian, Arthur‘s heritage putting him in a significant minority. According to his autobiography, Memories and Adventures (1924), Doyle spent his childhood with a gang of other Irish children. They spent their time scrapping with their wealthier neighbours. His mother once asked him how he came to be so bruised and bloodied when coming home. Allegedly the boy responded, “You should go across and look at Eddie Tulloch’s eye.”

  

(pictured left: Mary Foley Doyle, pictured right: Charles Altamont Doyle with young Arthur)

Certain events during the 19th century made being an Irishman in Britain a dangerous position. Arthur’s grandfather, John Doyle emigrated to London due to the persecution his family experienced. As Catholic landlords, they had land seized under the Penal Laws. Further trouble emerged in 1867 when the Fenians attacked Clerkenwell Jail. A general anti-Irish sentiment rapidly emerged as a result in Britain, seeing Irishness and Fenian Republicanism as inseparable. Doyle would later poke fun at this culture of suspicion in his story ‘That Little Square Box’. The story features a ship collapsing into hysterics due to a brown box. Simply because a package bears an Irish name, the crew suspects Fenian tirickery. The crew panics, believing the box to contain dynamite, only to reveal a harmless package of pigeons within.

Doyle attended the Jesuit Stonyhearst College, alongside a number of other Irish children. His experiences here were not positive, having received a great deal of corporal punishment. Despite being an athletic boy, young Arthur never had the chance to excel in sports as no local schools were willing to play against Catholics. In perhaps the most interesting turn of events, school records show that Doyle attended class with a boy by the name of Moriarty. Many have speculated on the Napoleon of Crime (and his lieutenant, Moran) having an Irish background.  This is all but confirmed in the BBC adaptation in the form of Andrew Scott. The connections do not end here; turning one’s gaze backward in time will prove Sherlock to be a relatively common Irish name in the past. While the character himself is not directly Irish, claiming lineage from a line of English country squires, his forename nevertheless implies a more Irish connection.

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Doyle would have called himself British first and foremost and was deeply dedicated to the British military cause. He received his knighthood more-or-less as a result of his propaganda in favour of the Boer War. The ageing writer even did a tour of the trenches during the First World War for morale in the allied forces. He ran for office unsuccessfully in Edinburgh as a Liberal Unionist. As Catherine Wynne remarks, Doyle would retreat into his spiritualism and Holmes to his beekeeping, meaning these struggles are never fully resolved.

If, due to his first name, we can regard the sleuth as even partially Irish, The Final Problem becomes all the more complex. Holmes and Moriarty are described as locked in an embrace as the topple over the Reichenbach Falls. Was this the more natural, realistic conclusion for Doyle? The gentleman detective of mixed nationality falling alongside the criminal Fenian; the one can’t be vanquished without damaging the others. Could this possibly represent Doyle’s denial of his Irish roots in order to play the British gentleman of empire?

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However, Doyle made a dramatic change in 1911 when he switched his position to Home Rule. Like Sherlock himself, the Irish theme then miraculously resurrects itself. The Valley of Fear, a story loosely based on the actions of the Molly Maguires, gives another option. My guess is Doyle had problems being both a supporter of empire and being true to his roots. The real-life Mollies were ultimately brought down by an infiltrator from the Pinkerton detective agency. Doyle’s telling of the story sees the infiltrator experience a very different fate. The mole is lost at sea before he can return to America, probably at Moriarty’s orders. Given that this was Doyle’s final Sherlock Holmes novel, it seems that our author was trying to work out some difficult issues of identity.

I can’t help but feel this struggle is being articulated through the conclusion of Valley of Fear. Sherlock is denied a clean victory over the criminal Irish element that threatened the British establishment. Their voice is challenged, but cannot be completely silenced by the end of the novel. The Irish, it seems, are permitted the last word. Significantly, it is the Irish Americans permitted to have this victory. The Fenian campaigns were heavily reliant on American support. Indeed, as the 1881-5 Dynamite Campaign occurred in London, the IRB received direction from Jeremiah O’Donavan Rossa in New York. While it was difficult for one to be both Irish and British during this time, the same restriction did not apply in the so-called Land of the Free. It is possible that Doyle, impressed with what he saw during his extensive travels in America during the early 20th century saw a new way of articulating Irish identity; one which allowed him to have his cake and eat it too.

(pictured above: Jeremiah O’Donavan Rossa of the Irish Republican Brotherhood)

When I saw the premiere of Sherlock‘s latest season, I was intrigued. Destruction of Margaret Thatcher busts? Holmes asking about Moriarty’s political background? I momentarily wondered whether the show was implying a dissident republican connection on Moriarty’s part. This was not the case and I can understand why Moffat would be eager to avoid that hot potato. Nevertheless, I look forward to the fifth season of Sherlock or indeed another Downey Jr. movie. Hopefully, these future incarnations of Holmes can continue unpacking the Irish legacy of Sherlock Holmes.

What do you think about Sherlock Holmes Irish connection? Let us know in the comments below!