Is having bad eyesight a pre-requisite for being a celebrated Irish writer? Certainly James Joyce had his troubles often having to resort to wearing a patch to spare his eyes. Throughout his life, he suffered from a catalogue of eye-related conditions – iritis, conjunctivitis, glaucoma and cataracts. Some suggest his eye troubles were a by-product of syphilis, though this has never been confirmed.
Playwright Sean O’Casey was similarly afflicted, though it’s unlikely he had syphilis. From the age of five he had continuous crippling bouts of conjunctivitis which in latter years developed into trachoma. In a letter to the American critic Brooks Atkinson in 1964, the year of his death, he wrote heartbreakingly of the plight of a writer going blind:
“I could read an illuminated sign outdoors,” he replied. “But not ordinary newsprint or the letter text in a book. All the hundreds of books around me are dumb. I can write a little, largely by sense of touch. But I cannot read back what I have put down.”
But perhaps the blindest of all was Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850 – 1904) – an Irish writer who is all but forgotten here now but who was a household name in Japan where he wrote a dozen or so books between 1891 and his death in 1904.
I discovered Hearn during an extended stay in Tokyo in 2010 where to be Irish meant you were automatically connected to the fame of Lafcadio Hearn. We visited Matsue, a city in the western Shimani region – a 16-hour journey by train from Tokyo where Hearn is the cornerstone of the city’s cultural tourism, although he only stayed there a little over a year. There’s a Hearn memorial museum and his home is open to the public. The city quarter where he lived in Matsue now bears his name and his stylised logo appears on the street lamps in the cobbled streets. In souvenir shops you can even buy Lafcadio Hearn tea.
Hearn is considered a laureate in Japan, the single greatest foreign interpreter of the country at a time when the old Japanese ways and traditions were being abandoned.
But 20 years before he made his name in Japan, Hearn was a newly arrived emigrant in America, penniless and down on his luck. From this lowly start he embarked on a career as a pioneering journalist in Cincinnati and New Orleans, specializing in closely observed depictions of the underbelly of society – grotesque murders, hangings, slaughter houses, dissection rooms, city dumps, and the lives lived in the poor black quarters of the city. This despite the fact that he was blind in one eye, and the sight in the other was severely compromised as a result of an accident during a tug of war competition when he was a schoolboy.
Hearn was born on the Greek island of Lefkas in 1850. His mother, Rosa Kassimati, was a native of the island; his father, an Irish surgeon stationed on Lefkas with the British Army. They called their first child after the island, hence Hearn’s exotic-sounding second name. When he was two, his mother, Rosa, brought him to Dublin to live with the extended Hearn family, while his father was posted abroad. But after a short period, Rosa, homesick and pregnant with a second child, decided to return to Lefkas, leaving Hearn in the care of his great-aunt, Sarah Brenane, in a house in Rathmines. (There is a plaque commemorating his time in this house on Prince Edward Terrace.) The little boy was never to see either parent again – they divorced when he was six.
Hearn’s education at a boarding school in England was brought to an abrupt end when his great-aunt Sarah’s finances crashed and at the age of 16 he had to start making his own way in the world. It was the beginning of a peripatetic and picaresque existence that took him first to London, then Ohio, where he emerged aged 24 as a crime reporter and scandal chaser on the Cincinnati Enquirer and Commercial.
Hearn was one of the earliest exponents of the New Journalism, that is the original new journalism – the muck-rakers who dominated the American journalism scene in the late 1890s. (The term was resurrected again for the revolutionary immersive journalism of the 1960s). Like his successors, Hearn used fictional techniques – dialogue, literary description and placing himself as a character in the story – that later exemplified the work of Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, and Hunter S Thompson.
‘Gibbetted’, his eyewitness account of the botched hanging of an Irish youth was included in True Crime: An American Anthology (2008), a collection by the Library of America of the best American crime stories of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Hearn’s report contains some eye-watering details (forgive the pun) that must have been more imagined and felt then actually seen given the state of his eyesight. In the New Journalism style Hearn steeps himself in the story. He explores the background of the prisoner, visits the young man before the execution and examines the gallows as they are being constructed. He even gets to feel the pulse of the prisoner when the first hanging fails.
“The poor young criminal had fallen on his back, apparently unconscious with the broken rope around his neck, and the black cap veiling his eyes. The reporter knelt beside him and felt his pulse. It was beating slowly and regularly. Probably the miserable boy thought then, if he could think at all, that he was really dead – dead in darkness, for his eyes were veiled – dead and blind to this world but about to open his eyes upon another. The awful hush immediately following his fall might have strengthened this dim idea. But then came the gasps, and choked sobs from the spectators; the hurrying of feet, and the horrified voice of the Deputy Freeman calling ‘For God’s sake, get me that other rope, quick!!’ Then a pitiful groan came from beneath the black cap.
‘My god. Oh my god!’
‘I ain’t dead – I ain’t dead!’
The insistent use of other senses in the piece – hearing and touch – speak of a man determined to compensate for his deficient eyesight. And his feel for atmosphere and his human empathy – essential for any journalist writing colour – is unquestionable. His appetite for colour writing may have sprung from his personal life which was also extremely bohemian, to say the least, but that’s a story for another day.
Lafcadio Hearn was born on this day, June 27, 167 years ago.