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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Very Irish Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

On Friday I have the honor of talking about “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes: The Irish Connections” to a luncheon group in Cincinnati called The Irish Salon. I’m going to begin by establishing my own Irish credentials. My mother’s maiden name – which she always used as a middle name – was Patterson. Although I am told that is the third largest clan in Scotland, my first Patterson ancestor in America came from Ireland in the 18th Century.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was Scottish by birth, Irish by descent, British by imperialist conviction. Sherlock Holmes was English by birth, Irish-American by disguise in “His Last Bow.”

Although he spoke with a soft Scottish burr until the end of his life and once referred to himself in a letter as “half-Irish,” Conan Doyle was actually 100 percent Irish except by accident of birth in Scotland. His father, the artist Charles Altamont Doyle, had been born in England of Irish parents. His uncle, Henry Doyle, founded the National Gallery of Ireland. His mother, the former Mary Foley, was also Irish. Upon graduation from medical school in 1881, Conan Doyle visited his Foley cousins in Linsmore, County Waterford, where he seems to have had a marvelous time.

Conan Doyle was educated at Jesuit schools, but by the time he left Stonyhurst College (where he met two boys named Moriarty) and went on to medical school he was no longer a Catholic. In fact, he was mildly anti-Catholic. “I never thought I could have found a friend in a Roman Catholic priest,” he wrote to his mother in 1918. But he did. The cleric in question was his much younger cousin, Father Richard Barry-Doyle, founder of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

It seems to me that even after shedding forever one kind of Irish religion, the Roman Catholic, Conan Doyle retained – or perhaps eventually regained – a very Irish belief in the supernatural. He became an ardent and courageous missionary for spiritualism in his later years. Embarrassingly, at least to his friends, he also wrote a book in 1922 stating his belief in fairies. What could be more Irish than that?

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