Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu — The Chapelizod and Phoenix Park connection
At almost eighteen hundred acres large and serving as a green oasis to the otherwise busy streets of Dublin, the Phoenix Park has been a source of inspiration to many Anglo-Irish writers. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Thomas Kinsella’s poem “Phoenix Park” are just a few examples of works where the park figures prominently.
Neither of these authors will be discussed in this article. It instead focuses on a man who tramped along the dusty avenues of the park as a child, long before they were paved with macadam, and whose eyes admired its trees before they grew tall and dense with foliage: a man called Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.
Within a year of his birth, his family moved to the Royal Hibernian Military School in the Phoenix Park, where Joseph’s father, Thomas, had been appointed chaplain.
At an early age, Joseph displayed signs of being quite the child prodigy. In Seventy Years of Irish Life, William Le Fanu, Joseph’s younger brother, recounts how Joseph liked to draw pictures and write morals below them. One picture in particular portrayed a balloon floating through the air. Two aeronauts had fallen out of its basket and were tumbling to the ground. The moral below read: “See the effects of trying to go to heaven” (McCormack, 1980, p. 15). These little drawings proved to be the first glimpse of the creative mind of a boy who would grow up to write twelve novels and several short stories during his lifetime.
The Le Fanu family came to stay in the Phoenix Park for the first twelve years of Joseph’s life, giving him and his brother plenty of time to explore both the vastness of the park and the quaint nearby village of Chapelizod. Undoubtedly, this period of Joseph’s life had a great impression on his literary works. Though he had to leave the park for the remote town of Abington, county Limerick, in 1826 when his father assumed a chaplaincy there, the park would appear to never have left Joseph.
While still living in Limerick, Joseph began studying law at the Trinity College in 1833; he later graduated in 1839. Though he would never come to practice law, choosing instead to pursue a career in journalism, his time at the college would prove to be an important stepping stone for his literary career. In 1838 his first short-story, “The Ghost and the Bone-Setter”, was published in Dublin University Magazine. The story was the first in a series ending with “The Quare Gardener” in 1840. In 1861 Joseph himself would end up becoming the editor and proprietor of the same magazine.
The first literary work that proves the Phoenix Park never left Joseph’s heart is “Ghost Stories of Chapelizod”, a collection of three short-stories published in Dublin University Magazine in 1851. The three stories, “The Village Bully”, “The Sexton’s Adventure” and “The Spectre Lovers”, are all set in and around Chapelizod. All start off as traditional ghost stories often do: with a man walking home alone at night. But they all take rather different turns from there.
In “The Village Bully”, Bully Larkin is walking home through the park one night only to be chased and have the right side of his body paralyzed by the ghost of Ned Moran, a man who died following a fight with Bully.
In “The Sexton’s Adventure”, Bob Martin, a former drunkard, is returning home late from a funeral when he is pursued by the spectre of his diseased friend Phil Slaney, who tries to persuade him into having a drink and consequently drag him back to the pits of hell.
“The Spectre Lovers” tells the tale of how Peter Brien is suddenly swept back in time during a drunken walk back to Chapelizod from Palmerstown. While there he is confronted by the ghosts of Captain Devereux and his young love, asking him to find their “treasure” and bring it to the churchyard.
The second literary work to have intimate connections with Chapelizod and the Phoenix Park was published during the reclusive and most productive years of Le Fanu’s life, following the death of his wife Susanna in 1858. The House by the Churchyard is a historical mystery novel that chronicles the lives of the inhabitants of Chapelizod in the 18th century. Curiously the characters of Captain Devereux and the young girl, who is here named Lily Walsingham, appear in a sub-plot of the story.
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu might have passed away in his home on February 7, 1873, but Chapelizod and the great Phoenix Park still stand. The trees might be taller and the roads might be paved, but taking a walk through the park means tracing the footsteps of one of Ireland’s greatest writers.
While there, you could visit the house that inspired The House by the Churchyard, which is believed to be the one next to St Laurence’s Church. You could even have a look through the old gravestones in the Chapelizod graveyard and see if you can find the final resting places of Bully, Bob and Peter. According to Le Fanu, that is the place where they all came to lie.  Should you want to visit Le Fanu himself, you would have to get yourself about seven kilometers south to the Mount Jerome Cemetery in Harold’s Cross. You will find him underneath a headstone marked “Here lies Dublin’s Invisible Prince”, just 75 meters down the Nun’s Walk and opposite the three Purser graves.
In ”Ghost Stories of Chapelizod”, LeFanu mentions that each of these characters is buried in this graveyard, but a search through the graveyard registry could not identify the graves. However, you will not know for sure until you look for yourself.
Le Fanu’s literary legacy:
Bram Stoker is thought to have received a great deal of inspiration for Dracula from Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla, published in 1871. It so happens that Stoker was working as an unpaid theatre critic for the Dublin Evening Mail at the time, a magazine co-owned by Le Fanu.
James Joyce used Le Fanu’s The House by the Churchyard as a key source when writing Finnegans Wake, which is also set around Chapelizod and Phoenix Park.
Brennan, K. “J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Chapelizod and the Dublin Connection.” Dublin Historical Record. 33.4. (1980): 22–33. Old Dublin Society.
Le Fanu, J. S. (1853). J. S. Le Fanu’s Ghostly Tales, Volume 4. [EPUB]. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/12647.
McCormack, W.J. (1980). Sheridan Le Fanu (3rd ed). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Merriman, C.D. (2005). Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. The Literature Network. Retrieved March 2nd , 2014, from http://www.online-literature.com/lefanu/.