It’s that time of year again, when everyone is getting ready to celebrate their favorite Irish person.
St. Patrick? What? Of course not, he wasn’t Irish.
I’m referring to Patrick Lafcadio Hearn!
Well, not that he was born in Ireland, he was born in 1850 in Lefkada, Greece, as his mother was Greek. After soap-opera levels of complications between his parents he was cared for by his great aunt in Dublin, where he spent a good chunk of his childhood, but he spent most of his life outside of the country. Plus, he dropped the Irish “Patrick” name in favor of his more exotic middle name inspired by his birthplace. Although he was technically one of many, many Irish immigrants to the United States, he never identified much with the mainstreamers, and instead chose to write about the gritty ways of life that countered western white man’s culture. Maybe we’re not so much celebrating a Irishman as we are celebrating a hipster.
Biographers around the world often point out how Hearn never seemed to feel at home and embraced various subcultures and ways of life even if he never quite fit in, and it wasn’t until he came to Matsue and met his wife Setsu that he found his place. His writings about Matsue, Izumo, the Oki Islands, and parts of Tottori in “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan” (1894) gave him world-wide fame, and he lived out the rest of his days as a respected writer and teacher. Though his attitudes toward Japan became more nuanced over the fourteen years he lived there, Matsue remained a city he loved and looked back on fondly, especially places like the garden of his former residence, which faced the northern moat of Matsue Castle.
Not to worry, you lonely hipster, Hearn. Matsue still loves you back.
Besides Hearn’s influence felt throughout the city, the Hearn ties have been binding Matsue cities around the world together in 111 years since Hearn’s time. New Orleans, where he worked for ten years, has been in a lively Friendship City relationship with Matsue since 1994, and in July 2014, the city contributed to the opening of the Lefcadio Hern Historical Center in his birthplace of Lefkada. Matsue has had unofficial ties with Dublin for even long than that, and as a result, there are many people here who enthusiastically embrace traditional Irish culture. Perhaps Hearn never would have expected that his influence would lead to the annual Irish Festival in Matsue!
This year’s festival will be on Sunday, March 8, 2015, and it kicks off with a water parade on the castle moats and then a green and wildly costumed parade through the streets, followed by performances and food. The Shamrock, an Irish pub held in the Karakoro Art Studio Vault, will serve Guiness on tap and Irish dishes to enjoy with the live evening performances on the 7th and the 8th. I have entries posted about the 2013 and 2014 Irish Festivals.
Also, just a little plug for a new book coming out from Harvest Publishing which pairs photos from around the San’in region with Hearn’s writing about them, both in Japanese and English. The book announcement poster is in Japanese, but it’ll give you a sense of the style they’re taking with the approach. The title, “Shoukei,” refers to a longing or aspiration. I made sure to read a handful of Hearn’s books (available for free via Project Gutenberg) before moving here to Matsue and largely forgot about them while making my own impressions, but every so often when I look back at the descriptions, I’m struck by how accurate they still are.
“Roused thus by these earliest sounds of the city’s wakening life, I slide open my little Japanese paper window to look out upon the morning over a soft green cloud of spring foliage rising from the river-bounded garden below. Before me, tremulously mirroring everything upon its farther side, glimmers the broad glassy mouth of the Ohashigawa, opening into the grand Shinji Lake, which spreads out broadly to the right in a dim grey frame of peaks…
“But oh, the charm of the vision—those first ghostly love-colours of a morning steeped in mist soft as sleep itself resolved into a visible exhalation! Long reaches of faintly-tinted vapour cloud the far lake verge—long nebulous bands, such as you may have seen in old Japanese picture-books, and must have deemed only artistic whimsicalities unless you had previously looked upon the real phenomena. All the bases of the mountains are veiled by them, and they stretch athwart the loftier peaks at different heights like immeasurable lengths of gauze (this singular appearance the Japanese term ‘shelving’), so that the lake appears incomparably larger than it really is, and not an actual lake, but a beautiful spectral sea of the same tint as the dawn-sky and mixing with it, while peak-tips rise like islands from the brume, and visionary strips of hill-ranges figure as league-long causeways stretching out of sight—an exquisite chaos, ever-changing aspect as the delicate fogs rise, slowly, very slowly. As the sun’s yellow rim comes into sight, fine thin lines of warmer tone—spectral violets and opalines-shoot across the flood, treetops take tender fire, and the unpainted façades of high edifices across the water change their wood-colour to vapoury gold through the delicious haze.”
–Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, The Chief City of the Province of the Gods