Arthur Conan Doyle’s Irish Mystery

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Photo: Library of Congress.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Photo: Library of Congress.

By Tom Deignan, Contributor
December / January 2013

As Sherlock Holmes fans celebrate the 125th anniversary of the novel in which Arthur Conan Doyle introduced his famous sleuth, Tom Deignan investigates the author’s Irish roots.

The two recent Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law have earned well over one billion dollars worldwide, so it’s no surprise that screenwriters are currently toiling away at another installment of the lucrative franchise. Current Hollywood buzz has it that filming of the third Sherlock Holmes flick will begin sometime next year, with the movie in theaters possibly by Christmas 2014.

Sherlock Holmes — who celebrates his 125th birthday this year — shows no signs of slowing down. Author Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation, who first appeared in the 1887 murder mystery novel A Study in Scarlet, has had a long life in books and on radio, in television and stage adaptations, and in the movies.

Generations of Sherlock Holmes fans have watched the sleuth, alongside his trusty sidekick Dr. Watson, wield his trademark magnifying glass in order to navigate fog-shrouded British streets, debating theories in plummy accents. The most iconic Holmes, perhaps, is Basil Rathbone, who played the great detective in over a dozen films, and even Robert Downey, Jr.  earned raves for his British accent.

Though he never really went out of style, Doyle is currently enjoying a renaissance. In addition to the film franchise, consulting detective Holmes is also the subject of two hit television series that give Doyle’s stories a contemporary spin: In Britain, the BBC mini-series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, and in the U.S., the new CBS show Elementary, featuring Johnny Lee Miller, Lisa Liu, and Aidan Quinn.

Exploring Irish History
Given Sherlock Holmes’ undeniable British pedigree, it may come as a surprise to some that his creator actually comes from a strong Irish Catholic background. Indeed, both the Conan and Doyle families — not to mention the Foleys, on the great writer’s mother’s side — all hail from Dublin. One of Arthur’s uncles, Henry Doyle, was a prominent artist who went on to serve as director of the National Gallery of Ireland.

As for Arthur Conan Doyle himself, though best known for creating Sherlock Holmes, he also wrote many stories that explore Irish themes and characters. Perhaps most interesting to Irish Americans is the fourth and final Sherlock Homes novel, The Valley of Fear (1915), which may have been inspired by two notable episodes in Irish history — the rise of the Molly Maguires, the secret organization that sought to improve labor conditions in Pennsylvania in the 1870s, and the Phoenix Park murders in Dublin in May of 1882. (Lord Frederick Cavendish, the newly appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland, and Thomas Henry Burke, the Permanent Undersecretary, were fatally stabbed by members of the Irish National Invincibles.)

More broadly, Doyle (1859 – 1930) was alive to witness some of the most tumultuous years of Irish political history, from the post-Famine years to the Easter Rising to the Irish Civil War.

Doyle actively followed the so-called “Irish question” and corresponded with prominent Irish nationalists such as Erskine Childers and Roger Casement.

However, from his fiction to his political positions, Doyle was complicated. For example, despite his strong Irish roots, he once defended British policy in Ireland. So it is fitting that the greatest mystery writer of them all has created quite a mystery about his own past: Precisely how did Arthur Conan Doyle’s Irish background influence his writing?

A Dublin Family
John Doyle (Arthur’s grandfather) was born in Dublin in 1797, into a devoutly Catholic family with an artistic bent. John, who was already showcasing his work at 17, married fellow Dubliner Marianne Conan, a daughter of a tailor, in 1820. Two years later they sought a new life in London, where they soon had three children while John was struggling to succeed as a painter.

After changing his artistic style, John Doyle eventually found success as a political cartoonist. The children kept on coming, as the family moved to the more affluent neighborhood of Hyde Park. They lived in a home where party guests included Benjamin Disraeli and Charles Dickens.

John and Marianne gave birth to Arthur Conan Doyle’s father, Charles, in 1832.

The great writer’s mother, meanwhile, was born in Dublin. The daughter of a doctor who died young, Mary Foley moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, where her mother  established a boardinghouse. Charles also had moved to Scotland as a young man. Mary Foley and Charles Doyle married in 1855 and settled in Edinburgh.

Doyle himself acknowledged his strong Irish roots in his 1924 autobiography Memories and Adventures. “I, an Irishman by extraction, was born in the Scottish capital,” Doyle wrote.

Of his parents, he said: “Two separate lines of Irish wanderers came together under one roof.”

A Visit to Waterford
Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born on May 22, 1859. He was baptized at St. Mary’s Cathedral and received a Jesuit education into his teenage years, before studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

Doyle was only 20 years old when he published his first story in a Scottish journal. As early as 1881, Doyle spent time with family in Ireland, visiting Waterford during a time of agrarian unrest that came to be called “The Land War.” Doyle wrote of his time in Ireland in an essay (with photographs) called “To the Waterford Coast and Along It.”

In 1885, Doyle married Louisa Hawkins, and the couple went to Ireland for their honeymoon. Throughout the 1880s, however, Doyle struggled as both a writer and doctor. Patients were not exactly knocking down the door of his practice, and publishers and journals rejected many of Doyle’s manuscripts. One magazine that finally agreed to publish a new work by Arthur Conan Doyle was Beeton’s Christmas Annual. The November 1887 edition of that magazine contained a story called “A Study in Scarlet.” Critics in The Scotsman and Glasgow Herald newspapers liked the story. Little did they know that the history of literature was about to change.

Sherlock — and Support for Irish Home Rule?
“A Study in Scarlet” was the first story to feature a detective named Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson. Doyle eventually achieved widespread popularity, with Holmes starring in three subsequent novels: The Sign of the Four (1890), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and The Valley of Fear (1915).

But just as he was more or less creating the modern detective novel, Doyle was also exploring Irish themes in stories such as “That Little Square Box,” “The Heiress of Glenmahowley,” “Touch and Go: A Midshipman’s Story,” and “The Green Flag.”

“These stories are testimonies to Doyle’s keen and sympathetic interest in Irish political grievances,” writes Catherine Wynne, author of the scholarly text The Colonial Conan Doyle.

And yet, despite his roots and his visits to Ireland, the now-successful Arthur Conan Doyle opposed Irish Home Rule in the early 1900s.

“I was what was called a Liberal-Unionist, that is, a man whose general position was Liberal, but who could not see his way to support Gladstone’s Irish Policy,” Doyle himself wrote in his memoirs, referring to the British prime minister who supported Home Rule for Ireland.

The famous writer’s attitude changed in the coming decade. In February 1912 he wrote a letter to Roger Casement stating: “Yes, I feel strongly for Ireland and hope I may strike some blow in that cause.”

On the other hand, Doyle felt compelled to add: “I see the British point of view very clearly, also. However, from both points of view, I am convinced that Home Rule is the solution.”

Scholars such as Catherine Wynne believe Doyle never quite resolved the tensions he felt about Ireland. On the one hand he saw himself as an Irishman, visited Ireland and followed the political situation there. But he was also a successful writer who shied away from more radical political ideas. Wynne believes this conflict manifested itself in Doyle’s writing, leading him to follow the tradition of Gothic Irish literature, a genre perhaps best exemplified by the Dublin-born writer Bram Stroker, the author of Dracula.

Doyle and Ireland
Doyle’s “preoccupations with colonialism are demonstrated in recurring obsessions with land, mind, racial identity and sexuality,” Wynne writes. “The Gothic is an important mode within the colonial context because… it gives a voice to those who are without power and are disenfranchised.”

Doyle’s complex take on Irish matters is perhaps most evident in the final Sherlock Holmes novel, Valley of Fear.

Part of the novel takes place in 1875, and features a meeting on a train during which two passengers (one carrying a gun) identify themselves as members of a secret society most critics believe was based on the Molly Maguires.

Doyle was said to be fascinated by James McParland, the detective who infiltrated the Molly Maguires. He met with William Pinkerton – head of the private detective agency that McParland worked for – and many speculate that hearing the Molly Maguires story from Pinkerton inspired Doyle to write Valley of Fear and to base the detective character on McParland, who was born in Armagh.

One of the key characters in Valley of Fear is lost at sea. However, Sherlock Holmes fears he was in fact executed and thrown overboard. This echoes the death of James Carey, who informed on his fellow comrades in the Irish National Invincibles, the group that perpetrated the murders in Phoenix Park. Carey was shot dead on board a ship by Donegal man Patrick O’Donnell, an Irish revolutionary who likely had relatives who belonged to – you guessed it – the Molly Maguires. O’Donnell may even have visited Pennsylvania as part of his search for the informant who exposed the Phoenix Park assassins.

In the end, Arthur Conan Doyle’s relationship with Ireland may have been complicated, but it was most certainly intimate. In fact, if Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law stay at this long enough, it’s more than likely that they will someday be in a scene featuring an Irish-American coal miner with a gun on a train.

3 Responses to “Arthur Conan Doyle’s Irish Mystery”

  1. Thanks for this great background piece on Arthur Conan Doyle – it helps tease out the point of view of this complicated Irish author. For a revisionist view of Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguires,” visit the blog via the link (name) above.

    Yours,
    Anne Flaherty

  2. Hi

    Interesting to see this about my illustrious cousin…I am descended from the same Dublin tailor as ACD…he was James Conan, and tailoring contunued in that family right down to my own grandfather..(.the firm is mentioned in work of James Joyce)

    My book Grandfathers House gives a lot more info on the Conan family…see my website…interested people could contact me…

    And Greetings from Ireland.

    ConanK

  3. Caig says:

    How’s he Irish in any way other than ancestry?

    He was born and resided in Scotland nearly all his life!

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