David Thomson


1914-88; b. India, of Scottish parents, his father being in the Indian Army; raised in Scotland, Derbyshire and London; suffered eye-injury in childhood and removed from University College School (London), being taught thereafter by private tutors in the home of his maternal grandmother at Nairn, Scotland; sent to ed. King Alfred School, London, aged 14; grad. Lincoln College, Oxford (Mod. Hist.); arrived in Ireland in 1932 at 18 as tutor to Phoebe Kirkwood, then 11, and the other girls of an Anglo-Irish family living at Woodbrook House [‘big house’], nr. Carrick-on-Shannon [Co. Roscommon], and returned regularly during summers over ensuing ten years, an experience recorded in Woodbrook (1974) - interleaved with historical chapters recounting the main episodes of Anglo-Irish history; employed by the family in the London house and invited over for the summer;

Woodbrook was sold through lack of funds in 1942, and Thomson took work as a writer and producer of radio documentaries for BBC, 1943-69; m. Martina Mayne, 1952, with whom three sons; issued The People of the Sea (1954) on the grey seal in Ireland and Scotland; seconded to UNESCO and made radio programmes in France, Liberia and Turkey; Thomson returned to Woodbrook only in 1968, to write his book; also wrote In Camden Town (1983), an account of life in the inner London suburb during the 1950s and ’60s; issued Nairn in Darkness and Light (1987), based on his childhood years in Scotland; also wrote three “Danny Fox” children’s books; he was awarded the McVitie’s Prize for Scottish Writer of the Year, 1987; posthumously awarded the NCR Book Award for non-fiction, 1988; his scripts and correspondences are held in the National Library of Scotland.

Woodbrook House: the Kirkwood family, of Cromwellian descent, first resided at Killala and purchased Woodbrook during the 19th century from the Phibbs family who had built the present house in 1780, having occupied the land since 1671. The Kirkwoods at first purchased a the 200-acre farm at Usna on the banks of the River Boyle to which the 600-acre farm at Woodbrook was later added. Their home at Usna, originally a square Georgian block, came to be known as Woodbrook House, the wings being added later, along with the wrought-iron gate and railings, after a Kirkwood horse called Woodbrook (ridden by Tommy Beasley and trained by Henry Linde) won the 1881 Grand National. At the age of 10-11, the novelist John McGahern was given access to the library of the house, as he records in his Memoir. In 1932 the estate was 200 acres; in c.1942 the Kirkwoods left for the last time, settling in Howth during the sale of the house. The house was acquired by an American member of the Maxwell family who lived on the estate and regarded themselves as the original owners before the Plantation, and in 1970 it was acquired by John A. Malone & family since 1970. Cootehill, a larger house - notorious for the cruelty of its owners - faces Woodbrook on the other side of the river. Phoebe died of illness in 1943.

Phoebe Kirkwood
Phoebe Kirkwood (aged 16)

The above photograph is given in Julian Vignoles, A Delicate Wildness: The Life and Loves of David Thomson (Lilliput 2014) - courtesy of Mai Malone and appears as an illustration in the review of same by Michael McDowell, in Irish Independent (1 Sept. 2015).

There is an RTE radio-documentary broadcast “The Story of Woodbrook - David Thomson’s Book”, inspired by Thomson’s memoir, directed by Julian Vignoles and narrated by Conor Farrington with a sound-track by Micheál Ó Suilleabháin - RTÉ1 in 1986 > online.

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  • Daniel (1962).
  • Break in the Sun (1965).
  • Dandiprat’s Days (1983).
For children
  • Danny Fox (1966)
  • Danny Fox Meets a Stranger (1968).
  • Danny Fox at the Palace (1976).

See also The Leaping Hare (non fiction with George Ewart Evans) 1972 ‘another classic beast-book’.

  • The People of the Sea (1954); Do. [rep.] with preface by Seamus Heaney (2000).
  • Woodbrook (London: Barrie & Jenkins 1974; Penguin edn., 1976; Cambridge: Arena Books 1988; London: Vintage 1991).
  • In Camden Town (1983).
  • Nairn in Darkness and Light (1987).
  • ed. with intro., with Moyra McGusty, The Irish Journals of Elizabeth Smith; 1840-1850 (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1980), 326pp.

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Julian Vignoles: A Delicate Wildness: The Life and Loves of David Thomson, 1914-1988 (Dublin: Lilliput Press 2014); see also review of same by Michael McDowell, in Irish Independent (1 Sept. 2015) [see extract].

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P. J. Kavanagh, Voices in Ireland (1994), gives an account of Thomson at Woodbrook and Rockingham country houses (p.76); gives obit. as 1988.

Michael McDowell, review of A Delicate Wildness: The Life and Loves of David Thomson, 1914-1988, by Julian Vignoles, in Irish Independent (1 Sept. 2015).

There is something especially magical about David Thomson’s classic autobiographical love story and social history, Woodbrook, published in 1974, a haunting and beguiling tale of a young student, David, who came from England in the 1930s to tutor a young teenage girl, Phoebe, living in an Anglo-Irish petty landlord family, the Kirkwoods, struggling with their declining means at their home, Woodbrook, near Ardcarne just north of Carrick-on-Shannon and on the road to Boyle.
 Julian luckily met his “hero”, Thomson, shortly before his death in 1988.
 He recalls a later memorable occasion in the Arts Club in Dublin in 1989, when Thomson’s circle of admirers, including Seamus Heaney and John McGahern, met after his death to commemorate him in what Heaney described as “a wake of sorts, where we remember the care, delicacy, research and affection that David invested in this country - as a historian, a folklorist and as a person. He had made intimates of his readers”.
 On that occasion, John McGahern said of Woodbrook that the book “abolishes time and establishes memory” and further: “It is strange in the English tradition of writing about Ireland. I know of no other voice like it; there is no savage indignation, no exasperated tolerance, no dehumanising farce, and no superior tone. It has a rare sweetness and gentleness”.
 Julian’s affectionate portrait of David Thomson, a surprising and complex figure with strengths and weaknesses, and of his relationship with his loves, especially his wife, Martina, is attractive, searching, honest and always intriguing. It is also deeply satisfying insofar as it explains some, but inevitably not all, of the delicate enigma that is the delicate and captivating charm of Woodbrook.
 My advice: read, or re-read, Woodbrook, listen again to O’Suilleabhain’s composition; read Julian Vignoles[’] A Delicate Wildness: The Life and Loves of David Thomson and then, like me, resolve to go hunting for the rest of Thomson’s works. No better or more rewarding use of your time.

—See full-text version in RICORSO Library, "Review" - via index, or as [see extract].


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An account of the Irish famine as told to Thomson by Nanny Feehily-Maxwell in c.1940 (from Woodbrook, Chap. 9, Pt. 2).

Her parents were married very young, as was the custom then, and had at least one baby before 1845, more during the famine, although she could not remember how many and was not sure of her own age. She knew she was born in the 1860s, the last of fifteen, and said she knew less of the bad times than many people of her age’ on account of her brothers being all hot men that would not listen’. Her father and mother used often to be talking about the hunger and the fever and the terrible evictions, but the brothers would Say ‘don’t be telling us about those bad times and walk out the door, and I along with them’. I suppose it was like listening to war reminiscences now.

But soon it was evident to me that she had listened to her parents. Part of what they told her made her very unhappy and I guessed that she had never repeated it even to her children. She told me this part in the end, although I had never pressed her. It is easier to speak of misery to someone emotionally detached. I was full of newly read books and talked more than she did at first. For one thing, she was busy with the teapot and with shooing out the hens which came in when they heard the clink of china, hoping for crumbs; and then I think she did not really wish to talk about it. She would hear of no earthly reason for the famine and when I said that disaster could have been averted she stood still and looked at me.

‘It was the hand of God’ she said. ‘What else could it be but the hand of God when a white mist came down over the whole of Ireland on that day, and in the morning - imagine if you was to walk out where you was working that yoke today’ (she meant the spray can) and say to yourself, ‘There’s a grand crop growing’, and the stalks thick and strong and all full green with the flowers on them. And in the morning the whole country to be black with rotten stalks.

I forget the name of the field I was spraying that year, but am sure she mentioned it, for it was during that conversation that I found the origin of the field names we used daily without wondering why they were called so, as in a town one uses names of streets.

There was Flanagans rock, Clancy’s rock, Meehan’s garden, Martin’s garden, McLannies, Higgin’s, Cresswell’s, Conlon’s, Cregan’s, Luffy’s and five or six places with the names Feely in them. Nanny’s maiden name. She knew the Christian names of of everyone who had lived in the townland when the famine began. Her house was the only one standing after it, and most of the name had no landmarks now, the walls of the gardens having been pulled down with the houses to make a wide open space of the Hill of Usna, where the beasts grazed and we roamed on our horses every day.

She said there were eighteen families living there in 1845, but I think there were nearly thirty, all tenants of farms, called ‘gardens’ of under five acres and surrounded by low stone walls. Most of the tenants kept no animals at all, but her parents and some others had one cow, a pig, a few fowl and space enough to grow a little barley. corn, animals and butter were not used to feed the family but to pay the rent. She said the summer of 1845 began with the best growing weather her parents could remember and that in that August, before the evening of the mist, every garden on Usna as far as they could see from their house ‘shined with plants’ and promised a big crop. Some people managed to save enough good tubers to keep them alive that year, but the crop of 1846 was a total failure.

When the eldest baby died next winter, her father persuaded her mother to go to the poorhouse with the other one or two - she could not remember how many - while he prepared the land in spring. He had enough barley seed to give them hope. Hunger and dysentery had weakened them and the weather was bad, but they walked to Carrick ‘without misfortune’ and waited in a crown of hundreds outside the workhouse gates, hoping to see Captain Wynne who was said to be a good man. They were admitted to the gate lodge after a couple of hours, but it was Captain Wynne’s day at the poorhouse of Boyle. Only the workhouse master was there, at a table, but at least there was a warm fire. He asked if they were still in posession of their land. They held three acres, yes, from Mr Kirkwood of Woodbrook and the rent was paid. ‘Then I can do nothing’ the workhouse master said.

By a new law from Westminster they were not destitute. He told them to go home to Mr Kirkwood, sign a paper giving up their land and to bring it back to him. Then he would admit the whole family. When they pleaded he reminded them that their landlord was one of the Poor Law Guardians. How could he go against the rules and Mr Kirkwood not know?

They walked home in the dark. Of course they did not give up their land. They were ill and almost starving like the rest, but they had escaped the cholera and had hope. Without the land they would have had stirabout (porridge) and no hope.

In January or February 1848 they were offered an alternative even more cruel. James Kirkwood sent for Nanny’s father to the big house and told him he wanted no rent from that day on. He said he would give them enough wheat flour to make bread for the year and barley seed for spring sowing, and when the baby boy was old enough he would take him into the stables to work with the horses. He was buying cattle he said, and would need Nanny’s father for a herd, and a herd is a permanent position which passes from one generation to the next, the house and ‘garden’ and the right of grazing a settled number of bullocks on the master’s land being free of charges. Nanny’s father knew all about that, but asked how many cattle and where would they run, the only land for them being Shanwelliagh and the Bottoms which was bad grass, being rushy, and ‘the Bottoms often times flooded.’

Mr Kirkwood said he would put the cattle on the hill of Usna which had the best limestone grass, dry and could keep sheep and horses too. Nanny’s father said ‘It is, it is the best of land alright and will be again with the help of God.’ But he was thinking of the people’s walls and crops and houses that would stop the cattle. Nearly half of the houses were empty, their people having died or the lucky ones gone to America. Even so there were many that had hope of a crop next year.

Mr Kirkwood then flattered him, saying that he was the best tenant he had and that the others all looked up to him for advice. He said all the others must give up their houses and land and go to the workhouse, or to America if they could. He said it was the best for them, and that they would be fed. He did not want the police or military to put them out, but that Nanny father was to persuade them to go quietly, showing them how it was for their own good. He was, he said, their leader. At that meeting her father refused, saying he would leave only when the military tumbled his house down over his head along with the others. But when the day of the eviction, hunger and illness got the better of him. ‘With the children and my mother sick, and another baby promised, what could he do?’ Said Nanny. ‘He stood up on the houses and threw down the roofs of his own uncles even, many of his uncles and cousins, and he tumbled the walls down after. In the teeming sleet and snow the people were cast out to die on the road. Some few had strength enough to win through to America and more reached the poorhouse in Carrick, but the poorhouse was already filled and many died outside it lying against the walls.

James Kirkwood was not exceptionally callous. He probably thought, as many of his neighbours did, that he was doing the best he could not only for himself but for his tenants. Whether he threw them out or not, the people would die. If he tumbled down their houses, his rates would decrease and the land opened out for cattle, start to pay. Those evicted would have a chance however small of being fed in the workhouse. All these considerations led him to the harsh decisions which he made. Nanny’s father had to make a similar decision, but for him it was ten times worse because he could only save his family by turning against his own people. For him it was solely a moral problem: his decision would not help or harm anyone, except his wife and children. If he refused Mr Kirkwood’s demand, the ‘crowbar brigade’ - a gang of freelance ruffians - would be called with soldiers and police to guard them. He would save his honour and almost certainly commit his family to death, for it was unlikely that the Master, having been crossed in so important a matter, would have found him land elsewhere as he had done at Newtown for the Conlons and a few others whose rent was up to date. Feely’s choice was also governed by the long established instinct of a subject people. A few had shot their masters and went into hiding, but most were peaceable, even subservient. It seemed impossible to them to refuse a command from above.

—given as "A Tale from the Time of the Famine" on the Carlow Glastnost webste - online [accessed 03.10.2015].

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Belfast Public Library holds Woodbrook (Penguin 1976). QRY [namesake]: The People of the Sea (Edinburgh: Canongate 1996), man seal legends in Hebrides and W. Ireland.

There is a Wikipedia page - online; accessed 03.10.2015.

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Micheál Ó Suilleabháin (composer and Chair of Music, Limerick U.) has produced a piece for piano and orchestra called “Woodbrook”, conceived as the soundtrack for a documentary on Thompson’s novel of that name, which was transmitted on RTÉ in 1986.

RTE Woodbrook
“The Story of Woodbrook - David Thomson’s Book”,
dir. Julian Vignoles (RTE1, 1986)
[Available at RTE Archives - online]

Interleaved: Compare the method and design of Woodbrook Hse with the following from Elizabeth Bowen’s Court (1942): ‘The Bowens’ relation to history was an unconscious one. I can only suggest a compulsion they did not know of by [...] interleaving the family story with passages from the history of Ireland.’ (See under Elizabeth Bowen, supra.)

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