November 14 this year will mark three centuries since Laurence Sterne was born in Clonmel. He is now celebrated in literary circles, and is studied at university level, for the significance and eloquence of his writings in the English language.
Very little is known about Sterneâ€™s birth and his early years in the town, and that limited knowledge owes more to tradition than to verified facts. The renowned Canon William Burke in his â€œHistory of Clonmelâ€ (published 1907) is meticulous in his annotation of his sources, yet he, too, relies on that tradition.
He has written: â€œA century ago, Revd. Mr. Bell, head-master of Clonmelâ€™s Endowed School, used to suggest to a pupil and protege of his, William Phelan, that the boyâ€™s birth-place would afterwards be pointed out with pride by the people of Clonmel, just as Laurence Sterneâ€™s was.â€ Burke, however, goes on to write that in the â€œlapse of the century the birthplace of one and the other have been utterly forgotten.â€
The tradition has been that Sterne was born in a house in Mary Street, on the right-hand-side, (going towards the church) and a few doors away from the junction of that street with Oâ€™Connell Street (the old High Street). This area has now been re-developed, but the street of the 19th century contained many early Georgian houses, and also a Queen Anne house.
There is also another tradition, mentioned in a paper read to the Clonmel Historical Society in the late 1940s, that the Sterne family may have lived for a time in a laneway on the southern side of the High Street close to the West Gate. Many residences were located in these lanes and some still retained evidence (including an enclosed garden) of an earlier town, but these have since been obliterated in recent development.
Laurence Sterneâ€™s mother, according to Burke, was a member of the Tothalls family, or Tuttles, as it was colloquially pronounced in Clonmel. Described as a family which occupied a â€œprominent position,â€ in the year 1713 in which he was born Thomas Tothall (Sterneâ€™s grandfather?) was Mayor of Clonmel. Although the restoration had taken place, in that post Cromwellian period, the Corporation was still seen as â€œCromwellianâ€ and from which Catholics were barred.
There was one small cue in the town on the location of a Tothall residence. An old stone embedded in a masonry wall on Raheen Road bore the inscription â€œTothall Island 1723.â€ This was interpreted as marking part of Suir Island. When the road was widened, about 50 years ago, Alderman Denis E. Burke (a nephew of the historian) and a resident of the road, arranged to have the stone re-set into the new wall. Then, about 20 years ago, in further development, the stone was again displaced, and this columnist â€œrescuedâ€ it and it was again re-embedded. But, alas, in the recent flood alleviation works, it again became a victim, and is now, I fear, lost forever in some foundations. An inscribed stone in a wall may not seem of any great significance, except its loss represents an accretion of losses in an historical heritage. Kilkenny would never have allowed such a thing to happen.
The Clonmel in which Laurence Sterne was born was a town in which the old order had come to an end. The influential, merchant-class, property-owners, burgers, Anglo Normans, were still known as the â€œold Englishâ€ although they had inter-married with the Irish, and they still occupied positions and property of importance in the fortified town. But Cromwell ended all of that.
The Whites (a multi layered family), the Stritches, the Brays, the Lynachs, remained staunchly Catholic and were â€œtransplantedâ€ across the Shannon, but it would appear few stayed in that stoney place, and many returned to live, some â€œdisguised as servants,â€ outside the walled-town, in places like Irishtown. And while the old town was â€œre-planted,â€ it would not seem as if it was an enduring plantation because at the end of the 18th century some Irish names again appear as occupants and merchants in the High Street.
Sterneâ€™s father has been described as an â€œimpoverished ensignâ€ in the army. This was the Williamite army, a company of which returned to the town after the sieges of Aughrim and Limerick. His birth also coincided with the extinguishment of the Ormonde Palatinate (Tipperary headquarters in the Main Guard), the outcome of the Second Dukeâ€™s loyalty to the old Stuarts and his involvement in the attempted overthrow of the Hanoverian King George I. This marked the end of a 350 rule in the town of Clonmel.
Like all army families, the Sternes were eventually to move on to the next posting. At the age of 10 Laurence was registered in a school in Halifax. We do not know if he had attended school in Clonmel, but if he did, it was possibly the Endowed School (opposite Old St. Maryâ€™s) - just up the street from his home in Mary Street. The tradition in the town, however, was that he returned occasionally on holidays to his motherâ€™s home on Suir Island.
He graduated from Cambridge, became a clergyman, and began to write. His most enduring works are â€œThe Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemanâ€ published in 1760 and â€œA Sentimental Journeyâ€ published in 1768. He died in that same year, aged 55, from â€œthe consumptionâ€ (TB).
â€œTristram Shandyâ€ is regarded as a watershed in English literature - the first step in the progression of the modern novel. James Joyce is said to have been greatly influenced by it. It has been described as tantalising, evasive, egoistical, sentimental and long-winded but it is very entertaining and funny. In the pantheon of renowned writers in the English language, Laurence Sterne occupies a very distinguished place. And he was born 300 years ago in Mary Street, Clonmel.