Sligo’s Secret Outsider
by Julian A. Dalton (Weekend Arts Section, The Irish Times , Saturday, 24 August 1991)
“I have something that will be of interest to you,” the phonecall began, in a direct tone that was unmistakably foreign. It was December 1990, and this was the voice of Ingrid Nussbaum, architect and west Sligo’s most recent addition (her words). She and her husband Bernd, a homeopath and poet, were in the process of renovating an old fisherman’s cottage and had made a discovery that could not be described over the telephone. They had read my piece about the Swiss “outsider” artist Adolf Wölfli (Weekend and had evidently decided that I was the person to decipher their find. How soon could I get there?
I have never been one to pass up an obscure lead, and the following weekend, after some time plotting a circular path around the damp lanes of this more forgotten part of Irish countryside, my ailing Volvo finally reached the Nussbaum’s cottage. “We are only living in the one room now,” Ingrid began, as I stepped into dimly-lit room crammed with a rickety camp-bed, an electric stove, a small wooden table, some Quinnsworth bags on hooks acting as an impromptu refrigerator, and a small, smoking stove. “By the winter we are hoping to have a little less water in the house,” she joked. “But what we really have to show you is outside.”
Clearly not one to waste time on ceremony, Ingrid Nussbaum ushered me back out into the damp, salty air. Her husband Bernd, a more hushed character, joined us holding an old key he had collected from a nail on the wall. They led me further down the lane towards the shore where, nestled in behind a great dune, stood a small shack of wood and rusted corrugated iron. “When we bought the house earlier this year,” said said Bernd, softly, “we didn’t know about this. Technically it is not on our land, but we tried the key and it is working.”
The door creaked open and I was ushered inside. A small shaft of light entered through a crack in the metal roof; it was difficult to make out anything at first, but as my eyes adjusted I could see that the room was full of strangely shaped objects – so many that I could barely move without stepping on them. Bernd lit a candle (revealed to be one of dozens sitting on a large stone in the centre of the room) and I could see that these curious things were in fact the remnants of some kind of driftwood sculptures, held together with pieces of rope, netting and seaweed and adorned with shells, sea-worn glass and stones of various sizes.
A downpour commenced, and Bernd suggested we might return to the cottage. To my eternal regret, I did not photograph the contents of that place there and then — the whole lot was destroyed in the storms of 5 and 6 January of this year that raged along the Irish coastline (luckily the Nussbaums had taken a couple of photographs of the shed’s exterior, which we reproduce here).
“We don’t have a clue what these are,” said Ingrid as we walked back to the cottage, “but there’s something else that might help explain them.” From under the camp-bed Ingrid pulled an large, battered leather suitcase and lifted table. Bernd unbuckled the leather straps and opened the suitcase flat. Inside lay a somewhat bruised violin case; the instrument within was intact, albeit with just two strings and a collapsed bridge. Packed in around the violin case, were bundles of papers (seemingly handwritten letters), a stack of five identical notebooks and a stained Manilla envelope containing a single, ragged newspaper clipping, illegible in the dim light of the Nussbaum’s cottage.
Ingrid insisted I take the suitcase back to my B&B, and in our short acquaintance I had learned that she was not easily refused. If this, largely empty, suitcase held the clue to the dune-side sculptures, things were not promising. Much of it appeared to have been damaged by damp and mould, and many of the pages were or stuck together. I was beginning to wonder if there was anything to these mysterious artefacts at all.
In my many years writing for this newspaper, I have found that the local pub is most often the best place to start when gathering information. Conveniently for me, this was just across the track from the rose-painted bungalow in which I had taken a room. Tired from a long days’ driving I resolved to start a more liquid form of research, and leave the reading until the following day.
Heads turned as I entered; a mixture of suspicion and enthusiasm at a rare novelty. I’ll play it slow, I thought, ordered a pint and retired to the snug with my notebook. Before long, a stout figure appeared, hands pocketted. “You’re here with the Germans then,” he said. It didn’t appear to be a question.
Michael Scallon was the man’s name; he’d lived in Aughris — now more a townland than a village – all his life. I was welcome to Aughris anyway, he said with a curious glint in his eye, and I was to let him know if there was anything I needed.
Had he known the previous inhabitant of the Nussbaums’ cottage, I asked as he Scallon turned away? There was a pause. “Aye,” he said, soft-voiced. “Old Black. Well as much as anyone knew. Kept to himself. Died last winter, Lord rest his soul. An awful strange character really.” I got the feeling I shouldn’t probe too far until I’d read the contents of the suitcase.
The following morning I took to leafing through the contents of the suitcase. I began with the newspaper cutting, which was at least legible if part of it had been destroyed. “Sligo Champion, 20 August 1979” was scribbled in the margin. The headline read “Gardaí Called After Incident on Inismurray”. The short report explained how a leading ornithologist Dr William Grey, of Trinity College, Dublin, and his assistant, Ms Amelia Weston, an American, had telephoned An Gárda Síochána from a payphone near Raughly Harbour in north Sligo, where they had been deposited without further transport by a “mad and dangerous ferryman” some forty miles from their agreed destination.
The report continued – though some of the details were faded beyond legibility – that Dr Grey and his assistant were on the island to study a colony of eider ducks and that, Ms Weston, on investigating one of the beehive huts during a rain shower, discovered the ferryman, with whom they had traveled from Aughris Harbour near their hotel in Enniscrone earlier that day, engaging in “an act of terrifying ritual”, the details of which were sadly no longer legible due to damage from the elements. A furious argument appears to have ensued, followed by premature departure from the island and the injured parties’ deposition at Raughly in “a fiercesome wind”. On investigation, the ferryman in question, a Mr Alexander Black of Aughris, County Sligo, was found, but, on being returned by car to their hotel in Enniscrone by Sergeant Fahy of Grange Garda Station, it was decided not to take the matter further, the report concluded, with the last line underlined in red biro.
I turned my eyes to the bundle of letters and carefully prized off the string that held them together. They were written in two different hands — about twenty in total. The first lot four or five, no longer in envelopes, were written in a flowing, decorative hand, all dated 1928 and all beginning with the words “Dearest Alex” and were all signed, without salutation, “Isabella”. The letters were short, but intense descriptions of what — after some reading — I deduced was life as a student of archeology at the Humboldt University in Berlin, someone called Uncle Roddy and increasingly desperate pleas for the letters to be answered.
Of particular interest to me, having, in my Footlights days, performed in a production of Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, or Die Dreigroschenoper as it was cited here, was a description of the premiere of this most important of works, at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm on 28 August 1928, which the letters described as “very stimulating” and, more cryptically, being “painfully reminiscent of our ice house songs, only more vulgar, violent and more angry”.
Below these were a dozen or so letters, each in envelopes, stamped and addressed to a Ms Isabella Hardiman, c/o Major Roderick Lynch of 143 Wilhelmstraße, Berlin, Germany, all quite evidently unsent. (I later discovered a mention of Major Lynch, a Press Attaché at the British Embassy from 1919 until 1937s, in the diaries of A.L. Kennedy, one time foreign editor with the London Times, describing him as “a nice Irishman, with the rather sweeping judgements of his race”.)
Wilhelmstrasse – Alexander T Black
These letters, in a cruder hand and written in an abbreviated style, but nonetheless literate and not unlike a series of telegrams:
Good catch to day. Father pleased. Walked to cave at Toberpatrick. Good sound. Did Song No. 3. Red sun above Ox. Goulden dead. AB
They continue in this fashion, a strange compilation of everyday events, local news and enigmatic references to numbered “songs”. The last of these curious messages, dated 10 October 1928 was perhaps the most revealing.
Wind strong. No fish. Dangerous walk to cave. Need new song place for Winter. Played “Die Aughris Oper”. Fighting fiddle. Storm voice. Father ill. AB
There was little wonder, I thought, that the Nussbaums had summoned me all the way from Dublin to see all of this, but there was still little to tell me if the mysterious driftwood creations I had seen amount to more than a case of creative hoarding.
I picked up the notebooks in the hope that they might hold more of a key, but they were as perplexing as the unsent letters: opening the first one, I found page after page of abstract lines and shapes drawn in pen, distinguished only by markings in the fashion “Inner Music Play 43”, a date (beginning with 1 January 1980), and occasional cryptic comments such as “float above” or “dig dig dig” sketched into the margins.
The next four notebooks, each still marked with a yellow price sticker reading “Keohane’s Bookshop 50p”, continued in this manner, with the notable variations of sheep’s wool sewn into the page with fishing wire and splashes of what I deduced was cow dung was introduced on some pages. And finally, the number system appeared to be abandoned for more poetic inscriptions, like “Song of Red Hill”, “Above Hart’s Lake” and “Dark Island Music”.
Somewhat ominously, the last entry, on 4 January 1990, consisted of a single straight line drawn across the page, drawn in red pen and titled “Future Music”.
I left the B&B to return the case to the Nussbaums; if nothing else, I thought, perhaps Bernd Nussbaum could use it as inspiration for his next collection of poetry — if the challenge of rescuing an old cottage from the elements wasn’t enough literary fodder.
As I walked to my car I heard a familiar voice. “You know who you should talk to,” said Michael Scallon. “If you want to know about old Black, I mean.” The local rector, a Reverend Clarke, Scallon said, fancied himself as a sort of local historian; if anyone was looking for information about Aughris, the Reverend was the place to start. Fifteen minutes later I was sitting in his kitchen.
“I have a way of getting the stories out of the old ones alright,” Clarke, an energetic man in his mid-fifties, beamed. “What do you want to know?”
Clarke knew an astonishing amount about Alexander Black — full name Alexander Thomas Black, born 1908 (according to the 1911 census, a photocopy of which pertaining to the local area the Reverend Clarke proudly showed me) and son of Thady, a fisherman, and Marie, who died of an unknown cause while Alexander was an infant. Thady was the son of poor protestant farmers in Carnaree, had sold up his sliver of the Black land and taken up a life at sea, apparently on account of his general dislike of other people. The young Alexander would have followed his father into fishing at about the age of sixteen, working on the small boat out of Aughris Harbour.
Then, Reverend Clarke said with a measure of excitement as he uncorked a bottle of wine, there was the matter of young Hardiman. Thady Black had supplied fish to the Hardiman family at Longford House up on the hill for a number of years. “Somehow or other young Alexander appear to have become involved with the Hardimans youngest daughter, Isabella, much to the disturbance of both families. She was sent off to Germany, I believe, where she had some kind of a relative who was a diplomat and that was the end of that,” Clarke said, slamming his fist onto the table with a little too much gusto.
There wasn’t much known about the years immediately after that, except that old Thady Black died not long after of tuberculosis, or consumption as it was noted in the notebooks of the rector priest of the day, himself a considerable source of information (and, at times, entertainment) to his successor. One account did mention Black being a silent, withdrawn type, often seen walking along the rocks to Toberpatrick, returning many hours later. Mostly, however, Clarke assumed, Black was too busy trying to make ends meet than to be noticed.
What happened then, said Clarke, made old Black even fewer friends in the community. Sometime in 1938 — the priest had, quite impressively, done his research — Black sold off the boat, boarded up the house (“the same one those Germans are in now”) and went and joined the British navy. Black, Clarke believed, was stationed for a time in Alexandria and would have been involved in (or at least near to) the Battle of El Alamein in 1942, but all he knew was from the local stories and what little he could collect from Black himself.
Black, said Clarke, returned to Aughris sometime in 1948 — or at least the rector of the day’s notebooks referenced an altercation between Black and the publican, Breen, on the night of 3 June of that year. By all accounts, Black returned to fishing, having bought a small boat with a motor, but it seems to be a more part-time pursuit. “No doubt the old man had some kind of military pension,” said Clarke, as he filled our glasses once more.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Black appeared to withdraw more and more from the people of the village. “He would have built that old shack down by the dunes at about that time too,” Clarke continued. “After my arrival here in the village in 1978, I always wanted to ask him what he did in there. But he didn’t want anything to do with me — the collar, I mean — not even on his death bed last year. We reckon he died on about the sixth or seventh of January, but nobody can be quite sure.”
Sometime in the mid 1960s, Clarke continued, noting he had skipped ahead in time a little, Black seems to have given up fishing altogether, and instead operated seasonal boat trips out of both Aughris and Enniscrone around the headland, which by then had a growing tourist industry, in part fueled by the Kilcullen’s seaweed baths.
Those who remembered Black’s voyages, said Clarke, spoke of “the silent ferryman”, Black was considered an able boatsman who could be relied upon by the big houses, guest houses and hotels to bring guests to on angling trips, and across the bay to Inismurray, an island that held a growing fascination for visitors ever since Robert Lloyd Praeger’s book The Way That I Went was published in 1937.
“Well he did that until a couple of years after I arrived here in the parish,” said Clarke, swaying in his chair. “And I think that’s all I can tell you.”
That evening I dropped by at the Nussbaum’s cottage, and filled them in on as much as I could remember of the story of their predecessor, much to their excitement. In the morning, I told them, I would would return to Dublin (I had a report to finish on Damien Hirst’s recent tiger shark work). I wasn’t sure, I said to Ingrid Nussbaum as I pulled away, if they just had a mad eccentric on their hands, or someone who was some kind of fascinating outsider artist waiting to be uncovered.
The possibility of the latter was too much to resist, and three weeks later, following a small amount of sleuthing and a couple of telephone calls, I found myself walking up the stone steps of number 24 Bedford Square, London. Here, I sensed, was the key that would unlock the mystery of Alexander Black, and his strange legacy.
The heavy door opened slowly to reveal a small, frail figure dressed entirely in black lace. “Come in,” said Mrs. Isabella Davidson, ushering me in to the drawing room. I had expected more of a staff, Mrs. Davidson suggested, reading my face, but things were not as they used to be. The house, I took in as Mrs. Davidson went to get tea, appeared to be quite empty and in serious disrepair.
“You know I only married John because I thought Alex had given up on me,” Mrs. Davidson began before I could even ask a question. “But I always knew he was talented, and that someone like you would come to ask me questions.” It was an impressive grasp of my assignment for someone who had just celebrated her ninetieth birthday the week before, apparently alone.
Isabella and Alexander had begun their friendship quite innocently, she told me, when she stumbled across Black — a few years her senior – playing his father’s fiddle in the old ice house on the ground of Longford House, her family home. “Alex loved the acoustic in there,” said Mrs. Davidson, “and though I found it a bit spooky, I would sit and listen.” Before long, the young Isabella would make up songs, singing above the Black’s fiddle, which, she said, Black could not really play to any degree of proficiency.
“I began singing about quite gentle subjects, like the wild flowers in the fields around the house, but Alexander always pushed me towards darker themes, which I found quite exciting, I suppose.” The only one I remember, said Davidson, went something like, “Dark mountain. You are the wildness of my soul. Ascend in the night-time.” Davidson produced a short laugh. Each song, she said, had a number assigned, and sometimes Black would shout out the number of a different song in mid-performance, and Isabella would have to switch immediately, like a kind of game.
Dark Mountain – Alexander T Black
But the relationship intensified, and everything became more complicated when Isabella’s father, William Hardiman, found out about the liason. “To put an end to things, I was sent to my mother’s brother, who was at the embassy in Berlin. I studied archeology at the Humboldt University the there.” That was quite a remarkable experience in its own right I interjected. “Yes, but my father’s vision of a pious life under the watchful eye of my Uncle Roddy was misplaced. Through Roddy I witnessed much of the bohemian life of Berlin that you lot now have to read about in books. He was friends with Isherwood, for goodness sake.”
The end of the story, Davidson said, indicating that it was time for me to leave, was that she married an attaché at the embassy, John Davidson, and returned with him to London at the end of the twenties. Her father died in 1931, and with that the Hardiman family’s ailing finances were laid bare; Hardiman’s mother sold up the house and moved, with her two sisters, a more moderate, terraced house in Rathmines.
So here I had it: was Black some kind of proto-punk dreamer, a free verse poet ahead of his time? I could be certain, at least, that the life and work of Alexander Black of Aughris deserved far deeper investigation.
As I mulled over the jigsaw of this peculiar man, two final pieces of the puzzle materialised.
On returning from London, a letter appeared on my desk from Bernd Nussbaum. “Enclosed are some further documents that might assist you investigations,” he wrote. “I found them in the chimney.”
In a small envelope was a handful of palm-sized cards, fragile but still intact. They evidently all notations for laments of some description, labelled, consecutively, with titles like “Caoineadh Ruweistat [4 November 1949]” and “Caoineadh Wadi Natrun [6 June 1950]. Below each of these labels was text in the curt manner of Black’s letters. They appeared to be performance instructions, albeit rather oblique. I print the last of these, cryptically titled “Caoineadh AB [11 February 1953]” here,
Continuous noteforming. Shadow sing. Up to the hills. Down down. Up. Down. Big dip. Up. The rolling waves.
Caoineadh AB – Alexander T Black
The last piece to the puzzle that would give us some insight into Black’s life and work, was came from a phonecall, from the studious Reverend Clarke, clearly piqued by my interest in the history of his parish. “I was leafing through the notebooks here, and found a mention of a boy who lived here briefly in the late 1960s. Apparently he was from some kind of a hippy commune down in Templeboy. Anyway, the note says that he knew something of old Black that he would tell to no one. His name, was Ethan Matthews. I’ve asked around and someone said they might have gone to America after here. Maybe you’d have a way to track him down?”
Luckily, when you work at a national newspaper, there are always ways to track somebody down. I found that the Ethan Matthews, now in his mid thirties, was a computer programmer in San Francisco. Somewhat bemused by my long-distance telephone call from out of the blue, he began to fill me in.
Black had caught the twelve-year-old eavesdropping outside his shed by the dunes. “The man had a reputation for colourful eccentricity that I could not resist,” said Matthews. On being found listening by the window, the young Ethan was led forcibly into the small, corrugated shed.
What the boy Ethan had witnessed, sitting on the floor of Black’s shed, was a near four-hour event, in which Black appeared to be in “a trance-like state”, moving slowly through the room bowing a two-stringed fiddle making “what I can only describe as vocalisations”, occasionally pausing to add or remove a piece of wood or rope or stone from one of the objects.
From time to time, said Ethan Matthews, Black would knock two stones together in time with “indecipherable incantations”, or would draw diagrams on the sandy floor with his bare feet. “I think those sculptures,” said Matthews, not quite realising the import of his words, “were some simultaneously some kind of musical score and record of his actions.”
The mad fisherman of Aughris? My study of these scant materials and anecdotes left behind by our elusive subject suggests a more nuanced reading. To my eyes and ears, Black’s troubled narrative is of a truly brilliant artist well ahead of his time, struggling to make his innovative work in a time and a place that didn’t understand him — and I have no doubt that further study of this man’s beguiling artefacts will reveal new depths to the life and work of Sligo’s best kept secret.