Old Albert charts the history of Larkhill House from circa 1840 to the 1920s, with a coda that brings the story up to the present day, and apart from one chapter that digresses to Ireland’s Eye, is set in Larkhill and its Rathmines environs. Larkhill House is a real place, as is St. Mary’s Church, St. Mary’s College (the grounds of which contain Larkhill), Grove House and all the other buildings and places mentioned in the narrative. Having lived in Rathmines (as does the author of this book) and nearby Ranelagh for many years I can attest to the veracity of much of what is recounted.
In the prologue we are treated to a brief but comprehensive overview of the landscape of Rathmines within which the main story unfolds. ‘Ellis Grimwood of Larkhill’ establishes the first appearance of Larkhill House in the area in 1841 and tells the story of its first recorded occupant, Ellis Grimwood, a quiet, introverted man with a passion for the natural sciences and ornithology and taxidermy in particular. After much work done in improving the house and its surroundings, including the conversion of one large barnlike wing into a bizarre aviary of sorts, something awful seems to happen there. We’re never quite sure what it is that happens, or if it’s all in the head of Grimwood, but he further withdraws, almost terrified, from society, an account of which is brilliantly related by Sheridan Le Fanu, who makes a guest appearance in the narrative.
By ‘This Terrible, This Unnatural Crime’, Grimwood has left Larkhill to live along the northern coast of Dublin Bay, where he spends much of his time on Ireland’s Eye, home to a wide variety of bird species. The chapter takes as its focus a real life murder that occurred on the island in 1852, which Showers very cleverly weaves into the history of Larkhill through the connection with Grimwood.
‘An Exaltation of Skylarks’ picks up the thread in 1845, when James Walker, a wine merchant, buys Larkhill from Grimwood and moves in with his beautiful new bride. These new occupants are much more outgoing and after renovating the house and its extensive gardens, play host to numerous social gatherings. But Walker is a blustering boor and soon becomes jealous of his wife’s greater popularity, the consequences of which form the tragedy that is played out in this chapter to its sinister and macabre end.
The beginning of ‘Thin and Brittle Bones’ tells us a little more about the development of Rathmines from a country village to a town and eventually its absorption into the greater Dublin City. A grim discovery in Larkhill in 1890 casts more light, but also some doubt, on the outcome of the previous chapter. We learn of the establishment of St. Mary’s College on the grounds of Larkhill, the school’s closure during the First World War, some very unsavoury people who subsequently take up residence, and the eventual reopening of St. Mary’s again as a functioning school.
All of these stories are told at a remove, a classic device in supernatural tales; the narrator is none other than the author himself, Brian J. Showers, who has supposedly been able to sift through a vast repository of files, records, letters and photos collected obsessively by a former pupil of St. Mary’s College. The final chapter, ‘Come Like Shadows, So Depart’, details this mining of the ‘museum’ to Larkhill and adds a grim modern day coda all its own that seals Larkhill’s bloody history.
Apart from the salacious thrill of each chapter in the story of Larkhill, what fascinates utterly is the impossibility of being able to tell fact from fiction. Constantly, as I read through this wonderful book, I asked myself, ‘Is this real? Did this actually happen?’ This is because of the sheer wealth of historical detail Showers has lavished on the story, which adds a convincing verisimilitude to the proceedings. Beautifully written, with an authentic feel for the times throughout, Old Albert is a vital addition to anyone’s collection of supernatural tales and the macabre.