The Strange Death of Jack Moeran

Roger Ackroyd, Going Postal
Kenmare Pier, Co.Kerry

Just after 4 p.m. on December 1st 1950 a single figure was seen walking down the length of Kenmare Pier in Co.Kerry, southern Ireland. It was already getting quite dark and the squally showers that had been swirling along the west coast of Ireland for most of the day whipped up the surface of the water of Kenmare river – an extension of the Kenmare estuary leading out to the Atlantic – into ribbons of rain lashed furrows that relentlessly beat against the stonework of the pier. The pier, unlike the grand Victorian and Edwardian edifices that grace the British coastline, was a simple affair of less than 70 yards and was used primarily to moor a single fishing boat against on either flank. A short row of cottages faced the pier on its landward end and from one of these an observer watched, curious to see who it was that was venturing out onto the pier at this time of day and in such weather.
At the inquest later this same observer was to say that the figure suddenly dropped into the water but it is unclear wether he meant that the figure jumped or just toppled in. Rushing out onto the pier he watched as the figure swirled and disappeared beneath the water but such was the current at this point that it was brought around close to the steps that ran down the eastern side of the pier and with the aid of a hook it was brought to land and laid out on the pier. It was only then that the cottage dweller recognised the figure he had pulled out of the water. Jack Moeran, well-known in the town of Kenmare and a not infrequent visitor to the Lansdowne Hotel bar – and many other bars that dotted the triangle of main streets. It is not known if the rescuer was fully aware of the history of Jack Moeran but he was quite sure that the figure lying in front of him on the windswept pier was dead. Quite dead.

Jack Moeran or Ernest John Moeran as he was baptised was born on New Year’s Eve 1894 in Middlesex to a Norfolk mother and and Irish father (a curate). The sojourn in Heston was brief as his father was granted the living of Bacton in Norfolk and it was there that Jack was brought up. The area around Bacton in north Norfolk was sparsely populated at the turn of the century and even today there is a dearth of any major towns in the area. He attended school at Cromer and then Uppingham where his interest in music was fostered by Robert Sterndale Bennett, a grandson of the composer who was friends with Mendelssohn. It was while he was living in the area that Moeran would begin to collect and notate the folk music that he heard played in public houses and in this respect he was following in the footsteps of Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams both of whom had been rescuing the English folk song from obscurity.
In 1913 Moeran enrolled as a student at the Royal College of Music in London but his studies came to an abrupt end in the autumn of 1914 when he enlisted into the Sixth Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment as a motor-cycle despatch rider. His interests in all things mechanical, especially motor bikes and trains, were to last him the rest of his life and the power of steam driven engines can often be heard in his music. On 3rd May 1917, at Bullecourt in France, he was severely wounded in the head with shell particles too near the brain to be removed. A metal plate was inserted into his head and it is thought that this contributed to a permanent unsteadiness on his feet, exacerbated as we will see, by copious amounts of alcohol. (I should add here in fairness that a recent and disputed study has been unable to locate any details of any notifiable surgical procedure performed on the injured Moeran but friends of his in later life were always aware that this had indeed been done.)

The effect of the injury on Moeran and the loss of composer friends in the war such as Butterworth, Farrar and Warren as well as those such as Ivor Gurney who were permanently damaged (Gurney was incarcerated in an asylum where he lived out his days until 1936) was profound. Nevertheless he returned to his musical studies and began to publish and have performed a number of substantial works. His circle of musical friends began to grow, among them Arnold Bax, Harriet Cohen (Bax’s mistress – and worthy of a separate piece all on her own), Arthur Bliss, John Ireland and Peter Warlock. The friendship with the latter figure, intellectually more forthright and confident than Moeran who remained somewhat gauche and inward looking, was to prove disastrous on nearly every level imaginable. Warlock had a house in Eynsford, Kent and in 1925 Moeran moved in with him and joined a bohemian set that included Nina Hamnett (who he may have made pregnant), John Goss, Augustus John, Hubert Foss and Bernard van Dieren among others. Both in the garden of the cottage and in the pub across the road – the Five Bells – copious amounts of drink was consumed and to all intents and purposes Moeran’s creative work came to a full stop. He finally escaped in 1928 but the damage of those fallow years coupled with the well-established alcoholism was to dog him to his final days. Warlock was to commit suicide in 1930 by gassing himself in a basement flat in Tite Street, Chelsea. He had the forethought to put out the cat before turning on the gas. (Brian Sewell, the late art critic, was the bastard son of Warlock and an unnamed Catholic girlfriend who gave birth 7 months after Warlock’s suicide. There is some speculation that it was the news of the pregnancy that pushed Warlock over the edge although a rather more fanciful claim that Warlock was murdered by Van Dieren, the main beneficiary of his will, is now discounted.)

Roger Ackroyd, Going Postal
Warlock on the left and Moeran on the right
Warlock nicknamed Moeran “Strawberry”. We can see why

Freed from the stultifying atmosphere of Eynsford Moeran slowly got back on track and began to write again. His movements in the first half of the 30’s were peripatetic in the extreme but the one place that he discovered and which was to have a most profound effect on his life and his music was Ireland and in particular Kenmare in Co.Kerry. In the Irish people he found a similar attachment to the folk tradition that he had found in his Norfolk youth and it fired his imagination once more. He became so well-known and so well liked in Kenmare that there were moves afoot to make him mayor, a position which he gracefully declined. By 1935 he had finally completed his magnum opus, the single symphony on which his reputation and fame now stands. It has both Norfolk and Irish melodies weaved within the movements but despite the pastoral gloss there is an underlying darkness, indeed bitterness, that feeds through into the final pages. For someone whose main body of work up to that moment was miniature piano pieces, songs and string quartets it is an astonishing firework of a symphony that blazes afresh even after many hearings.

Roger Ackroyd, Going Postal
Peers Coetmore and Jack Moeran at their wedding 1945
He is just 50 years of age but looks 70

The success of the symphony gave him new energy and despite being hampered by the ever increasing dependency on alcohol he produced firstly a Violin Concerto and then a Cello Concerto. This latter work, regarded as one of the finest British concertos for the instrument, came about through his friendship with and later marriage (1945) to Peers Coetmore who was internationally renowned as a soloist. The marriage was, initially, a source of inspiration to Moeran but he had been too long a single man and Peers was increasingly dismayed by his bouts of drinking. The letters from Moeran to his wife – she was often travelling abroad on concert tours – are full of regrets and abject apologies for his behaviour. It would appear that although he was desperately in love with his wife the feelings were not reciprocated. Those who wish to be unkind would say Peers married Moeran for the kudos of having a composer as a husband and one who would write a concerto just for her. She had already been married once before 1945 and after Moeran’s death she was to marry twice more so there maybe some truth in that opinion. Sadly, as Moeran was to admit on the eve of his wedding, the marriage proved to be disastrous and increasingly they spent time apart with Moeran finally moving to Ireland. His doctor had been aware for some time that Jack had shown signs of depression and forgetfulness and the increased bouts of drinking became critical. For some six weeks in 1950 Moeran disappeared completely and it was thought that he had taken up with some gypsies in the heart of Ireland but he eventually made his way back to Kenmare – after being robbed of whatever valuables he had on him.

He rented a room in a large house just off the Killowen Road from which he would have been able to watch the small steam train run its intermittent service from Kenmare to Kilgarvan. He attempted to pull together the various sketches he had made for a Second Symphony but his condition worked against any fruitful advance and the papers were found strewn about his room after his death. The official verdict on his death – as reported – stated that it had been a cerebral haemorrhage that had caused him to lose consciousness and fall into the water but there were other views expressed by locals who had known Jack for many years and who understood that he had a real fear over his mental state. The talk that heavy stones were found in his overcoat pockets when he was dragged ashore was quickly suppressed to spare his mother who was still alive. Nevertheless one has to ask why on a wild December evening when darkness was already creeping over the horizon anyone would walk over a mile from their room, past the main village and through the rough hewn fields to the remote pier unless there was some other motive. It is my opinion that Jack knew that he had come to the end of his creative life and that he chose to end of his life in the wildness of the country that he loved so much.

He is buried in the grounds of the ruined Protestant church just outside Kenmare. I visited the town some years ago and met people who still remembered Jack. One in particular, Mary O’Shea, ran a small bar behind a shop in the town centre knew Jack as a young woman and had many tales to tell. Sadly, she is now gone and the Lansdowne Hotel which used to have a “Moeran’s Bar” has had it renamed. The pages of the second symphony were found decades later languishing in the vaults of a Melbourne university – Melbourne was the final residence of Peers Coetmore. That symphony has now been realised and completed by Martin Yates and given a public performance. I was delighted and privileged to be at the premiere.

Roger Ackroyd, Going Postal

Music from Jack Moeran on the BBC here.

© Roger Ackroyd 2017

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