Turtle Bunbury

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) – Give Him Back!

On May 22nd, Scotland will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And later this year, we will be treated to Guy Ritchie’s movie, ‘Holmes and Watson’, starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law. But let it be known that the case is by no means closed.[i] Conan Doyle was not Scottish. He may have been born in Edinburgh but he was a pure-blood Irishman. And it’s time Ireland stood up for itself. We want Conan Doyle back.

Sir Arthur knew the truth. In his 1924 autobiography, Memories and Adventures, he records: ‘I, an Irishman by extraction, was born in the Scottish capital after two separate lines of Irish wanderers came together under one roof’. In 1945, Sir Arthur’s son Adrian confirmed that his father was ‘by descent and parentage, a Southern Irishman’. It is, if you will, elementary.

Sir Arthur’s ancestors were well-to-do Catholic landowners who, in the mid-18th century, were stripped of their estates in the Irish Midlands as a punishment for their continued adherence to the old Prayer Book. Despite making it to the highest echelons of London society, the Doyle family would always maintain a strong affinity to Irish Catholicism.

John Doyle (c.1795-1868) - Political Cartoonist

Born in about 1795, John Doyle, grandfather to Sir Arthur, was raised in Dublin where his father operated as a silk mercer and textile trader. [ii] The family must have had some wealth for John was admitted to the school of landscape and ornament at the Royal Dublin Society in 1804, winning a gold medal the following year. He studied miniatures under John Comerford, the Kilkenny born miniaturist, and landscapes under Gaspare Gabrielli, the Italian fresco artist then working at Lyons, Co Kildare. [iii] He was sufficiently well thought of to paint equestrian portraits for the Marquess of Sligo and Lord Talbot, the Irish viceroy. [iv]

John was apparently a dead ringer for the Iron Duke of Wellington. On 13 Feb 1820, this tall, handsome young artist married Marianna Conan, the descendant (daughter?) of a Dublin tailor called James Conan who was operating circa 1800. The Conan / Coonan families of County Kildare are said to descend from the sixth century Bishop Conan, originally from Brittany. Marianna's Clongowes-educated brother Michael Conan, a godfather of Sir Arthur, was a distinguished journalist who became involved with espionage while living in Paris during the turbulent 1870s.

It was from this marriage that Arthur acquired his middle name of ‘Conan’. [vi]

In 1822, the Doyles moved to London where John exhibited at the Royal Academy at least twice and began seeking miniature commissions.[vii] But it soon became apparent that John’s forte – both artistic and commercial – was political cartoons.[viii] In 1829, he began a twenty-two year stint with The Times, publishing one cartoon a month to coincide with the parliamentary sessions. He maintained his anonymity throughout, signing his cartoons ‘H.B.’, craftily constructed from the Js and Ds of his own initials.

John ‘H.B.’ Doyle was not a mean cartoonist. Far from it, he turned away from the grotesque caricatures of the Georgian Age so that his etchings became rather more faithful to the truth, with just the slightest hint of exaggeration and satire. His subjects frequently expressed pleasure with their depiction. H.B. was applauded as the finest political cartoonist of his day but, ultimately, his works proved too bland for posterity. As Thackeray said, ‘You will never hear any laughing at 'H. B.'’ A posthumous sale of his original sketches in 1877 was cancelled due to lack of interest.[ix]

Nonetheless, the cartoons made John Doyle rich. By the time Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, he owned a fashionable house in Hyde Park and was part of an intellectual liberal elite that included Dickens, Thackeray and Thomas Moore.[x]

Marianne’s premature demise in 1839 left John with the substantial task of raising their six children.[xi]

Charles Altamont Doyle (1832-93) - Fantasy Painter

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s father Charles Altamont Doyle was the most complicated of John’s five sons.[xii] Born in 1832, he moved to Edinburgh when he was 17-years-old and rented a room in a boarding house belonging to Catherine Foley, the Kilkenny-born widow of Dublin doctor.[xiii] Victorian Edinburgh was a staunchly Presbyterian city and the 5% of Irish Catholics who lived there operated in a close-knit ethnic community.[xiv] In the summer of 1855, Charles Doyle married his landlady’s daughter, Mary Foley.[xv]

Charles worked as an architect and draughtsman with the Office of Public Works in Edinburgh, making some extra money sketching criminal trials. His passion was illustration, particularly fantasy scenes, such as his ‘A Dance Around The Moon’. However, Charles suffered from both epilepsy and depression. By the 1860s, he had become a chronic alcoholic with, to paraphrase his son, ‘a dull, vacant, leering face … mumbling and chuckling like a monkey’. Affectionately known as ‘The Ma’am’, Mary survived her husband’s darkness by looking after their ten children (Arthur included) and obsessively reciting a romantic version of her family tree that linked her to the Royal Family.

When Charles lost his job at the OPW, both his works and temperament became increasingly macabre.[xvi] In 1881, he was committed to a nursing home specialising in alcoholism.[xvii] He survived for eleven years before his death, aged 61. He managed to illustrate his son’s book ‘A Study in Scarlet’, published in 1888. An illustrated diary from 1889 indicates that he was a passionate Irish nationalist. In one sketch, he draws a Runic Cross to the memory of Lord Edward FitzGerald.[xviia]

Dickie Doyle (1824-83) - Punch Cartoonist

Charles Doyle’s older brother Dickie was one of the most notable cartoonists of the Victorian Age.[xviii] He drew the very first cover of ‘Punch’ at the age of 19, a goblin and fairy-riddled masterpiece, and designed the magazine’s masthead.[xix] He remained with ‘Punch’ until 1850 when he resigned in protest at the magazine’s obnoxious attitude to his good friend, Cardinal Wiseman, Catholic Archbishop of Westminster.[xx] Dickie was subsequently commissioned to illustrate books for writers such as Dickens, Ruskin and the Brothers Grimm.[xxi] His masterpiece was undoubtedly ‘In Fairyland – A Series of Pictures from the Elf World’, one of the finest Victorian books ever produced, which was published with a poem by Donegal poet William Allingham in 1869.[xxii]

Henry Doyle (1827-92) - Director of the National Gallery of Ireland

Another of Charles’s brothers was Henry Edward Doyle, a portrait artist who served as Commissioner for Rome at the London International Exhibition of 1862. In 1869, he became Director of the National Gallery of Ireland and played a key role in building up the national portrait collection, as well as acquiring a Rembrandt.[xxiii]

The Irish Catholic

Coming from such a strong Irish Catholic bloodline, it is perhaps surprising that Sir Arthur could conjure up Sherlock Holmes who, for many, represents the quintessential Englishman.[xxiv] But perhaps the conflict of identity of being an Irishman in Britain shaped the darker shadows that surround Conan Doyle’s work. There is certainly something disturbingly Irish about ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. And even the naming of Holmes’s nemesis ‘Moriarty’ carries more than a hint of the Gothic Irish legacy of Charles Maturin and Bram Stoker.

In his early years, Sir Arthur identified himself as an imperialist, urging Ireland to stay loyal to the Union Jack simply because ‘more Irishmen have died for that flag than men of any other race’. In London he aligned himself to other Irish exiles –Wilde, Stoker, Shaw and Andrew Sullivan – but continued to regard Ireland as part of the British Empire.[xxv] However, while he was on the cusp of becoming more English than the English themselves, he became friendly with Sir Roger Casement and Erskine Childers who convinced him of the benefits of Home Rule. In 1915, he published ‘The Valley of Fear’, his last Sherlock Holmes story, in which the detective is pitted against Moriarty and a secret agrarian society called the Molly Maguires.

So, case closed. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was Irish. But how do we get Scotland to hand him over? Should we do a swap with James Connolly?

With thanks to the Royal Dublin Society Library, Conan Kennedy and Michael Purcell.


[i] Could it be possible that Arthur was named in honour of the centenary of Guinness (1759-1859)? Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, DL, was born in Edinburgh in 22 May 1859 and died on 7 July 1930.

[ii] John Doyle was the second son of James Doyle and Catherine Tynan. His grandfather is believed to have been Richard Doyle, address and wife unknown. Richard apparently came from a rich and highly respected Catholic family which in the early 17th century had been granted extensive estates, possibly in County Offaly or County Laois. They were even said to have their own coat of arms, but had ‘suffered for their religion and since been dispossessed’. However, according to an account in The Wexford People (27-12-I919), Richard lived in Bannow parish, near Whitty's Hill, and afterwards at Ballingly, in the same parish.

The RDS records show that a John Doyle was a student in the Dublin Society drawing schools in 1804 (Gitta Willemson, student list published 2000). Most sources state that his date of birth was 1797 which would make him only seven years old in 1804. This is unlikely but possible. The typical age of entry was 11-14 years. According to the list, John Doyle was an apprentice in 1804 when he was admitted to the school of landscape and ornament. According to Strickland he was awarded a medal in 1805.Mary Kelleher's 2005 list of RDS members shows only a single Doyle for the entire eighteenth century. That was William Doyle, a member 1767-94.
The RDS database has four members named Doyle in the nineteenth century. Of note is John Quin Doyle, a member from 1809-27. No address is given for J. Q. Doyle. He attended meetings of the Society in 1809 but not thereafter. If one can know a man by the company he kept, his sponsors were Dublin police chief Major Sirr and Surgeon Charles Todd. Major Sirr achieved a degree of infamy as the man who killed Lord Edward FitzGerald and orchestrated the arrests of the United Irishman leaders in 1798-1803. Todd was professor of anatomy in the RCSI.

One of John’s sisters was Sister Mary Ignatius who died aged 33 in 1827. His older brother James died aged 29 in 1824. He also had two younger brothers, William (b. 1799) and Michael (1803-4), and a sister, Anna Maria (1801-66).

[iii] Brought to Ireland by Cloncurry in 1805, the Roman-born Gaspare Gabrielli played a key role in Cloncurry’s subsequent divorce trial the following year when he told the courts how he had witnessed Lady Cloncurry committing adultery with a notorious libertine. He was commissioned by Lord Cloncurry to paint the celebrated painted Music Room at Lyons, Co Kildare. He also worked at No 41 North Great George’s Street. He remained in Ireland until 1819. See: Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, by David Eastwood, Royal Historical Society, p. 309.

[iv] In 1822, he produced six prints entitled ‘The Life of a Racehorse’.

[v] He was apparently a dead ringer for the Iron Duke of Wellington.

[vi] Arthur, whose middle name was of course ‘Conan’, went to stay with his great-uncle Michael in Paris in 1876. By 1885 the brass nameplate outside his house, and on his doctoral thesis, apparently described him as "A. Conan Doyle", indicating his preference for the double-barrel.

[vii] His painting Turning out the Stag brought him recognition when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1825.

[viii] From 1827, cartoons were printed using the new reproductive medium of lithography.

[ix] 'H.B.' took London by storm in the 1830s and, in the days before photography, his images of Peel, Melbourne, Grey, Wellington and Lord John Russell were of vital importance. Daniel O'Connell was famously characterised as the Whig party's 'Political Frankenstein'. Indexes of H.B.'s prints were published in The Times and by the publisher McLean, but his soon reputation faded. His later prints were gentle in their humour and drawn in a soft, indistinct style. Thackeray said his cartoons, although clever and witty, were too "genteel" to raise more than a gentlemanly smile – "You will never hear any laughing at 'H. B.'" When he died of cystitis at Clifton Gardens, London, on 2 Jan 1868, his obituary in the Art Journal did not appear until three months after his death, and a posthumous sale of his original sketches at Christies in 1877 was cancelled for lack of buyers. The Times claimed it was ‘a collection of no contemptible historical interest’ which must have irked his grandson. However, he is considered a founder of the school of British cartoon satirists represented by John Leech, John Tenniel, and his son Richard Doyle, which established the style made famous by Punch magazine. The British Museum has over 900 over his drawings in its collections.

[x] The circle also included David Wilkie, Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Macaulay and Samuel Rogers. Thackeray is said to have bounced Sir Arthur upon his knees in his childhood.

[xi] Marianne died at their home 17 Cambridge Terrace, Hyde Park on 11 December 1839, giving birth to their seventh child. In 1841, John Doyle quit working with The Times and, in 1843, ‘H.B.’ revealed his identity in a seventeen-page letter to Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. John Doyle died died of cystitis at Clifton Gardens, London, on 2 Jan 1868. His sons children were extraordinary individuals. His eldest son was the illustrator James William Edmund Doyle (1822-1892). The second son was the ‘Punch’ illustrator, cartoonist and painter, Richard ‘Dickie’ Doyle (1824-1883). The third was Henry Edward Doyle (1827-1892), director of the National Gallery of Ireland. The fourth and youngest son was the painter Charles Altamont Doyle (25 March 1832 – 10 October 1893), father of Sir Arthur. Another son Francis created detailed miniatures but died aged 15. For more on these, see below.

[xii] The name ‘Altamont’ may have been a nod to the title of the Marquess of Sligo who commissioned one of John Doyle’s early equestrian works. In the Sherlock Holmes story ‘His Last Bow’ (1917), Holmes uses 'Altamont' as his undercover name when he masquerades as an Irish-American Fenian to infiltrate pre-World War One German intelligence.

[xiii] Catherine Foley (1808-62) was the daughter of William Percy Pack (b. 1760) by his wife Catherine Scott (b.c.1760) of Kilkenny. Catherine Foley’s grandfather Richard Pack of Ballynakill, Co Laoise (1734-81) was Treasurer of Leighlin Cathedral (1771-81) and head of Kilkenny College (1773-81). Richard’s brother Thomas Pack (1720-1795) was Vicar of Burnchurch, Co Kilkenny, from 1762-1795.

Catherine’s husband William Foley (c. 1807-1840), a Trinity educated Dublin doctor, is said to have been the son of Thomas Foley of Ballylin, Co. Waterford.

[xiv] Victorian Edinburgh had been described as ‘a dignified spinster with syphilis’. Irish Catholics found life there especially tough after the Fenian Risings of 1867.

[xv] The marriage took place in St. Mary's Catholic Cathedral on 31 July 1855. Mary Foley was born in Lismore, Co Waterford, in 1837.

[xvi] The family still had some money because, at the age of 9, young Arthur was sent to the Roman Catholic Jesuit preparatory school of Hodder Place, Stonyhurst. Perhaps one of his uncles paid for him? He then went on to Stonyhurst College. By the time he left the school in 1875, he had rejected Christianity to become an agnostic. Like many of his contemporaries, he embraced fairy lore, spiritualism and the occult. In 1874, his passion for such macabre tales was heightened when he visited his uncle Dickie in London who took him to the Chamber of Horrors in Madame Tussaud’s Wax-works on Baker Street. From 1876 to 1881, he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, during which time he began writing short stories. His first story, written when he was 6, was about a man eaten by a tiger. His first published story appeared in Chambers's Edinburgh Journal before he was 20.

After university, he served as a ship's doctor on a voyage to the West African coast. In 1882, he moved to Southsea near Portsmouth from where he practiced as a GP for eight years, writing short stories for pocket money in his spare time. In August 1885 he married Louise ‘Touie’ Hawkins, whose brother had died of meningitis while under his care, and went on honeymoon to Ireland. They returned to find that Arthur had been awarded an MD by Edinburgh. He began writing full-time in 1890.

[xvii] He was subsequently transferred to ‘Sunnyside’ (Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum), where he continued to paint. Charles died in the Crichton Royal Institution in Dumfries on 10 October 1893.

Meanwhile, his wife, Mary Doyle moved to Masongill, Yorkshire and died of a Cerebral Haemorrhage on 30 Dec 1920 at Bowshotts Cottage, West Grinstead, Yorkshire. She was buried in nearby St. Luke's Church. When Charles was committed, their youngest son John Francis Innes Hay Doyle (b. 1873 and known as Innes or Duff) went to live with (Sir) Arthur and, after he finished school stayed on as surgery page to Arthiur. Innes Doyle died of the Spanish Flu in 1919. In 1893, Sir Arthur’s sister Constance married Ernest William Hornung, the novelist and creator of Raffles. Another sister was Jane Adelaide Rose Foley née Doyle (known as Ida).

[xviia] The memorial to Lord Edward FitzGerald would be especially curious if it transpired that John Doyle was indeed John Quin Doyle, godson of Major Sirr who shot Lord Edward.

[xviii] Richard "Dickie" Doyle (September 1824 – 11 December 1883) was a notable Victorian illustrator whose work frequented ‘Punch’ and gently satirized ‘the foibles and fashions of English society’. He had no formal art training other than his father's studio, but from an early age displayed a gifted ability to depict scenes of the fantastic and grotesque, principally fairies and elves. While his work showed traces of his father’s influence, most would agree that his work was entirely original, irrespective of influence by any teacher, school or model. During dark times, Dickie played violin. On the evening of 11 December 1883, the 58-year-old had a fit in the hall of the Athaneum Club, he was conveyed unconscious to his residence with haste but died during the night.

[xix] Throughout his life he was fascinated by fairy tales, evidently a genetic penchant. ‘The little fairies that crowd the border of the celebrated cover are just the mischievous creatures, the goblins and the elves, that the fancy of our old poets was full of’. The masthead design was used for over a century.

[xx] In 1850, Pope Pius IX decided to create new bishoprics for England. When Punch took a defiantly anti-papal stance, Dickie, who was a personal fried of Cardinal Wiseman, was obliged to quit. He claimed he was resigning ‘in order to concentrate on book illustration and painting’.[xx]

[xxi] He collaborated with John Leech, W.C. Stanfield and other artists to co-illustrate three Dickens Christmas books, The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845) and The Battle of Life (1846). ‘In 1846 his illustrations for The Fairy Ring (a new translation of Grimm's tales), first made his name as a fairytale illustrator. Following this in 1849 he produced Fairy Tales from All Nations (compiled by 'Anthony R. Montalba' (i.e. Anthony Whitehall), which proved a tremendous success. Doyle was able to fully explore his love of fairy mythology with his many illustrations and borders filled with elves, pixies and other mythical creatures. Following this success Doyle illustrated a string of fantasy titles: The Enchanted Doll by Mark Lemon (1849), The Story of Jack and the Giants (1850), and John Ruskin's The King of the Golden River (1850), which went through three editions in its first year of publication. In 1854, he published his ‘Continental Tour of Brown, Jones and Robinson’. He also employed his graceful pen for his friend Thackeray’s ‘The Newcomes’. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Doyle_(illustrator)

[xxii] ‘In Fairyland’ was printed by Edmund Evans and published by Longman in time for Christmas 1869 but dated 1870. ‘In the 16 colour plates and 36 line illustrations plus title page, Doyle was given a completely free hand. The folio was richly bound in green cloth, and has been described as one of the finest examples of Victorian book production’. (Richard Dalby, The Golden Age of Children's Book Illustration, 1991 p.12).

[xxiii] H.E. Doyle was married on 6 Feb 1866 to Jane Isabella Ball, daughter of Judge Nicholas Ball. Like Dickie, he was a devoted Roman Catholic and close friends of Cardinal Wiseman, whom he sketched twice. He was also a strong Unionist. In 1865, he was art superintendent of the Dublin Exhibition. He died of heart disease in February 1892.

[xxiv] Some regard Conan Doyle as the quintessential Englishman, Crown devotee, Empire loyalist and the chief propagandist for British policy in the Boer War which he witnessed while serving as an army doctor.

Conan Doyle had Catholic Ireland on one side and a Cromwellian planter family on the other. Likewise, Sherlock Holmes can trace his lineage to an English landowner on one side and a French artist on the other. Conan Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes several times (and had to revive him in 1903), but many hold that his historical novels have more literary merit. His novel Rodney Stone (1896) is deemed a pure classic.

By coincidence, on 11 Feb 1873, a marriage took place in St Andrew’s Church on Westland Row, in which the Rev. John Doyle presided over the marriage of Thomas Thierri Sherlock (eldest son of 'Serjeant' Sherlock, MP, Stillorgan Castle) to Letitia Maria, widow of Major Connolly of Green Park, Co Westmeath, and daughter of Sir john Nugent of Ballinlough Castle, Co Westmeath.

[xxv] A confirmed Unionist he unsuccessfully stood as a Liberal Unionist twice, in 1900 and 1906. By 1911, he had changed tack and was backing Home Rule. When Casement was sentenced to death in 1916, Conan Doyle unsuccessfully appealed for a pardon.


Lellenberg, Jon; Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley (2007). Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters. HarperPress. pp. 8–9. ISBN 978-0-00-724759-2.

Stashower, Daniel (2000). Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle. Penguin Books. pp. 20–21. ISBN 0-8050-5074-4.

The colonial Conan Doyle, Catherine Wynne (2002)

The bedside, bathtub & armchair companion to Sherlock Holmes, by Dick Riley, Pam McAllister (1999)