I Stumble On A Name

I stumbled on Norma Borthwick, a name unfamiliar to me when reading about the Irish literary figure Lady Gregory. Borthwick was employed by Lady Gregory as a tutor in the 1890s but was a figure in her own right in the Gaelic movement.

It surprises me given her background – she was born and brought up in Cheshire (Higher Bebington) – that she ended up being such a significant figure in ‘the movement’ although albeit now almost forgotten. How many more are there? Certainly on her mothers side Borthwick had links to Scotland and she later died there after an unpleasant final few years of illness many years later.

Borthwick did sketches for ‘United Ireland’ of evictions of poor people in the 1890s around Gweedore, Co Donegal. I’ve looked online but can’t find any. More to the point she was active in the Gelic League, became its Secretary and served on its executive committee. Borthwick would have been a contemporary of Sophis Morrison and there is certainly a Manx link via the book Ceachta Beaga Gaedhilge (Published 1901) which she wrote and which is illustrated by Jack Butler Yeats. It appears to have been adapted to the Manx as ‘Lessoonyn beggey gailckagh’ with attribution to H Percy Kelly (translated from the Irish of) Norma Borthwick and Jack Butler Yeats and published by The Manx Society in 1914.

Borthwick was obviously a striking figure: ‘A handsome young woman with a pale haughty face and an assured carriage. There was pride and temper in the face: the broad intellectual forehead had short downward lines between the brow. But the mouth had a charming smile ‘. is how Charlotte McManus describes her in White light and flame: memories of the Irish Literary Revival and the Anglo-Irish war , 1929.

I spent about five weeks renting a flat In Higher Bebington when the late ‘Mrs M’ (Deirdre) was getting medical treatment there about a decade or more ago and we wandered the roads and lanes – ‘in the footsteps of Norma’ perhaps without knowing – who would have thought!

A very interesting woman from the Celtic revival.

Image: Cover of Ceachta Beaga Gaedhilge Inset: Norma Borthwick a work of Jack Butler Yeats 1902.

Bernard Moffatt
First published on Mannin Branch of Celtic League (11 May 2022)

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