March 13

Published in On this Day listing

  • 1854

    Above: Harriet Smithson from Ennis, Co. Clare, the first Madame Berlioz, c. 1828. (Musée Magnin, Dijon)

    Harriet Smithson (53), actress and the first Madame Berlioz, died in Montmartre, Paris. In 1827, after regular appearances in Dublin’s Crow Street Theatre and London’s Drury Lane, Smithson, from Ennis, Co. Clare, took Paris by storm on her début in the role of a passionate Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Notables in the audience such as Victor Hugo, Eugène Delacroix and Alexandre Dumas père were enthralled by ‘L’Irlandaise’—as, too, was the student composer Hector Berlioz, who, when she rejected his advances, took himself off to compose his masterpiece, Symphonie Fantastique, in her honour. Two years later they finally married, with Franz Liszt as their witness, but the marriage was a disaster. With her acting career by then in decline and heavily in debt, she took to drink, became increasingly obese and sharp-tongued, and left him after six years. Thereafter her health rapidly declined and during her last ten years she was unable to talk or move. By the time of her passing she was a largely forgotten figure. ‘Twenty-five years before the whole of intelligent Paris would have attended her obsequies in admiration and adoration of her’, wrote Berlioz. And she didn’t even get to rest in peace. Ten years later, it was announced that the small Montmartre cemetery where she was buried was to be closed and she would have to be moved. And a grisly event that turned out to be, as the coffin cracked open, revealing her decomposed remains, before she was reburied in the larger present-day Montmartre cemetery, alongside Berlioz’s second wife, the singer Marie Recio, who had died two years earlier. When the great man himself passed away in 1869, he was buried beside his two wives in a posthumous threesome.

  • 1846 Evictions at Baltinglass, Co. Galway. Some 300 tenants were evicted from the Gerrard estate so that the land could be used for grazing. Despite widespread condemnation and a debate in the House of Lords, the evictions were not rescinded.
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