The mystery of the Irish disappearance of an American archaeologist will be examined on television | Ireland
When Arthur Kingsley Porter disappeared from the remote island of Inishbofin off the Atlantic coast of Ireland in 1933, he made the front page of The New York Times. “Archaeologist lost from a boat in the storm”, titles the title.
The inquest – the first in Ireland without a body – concluded that the prominent Harvard University scholar had in fact tripped over a cliff as he was walking and was swept away in a freak accident.
However, many islanders had another theory and passed it on to their children and grandchildren. When the island erected a memorial last year for those lost at sea off its coast, Porter’s name was omitted as there is a belief he did not drown – qu he faked his death and slipped away to a new life.
It’s a mystery that has entered the folklore of this part of County Donegal, at the northwestern tip of Ireland. The story intertwines sex scandal, sanity, the Great Depression and an alleged curse of a medieval tomb.
There will be another attempt to uncover the truth next week when Irish-language channel TG4 airs a documentary titled Ar Iarraidh (Faded away). “I combine known facts and new facts that we have discovered. You take what you feel out of it,” said presenter Kevin Magee. “If you’re optimistic, you think he faked his own death. If you are pessimistic, you think he committed suicide. If you’re pragmatic, you think it was an accident.
The latest investigation follows an RTÉ radio documentary last year and a 2012 book, Glenveagh Mystery: the Life, Work and Disappearance of Arthur Kingsley Porter, by Lucy Costigan.
Each represents a man who, outwardly, had everything to please. Born into a wealthy New England family, Porter owned Glenveagh Castle, a spectacular estate on the Irish mainland, as well as a cottage in Inishbofin. He was chairman of Harvard’s Department of Art History and a renowned scholar of Romanesque architecture. He had a devoted wife, Lucy, who accompanied him on research trips through Europe.
But Porter was troubled. He was secretly gay. Lucy knew and accepted that he took a young lover, Alan Campbell. Even so, Porter agonized over Harvard finding out about his sexuality, ruining his career and scandalizing New England. In 1933, the 50-year-old had additional worries: the economic depression was depleting his fortune and Campbell left him.
So what really happened after he left his island cabin on the morning of July 8, 1933, never to be seen again?
“The romantic version is that Porter continued his travels,” said Costigan, the author. “He would be released from Harvard and his marriage, which were binding on him in some ways.
“It would be nice to think that he ran away and got away with it all and continued his archaeological work under an assumed name, that he found peace.”
The TG4 documentary includes interviews with islanders who recount alleged sightings of Porter in Paris. There have been other alleged sightings at a dock in Marseille, a city in northern Spain and a monastery in India.
The craziest theory is that of supernatural punishment. In 1926 Porter removed a sarcophagus lid from the 11th-century Spanish tomb of Alfonso Ansúrez, the son of a nobleman, and took it to Harvard, where it was displayed in the Fogg Museum as an example of writing medieval sepulchral. The Spanish authorities protested and finally the lid was returned – July 8, 1933.
Costigan inclines towards a more conventional explanation: suicide.
When Porter was a boy, his mother died, and his widowed father shocked Connecticut upper society by pursuing much younger women. “The sex scandal was something Porter was absolutely terrified of,” the author said. “He became quite shy and introverted and felt very insecure in many ways.”
Marriage to Lucy protected his homosexuality, but suspicions grew when he hired the apparently gay Campbell as an assistant at Harvard, who had a history of dating and deporting gay people. Porter said in a letter that he was “absorbed in anxiety.” Fear of ostracism combined with worries about finances and her relationship with Campbell. “He faced a lot of dilemmas,” said Costigan, who also co-wrote a book on understanding suicide.
Few seem to believe the official version of an accident. The so-called cliffs of Inishbofin are gentle slopes – a trip is unlikely to be fatal.
The TG4 documentary leans toward a clandestine getaway, noting that three months before her disappearance, Porter amended her will making Lucy her sole beneficiary, that no thorough search was done on the island after her disappearance, and that Lucy s behaved oddly immediately afterwards. After only a few hours, she began writing letters – never sent – stating that her husband was missing. That evening, she returned to the mainland and told a friend, “Kingsley won’t be coming back tonight. Kingsley will never come back.
There was a fishing boat on the island – not mentioned during the investigation – the night before the disappearance. The documentary highlights Porter’s fascination with medieval Irish monk Saint Columba, or Colmcille, who sailed into exile in Scotland, and a poem by Porter that uses the word “free” 21 times.
The academic’s great-nephew, Scott Arneill, has no doubts: “What I believe happened, to put it as simply as possible, is that he faked his own death.”