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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Charlotte Brontë, Novelist & Poet

charlotte-brontëCharlotte Brontë, English novelist and poet, is born in Thornton, West Yorkshire, England on April 21, 1816, the third daughter of the Rev. Patrick Brontë, an Irish Anglican clergyman, and his wife Maria. In 1820 her family moves a few miles to the village of Haworth, where her father has been appointed perpetual curate of St. Michael and All Angels’ Church.

In 1824 the four eldest Brontë daughters are enrolled as pupils at the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge. The following year Maria and Elizabeth, the two eldest daughters, become ill, leave the school and ultimately die. Charlotte and sister Emily, understandably, are brought home. Charlotte ultimately uses the school as the basis for Lowood School in Jane Eyre.

In 1826 Patrick Brontë brings home a box of wooden soldiers for son Branwell. Charlotte, Emily, Branwell, and Ann, playing with the soldiers, conceive of and begin to write in great detail about an imaginary world which they call Angria.

In 1831 Charlotte becomes a pupil at the school at Roe Head in Mirfield, but she leaves school the following year to teach her sisters at home. She returns to Roe Head School in 1835 as a governess, leaving in 1838. The following year she accepts a position as governess in the Sidgewick family, but leaves after three months and returns to Haworth. In 1841 she becomes governess in the White family, but leaves, once again, after nine months.

Upon her return to Haworth the three sisters, led by Charlotte, decide to open their own school after the necessary preparations have been completed. In 1842 Charlotte and Emily go to Brussels to complete their studies. After a trip home to Haworth, Charlotte returns alone to Brussels, where she remains until 1844.

Upon her return home the sisters embark upon their project for founding a school, which proves to be an abject failure. Their advertisements do not elicit a single response from the public. The following year Charlotte discovers Emily’s poems and decides to publish a selection of the poems of all three sisters. The poems, written under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, are published in 1846. She also completes The Professor, which is rejected for publication. The following year, however, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Ann’s Agnes Grey are all published, still under the Bell pseudonyms.

In 1848 Charlotte and Ann visit their publishers in London, and reveal the true identities of the “Bells.” In the same year Branwell Brontë, by now an alcoholic and a drug addict, dies, and Emily dies shortly thereafter. Ann dies the following year.

In 1849 Charlotte, visiting London, begins to move in literary circles, making the acquaintance, for example, of William Makepeace Thackeray. In 1850 she edits her sister’s various works, and meets Elizabeth Gaskell. In 1851 she visits The Great Exhibition in London, and attends a series of lectures given by Thackeray.

The Rev. Arthur Bell Nicholls, curate of Haworth since 1845, proposes marriage to Charlotte in 1852. Her father objects violently, and Charlotte, who, though she may have pitied him, is not in love with him and refuses the proposal. Nicholls leaves Haworth in the following year, the same in which Charlotte’s Villette is published. By 1854, however, her father’s opposition to the proposed marriage has weakened, and Charlotte and Nicholls become engaged. Nicholls returns as curate at Haworth and they are married, though it seems clear that Charlotte, though she admires him, still does not love him.

Charlotte becomes pregnant soon after her wedding, but her health declines rapidly. She dies at the age of 38, with her unborn child, on March 31, 1855, three weeks before her 39th birthday, at Haworth, West Yorkshire, England. Her death certificate gives the cause of death as tuberculosis, but biographers including Claire Harman suggest that she died from dehydration and malnourishment due to vomiting caused by severe morning sickness.

The Professor is published postumously in 1857, having been written in 1845-1846. In that same year, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë is published.

(Pictured: An idealised posthumous portrait by Duyckinick, 1873, based on a drawing by George Richmond)

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Birth of Poet Seamus Heaney

seamus-heaneySeamus Justin Heaney, Irish poet, playwright and translator, is born in the townland of Tamniaran between Castledawson and Toomebridge, Northern Ireland on April 13, 1939. He is the recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Heaney’s family moves to nearby Bellaghy when he is a boy. He attends Queen’s University Belfast and begins to publish poetry. In the early 1960s he becomes a lecturer at St. Joseph’s College in Belfast. He lives in Sandymount, Dublin from 1976 until his death. He also lives part-time in the United States from 1981 to 2006. He is recognised as one of the principal contributors to poetry during his lifetime.

Heaney is a professor at Harvard University from 1981 to 1997, and its Poet in Residence from 1988 to 2006. From 1989 to 1994, he is also the Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford. In 1996, he is made a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Other awards that he receives include the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize (1968), the E. M. Forster Award (1975), the PEN Translation Prize (1985), the Golden Wreath of Poetry (2001), the T. S. Eliot Prize (2006) and two Whitbread Book Awards (1996 and 1999). In 2011, he is awarded the Griffin Poetry Prize and in 2012 he receives a Lifetime Recognition Award from the Griffin Trust. His literary papers are held by the National Library of Ireland.

American poet Robert Lowell describes Heaney as “the most important Irish poet since Yeats,” and many others, including the academic John Sutherland, have said that he is “the greatest poet of our age.” Robert Pinsky states that “with his wonderful gift of eye and ear Heaney has the gift of the story-teller.” Upon his death in 2013, The Independent describes him as “probably the best-known poet in the world.” One of his best known works is Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966.

Seamus Heaney dies in Blackrock, Dublin on August 30, 2013 while hospitalized following a fall a few days earlier. He is buried at the Cemetery of St. Mary’s Church, Bellaghy, Northern Ireland. The headstone bears the epitaph “Walk on air against your better judgement,” from one of his poems, The Gravel Walks.

President Michael D. Higgins, himself a poet, praises Heaney’s “contribution to the republics of letters, conscience and humanity.” Taoiseach Enda Kenny says that Heaney’s death has brought “great sorrow to Ireland, to language and to literature.”


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Birth of James White, Science Fiction Writer

james-whiteJames White, author of science fiction novellas, short stories and novels, is born in Belfast, Northern Ireland on April 7, 1928.

White is educated in Belfast at St. John’s Primary School and St. Joseph’s Technical Secondary School. As a teenager he lives with foster parents. He wants to study medicine but financial circumstances prevented this. Between 1943 and 1965 he works for several Belfast tailoring firms and then as assistant manager of a Co-op department store. He marries Margaret “Peggy” Sarah Martin, another science fiction fan, in 1955 and the couple has three children. He later works for the aeroplane builders Short Brothers as a technical clerk, publicity assistant and publicity officer.

White becomes a science fiction fan in 1941, attracted particularly by the works of E. E. “Doc” Smith, which features good aliens as well as evil ones, and of Robert A. Heinlein, many of whose stories concern ordinary people. In 1947 he meets another Irish fan, Walt Willis, and the two help to produce the fan magazines Slant and Hyphen, which feature stories and articles by noted authors including John Brunner, A. Bertram Chandler and Bob Shaw. In 2004 both White and Willis are nominated for the retrospective Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer of 1953, although neither wins. White says that he started writing stories because the Slant team felt that Astounding Stories of Super-Science was too dominated by prophesies of nuclear doom, and his friends dared him to write the kind of story that they all liked to read. Getting published is fairly easy during the 1950s, as the World War II restrictions on paper are ended, and there are at least 12 science magazines in Britain and about 40 in the United States. His first published short story, Assisted Passage, a parody of 1950s Anglo-Australian emigration policies, appears in the January 1953 edition of the magazine New Worlds. Further stories appear in New Worlds during the next few years, but White’s attempt to access the more lucrative American market by submitting stories to Astounding Stories of Super-Science stall after the publication of The Scavengers. As a result, White’s work is little-known outside the UK until the 1960s.

In 1957, Ace Books publishes White’s first novel, The Secret Visitors, which includes locations in Northern Ireland. Ace Books’ science fiction editor, Donald A. Wollheim, thinks the original ending is too tame and suggests that White should insert an all-out space battle just after the climactic courtroom scene. In November of the same year New Worlds publishes White’s novella Sector General, and editor John Carnell requests more stories set in the same universe, founding the series for which White is known best. White gains a steady following for his scientifically accurate stories, which are examples of hard science fiction in New Worlds, despite the magazine’s promotion of literary New Wave science fiction during the 1960s.

White keeps his job with Short Brothers and writes in the evenings, as his stories do not make enough money for him to become a full-time author. In 1980 he teaches a literature course at a Belfast branch of the Workers’ Educational Association. When diabetes has severely impaired his eyesight, he takes early retirement in 1984 and relocates to the north County Antrim resort town of Portstewart, where he continues to write. For many years he is a Council Member of the British Science Fiction Association and, with Harry Harrison and Anne McCaffrey, a Patron of the Irish Science Fiction Association. He is also a strong pacifist.

James White dies of a stroke in Portstewart, Belfast, Northern Ireland on August 23, 1999, while his novels Double Contact and The First Protector are being prepared for publication.


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Birth of Author & Journalist Mary Kenny

mary-kennyMary Kenny, Irish author, broadcaster, playwright and journalist, is born in Dublin on April 4, 1944. She is a frequent columnist for the Irish Independent and is a founding member of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement (IWLM). She has modified the radical ideas of her past, but not rejected feminist principles.

Kenny grows up in Sandymount and is expelled from convent school at age 16. She begins working at the London Evening Standard in 1966 on the Londoner’s Diary, later as a general feature writer, and is woman’s editor of The Irish Press in the early 1970s.

Kenny is one of the founding members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement. Although the group has no formal structure of officials, she is often seen as the “ring leader” of the group. In March 1971, as part of an action by the IWLM, she walks out of Haddington Road church after the Archbishop of Dublin‘s pastoral is read out from the pulpit, confirming that “any contraceptive act is always wrong,” saying “this is Church dictatorship.” In a follow-up letter to The Irish Times she explains her actions by saying Ian Paisley was right, “Home Rule is Rome Rule.”

In 1971, Kenny travels with Nell McCafferty, June Levine and other Irish feminists on the so-called “Contraceptive Train” from Dublin to Belfast to buy condoms, then illegal within the Republic of Ireland. Later that year she returns to London as Features Editor of the Evening Standard.

In 1973, Kenny is allegedly “disturbed in the arms of a former cabinet minister of President Obote of Uganda during a party,” which leads poet James Fenton to coin the euphemism “Ugandan discussions” to mean sexual intercourse. The phrase is first used by the magazine Private Eye on March 9, 1973, but has been widely used since then and is included by the BBC in a list of “The 10 most scandalous euphemisms” in 2013.

Kenny has written for many British and Irish broadsheet newspapers, including the Irish Independent, The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator and has authored books on William Joyce and Catholicism in Ireland. She also writes for the weekly The Irish Catholic. She is known in the UK as a Roman Catholic journalist. Crown and Shamrock: Love and Hate between Ireland and the British Monarchy (2009), is described by R.F. Foster as “characteristically breezy, racy and insightful.” She is author of the play Allegiance, in which Mel Smith plays Winston Churchill and Michael Fassbender plays Michael Collins, at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006.

Kenny marries journalist and writer Richard West in 1974 and the couple raises two children, Patrick West and Ed West, both journalists.


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Birth of Peig Sayers, Author & Seanchaí

peig-sayersPeig Sayers, Irish author and seanchaí, is born in the townland of Vicarstown, Dunquin, County Kerry, on March 29, 1873. Seán Ó Súilleabháin, the former archivist for the Irish Folklore Commission, describes her as “one of the greatest woman storytellers of recent times.”

Sayers is born Máiréad (Margaret) Sayers, the youngest child of the family. She is called Peig after her mother, Margaret “Peig” Brosnan, from Castleisland. Her father Tomás Sayers is a renowned storyteller who passes on many of his tales to Peig. At age 12, she is taken out of school and goes to work as a servant for the Curran family in the nearby town of Dingle. She spends two years there before returning home due to illness.

She spends the next few years as a domestic servant working for members of the growing middle class produced by the Land War. She plans to join her best friend, Cáit Boland, in the United States, but Boland writes that she has had an accident and can not forward the cost of the fare. Peig moves to the Great Blasket Island after marrying Pádraig Ó Guithín, a fisherman and native of the island, on February 13, 1892. She and Pádraig have eleven children, of whom six survive.

The Norwegian scholar Carl Marstrander, who visits the island in 1907, urges Robin Flower of the British Museum to visit the Blaskets. Flower is keenly appreciative of Sayers’ stories and tales. He records them and brings them to the attention of the academic world.

In the 1930s, a Dublin teacher, Máire Ní Chinnéide, who is a regular visitor to the Blaskets, urges Sayers to tell her life story to her son Micheál. She is illiterate in the Irish language, although she receives her early schooling through the medium of English. She dictates her biography to Micheál. He then sends the manuscript pages to Máire Ní Chinnéide in Dublin, who edits them for publication. It is published in 1936.

Over several years beginning in 1938 she dictates 350 ancient legends, ghost stories, folk stories, and religious stories to Seosamh Ó Dálaigh of the Irish Folklore Commission.

Sayers continues to live on the island until 1942, when she leaves the Island and returns to her native Dunquin. She is moved to a hospital in Dingle, County Kerry where she dies on December 8, 1958. She is buried in the Dún Chaoin Burial Ground on the Dingle Peninsula. Her surviving children, except for her son Micheál, emigrate to the United States and live with their descendants in Springfield, Massachusetts.


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Birth of Melesina Trench, Writer, Poet & Diarist

melesina-trenchMelesina Trench (née Chenevix), Irish writer, poet and diarist, is born in Dublin on March 22, 1768. During her lifetime she is known more for her beauty than her writing. It is not until her son, Richard Chenevix Trench, publishes her diaries posthumously in 1861 that her work receives notice.

Melesina Chenevix is born to Philip Chenevix and Mary Elizabeth Gervais. She is orphaned before her fourth birthday and is brought up by her paternal grandfather, Richard Chenevix (1698–1779), the Anglican Bishop of Waterford and Lismore. The family is of Huguenot extraction.

After the death of Richard Chenevix she goes to live with her other grandfather, the Archdeacon Gervais. On October 31, 1786 she marries Colonel Richard St. George, who dies only four years later in Portugal, leaving one son, Charles Manners St. George, who becomes a diplomat.

Between 1799 and 1800, Melesina travels around Europe, especially Germany. It is during these travels that she meets Lord Horatio Nelson, Lady Hamilton and the cream of European society, including Antoine de Rivarol, Lucien Bonaparte, and John Quincy Adams while living in Germany. She later recounts anecdotes of these meetings in her memoirs.

On March 3, 1803 in Paris she marries her second husband, Richard Trench, who is the sixth son of Frederick Trench and brother of Frederick Trench, 1st Baron Ashtown.

After the breakdown of the Peace of Amiens, Richard Trench is detained in France by Napoleon‘s armies, and in August 1805 Melesina takes it upon herself to petition Napoleon in person and pleads for her husband’s release. Her husband is released in 1807 and the couple settles at Elm Lodge in Bursledon, Hampshire, England.

Their son, Francis Chenevix Trench, is born in 1805. In 1807, when they are on holiday in Dublin, their son Richard Chenevix Trench is born. He goes on to be the Archbishop of Dublin, renowned poet and contemporary of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Her only daughter dies a few years later at the age of four.

Trench corresponds with, amongst others, Mary Leadbeater, with whom she works to improve the lot of the peasantry at her estate at Ballybarney. She dies at the age of 59 in Malvern, Worcestershire on May 27, 1827.

Melesina Trench’s diaries and letters are compiled posthumously by Richard Chenevix Trench as The remains of the late Mrs. Richard Trench in 1861 with an engraving of her taken from a painting by George Romney. Another oil painting, The Evening Star by Sir Thomas Lawrence, has her as a subject, and she is reproduced in portrait miniatures – one in Paris by Jean-Baptiste Isabey and another by Hamilton that is copied by the engraver Francis Engleheart.

Copies of a number of her works are held at Chawton House Library.

(Pictured: “Melesina Chenevix, Mrs. George, later Mrs. Trench,” attributed to George Romney (British, 1734–1802), oil on canvas)


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Initial Publication of “At Swim-Two-Birds”

at-swim-two-birdsAt Swim-Two-Birds, a novel by Irish writer Brian O’Nolan writing under the pseudonym Flann O’Brien, is published on March 13, 1939. It is widely considered to be O’Brien’s masterpiece, and one of the most sophisticated examples of metafiction.

At Swim-Two-Birds is accepted for publication by Longman on the recommendation of Graham Greene, who is a reader for them at the time. It is published under the pseudonym of Flann O’Brien, a name O’Nolan had already used to write hoax letters to The Irish Times. O’Nolan suggests using “Flann O’Brien” as a pen-name during negotiation with Longman. The novel’s title derives from Snámh dá Én, a ford on the River Shannon, between Clonmacnoise and Shannonbridge, reportedly visited by the legendary King Sweeney, a character in the novel.

The book does not sell well after it is published. By the outbreak of World War II it has sold scarcely more than 240 copies. In 1940, Longman’s London premises are destroyed during a bombing raid by the Luftwaffe and almost all the unsold copies are incinerated. The novel is republished by Pantheon Books in New York City in 1950, on the recommendation of James Johnson Sweeney, but sales remain low. In May 1959 Timothy O’Keeffe, while editorial director of the London publishing house MacGibbon & Kee, persuades O’Nolan to allow him to republish At Swim-Two-Birds. More recently, the novel is republished in the United States by Dalkey Archive Press.

The initial reviews for At Swim-Two-Birds are not enthusiastic. The Times Literary Supplement says that the book’s only notable feature is a “schoolboy brand of mild vulgarity.” The New Statesman complains that “long passages in imitation of the Joycean parody of the early Irish epic are devastatingly dull” and the Irish novelist Seán Ó Faoláin comments in John O’London’s Weekly that although the book had its moments, it “had a general odour of spilt Joyce all over it.”

However, most of the support for At Swim-Two-Birds comes not from newspaper reviewers but from writers. Dylan Thomas, in a remark that would be quoted on dust-jackets in later editions of the book, says “This is just the book to give your sister – if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.” Anthony Burgess considers it one of the ninety-nine greatest novels written between 1939 and 1984. Graham Greene’s enthusiastic reader’s report is instrumental in getting the book published in the first place.

Stephen Fry has declared At Swim-Two-Birds one of his favourite books. In 2011, the book is placed on Time‘s top 100 fiction books written in English since 1923.