Mangan is born on May 1, 1803 in Dublin. His poetry fits into a variety of literary traditions. Most obviously, and frequently, his work is read alongside such nationalist political authors as John Mitchel, as they appear in The Nation, The Vindicator and the United Irishman newspapers or as a manifestation of the 19th-century Irish Cultural Revival. He is also frequently read as a Romantic poet.
Mangan is the son of James Mangan, a former hedge school teacher and native of Shanagolden, County Limerick, and Catherine Smith from Kiltale, County Meath. Following his marriage to Smith, James Mangan takes over a grocery business in Dublin owned by the Smith family, eventually becoming bankrupt as a result. Mangan describes his father as having “a princely soul but no prudence,” and attributes his family’s bankruptcy to his father’s suspect business speculations and tendency to throw expensive parties. Thanks to poor record keeping, inconsistent biographies, and his own semi-fictional and sensationalized autobiographical accounts, his early years are the subject of much speculation. However, despite the popular image of him as a long-suffering, poor poet, there is reason to believe that his early years are spent in middle class comfort.
Mangan is educated at a Jesuit school where he learns Latin, Spanish, French, and Italian. He attends three schools before the age of fifteen. Obliged to find a job in order to support his family, he then becomes a lawyer’s clerk, and is later an employee of the Ordnance Survey and an assistant in the library of Trinity College, Dublin.
Mangan’s first verses are published in 1818. From 1820 he adopts the middle name Clarence. In 1830 he begins producing translations – generally free interpretations rather than strict transliterations – from German, a language he had taught himself. Of interest are his translations of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. From 1834 his contributions begin appearing in the Dublin University Magazine. In 1840 he begins producing translations from Turkish, Persian, Arabic and Irish. He is also known for literary hoaxes as some of his “translations” are in fact works of his own, like Twenty Golden Years Ago, attributed to a certain Selber.
Mangan is friends with the patriotic journalists Thomas Davis and John Mitchel, who ultimately writes his biography. His poems are published in their newspaper The Nation.
Although Mangan’s early poetry is often apolitical, after the Great Famine he begins writing patriotic poems, including influential works such as Dark Rosaleen, a translation of “Róisín Dubh,” and A Vision of Connaught in the Thirteenth Century.
Mangan’s best known poems include Dark Rosaleen, Siberia, Nameless One, A Vision of Connaught in the Thirteenth Century, The Funerals, To the Ruins of Donegal Castle, Pleasant Prospects for the Land-eaters and Woman of Three Cows. He writes a brief autobiography, on the advice of his friend Charles Patrick Meehan, which ends mid-sentence. This is apparently written in the last months of his life, since he mentions his narrative poem of the Italian Gasparo Bandollo, which is published in the Dublin University Magazine in May 1849.
Mangan is a lonely and often difficult man who suffers from mood swings, depression and irrational fears, and becomes a heavy drinker and opium user. His appearance grows eccentric, and he is described by the artist WF Wakeman as frequently wearing “a huge pair of green spectacles,” padded shirts to hide his malnourished figure and a hat which “resembled those which broomstick-riding witches are usually represented with.” On June 20, 1849, weakened by poverty, alcoholism and malnutrition, he succumbs to cholera at the age of 46. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.
(Pictured: Memorial bust of James Mangan in St. Stephen’s Green, sculpted by Oliver Sheppard)