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In and Out of Fashion

The Dublin writer James Clarence Mangan (1803-1849), author of poems such as “Dark Rosaleen”, “O’Hussey’s Ode to the Maguire”, “Siberia”, “Twenty Golden Years Ago” and “The Nameless One” was widely respected in literary Dublin in the 1840s. However, since his death in 1849 he has spent significant periods in literary obscurity, a fate which, I believe, is linked to the considerable cultural theorising, around the poet and the reception of his work, which has taken place in recent times.

One recurring theme in such work concerns Mangan’s relationship with “the canon” and the degree of his “canonicity” in his own time and afterwards. I have always found speculations along these lines puzzling for the simple reason that in both pre- and post-Famine Ireland there was nothing which could sensibly be termed a canon of Irish literature. The political and cultural chaos of the times simply did not allow for one. There was plenty of writing going on, but that is a different matter.

Mangan was by no means always out of fashion. Apart from the 1840s, the early twentieth century was a positive time for the Dublin poet and, as it happens, the early twenty-first century is another. Mind you, the reasons for the century-wide approvals are not quite the same and reflect the great differences which the passing of the twentieth century marked.

Some of the poems, highly regarded during his lifetime, were of the romantic nationalist type and, as far as I am aware, Mangan was the first substantial Irish poet who can be so classified. Thomas Moore does not quite fit and the same, I believe, can be said of the Wexford poet Thomas Furlong and some others of significant, though more minor, achievement.

Post-Daniel O’Connell nationalists, and even national unionists of the 1840s, were enthralled by Mangan’s writing. But that fervour has long faded and his national verse is not today the focus of his literary celebration. Indeed, most of his national poetry has been rejected for quite some time. Anthony Cronin, who admired much of Mangan’s writing, commented that a person who saw Ireland as a maiden whose “holy delicate white hands” would “girdle him in steel” should “have the general mechanism of his sensibility examined”. This view, which was expressed in the foreword to a Gallery Press edition of Mangan’s verse published in 1973, might these days be seen as a little harsh and the sentiment, though still felt, is unlikely to be expressed as forcefully today. (In some ways, the early 1970s are now almost as remote as the 1840s.) A more nuanced distancing is found on the back cover of the David Wheatley’s edition of Mangan’s verse published twenty-five years later and which speaks in a milder and more tolerant tone of certain poems as “period pieces” and “anthems of a vanished age”.

Notwithstanding a general reservation concerning his national verse, Mangan’s wider reputation has been on the up since the last decade of the twentieth century, a process confirmed by various publications around and since the bicentenary of his birth in 2003. Today he is seen as prefiguring some of the great poets of the later nineteenth century and is frequently read as something of a proto-modernist voice. This last point is undoubtedly valid. Unlike virtually everyone else from the 1830s and 1840s Mangan, or at least much of his writing, could blend in effortlessly today.

The standing of James Clarence Mangan, who – in part by choice ‑ lived from hand to mouth in Dublin during the first four years of the great famine, quickly faded in the decades following the multiple defeats of the 1840s. Those post-Famine decades were, perhaps necessarily, a comparatively dull and culturally shallow time, one when a paltry version of  O’Connellism seemed the only possibility in public life, albeit one punctuated by occasional flashes of the desperate, the brilliant and the quixotic.

The mood of those years was not conducive to any real enthusiasm for Mangan’s national vision. The uncompromisingly national Mangan, who had no use for the pragmatism of gradualist politics, could hardly be embraced by a mainstream which could find no alternative to a thoroughgoing version of the same. Unlike the more decorative and very pragmatic Moore, Mangan could not be unpacked and then put away again after a Sunday evening session around the pianoforte. In the 1840s, as the political lava flowed, James Clarence Mangan not only envisioned but craved an autonomous Irish polity, culturally embedded in the legacy of a Gaelic past. This dream, of course, along with many others and much more besides, ended in the dust of that traumatic decade of defeats.

In the aftermath of the disastrous 1840s many prominent figures were jailed, quit the country, faded from view or otherwise disappeared in some combination of these fates. A more limited politics was just about possible and certainly it was not a time for full-blown romantic nationalism, rather one for inch-by-inch politics. The Catholic middle classes, typically comprising stronger tenant farmers, merchants, businessmen, shopkeepers and lawyers, were the mainstay of a struggle to keep a lightweight version of the O’Connellite train chugging along. In time there were victories, but they were of the micro variety and indeed some might be seen as pyrrhic.

Neither the Fenian movement nor the Home Rule party, under even its most glamorous of leaders, entailed a turning back towards the romantic political sensibility of the 1840s. Actually, once the idea that physical force constitutes the ultimate determinant of cultural difference in Irish political history is laid aside, it can be argued, I believe, that both these later nineteenth century political forces were latterday versions of O’Connellism: highly focused and reason-based efforts to win legislative autonomy. Mangan was never likely to provide much in the way of inspiration to such children of the Enlightenment. He had to await the fin de siècle and the two decades which followed.

The suggestion that the peaceful versus the physical force division is not the crucial divide in Irish political culture finds some support in Mangan’s changing attitudes on the question. While he himself was completely and consistently romantic in outlook he switched position on political violence at least once. In 1848 he wrote to John Mitchell: “I am prepared to go to all lengths with you and your intrepid friend Devin Reilly for the achievement of our national independence.” Yet, following the military humiliation of 1848, he became critical of political violence on the classic Catholic elite grounds that it was futile. In the year he died he wrote:

Knowledge is power, not powder. That man strikes
A blow for Ireland worth a hundred guns
Who trains one reasoned. Smash your heads of pikes,
And form the heads of Men, my sons!

Yeats in his particular, and possibly unique, combination of high late romanticism and social snobbery despised the Catholic middle classes and their, for him, repulsive engagement with the “greasy till” and, moreover, their determination, as he saw it, not to be “maddened by some woman’s yellow hair” into embracing romantic politics. The exact form of Yeats’s take on things might have been unique but he was not alone in finding the decades of disciplined pragmatism, grey, dull, unfruitful and ultimately unbearable. It was a feeling which came to characterise the brighter lights of an entire generation.

Unsurprisingly, Mangan had many and important admirers in the racy early twentieth century, when the romantic nationalism that flared briefly in the 1840s once more emerged within the high drama and tumult of a late romantic revival.

At one point Yeats desired to be accounted, like Mangan, a poet “That sang, to sweeten Ireland’s wrong” and hoped to “be counted one / With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson”. Others wanted a restoration of the Irish language, socialism, women’s suffrage, a co-operative movement, an artistic revolution, vegetarianism, spiritual emancipation and more, much more. It was an exciting time.

The young James Joyce, also of that broad generation, was attracted to Mangan and also disenchanted with the low-octane politics of the post-Parnell era. Joyce was instinctively taken by the brilliant misfit who was James Mangan, one who like himself was the genius son of an improvident father and also a writer willing to make great personal sacrifices for his art. Again like Joyce, Mangan was of Dublin but also at odds with the values and culture of the city. If he had won fame and fortune in his day he would never have integrated into prevailing respectability, neither in its O’Connellite nor its establishment form. There was something there which repelled him. It is not difficult to comprehend the natural appeal he had for the dissident Joyce.

Like Joyce, Mangan’s background, notwithstanding some claims to the contrary, was decidedly middle class. His mother came from a family with a good-sized farm in Co Meath and with business interests in the city. She kept a shop at the Bride Street end of Fishamble Street which appears to have been a solid business. At least it was until she married Mangan’s father, who formerly ran a hedge school somewhere in Co Limerick. Mangan père had a weakness for large ideas at the expense of attention to detail which, as is universally agreed, is vital in the retail world and in a lot of other trades besides. He ran the business down on more than one occasion but when money was available apparently hosted lavish balls and “pic-nics”. To top it all he engaged in property speculation in the area around the Bleeding Horse pub on Camden Street which, as is hardly surprising given his lack of business acumen, ended badly and contributed to the reduction of his family to poverty. Incidentally, if Mangan is to believed, his father was consistently severe in his behaviour towards his children. As a result of the collapse in family fortunes the future poet was removed from the educational care of the Jesuits and apprenticed to a scrivener in York Street. Thereafter he was self-taught, supporting both himself and, it seems, other members of his family.

By his early 1840s, due to the development of a chronic and destructive engagement with alcohol and, it would appear morphine, Mangan increasingly found himself living in conditions of squalor and destitution, moving frequently, along with his ne’er-do-well carpenter brother, from one damp basement to another, having typically exhausted his credit and presumably the patience of some anonymous slum landlady. His lodgings were often within that warren of dilapidated buildings close to St Patrick’s cathedral where impoverished Irish-speaking refugees from the imploding countryside also congregated. Mangan, who lived alongside this debased peasantry, was not one of them. Indeed Douglas Hyde maintained that he understood no Irish. This may not be entirely true, or only in the sense that he was not fluent. The influx from the countryside which had been under way for decades meant that Irish words and phrases were in common use among much of the Dublin lower classes. It is likely that Mangan had the cúpla focal and indeed recent scholarship suggests that he taught himself some Irish in the 1830s. In any event, his registering of the acute suffering of the recent arrivals was no less for his imperfect understanding of the dialects they would have spoken. It was reflected, albeit tangentially, in his verse

And such doom each drees,
      Till, hunger-gnawn,
And cold-slain, he at length sinks there,
Yet scarce more a corpse than ere
       His last breath was drawn.

James Clarence Mangan died from cholera in 1849, as he himself predicted. A few days before he died he managed to drag himself from the cholera sheds in Kilmainham to Bride Street close by the site of his parents’ shop, the area in which he was educated and which he knew well from his childhood and through his life. He was found there by some friends and removed a short distance to the Meath Hospital, where within a few days he died. Knowing who his patient was, the surgeon ordered that he be supplied with pen and paper. Mangan was writing to the end. Unfortunately his final writings were burned by a nurse who acted in what she believed were the interests of hygiene.