James Clarence Mangan

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Mangan, James Clarence, a distinguished Irish poet, was born in Fishamble-street, Dublin, in the spring of the year 1803. Little is recorded concerning his parentage. Those who knew him in his later days had a vague sort of knowledge that he had a brother, sister, and mother still living, whose scanty subsistence depended partly on him. He received what scholastic training he ever had at a poor school in Derby-square, near his birthplace. For seven years he laboured as a copyist with a scrivener at a weekly salary, and afterwards passed two years in an attorney's office. "At what age he devoted himself to this drudgery, at what age he left it, or was discharged from it, does not appear... Those who knew him in after years can remember with what a shuddering and loathing horror he spoke, when at rare intervals he could be induced to speak at all, of his labours with the scrivener and the attorney. He was shy and sensitive, with exquisite sensibility and fine impulses... At this time he must have been a great devourer of books, and seems to have early devoted himself to the exploration of those treasures which lay locked up in foreign languages. Mangan had no education of a regular and approved sort; neither, in his multifarious reading had he, nor could brook, any guidance whatever."[232]

How he came by the brilliant acquirements he soon displayed is not recorded. How he made his unaided studies in the attorney's office, or at the top of a library ladder so effective, is difficult to understand. It is certain that he became a classical scholar, and that he was familiar with at least three modern languages — German, French, and Spanish — besides his own. During this obscure and unrecorded period of his life, he appears to have contracted an unhappy passion for a certain "Frances," whose name often appears in his poems.

About 1830 we find him contributing short poems, usually translations from the German, or renderings of literal translations from the Irish, to Dublin periodicals. He thus became acquainted with Dr. Anster, Dr. Petrie, and Dr. Todd, and through their influence was given employment suited to his tastes and acquirements, in the catalogue department of Trinity College Library. John Mitchel describes his appearance here: "It was an unearthly and ghostly figure in a brown garment; the same garment (to all appearance) which lasted till the day of his death. The blanched hair was totally unkempt; the corpse-like features still as marble; a large book was in his arms, and all his soul was in the book... Here Mangan laboured mechanically, and dreamed, roosting on a ladder, for certain months, perhaps years; carrying the proceeds in money to his mother's poor home, storing in his memory the proceeds which were not in money, but in another kind of ore, which might feed the imagination indeed, but was not available for board and lodging. All this time he was the bond-slave of opium." He found employment in the Ordnance Survey.

He also wrote for the Dublin Penny Journal, the Irish Penny Journal, and the University Magazine, and later for the Nation. When John Mitchel left the Nation, and started the Irishman, Mangan, who thoroughly sympathized with his revolutionary sentiments, confined his writings almost exclusively to its columns. Nothing could reclaim him from habits of intemperance. It has been well said, "There were two Mangans, one well known to the Muses, the other to the police... Sometimes he could not be found for weeks; and then he would reappear, like a ghost, or a ghoul, with a wildness in his blue, glittering eye, as of one who has seen spectres... Yet he was always humble, affectionate, almost prayerful. He was never of the Satanic school, never devoted mankind to the infernal gods, nor cursed the sun; but the cry of his spirit was ever, 'Miserable man that I am, who will deliver me from the wrath to come?'" Anster, Father Meehan, Petrie, and James Haughton retained generous friendship for him to the last. Early in June 1849 he was seized with cholera in a miserable lodging in Dublin, was taken to Mercer's Hospital for treatment, and there sank and died on the 20th of the same month, aged 46. He was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery. His poetry, instinct with tenderness, pathos, and force of imagery, is too little known. A memoir and an essay on the characteristics of his poetical genius are prefixed to the edition of his Poems published by John Mitchel (New York, 1859).

Of his distinctly Irish pieces, perhaps his "Dark Rosaleen," and "Lament for the Princes of Tyrone and Tirconnell" are the best known. In these and other translated Irish pieces he has so completely caught the feeling of the original that it is difficult to believe that his knowledge of Irish was very limited, and that he trusted to literal translations made for him by friends. His German Anthology contains perhaps the most widely-known of his translations. Mitchel says: "I have never yet met a cultivated Irish man or woman, of genuine Irish nature, who did not prize Clarence Mangan above all the poets that their island of song ever nursed."


232. Mangan, James Clarence, Memoir and Works: John Mitchel. New York, 1869.

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