National Tintings III: John Banim

From The Illustrated Dublin Journal, Volume 1, Number 12, November 23, 1861

THE subject of our present tinting was born in the city of Kilkenny, on the third day of April, 1798. His father was a trader in all the necessaries required for the outfits of sportsmen and anglers, in addition to being a farmer.

Banim's only characteristic as a child is described as having been a kind, loving disposition, which endeared him to all the household. In his fourth year he was sent to a school kept by a Mrs. Alice Moore, where, however, he did not long continue a scholar, for, after an hour's tuition, he rushed home, and told his mother that he could not continue at a school where "there wasn't a bit of paper on the walls, or a step of stairs in the house," Mrs. Banim, who appears to have much petted her son, regarded his outburst as "but the childish indication of an aspiring mind," and did not enforce his return. After this Banim was sent to a seminary kept by a Miss Lamb, where he remained until he could, as she was accustomed afterwards to boast, "turn the primer." In his fifth year he was removed to a school at that period well known in Kilkenny and its vicinity as the "English Academy," the master of which, a Mr. George Charles Buchanan, appears to have been somewhat of an oddity. He professed to teach all subjects, commencing with what he termed "oratorical reading," and ending with the modern languages. He is thus graphically sketched by "The O'Hara Family," in the novel entitled "Father Connell":--"His countenance was long, and of a soiled, sallow colour; and the puckering of his brows and eyelids awful; and the unblinking steadiness of his bluish-grey eyes insufferable; and the cold-blooded resoluteness of his marble lips unrelaxable. . . . He was tall, and had remarkably well-turned limbs; and he had the gift to know it; for in order not to hide a point of the beauty of those from the world, he always arrayed them in very tight-fitting pantaloons, which reached down to his ancles. His coat and waistcoat were invariably black. A very small white muslin cravat, and a frill sticking out quite straight from his breast, occupied the space from his chin to his waist. And James Charles Buchmahon's hat was of cream-colour beaver, high-crowned and broad-brimmed; and he ever carried either a formidable walking-stick of stout oak, or else a substitute for it, made of five or six peeled switches, cunningly twisted together, and at one end loaded with lead." From this establishment, after an attendance of five years, Banim was removed to a seminary kept by the Rev. Mr. M'Grath, a Catholic clergyman, where he continued for about twelve months, and was then transferred to the care of a well-known teacher named Terence Doyle. "Although not a very idle boy,'' writes his biographer, Mr. Patrick Joseph Murray, to whose work we are indebted for many of the facts introduced in our sketch, "Banim loved to study in his own way, and at his own time, and his chiefest pleasure was to steal away from school, and, lying under a hedge, or beneath the shelter of a hay-cock, to pore over some prized volume of romance or fairy fable. Hans Andersen, in all his dreamy youth, never longed to hear the lore of fairy-land more earnestly than did little John Banim, and his ready memory enabled him to retain the subject of each narrative of wonder." Moore is said to have

"Lisped in numbers as the numbers came,"

and John Banim appears to have been an equally precocious genius in another way. In his sixth year, after the earnest perusal of a fairy fiction of more than ordinary interest, he determined to compose an original story. He was not sufficiently tall to write conveniently at a table, even when seated, so he was accustomed to place the paper upon his bed-room floor, and lie down beside it! During three months he devoted nearly all his hours of play to the prosecution of his task, the writing of which, when he had completed it, was so execrable, that he only was able to decipher it. By the assistance of his elder brother, Michael, and of a school-fellow, however, he got it transcribed, and it is really amusing to read of the many futile attempts he made to have it published. No printer in Kilkenny would undertake its issue, but his disappointment at this result by no means damped his literary efforts. He wrote a romance which extended over two thick manuscript volumes, in his tenth year, and about the same period composed several poems, one of which, entitled 'Hibernia,' exceeded a thousand lines in length.

The private theatre at Kilkenny was open at this time, one of the chief performers being Thomas Moore, then in the first glory of success. On one occasion Banim was admitted to witness the performances, and was so much impressed with Moore's recitation of his `Melologue on National Music,' that on the following morning he could repeat the entire with almost perfect accuracy. He went so far as to introduce himself to Moore as a brother poet, to the great amusement of the latter, who received his odd little visiter kindly, and inquired whether there was anything he could do to oblige "his brother-poet?" Banim replied that there was nothing in the world he should like so much as a season ticket to the theatre, a desire which was immediately complied with by the good-natured poet. "And how the boy's soul would have swelled," says his biographer, "could he then have known that but twenty-two years later his own fame would be so fully acknowledged, that this same great poet, whom he was now so anxious to please, would, when in Kilkenny, call upon old Michael Banim, and, finding that he was from home, write, on a card, and leave for the old man, these words--'Mr. Thomas Moore called to pay his respects to the father of the author of `The O'Hara Family!'"

Banim frequently devoted his hours of recreation to mechanical inventions. Amongst others he formed a complicated machine which he designed to realise the idea of perpetual motion. He also endeavoured, but of course unavailingly, to fabricate a pair of wings, by means of which he could enter upon aerial voyages of discovery, as well as constructing sky-rockets which were intended to mount to an extraordinary altitude. They only blazed along the ground, however, burning the pyrotechnist, and almost destroying the house. After a stay of about twelve months at Terence Doyle's academy, he was removed, in his thirteenth year, to Kilkenny College, which, as he himself remarks in "The Fetches," was the most famous as well as the most ancient preparatory school in Ireland. The master, at the time of his entrance, was the Rev. Andrew O'Callaghan, a man of great learning and ability. Whilst here Banim evinced a very remarkable talent for drawing and painting, and having selected the profession of an artist as that which he would desire to follow, he was removed from the college, in the year 1813, and sent to Dublin, where he became a pupil in the drawing academy of the Royal Dublin Society. He continued here during the two succeeding years, and is described as having been a regular and industrious student. Nothing, however, could overcome his love of literature, and whilst residing in Dublin, he first saw himself in print. The piece was a metrical criticism on an exhibition of Irish artists, and was entitled, "A Dialogue in the Exhibition Room."

At the expiration of the two years he returned, at the age of eighteen, to Kilkenny, where he intended to commence life as an artist and a teacher of drawing. He is described as being at this time of very prepossessing appearance. He was the admirer of every pretty girl in Kilkenny, and between rhyming, painting, flirting, and book-lending, his entire time was fully occupied. At one of the schools which he attended, as a teacher of drawing, was a young girl of seventeen, named Anne D----, a boarder in the establishment. A mutual passion sprung up in their breasts, but they carefully concealed it from all. He used to tell his brother Michael that his mornings were devoted to sketching excursions, but these early morning hours were the trysting times when he and Anne D---- strolled along the quiet banks of the Nore, or rambled through the fields, accompanied by an under governess, who aided the lovers, and devised means by which their meetings might escape detection. Banim's brother at length discovered the secret of his matitutinal walks, and was made his confidant in the confession: "I love Anne D---- as boy never loved girl before." The following little piece, written at this period, is not to be accepted as a proof of his poetical abilities, but as an evidence of the sincerity of his affection:

"My Anna is tall, and my Anna is fair,
Dark brown is her eye, and jet black is her hair;
She is straight as the poplar that springs in the dale,
Her eye-beam is such as the glories that sail
Over the bosom of midsummer heaven,
When angels disport in the sunbeam of even.
The bright rose of summer, indeed, does not streak
With full ruddy blush the warm snow of her cheek;
For Love thought it pity to scatter or spread
With ill-judging craft all his treasures of red,
But gave it to glow in a spot so divine
That the essence of all in a kiss might be mine!"

Banim's nature was exceedingly impetuous, and at the end of a year since he had first seen and loved Anne D----, he resolved to wait upon her father--who resided in a neighbouring county--and demand her hand. His request was replied to with sneers and insulting expressions, which Banim retorted, the scene being terminated by the old man ordering him to instantly quit the house. He returned home dispirited and heart-sick; the doors of the school in which Anne resided were closed against him, and all communication was banned between them. But who or what can oppose the power of love? "Those," says Mr. Murray, "who watched Anne and her fellow-pupils as, on Sunday evenings, they left church, might have observed a figure, clothed as a countrywoman, in a long grey cloak and full deep hood, stealing close to Anne's side; this was Banim disguised; and it was on these occasions that he contrived to press his mistress's hand, while he placed within it a poem, or a letter, telling her to love and hope." At length, when Anne's father discovered the depth and reality of her love for the young artist, he arranged that she should be secretly removed from the school, and placed in the house of one of her mother's family. Banim by some means discovered the day and hour of her departure, and as the chaise bearing her away passed his father's door, he rushed, bareheaded, before the vehicle, from the window of which Anne leaned, pale, terrified, and sobbing bitterly. The lovers' eyes met but for a moment, the carriage rolled rapidly away, and John Banim never more--in life--saw Anne D----. The sequel of the story is very affecting. When he re-entered the house a small parcel was placed in his hand, which he found to contain a miniature of himself that he had painted for Anne, and which she had long worn concealed in her bosom. In addition to this were the verses and letters which he had addressed to her, but not a line of explanation as to whether their return was of her own accord, or upon compulsion. "He paused," writes his biographer, "a moment, looking upon the miniature, and then, dashing it to the ground, crushed it to atoms beneath his feet; tore the letters and verses into fragments; and, as he scattered them away, as the memory of all his hopes and joys came back upon him when he thought of their vows and promises, he cried--bitterly and fiercely--"Curse her! curse her! to abandon me and break my heart!" But Banim, in his bitterness of spirit, erred. Anne never proved faithless; the communications which he endeavoured to forward her were intercepted. Consumption--that silent but insidious fiend--seized her, and in two months after her removal from the school in Kilkenny, Anne D---- was dead. We will pass over Banim's wet, dreary pilgrimage on foot (for his circumstances were too indigent to permit of his engaging a conveyance,) to gaze upon her remains ere they were consigned to their mother earth; how one of Anne's half-sisters recognised him by the coffin, broke out into violent invectives against him, designating him as the murderer of her sister, and demanded his expulsion from the room; how he followed the remains to the churchyard, and when the sad ceremonial was over, and all had departed, madly flung himself upon the damp green mound that marked the grave of his first love; and, how during the twelve months succeeding that day, his system was so shaken that the stamina of life may be truly said to have broken down, leaving him, at twenty years of age, a victim to spinal disease, which but a few years later reduced him to a crippled body.

With a partial return of health, Banim recovered his courage and love of literature. He painted a few portraits, and became the editor of a local newspaper, the Leinster Gazette. Debts and difficulties, however, gathered around him, and formed an insuperable obstacle to the peaceful pursuit of any profession. He at length resolved to leave Kilkenny, and try his fortune in Dublin. Accordingly, early in the year 1820, he left his father's house for the metropolis, and from this period may be dated his literary career. But his life in Dublin was a hard and disheartening struggle with disappointments. He published a couple of volumes of poetry, which are now all but unknown, and it was not until the production of his tragedy of "Damon and Pythias," at Covent Garden Theatre, on the 28th of May, 1821, that his prospects began to brighten. This play--the principal characters in which were supported by Macready and Charles Kemble--was a great success, in fact, as he remarked in a letter to his father, "a trump had turned up to him;" it is now entirely neglected on the London boards, but is occasionally performed in Dublin. In February, 1822, being then in his twenty-fourth year, Banim married a daughter of John Ruth, of Cappagh, an old friend of his father, and in less than one month after that event, the young couple set out for London, to seek their fortune. His first residence there was at No. 7, Amelia-place, Brompton, the house in which Philpot Curran died in 1817. He says that he "took the rooms at once, that he might dream of Ireland, with the glory and halo of Curran's memory around him."

The difficulties which he encountered here in his struggles for wealth and fame are graphically related in his letters home. In 1823, poor Gerald Griffin arrived in London, and was received by Banim with great kindness. "What would I have done," wrote Griffin, "if I had not found Banim? I should never be tired of talking about and thinking of Banim. Mark me! he is a man--the only one I have met since I have left Ireland, almost." Meanwhile Banim was pushing his own way in the world; he contributed many operatic pieces to the English Opera House, and became the chief adviser of its proprietor, Mr. Thomas Arnold, to whose liberality and steady friendship he bears honourable testimony. Towards the close of the year 1823, he submitted the first portion of the manuscript of that powerful story, "Crohoore of the Bill Hook," to his brother Michael, for his opinion, the latter in return forwarding portions of his works to him. Each brother thus acted as critic to the other, and hence arose the nom-de-plume, "Tales by the O'Hara Family," John taking the name of Abel O'Hara, Michael assuming that of Barnes O'Hara.

In 1824, Banim published a volume of essays under the quaint title of "Revelations of the Dead Alive" the revelations being clever hits at the English follies, fashions, and manners of the year 1823. In 1825, the first series of the "Tales by the O'Hara Family" were completed, and published in the April of that year, at once acquiring popularity. They were followed, early in 1826, by "The Boyne Water," which got rather a rough reception from the critics; their censures, however, were directed rather against its politics than its literary merit. Colburn, who had published the "Tales by the O'Hara Family," offered a very large sum for a new story, and John Banim immediately commenced writing his novel, "The Nowlans." This work, together with "Peter of the Castle," forms the second series of the "O'Hara Tales," and was published in November, 1826. The success of "The Nowlans" was most satisfactory. Although the author's health was now in a very dangerous condition, from a recurrence of the old malady from which he had suffered after the death of Anne D----, he still wrote on.

In 1827, he completed his tragedy of "Sylla," which, however, was not offered for representation until the spring of 1837, when it was performed at the Theatre Royal, Hawkins-street, Dublin. To his own sufferings at this period was added the weak and uncertain health of his wife, Ellen. In the autumn of 1828, Banim commenced writing a new series of "The Tales by the O'Hara Family," the title adopted by him for the work being "The Denounced." It was written amid great pain, and the dread of still greater suffering. In change of air and scene lay his only hope of restoration, and he removed to France. While sojourning at Boulogne, in June, 1830 his mother died, and the announcement of her decease came with a crushing effect upon the already-weakened energies of our poor author. "The Ghost Hunter and his Family" was published in 1833, in the "Library of Romance," edited by Leitch Ritchie. Banim's malady soon proved beyond the skill of any physician, and his affairs became so embarrassed that public meetings took place, and subscriptions were entered into in England and France, as well as in his own country, to relieve his necessities.

In 1835 he returned to London, but quitted it--for ever--in the July of that year, for Dublin. His brother Michael hastened up to see him, and has given us a most affecting description of the condition in which he found him; laid listlessly on a sofa, his useless limbs at full length, his sunken cheek resting on his pillow--a meagre, attenuated, almost white-headed old man. As a graceful means of increasing his resources, a performance was given for his benefit at the Theatre Royal, under the immediate patronage of the Earl of Mulgrave, then Lord Lieutenant. The performance took place on July 21st, and the house was densely crowded. In the following September he returned home to Kilkenny, and was warmly and kindly received by his fellow-townsmen, who presented him, through the late Dr. Cane, with a handsome silver snuff-box, and a purse of £85. Before he had been a year residing at home, the welcome news arrived that the Queen had conferred a pension on him of £150 per annum, for the bestowal of which he acknowledged he was principally indebted to the Earl of Carlisle, the present Viceroy of Ireland, then Lord Morpeth, who visited him at his residence more than once. His little daughter attracted his lordship's atten-tion, and on her behoof a further pension of £40 was granted. This girl died of consumption in 1844, in her eighteenth year. When the "Irish Penny Journal" was commenced in 1840 by Messrs. Gunn and Cameron, an offer was made to Banim to become a contributor to its pages, but no final arrangement was ever made respecting the proposal, resulting from an unpleasant correspondence, to which we need not here more particularly allude. "Father Connell" was the last joint work by the "O'Hara Family," from the period of the publication of which our author's health began more perceptibly than ever to fade away.

We will not linger over the painful closing scenes of John Banim's career. It is sufficient to say that life passed from him almost unper-ceived, in July, 1842, in the forty-fourth year of his age. Frequently during the last six years of his life he had engaged his brother's promise that he would stand by while his grave was digging, and that he would see the side of his mother's coffin laid bare, and that when his body was lowered to its last resting-place, he should be certain the side of his coffin was in close contact with that of his beloved parent. His wishes, we need scarcely say, were religiously observed. His bust, in marble, executed by Hogan, was placed in the Tholsel of Kilkenny in the year 1854.

After his decease an application was made to government to re-grant to his widow the pension which Lord Morpeth had given to his daughter. Through the active and kindly interposition of Sir Robert Peel, she at once received £50 from the Royal bounty, and a guarantee--which was strictly fulfilled--of £40 on the first vacancy. Of the committee who took up Mrs. Banim's case, and carried it to this fortunate issue, may be mentioned the names of Daniel O'Connell, Dr. (now Sir Robert) Kane, Thomas Davis, William Carleton, John Austin, Charles Lever, Torrens McCullagh, Samuel Ferguson, and Thomas McNevin. Banim's brother Michael still survives, and fills the office of Postmaster of Kilkenny. Exertions are, we believe, being made to obtain for him the pension of which his sister-in-law (who died within the past two years) had been the recipient. The bestowal of it would be a graceful and well-merited recognition of his own services to literature--to say nothing of his brother's--and we heartily wish the movement success.