National Tintings I: Gerald Griffin

IN selecting Gerald Griffin as the first subject in a series of tintings of Irishmen who, by their words or actions either in the senate or at the bar, or who with pen or pencil have reflected honour upon their country and themselves, we have been influenced in our choice from the belief that no national writer has excelled him in his delineation of Irish character, in his high descriptive power, in the vivacity and poetry of his dialogue, and lastly, in the beauty and purity of his style. His heroes and heroines are never vulgar, but he has never sacrificed truth to poetry in describing them. As has been well observed of him, his pathos is genuine pathos, and when he gives the people credit for virtue you can heartily believe him. His nationality implied genuine sympathy for his countrymen, a deep-seated respect and veneration for his native land--its history, its essential character, and its patriotic traditions. He had the noble courage to paint Ireland as she is; and the fidelity of the portrait, while it makes his fame as an artist, possesses in the eyes of the world that beauty and dignity which must always attach to the true and unaffected picture of a noble people. In his hands, the Irish dialect of the English language, and the peculiarities of Irish provincialism in accent, character, and mental traits, became, like those of Scotland in the hands of Scott and Burns, invested with a halo of poetry. This is one of the attributes of romantic fiction, which show us how much every historic nation--every nation which aspires to respect itself, and to love its own peculiarities--owes to its men of literary genius. Griffin never wrote a line which the most fastidious could desire to blot. Added to all this, he was most felicitous in his domestic relations--"blessing and being blessed." Seeking in the exercise of every virtue the true rewards of life, he was an example to his fellow literateurs. He lived a gentleman and he died a Christian.

There is little out of the way remarkable in the life of Gerald Griffin but its purity. His trials were not at all peculiar to him, being those of nearly all literary adventurers. He was born in the city of Limerick, on the 12th of December, 1803. From his memoir, compiled by his brother, it would appear that his family was of Irish origin, having been located from a very early period in the barony of Inchiquin, and the northern and western parts of the county of Clare.

The original of the name was O'Griobhtha, pronounced O'Greefa, and Anglicised, Griffy, Griffith, and Griffin. From time to time members of the family removed to the neighbouring counties of Kerry and Limerick, and settled there; of these, our author's grandfather, James Griffin, of Corgarriff, in the latter county, was one. His third son, Patrick, having dwelt for several years on the border of one of these beautiful lakes which abound in the county of Clare, removed to Limerick for the education of his children, and undertook the management of a brewery, in Brunswick-street. During the progress of a mansion which he was building in the vicinity of the brewery, he rented a house in that ancient part of the city called the King's Island, and here, within the old city wall, his ninth son, Gerald, first saw the light. All the incidents related of his early days tend to show his gentleness and susceptibility of spirit, as well as his vivid apprehension of the supernatural. However, with Gerald this latter feeling though strong was never paramount or irrational. His father was but little acquainted with the business of which he had undertaken the management, and being in consequence unsucces-ful, gave up the concerns in Brunswick-street, and retired again to the Island, although not to the same house he formerly occupied. Gerald's earliest school days commenced here, under Richard Mac Eligot, a character of some celebrity at that time in Limerick, who is represented as having been a man of singular ability and industry, although possessing a few pardonable idiosyncracies. An essay from his pen on the character and grammatical structure of the Irish language, was published in the first volume of the "Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Dublin," in 1806. At this age our author seems to have exhibited a great taste for drawing, and much of his time at school was spent in endeavouring to copy animal figures. In the year 1810, his father removed to a new residence, erected after a design of his own, to which the name of "Fairy Lawn" was given. It was situated on the Shannon, the beautiful scenery of which is the subject of Griffin's most charming word-pictures, about eight and twenty miles from Limerick.

"Nothing (writes his brother, speaking of this noble river) can be more glorious than the magnificent floor of silver it presents to the eye on a fine evening in summer, when the sun is setting, and the winds are at rest. The prospect from any elevated ground in such circumstances is quite enchanting. Indeed, there is no river in these countries that at all approaches it in magnitude. Viewed from the heights of Knock-Patrick on a clear day, when the tide is full, and from whence one can see the broad Fergus, one of its tributaries, dotted with islands, and the Shannon itself as far as the distant island of Scattery, with its round tower and ruined churches, that bright spot, where the stern saint sung his inhospitable melody--

"Oh, haste and leave this sacred isle,
Unholy bark," &c.;

and where its waters mingle with the Atlantic, it is precisely what the poet Spenser has described it--

"The spacious Shenan, spreading like a sea."

It is no marvel that Gerald was ever accustomed to regard these scenes of his boyhood with fondness, and that he should limn them with glowing pencil, as in the opening stanzas to one of his later poems, "Shanid Castle."

"On Shannon side, the day is closing fair,
The Kern sits musing by his shieling low,
And marks beyond the lonely hills of Clare,
Blue rimm'd with gold, the clouds of sunset glow.
Hush in that sun the wide-spread waters flow,
Returning warm the day's departing smile;
Along the sunny highland pacing slow,
The Keyriaght lingers with his herd the while,
And bells are tolling faint from far Saint Simon's isle!

Oh, loved shore! with softest memories twined,
Sweet fall the summer on thy margin fair!
And peace come whispering like a morning wind,
Dear thoughts of love, to every bosom there!
The horrid wreck, and driving storm forbear
Thy smiling strand--nor oft the accents swell
Along thy hills, of grief or heart-wrung care,
But heav'n look down upon each lowly dell,
And bless thee for the joys I yet remember well!"

Shortly after the arrival of Griffin's family at Fairy Lawn, a tutor was engaged to attend the younger members for some hours daily. He is stated to have been a man of great integrity, an excellent scholar, and a most accomplished penman. He was very partial to the writings of Shakspeare, Goldsmith, and Pope, some of the more striking sentiments in which always furnished the first lines of Gerald's copies. Hitherto the circumstances in which he was placed were not unfavourable for the acquirement of extensive or varied information, and his early devotion to literary pursuits was very remarkable, as evidenced from the fact that he was accustomed to eat his meals with a book before him, which he was diligently studying, while he had two or three under his arm, and a few more on the chair behind him! He made a blank book into which, during his hours of recreation, he carefully copied pieces of poetry, chiefly from the works of Thomas Moore.

"All this time (says his brother) he was very fond of birds, and made repeated attempts to rear them, but most unfortunate were those that came under his guardianship. They seemed ever fated to disappoint the care he bestowed on them. He once asked one of his elder sisters to feed one while he was away somewhere, which she never thought of doing until she saw him on his return within a few steps of the door. Her forgetfulness provoked a general laugh, and she had not time to compose her countenance again properly, when Gerald found her trying to revive the drooping little victim, but too late. He said afterwards, complaining gently of it to one of the family, ' Ellen speaks to me sometimes about cruelty to animals, but I actually saw her laughing and my bird gasping.' `I observed,' says one of his sisters, 'the cat flit by him once or twice with an appearance of fear, and said, 'How have you managed, Gerald, to make the cat so much afraid of you?' 'Oh, not of me particularly, perhaps,' said he, 'but she generally feels a little timid after having killed a bird.'"

His principal amusements were fishing and shooting, although he never appears to have attained to much skill in either pursuit. A cousin of his, who generally accompanied him on these sporting excursions, has told a characteristic anecdote of him. Gerald, one day, when out shooting, had just presented his gun at a little bird perched on the top branch of a tree, and was about to fire, when suddenly the bird began to sing. Gerald instantly lowered the weapon, fell into a listening attitude, and seemed to greedily drink in the melody of the little songster. When it was over, however, the temptation to a sitting shot became irresistible, he resumed his first intention, and the tiny warbler fell. Gerald used to abjure all remembrance of this circumstance, but his friend, who, it is only fair to remark, was considered a great quiz, as strongly asserted its truth.

In 1814, in the eleventh year of his age, Griffin was sent to Limerick, and placed at the academy of a Mr. O'Brien, one of the first classical teachers in that city. Afterwards, however, a school having been opened in the village of Loughill, near Fairy Lawn, he was removed from Limerick to it, two of his brothers being already placed in it. That he was fully alive to the drollery of the contrast between the methods of instruction pursued at the city and the village academies, is shown by his admirable sketch of a country school in the "Rivals." In the year 1817, Griffin's eldest brother, who had been several years in the army, during which time he had been stationed in Canada, came to reside with his family at Fairy Lawn. Appreciating the advantages that Canada at this period afforded to settlers, and perceiving the difficulties the family had to contend with at home, he urged them to emigrate. They were not at first disposed to listen to this proposal, but at length, the elder brother's solicitations continuing, they seriously regarded the matter, and finally determining on it, sailed for Canada in 1820. The severity of the Canadian winters, however, ultimately compelled them to settle farther south, and they accordingly removed to the United States, to the county of Susquehanna, in Pennsylvania. Some of the family remained in Ireland, and amongst them was Gerald. The separation from his parents was the first misfortune that touched his sensitive spirit; "he felt it," writes his brother, "with all the heaviness of a deep affliction." At this period there was an idea of bringing him up to the medical profession, and he had made some slight progress in his studies, under his brother's instruction, until the passion for literature which had been gradually growing upon him, developed itself so strongly, that all idea of that profession was entirely up. He at this time resided at Adare, within ten miles of Limerick, which city he frequently visited to consult such works as his tastes inclined him to, and to enjoy the society of persons whose pursuits were congenial to his own. Amongst the latter was Banim, just then commencing his literary career. In dramatic poetry Griffin took an intense interest, and although there is no evidence to show that he had completed any regular piece at this period, he used to write, and, with the assistance of some of his cousins, to enact scenes. On one occasion, when it was necessary to poison one of the characters, he compelled a niece of his, who played the heroine, to drink off a glass of quassia, in order to give a natural effect to the facial contortions that were to indicate death! Griffin's talent for writing soon began to be appreciated in his native city, and he found frequent but very unremunerative opportunities of gratifying his cacoethes scribendi. In a letter addressed to his mother in America, about this period, he confesses that although he derived little pecuniary advantage from his connection with the Limerick press, he was not sorry tor the time he spent on it, nor did he consider it lost.

"By constantly attending the court (he wrote), I acquired a considerable facility in reporting, which is a very useful attainment in any situation almost, and the short time which I had spent to prepare an original article, obliged me to write with quickness and without much study."

But the unsatisfactory nature of his engagements on the press necessitated his more assiduous attention to literature, and it was about this time he began to seriously regard it as a profession. Upon a certain occasion his brother observed that he was more than usually intent on his literary avocations, but could form no idea of the reason until Gerald called him into his room one morning, and submitted for his perusal a tragedy called "Aguire," founded upon some ancient Spanish romance. On reading it Dr. Griffin was perfectly astonished at the many passages of exquisite poetical beauty which it contained, as well as the admirable dramatic effect of the incidents. This opinion, which was also ratified by Banim, was heightened from the consideration of the fact that it was the production of an author only in his eighteenth year. For maturity of thought and chasteness of expression some of the minor poems which Griffin produced in his teens, are not unworthy of comparison with any of his latest and most brilliant efforts. The following, written in his seventeenth year, in 1820, may be taken as an example:

"I looked upon a dark and sullen sea,
Over whose slumbering waves the night-mists hung,
Till from the morn's gray breast a fresh wind sprang,
And swept its brightening boson joyously;
Then fled the mists its quickening breath before!
The glad sea rose to meet it--and each wave
Retiring from the sweet caress it gave,
Made summer music to the listening shore.
So slept my soul, unmindful of Thy reign:
But the sweet breath of Thy celestial grace,
Hath risen--oh, let its quickening spirit chase
From that dark seat, each mist and secret stain,
Till, as in yon clear water mirror'd fair,
Heaven sees its own calm hues reflected there!"

It was in the autumn of 1823, ere he had completed his twentieth year, that Griffin first arrived in London, and commenced his literary struggles. He called upon Kemble and Young in the hope of getting his tragedy of "Aguire" placed on the boards, but does not appear to have had much opinion of the taste of a London audience.

"You may judge what it is, (he says in a letter to his brother,) when I tell you that 'Venice Preserved' will scarcely draw a decent house; while such a piece of unmeaning absurdity as the `Cataract of the Ganges' has filled Drury Lane every night those three weeks past. The scenery and decorations, field of battle, burning forest, and cataract of real water, afforded a succession of splendour I had no conception of, but I was heartily tired of the eternal galloping, burning, marching and counter-marching, and the dull speechifying with which it abounded. A lady on horseback, riding up a cataract, is rather a bold stroke, but these things are quite the rage now. They are hissed by the gods, but that is a trifle so long as they fill the house and the manager's pockets."

The idea of Griffin's play of "Gisippus" appears to have been conceived before he left Ireland, but he made no progress with it until after his arrival in London. He forwarded a passage from it to his brother for his opinion, and likewise showed it to Banim, who, Griffin says, thought the story a beautiful one for the stage, and prophesied he would one day hold a very high position as a dramatist. Of the "opinions of the press," Gerald seems to have entertained but a meagre regard. "Never waste a thought on those newspaper squibs," said he in a letter to his brother, "they are mere puffing trash!" He considered the character of "Gisippus" well adapted to Mr. Young or Mr. Macready, the former in particular. The latter's impersonation of the role, which is one that severely tests the abilities of an actor, was most masterly, and since his retirement from the stage it has found but a solitary efficient representative--Mr. T. C. King, who occasionally delights the denizens of the Irish metropolis by his graceful and finished conception and execution of the character.

"You'd laugh (says Griffin, in a letter to his mother, speaking of this piece,) if you saw how it was got through. I wrote it all in coffee houses, and on little slips of paper, from which I afterwards copied it out."

After herculean exertions--amongst which we must not forget those of his true and disinterested friend, Banim--the play of "Gisippus" was produced for the first time at Drury Lane, in the year 1842, two years after the author's death. Macready sustained the principal character, and the piece met with an enthusiastic reception from the press and the public.

During this time he was contributing to several weekly publications, all of which, he says, except the Literary Gazette, "cheated him abominably." He, in consequence, turned his thoughts to the more pretentious magazines, but if his articles were inserted, when he called for payment "there was so much shuffling and shabby work," that it disgusted him, and he gave it up.

"You have no idea (he remarks in one of his letters,) what a heartbreaking life that of a young scribbler beating about, and endeavouring to make his way in London is: going into a bookseller's shop, as I have often done, and being obliged to praise up my own manuscript, to induce him to look at it at all--for there is so much competition, that a person without a name will not even get a trial--while he puts on his spectacles, and answers all your self-commendation with a "hum--um;"--a set of hardened villains! and yet at no time whatever could I have been prevailed upon to quit London altogether. That horrid word failure,--No!--death first!"

Poor Gerald! Most manfully and honourably did he fight the battle of life. The letters written to the various members of his family at this time exhibit a fearful picture of the struggles which he waged in efforts to obtain employment, even as a literary hack, of the distressing influences by which his mind was for a time depressed, of the high sensibility of that mind, and of his unfaltering devotion to achieve success, which no obstacles could discourage. We next find him "in the gallery" of the House of Commons as a reporter, and it was about this time he commenced to turn his attention to novels, tales, and other prose works, the first book which established his reputation as a powerful and original writer being the volume published under the name of "Holland-tide," the copyright of which was purchased by Messrs. Simpkin and Marshall for £70. In September, 1826, his brother, Dr Griffin, saw him in London for the first time after his departure from Adare, and was painfully struck by the change which the wear and tear of a literary life had made in his appearance. "All colour (he writes) had left his cheek, he had grown very thin, and there was a sedate expression of countenance unusual in one so young, and which, in after years, became habitual to him. It was far from being so, however, at the time I speak of, and readily gave place to that light and lively glance of his dark eye, that cheerfulness of manner and observant humour, which from his infancy had enlivened our fireside circle at home. Although so pale and thin as I have described him, his tall figure, expressive features, and profussion of dark hair, thrown back from a fine forehead, gave an impression of a person remarkably handsome and interesting." 

He was subject to most distressing palpitations of the heart, as well as severe rheumatic attacks, which he would endeavour to mitigate by flinging himself out of bed, and commencing to sing some such popular song as "Old King Cole." The health of one of his sisters had been declining for a considerable time, and Griffin left the English metropolis for Limerick, which he reached early in February, 1827, on purpose to see her. However, almost at the moment of their re-union, her death occurred with a painful suddenness, and the shock to Gerald, in his own debilitated state of health, was dreadful. The first series of the "Tales of the Munster Festivals," consisting of three volumes, containing the "Half Sir," "Card Drawing," and "Suil Dhuv, the Coiner"--all written in the short space of four months--appeared in August, 1827, in which month Griffin returned to London to make arrangements for their publication. Of these stories "Suil Dhuv'' is far the finest, although it contains some very striking anomalies in composition. The portrait of Lilly Byrne in it proves Griffin's taste in female beauty to have been exquisitely refined. This work was followed by the "Collegians," a production on which our author's fame is mainly based. Having made arrangements with his publishers, the tale, so far as it had gone, was sent to the printers, and he set to work vigorously to complete it. So limited to time, however, was he, that the printers overtook him about the middle of the third volume, and from this time forward it was a constant race between him and them. Incredible as the fact may appear, some of the finest scenes in it were poured forth with the greatest rapidity. Every morning, almost, a knock came to his door, and a messenger was shown in, with the stereotyped saying, "Printers want more copy, sir," the MS. of the previous day was handed forth, without the slightest revision, and he went to work to produce a further supply. Griffin was full of enthusiasm during the progress of the story. "What a great deal I would give," he observed to his brother one evening, with kindling eyes, "to see Edmund Kean in that scene of Hardress Cregan at the party, just before his arrest, where he is endeavouring to do politeness to the ladies, while the horrid warning voice is in his ear. The very movements of Kean's countenance in such a scene as that, would make one's nerves creep; every motion and attitude of his, his ghastly efforts at complaisance, and his subdued sense of impending ruin, would all be sufficient to keep an audience in a thrill of horror, and, without almost a word spoken, would indicate the whole agony of his mind." "As the story drew to a close," writes his brother, he said `I am exceeding puzzled to think what I shall do with Hardress Cregan. If I hang him, the public will never forgive me; `and yet,' he added, playfully, in the Irish phrase, 'he deserves hanging as richly as any young gentleman from this to himself.'" How he compromised the matter the readers of the tale are aware. It has been frequently dramatised of late, and it is a matter of gratification that one of the most attractive and effective stage adaptations of it is the production of a young and rising Irish author, Mr. G. B. O'Halloran. It placed Griffin in the first rank of national novelists. But although its success was unequivocal, he saw too much of the fickleness of public taste to feel any security in literature as a profession. "I should like, if possible," he said, "to commence the study of some profession that might at one time or another render me independent of this scribbling. The uncertainty of the life it has been my misfortune to adopt is horrible." With this feeling he entered as a law student at the London University, just then opened. Upon the completion of the "Collegians," Griffin turned his attention to the study of ancient Irish history, in the belief that there were many peculiarities in the usages of early times which would form a good groundwork for a story. The result of his researches in this respect was the novel of the "Invasion," a very beautiful one, and the only Irish historical tale of the class ever attempted. A cheap edition has recently been issued from the Dublin press. It was preceded by a second series of the "Munster Festivals." Early in 1829 Griffin came to Dublin, where he was introduced to the late Sir Philip Crampton, the Surgeon-General, who was very partial to literature, and whose kindness he appears to have thoroughly appreciated. He afterwards visited his relations and friends at Pallas Kenry, returning to London towards the close of the year. It was in the year 1830 that that tendency to religious habits of thought first began to gradually come over Griffin's mind, which, by degrees, took away his relish for literary pursuits, and ended in his embracing a monastic life. In this year he published that very beautiful little work "The Christian Physiologist; or, Tales of the Five Senses." In the November of 1832, he paid a visit to Tom Moore, at Sloperton Cottage, who received him, we need scarcely say, with a genuine Irish welcome. Between this period and the year 1835, Griffin's works were the "Rivals; or, Tracy's Ambition," in which his description of an Irish waterfall is among the most charming of his word-paintings; the "Duke of Monmouth," and "Tales of my Neighbourhood." The last appeared in 1835, and contains, amongst other admirable pieces, a story of intense interest, the "Barber of Bantry." 

In 1838 he made a trip to the Scottish lakes, with the beauty and sublimity of which he was much struck. He also visited in succession Glasgow, Falkirk, Linlithgow, and Edinburgh. From Glasgow he sailed for Dublin, "Never do I remember," he says, in a diary which he kept during this trip, "a more lively day and night than we had on our voyage home; the sea was like glass; the view of the Arran Isles, of Benghoil, of Ailsa Crag, of the shipping, scattered far and wide over the sunny deep, of the numerous sea-fowl, gulls, and divers, by which the surface of the water was animated, gave an interest to our voyage which I shall not easily forget." It was after his return home that he finally resolved to pursue a life of religious retirement. Prior to carrying his purpose into effect, he devoted all his MSS. to the flames. Amongst these was a portion of "Matt Hyland," an exquisitely sweet ballad, in which was introduced the beautiful little song of "Aileen a Roon." From the moment he fairly entered on his new mode of life, he is said to have manifested the greatest disinclination to take a pen in his hand, and to be perfectly indifferent to literary reputation. In 1839 he took up his residence in the monastery of the Christian Brothers, in Cork, where he devoted himself with undeviating energy and unbroken content to the discharge of the duties connected with his new sphere of life. In April, 1840, his fatal illness commenced in a sharp feverish attack, resembling those he had been subject to occasionally at home. He never perfectly recovered from this illness, which terminated in typhoid fever. From the first the attendant physicians did not disguise their opinions as to the result. For those who remained by his bedside--including his brother--it was most distressing to witness his sufferings, as his increasing debility rendered him less able to cope with the malignant disease. On Friday, the 12th of June, 1840, he was mercifully released from his suffering, and his place knew him no more. Three days afterwards his remains were interred in the little cemetery of the monastery, where a simple headstone and inscription, merely recording the name he had adopted in religion, and the date of his death, indicates the spot.

If Gerald Griffin just fell short of being the Irish Walter Scott, it was mainly owing to his drawing too early and too heavily on his genius. Adventuring himself in the great world of London at the age of nineteen, with a MS. tragedy for his capital and genius for his reliance, he filled the interval between his first tale and first play with incessant labour on magazines and literary newspapers. If as time progressed he gained in point of facility he lost in point of concentration, and this want of unity forms a characteristic feature in his more ambitious works. "Some passages in the 'Collegians' and the 'Invasion,'" observes one of his critics, "can hardly be surpassed in simple beauty; and where the style does not attain to absolute beauty, or even falls short of absolute correctness, it is never disfigured by fustian; it is always simple and of a crystalline clearness. The directness and simplicity of his narrative is one of the traits in which he most resembles Scott. There is a quiet consciousness of power in his unpretending manner of telling a story, which at once lifts Gerald Griffin above the crowd of novel-writers to the dignity of a classic." The "Complete Works" of Griffin, with his life, written, as we have already said, by his brother, form some ten volumes.* We have scarcely alluded to Griffin as a poet. Several of his best songs possess that universal popularity which is the best test of excellence. Such is--

"A place in thy memory, dearest."

As a song writer he belongs to the school of which Moore is the best representative. Few have known so well how to interweave Irish words in English songs, with a pathetic effect, as in--

"The mie-na-mallah now is past,
O wirra-sthru! O wirra-sthru!
And I must leave my home at last,
O wirra-sthru! O wirra-sthru!
I look into my father's eyes,
I hear my mother's parting sighs,--
Ah! fool to pine for other ties--
O wirra-sthru! O wirra sthru!"

"My Mary of the curling hair," to the air of "Shule a-gra," is one of the sweetest love-songs poet ever penned, the Irish words being mingled in very musically and effectively. Those things are especially suited to music, like the well known "Aileen a Roon," and "I love my love in the morning." Every young lady who has a voice and a piano has played and sung the songs of Gerald Griffin at some time or other, but little do they think as they sing them, that the author at thirty-eight bid the muses farewell, and ended his unblemished life in a monastery.

* Dublin: JAMES DUFFY.