A Notable Actor: John Henry (Jack) Johnstone

From The Illustrated Dublin Journal, Volume 1, Number 28, March 15, 1862

THE times are sadly changed in Ireland, as regards the drama and the enjoyments of its lovers, since the days when Jack Johnstone used to delight his thousands of hearers, in old "Crow street," with his melodious warblings of Irish melodies, and his never-to-be-equalled touches of Irish humour and merriment. It can never be questioned that he was the truest painter of Irish character that ever lived. There was no trait to be found throughout its extensive range, from the accomplished gentleman to the unlettered peasant, that he was not equally master of, and which he did not depict with equal spirit and vividness; and this always in such a way as to make us pleased with the picture of ourselves, and acknowledge its truth, while we laughed at its strange and often ludicrous peculiarities. There was nothing in Jack Johnstone's personation that Irishmen would ever feel ashamed of, or that they would not willingly allow to go forth to the world at large as faithful delineations of their eccentricities and faults, as well as of their drolleries and virtues; and hence, not only is the memory of this genuine Irish comedian honoured by those of the last generation, who were his co-temporaries, but his reputation as an actor has even descended with lustre to our own times.

John Henry Johnstone was born at Tipperary, in 1750, and was the son of a small but respectable farmer, having a large family. At the early age of eighteen lie enlisted into a regiment of Irish dragoons, then stationed at Clonmel, commanded by Colonel Brown. Being smitten with the charms of a neighbouring farmer's daughter, Johnstone used to scale the barrack-wall, after his comrades had retired to their quarters, for the purpose of serenading his mistress, having a remarkably sweet and flexible voice. He always returned, however, and was ready at parade the following morning. He was much esteemed throughout the regiment for a native lively turn of mind, and peculiarly companionable qualities. Two of his comrades (who had found out the secret of his nocturnal visitations) scaled the wall after him, and discovered him on his knee singing a plaintive Irish ditty beneath the window of his inamorata. They instantly returned to quarters, and were quickly followed by Johnstone. The sergeant of the company to which he belonged eventually became acquainted with the circumstance, but never apprised the colonel of the fact. Shortly after Colonel Brown had a party of particular friends dining with him, whom he was most anxious to entertain; he inquired what soldier throughout the regiment had the best voice, and the palm of merit was awarded by the sergeant-major to Johnstone. The colonel sent for him and he attended the summons, overwhelmed with apprehension that his absence from quarters had reached his commander's ears. He was soon relieved, however, on this point, and attended the party at the time appointed. The first song he sang was a hunting one, which obtained much applause, although he laboured under great trepidation. The colonel said that he had heard he excelled in Irish melodies, and bade Johnstone sing one of his favourite love songs. His embarrassment increased at this order; but, after taking some refreshment, he sang the identical ditty with which he had so often serenaded his mistress, in such a style of pathos, feeling, and taste as perfectly enraptured his auditors. Having completely regained his self-possession he delighted the company with several other songs, which all received unqualified approbation.

The next day Colonel Brown sent for him and sounded his inclination for the stage. Johnstone expressed his wishes favourably on the point, but hinted the extreme improbability of his success from want of experience and musical knowledge. The colonel overcame his objections, and granted Mm his discharge, with a highly recommendatory letter to his particular friend Mr. Ryder, then manager of the Dublin Theatre, who engaged Johnstone at two guineas a week for three years, which, after his first appearance in "Lionel," was immediately raised to four (a high salary at that time in Dublin). His fame as a vocalist gathered like a snow-ball, and he performed the whole range of young singing lovers with preeminent eclat.

Our hero next formed a matrimonial alliance with a Miss Poitier, daughter of Colonel Poitier, who had then the command of the military depot at Kilmainham Gaol. This lady, being highly accomplished, and possessing a profound knowledge of music, imparted to her husband the secrets of the science, and made him a finished singer.

Macklin, having the highest opinion of Johnstone's talent, advised him to try the metropolitan boards, and wrote a letter to Mr. Thomas Harris, of Covent Garden, who, on the arrival of Johnstone and his wife, immediately engaged them for three years, at a weekly salary of £14, £16, and £18. Johnstone made his first appearance in London on the 3rd October, 1783, in his old character of Lionel, and made a complete hit, fully sustaining the ten years' reputation he had acquired on the Dublin stage. After remaining several years at Covent Garden, and finding his voice not improving with time, he formed the admirable policy of taking to Irish parts, which were then but very inadequately filled. His success was beyond example; his native humour, rich brogue, and a fine voice for Irish ditties, carried all before him. In fact, he was the only actor who could personate with the utmost effect both the patrician and plebeian Irishman. He next performed at the Haymarket, being one of those who remonstrated with the proprietors of Covant Garden, in 1801, against their new regulations. In 1803, he visited his friends in Dublin, where martial law being then in force, the company performed in the day-time. On his return to London his wife died, and he afterwards married Miss Boulton, the daughter of a wine merchant, by whom he had Mrs. Wallack, who, with her children, succeeded to the bulk of his large property. In the records of the stage no actor ever approached Johnstone in Irish characters. Sir Lucius O'Trigger, Callaghan O'Brallaghan, Major O'Flaherty, Teague, Tally (the Irish gardener), and Dennis Bulgruddery, were portrayed by him in the most exquisite colours. In fact, they stood alone for felicity of nature and original merit.

Johnstone died in his house in Tavistock street, Covent Garden, on the 26th December, 1829, at the advanced age of seventy-eight years, and his remains were interred in a vault under the church of St. Paul, Covent Garden, near the eastern angle of the building. His will was proved in Doctors' Commons, and probate granted under £12,000 personal property. Rumour gave Johnstone the credit of being worth £40,000 or £50,000. He left a gold snuff-box and a ring to each of his executors, Mr. George Robins and Mr. O'Reilly; a ring to his friend Mr. Jobling, of the Adelphi; and a ring to Mr. Dunn, the treasurer of Drury lane; and, as the latter gentleman was a staunch disciple of Isaac Walton, Johnstone left him all his fishing-tackle. To a female servant, who nursed him during the last eight or ten years of his life, he bequeathed an annuity of £50 a-year. The remainder, with the exception of a legacy of £500, to Mrs Vining, was left to the children of his daughter, Mrs. Wallack.