FolkWorld Article by William Richard Le Fanu (compiled by Walkin' T:-)M)

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: The Ghostly Balladeer

Excerpts from W.R. Le Fanu's `Seventy Years of Irish Life' (1893)

The Irish journalist and novelist Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-73) is today best remembered as the `father of the Victorian Irish ghost story.' He belonged to an old Huguenot family expelled from Caen, and was related to playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) and Jonathan Swift's bosom friend Thomas Sheridan (1687-1738). Le Fanu was one of the most popular writers of Victorian times. His vampire story `Carmilla' influenced fellow-Dubliner Bram Stoker's `Dracula' and has been filmed several times. It is less known that Le Fanu also was a gifted poet and balladeer whose ditties have been long forgotten since, but had made it into the singers' repertoire of its day. Joseph's younger brother William Richard Le Fanu can tell a thing or two.

I was born on the 24th of February, 1816, at the Royal Hibernian Military School in the Phoenix Park, Dublin; my father being then chaplain to that institution. I was the youngest of three children - the eldest was Catherine Francis; the second, Joseph Sheridan, author of `Uncle Silas' and other novels, and of `Shamus O'Brien' and other Irish ballads [...] At an early age my brother gave promise of the powers which he afterwards attained. When between five and six years old a favourite amusement of his was to draw little pictures, and under each he would print some moral which the drawing was meant to illustrate [...] He composed little songs also, which he very sweetly sang, and some old people can still recall his wonderful acting as a mere boy in our juvenile theatricals [...]

In the year 1826, my father having been appointed Dean of Emly and Rector of Abington, we left Dublin to live at Abington, in the county of Limerick [...] Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, scarcely 15 years of age my brother Joseph had written many pieces of poetry, which showed a depth of imagination and feeling unusual in a boy at that age [...] Amongst our neighbours was a Mr. K--, who lived about five miles from us, and had a very pretty daughter, with whose beauty and brightness my brother, when about 19, was much taken. In those days it was the custom on St. Valentine's Day for every lover to send a `valentine' to the lady of his heart, so to Miss K-- he sent the following:

Life were too long for me to bear
If banished from thy view;
Life were too short a thousand year,
If life were passed with you.
Wise men have said, 'Man's lot on earth
Is grief and melancholy,'
But where thou art there joyous mirth
Proves all their wisdom folly.
If fate withhold thy love from me,
All else in vain were given;
Heaven were imperfect wanting thee,
And with thee earth were heaven.

After a few days he wrote to her the further lines which follow:-

My dear good madam,
You can't think how very sad I'm;
I sent you, or mistake myself foully,
A very excellent imitation of the poet Cowley,
Containing three very fair stanzas,
Which number, Longinus, a very critical man, says,
And Aristotle, who was a critic ten times more caustic,
To a nicety fits a valentine or an acrostic.
And yet for all my pains to this moving epistle
I have got no answer, so I suppose I may go whistle.
Perhaps you'd have preferred that like an old monk I had pattered on
In the style and after the manner of the unfortunate Chatterton;
Or that, unlike my very reverend daddy's son,
I had attempted the classicalities of the dull, though immortal Addison.
I can't endure this silence another week;
What shall I do in order to make you speak?
Shall I give you a trope
In the manner of Pope,
Or hammer my brains like an old smith
To get out something like Goldsmith?
Or shall I aspire on
The same key touched by Byron,
And laying my hand its wire on,
With its music your soul set fire on
By themes you ne'er can tire on?
Or say,
I pray,
Would a lay
Like Gay
Be more in your way?
I leave it to you,
Which am I to do?
Speak - and oh! speak quickly
Or else I shall grow sickly,
And pine,
And whine,
And grow yellow and brown
As e'er was mahogany,
And lay me down
And die in agony.
P.S. You'll allow I have the gift
To write like the immortal Swift.

[...] We occasionally spent a few weeks in summer at Kilkee, in the county of Clare, now a much-frequented watering-place, then a wild village on the wildest coast of Ireland. A new steamboat, the Garry Owen, had then begun to ply between Limerick and Kilrush, a considerable town, about eight miles from Kilkee. On the voyage, which generally took about four hours - sometimes five or more if the weather was bad - the passengers were cheered by the music and songs of a famous character, one Paddy O'Neill, whose playing on the fiddle was only surpassed by his performances on the bagpipes. He was, moreover, a poet, and sang his own songs with vigour and expression to his own accompaniment. One of these songs was in praise of the new steamboat, and was in the style of the well-known song, `Garry Owen' [...]

Oh, Garry Owen is no more a wrack;
Whoever says she is, is a noted ass;
She's an iron boat that flies like shot
Against the strongest storum.
On Kilrush Quay there's brave O'Brien,
Of ancient line, without spot or slime;
In double quick time, with graceful smile,
He hands ashore the ladies.

[...] One summer evening my brother, who was a prime favourite of his, persuaded Paddy to drive across with him from Kilrush to Kilkee, and there they got up a dance in Mrs. Reade's lodge, where some of our family were sojourning at the time. I am sorry to say I was away somewhere and missed the fun. The dance music was supplied by Paddy's pipes and fiddle, and between the dances he sang some of his favourite songs. Next day my brother wrote some doggerel verses celebrating the dance and in imitation of the `Wedding of Ballyporeen,' a song then very popular in the south of Ireland. One verse ran -

Piping pig at Melrose Abbey But Paddy no longer his fiddle could twig,
And the heat was so great that he pulled off his wig;
But Mary McCarthy being still for a jig,
He screwed his old pipes till they roared like a pig.
Oh! they fell to their dancing once more, sir,
Till their marrow bones all grew quite sore, sir,
And they were obliged to give o'er, sir,
At the dance in the lodge at Kilkee.

A copy of the verses was presented to Paddy, who was highly delighted with them, and for years after sang them with much applause to the passengers on the Garry Owen. A few days after the dance he came to see my brother, and said he would be for ever obliged to him if he would alter one little word in the song.
`Of course I shall, with pleasure,' said my brother. `What is the word?'
`Pig, your honour,' said Paddy. `I'm sure your honour doesn't think my beautiful pipes sounded like a pig.'
`Oh,' he answered, `you don't think I meant that they sounded like the grunt or squeak of a pig? I only meant that they were as loud as a pig.'
`As loud as a pig!' said Paddy, rather indignantly; `as loud as a pig! They wor a great deal louder; but if your honour wouldn't mind changing that one word, I think it would be a great improvement, and would sound more natural like. This is the way I'd like it to go -

But Mary McCarthy being still for a jig,
He screwed his old pipes till they roar'd like a nymph.

You see, your honour, the rhyme would be just as good, and I think it would be more like the rale tune of it.'
The suggested improvement was at once made, to Paddy's great satisfaction.

My brother told me that it was a favourite song of Paddy's that suggested to him the plot of `Shamus O'Brien' [...]

As I was going up the Galtee mountain
I met with Captain Pepper; his money he was counting.
I first drew out my pistol, and then drew out my weapon:
`Stand and deliver, for I am the receiver.'
With my rigatooria, right, foltheladdy; with my rigatooria [...]

[My brother made the Glen of Aherlow] the home of Shamus O'Brien in the popular ballad [...]

An Irish Piper, Just after the war, in the year ninety-eight,
As soon as the boys were all scattered and bate,
'Twas the custom, whenever a peasant was caught,
To hang him by trial, barring such as was shot [...]
There was trial by jury goin' on by daylight,
And the martial law hangin' the lavings by night [...]
And it's many's the fine boy was then on his keeping,
With small share of restin', or atin', or sleepin',
And because they loved Erin, and scorned to sell it,
A prey for the bloodhound, a mark for the bullet,
Unsheltered by night, and unrested by day,
With the heath for their barrack, revenge for their pay.
And the bravest and hardiest boy of them all
Was Shamus O'Brien, from the town of Glengall [...]
And it's he was the boy that was hard to be caught,
And it's often he ran, and it's often he fought, [...]
But the fox must sleep sometimes, the wild deer must rest,
And treachery preys on the blood of the best.
After many a brave action of power and pride,
And many a hard night on the' mountain's bleak side,
And a thousand great dangers and toils overpast,
In the darkness of night he was taken at last [...]

[...] I quickly learned it by heart, and now and then recited it. The scraps of paper on which it was written were lost, and years after, when my brother wished for a copy, I had to write it out from memory for him. One other copy I wrote out in the same way and gave to Samuel Lover when he was starting on his tour through the United States, where [...] it was received with much applause [...] I afterwards, more than once, heard the poem attributed to Lover. He did, indeed, add a few lines, by no means an improvement to it, in which he makes Shamus emigrate to America, where he sets up a public-house, and writes home to his mother to invite her to come out and live with him in his happy home. I suppose he thought that this would suit the taste of the Irish-Americans [...]

In 1839 my brother became connected with the Dublin University Magazine, of which he was subsequently the proprietor; to it he contributed the many interesting and amusing Irish stories, afterwards collected in the Purcell Papers. Some of them I used occasionally to recite, and wishing to have one in verse, I asked him to write one for me. He said he did not know what subject I would like. I said, `Give me an Irish Young Lochinvar,' and in a few days he sent me `Phaudrig Crohoore' (`Patrick Connor' or, more correctly, `Patrick the Son of Connor') [...]

Oh! Phaudrig Crohoore was the broth of a boy,
And he stood six foot eight;
And his arm was as round as another man's thigh -
'Tis Phaudrig was great.
And his hair was as black as the shadows of night -
And hung over the scars left by many a fight;
And his voice, like the thunder, was deep, strong, and loud,
And his eye like the lightning from under the cloud.
And all the girls liked him, for he could spake civil,
And sweet when he liked it, for he was the divil.
And there wasn't a girl from thirty-five under,
Divil a matter how cross, but he could come round her.
But of all the sweet girls that smiled on him but one
Was the girl of his heart, and he loved her alone;
For warm as the sun, as the rock firm and sure,
Was the love of the heart of Phaudrig Crohoore.
And he'd die for one smile from his Kathleen O'Brien,
For his love, like his hatred, was strong as the lion [...]

When `Phaudrig Crohoore' appeared in the Dublin University Magazine, my brother, under his nom de plume, wrote a preface to it, in which he said that it had been composed by a poor Irish minstrel, Michael Finley, who could neither read nor write, but used to recite it, with others of his songs and ballads, at fairs and markets.

Many years afterwards, one evening, after I had recited it at Lord Spencer's, who was then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the late primate, Beresford, said to Lady Spencer, who was sitting near me, `I can tell you a curious fact, Lady Spencer; that poem was composed by a poor Irish peasant, one Michael Finley, who could neither read nor write.' Then turning to me, `Were you aware of that, Mr. Le Fanu?' `I was, your Grace,' said I; `and you may be surprised to hear that I knew the Michael Finley who wrote the ballad intimately - he was, in fact, my brother. But in one particular your Grace is mistaken; he could read and write a little.' The primate took it very well, and was much amused [...]

Read W.R. Le Fanu's `Seventy Years of Irish Life' at:

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu:

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