One hundred and fifty years ago, on June 20th 1849, the poet James Clarence Mangan died in an isolation ward of the Meath Hospital, Dublin, of the combined effects of cholera and starvation.The great famine was at its height. He had flitted hungrily around the fringes of Dublin society in his lifetime, never quite fitting in. In death he has haunted the fringes of Irish literary tradition, remembered for a handful of striking lyrics, but never quite finding a secure place despite the championship of such major figures as Joyce and Yeats.
The future poet was born James Mangan on May 1st 1803 at Fishamble Street, Dublin, the second son of a schoolteacher, also James Mangan, of Shanagolden, County Limerick. His mother was Catherine Smith who came of a farming family in County Meath and, after her marriage, moved to Dublin where she and her husband took over the running of a small retail business belonging to Catherine's aunt. Simple undisputed facts about Mangan’ s life have always been hard to come by and even his name is a bit of a mystery. The ‘Clarence’ was a feature he added himself; no one quite knows why.
The Mangans did not thrive financially. It is said that James Snr. was given to heavy drinking, or that he was simply a poor businessman. It has been suggested that he was given to throwing lavish and expensive parties and generally living beyond his means. Whatever the cause, family fortunes were such that young James was forced to end his formal education at the age of fifteen and commence work as a scrivener. In this loathed occupation he continued until 1836. He seems to have then attempted to live from writing until 1838 when he got a job with the Ordnance Survey .
During this time he was building a reputation as a poet and eccentric. He is described by a contemporary, who saw him in the Library of Trinity College, as a thin little man with a waxen countenance and pale hair, who sat on top of a ladder deciphering a dusty volume in the dim light. He effected a bizarre mode of dress, walking the streets in a tall conical hat and black cloak, with trousers several sizes too big, and a battered old umbrella on his arm. During this time he developed the progressive reliance on alcohol and opium that was to contribute to his decline and death.
Opinions vary as to why translation played such a major part in Mangan’s poetic output. Most of the pieces we remember him for, ‘Dark Rosaleen’, ‘O Hussey’s Ode to the Maguire’, ‘Twenty Golden Years Ago’ and so on, are versions of real or imaginary originals. Perhaps, as some have suggested, standing at a turning point in Irish cultural life with the Gaelic tradition apparently on it's last legs he saw himself as salvaging, through translation, parts of that dying culture. Perhaps the influence was more interesting and more indirect. Maybe he experienced within himself an emptiness caused by the death of the Gaelic order and the absence of any native tradition in English to replace it and invented a tradition for himself by improvising its authors. What he did not do, and it is for this in particular that Joyce praises him and hails him as a precursor, was to fill the felt vacuum with the political opinion of the day. Though he wrote extensively for the growing nationalist press especially Thomas Davis’s ‘The Nation’, and though he evidently sympathised with many of the views found therein, his loyalty remained primarily to his calling as a poet. In his best work he produced, in Joyce’s words “an exalted lyrical music and a burning idealism that revealed themselves in rhythms of extraordinary and unpremeditated beauty” .
If Mangan’s involvement with the nationalist movements of the time did not unduly influence his poetic output it may however have fatally affected his life. Following the closure of the Ordnance Survey in 1841 he found a job as a cataloguer for Trinity College Library. This does not seem to have been an onerous position and is likely to have provided the obsessive autodidact (who had already taught himself several languages) with an unrivalled opportunity to pursue his studies. Unfortunately Mangan, through his writing for ‘The Nation’ and the more radical ‘United Irishman’ was closely associated whit the Young Ireland Movement and, following their disastrous attempt at an uprising in 1848 he was dismissed from his post.
Mangan’s health and fortunes seem to have gone into a precipitate decline at this point. His opium addiction gained the upper hand. Joyce quotes a contemporary account to the effect that he “descended the last steps towards the grave with frightening rapidity”. He became mute and ragged. He ate little until one day, having collapsed in the street, he was admitted to hospital and transferred to a ward for victims of the epidemic of cholera then sweeping the country in the wake of famine. He died soon after and some friends made a collection to pay for his funeral. His only possession was a volume of German poetry found in his pocket.
Our contributor, Patrick Egan, from County Westmeath, Ireland, lived in Cardiff from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. He now lives and works in Ireland. A social worker and a published poet he is also a fluent Irish speaker. As Secretary of Comhluadar Caerdydd, the Cardiff Irish language society, he was involved in arranging a public meeting in Cardiff in November, 1994 which led to the formation of the Wales Famine Forum.