Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
David Wheatley

A Dublin Ghost


A Retrospective Essay: James Clarence Mangan (1803-1849)

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Click here to recive news and leave comments for CPR.To start with a question: who is the foremost poet to have published and made his career exclusively in Ireland’s capital city? Dublin has never lacked for poets, but cross off Swift, Yeats, Synge, Clarke, Kavanagh, all of whom published in the UK at one point or another, and who is there left? You won’t find him on the standard-issue poster of literary greats displayed in Irish pubs, you won’t find him on the Irish school syllabus, and you almost certainly won’t find him in Irish bookshops. He is James Clarence Mangan, Ireland’s po�te maudit, an opium-eating, hard-living and hard-drinking profligate to place alongside such figures as Nerval, Edgar Allen Poe and Thomas Lovell Beddoes.
     Mangan wrote almost a thousand poems and, since the collapse of Thomas Moore’s reputation, is recognised as the most significant Irish poet of the nineteenth century. Yet beyond a handful of anthology pieces, his work is scarcely known. Worse, for most of the hundred and fifty years since his death, it was not properly in print. The multiplicity of variant texts in circulation made him, depending on your point of view, a bibliographer’s dream or nightmare. To give one example: Thomas Kinsella’s New Oxford Book of Irish Verse includes a two-verse poem of Mangan’s called ‘Shapes and Signs’. A presciently semiotic title, you might think, until you discover that Mangan in fact wrote no such poem. What he did write was the thirteen-verse ‘Moreen: A Love Lament’, which he presented as a translation from the Irish of the otherwise unknown Charles Boy Mac Quillan. A seven-verse version of this poem was published as an original work in 1849, now titled ‘The Groans of Despair’, while a later nineteenth-century printing whittled away five more verses to give ‘Shapes and Signs’, as reprinted by Kinsella.[1] A multi-volume scholarly Collected Works begun in 1996 has helped clear up all this confusion, but the last paperback selection has been out of print for decades.
     Yeats elected him to his personal pantheon in ‘To Ireland in the Coming Times’ (‘Nor may I less be counted one /With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson’), and the undergraduate James Joyce delivered a lecture on him to his fellow students. More recently Brian Moore wrote a novel, The Mangan Inheritance, about a returning immigrant investigating his family connections to the poet, and (to compare great things with small) I myself decided in 1998 to follow Mangan’s trail around Dublin for the purposes of a sonnet sequence. In a time when few Irish writers’ tracks have not been followed and signposted for the literary tourist, Mangan remains elusive: despite spending his entire career in Dublin (he apparently left the city only once in his life, to visit neighbouring County Meath) his poetry is almost entirely devoid of topographical detail. As the MacQuillan example shows, he frequently presented original poems as translations, and in the same way his truest portraits of Dublin can be found in poems ostensibly about somewhere else entirely. Consider the exhilarating ‘Siberia’, written in 1845 just as Ireland was about to sink into famine:  

In Siberia’s wastes

     The Ice-wind’s breath

Woundeth like the tooth�d steel.

Lost Siberia doth reveal

     Only blight and death.


Blight and death alone.

     No summer shines.

Night is interblent with Day.

In Siberia’s wastes always

     The blood blackens, the heart pines.


In Siberia’s wastes

     No tears are shed,

For they freeze within the brain.

Nought is felt but dullest pain,

     Pain acute, yet dead;


Pain as in a dream,

     When years go by

Funeral-paced, yet fugitive,

When man lives, and doth not live,

     Doth not live—nor die. […]

     Mangan was born on Fishamble Street along the quays to the south of the river Liffey, originally ‘Fish Shambles’ after the local market. To one side loom Sam Stephenson’s Civic Offices, erected amid much controversy in the 1980s after Viking remains were discovered on their Wood Quay site. Conservationists waged a long-running but fruitless campaign to stop the development, and perhaps in honour of their efforts the footpath round the Offices is studded with plaques depicting axe-heads and other heritage placebos. On nearby Winetavern Street tourists can have the full Viking experience in ‘Dublinia’, where a thousand years of Irish history are given the audiovisual treatment in ye olde Irish speak. ‘We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship, although it meant the end of travel’ Elizabeth Bishop wrote, and where tourism is concerned it often seems we Irish would rather have the interpretative centre than the troublesome historical reality.
     Halfway along Fishamble Street stands the George Frederick Handel Hotel, named in honour of the first performance of Handel’s Messiah on the spot in 1742. Today the music in the bar leans more to house and techno, though given the sampling of Bach’s Air in G in a recent club hit there may be hope for Handel yet. Georgian Fishamble Street catered for less elevated pleasures too: in 1764 Darkey Kelly was publicly burned to death for keeping a notorious brothel. A total of one house has survived from Mangan’s time. Standing in isolation until recently, it now rubs rooflines with an apartment complex of the sort that springs up almost overnight wherever an old tenement or Georgian hulk has been obliging enough to collapse.
     Mangan wasn’t the only celebrated Dubliner to have born here: there was also Henry Grattan (1746-1820), leader of the short-lived Irish parliament abolished with the Act of Union in 1801, and Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656), a Protestant divine chiefly remembered for his claim that the world had been created on 23 October 4004 BC. At the foot of the street is St Michael and St John’s church, like so many inner-city churches now deconsecrated. Like other po�tes maudits, Mangan nursed a passion for theatrical self-abnegation (calling himself ‘a ruined soul in a wasted frame: the very ideal and perfection of moral and physical evil combined in one individual’), but unlike Baudelaire with his callow satanism, Mangan remained a devout Roman Catholic all his life. His faith would often take him to the cellar of the old Rosemary Lane chapel, where he would perform his penitential exercises prostrate on the floor.
     To one side of Fishamble Street is the city’s cultural quarter, Temple Bar. When journalists reach for the most dreaded clich� of all about contemporary Ireland, the Celtic Tiger, this is the place they have in mind. Fifteen years ago, repertory cinema hardly existed in Ireland and Dubliner’s coffee flavours of choice had yet to end in o, and Temple Bar was a down-at-heel collection of second-hand clothes and record shops and car parks. There was talk of turning it into a central bus station. Then something happened to the Irish economy, and today it packs in more galleries, recording studios and cybercaf�s than many other counties combined.
     In 1798 Ireland was convulsed by the rebellion of the United Irishmen, a tragi-comic footnote to which unfolded in the month of Mangan’s birth. On 23 May 1803 a raid on Dublin Castle was led by the twenty-five year old Robert Emmet, one of Ireland’s most romanticized revolutionaries and almost certainly its most inept. Emmet fled the scene after the murder of the Lord Chief Justice, was captured almost immediately, and hanged and beheaded outside St Catherine’s Church on Thomas Street. His speech from the dock (memorably travestied in the Sirens chapter of Ulysses), is one of the most stirring in the annals of nationalist martyrology. ‘Let no man write my epitaph’, he told the courtroom: ‘When my country takes its places among the nations of the world, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written’.
     From his early teens Mangan lived across the river from Fishamble Street in Chancery Lane beside the Four Courts, one of the city’s Georgian masterpieces, and like the Custom House further down the quays, the work of James Gandon. Vacant lots and defenceless old buildings make easy prey for property developers, but here and there anomalous corners of the old city persist. One such is a large Victorian redbrick structure around the corner from the Four Courts, bearing the legend ‘Dublin Christian Mission’. Mangan’s Dublin was the site of intense evangelical activity, throwing up colourful characters such as Charles Walmesley, author of The General History of the Christian Church, in which he predicted that all Protestants in Ireland would be wiped out in 1825. ‘Pastor Fido’ responded with a rival prophecy that the Pope was the Antichrist and would be destroyed the following year. The precise theological position of the Dublin Mission Christian must go unrecorded, since in spite of numerous visits I failed to find it open for business even once. The only sign of life came when, squinting through the curtains one day, I found myself looking at two blue and yellow parrots, one chewing intently at his perch. Could there be more than a phonetics to connect the parakeet and the Paraclete?
     It’s a long time since Dublin’s northside was the centre of Georgian high society. Our new-found affluence hasn’t had much effect on the long-term unemployment and heroin addiction that cripple much of the north inner city, with a ghoulish criminal underworld thrown in for good measure. Attempts to make the northside fashionable have produced some garish pubs of barn-like proportions, ‘themed’ for maximum exoticism. Drinkers at Pravda are surrounded by Socialist Realist kitsch and effigies of long-dead Soviet despots. Around the same time it opened, if only for symmetry, a restaurant called Mao appeared on the southside. On the city’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street, a statue of the dying hero Cuchulainn in the General Post Office commemorates the revolutionaries of 1916. In Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, Neary ‘seized the dying hero by the thighs and began to dash his head against his buttocks, such as they are’. Today the principal indignity he faces is the embarrassing Anna Livia fountain in the centre of the street outside his window, seldom turned on and usually full of discarded burger boxes from the nearby McDonald’s. Nelson’s Pillar, once the focal point of the street, was blown up by the IRA in 1966, but is finally to be replaced by a 120m ‘Twenty-first Century Light Monument’. Mercury will pulse along the spiral designs on the side, while at the top the illuminated point will sway gently in the breeze, producing Celtic ‘synergy’. No piece of public statuary can be said to have entered public consciousness without being christened with a derisive rhyming nickname (Anna Livia is better known as the Floozie in the Jacuzzi), and early candidates for the new monument include the Spire in the Mire, the Pin in the Bin and the Hypo from the Corpo and the Stiletto in the Ghetto.
     Elsewhere on O’Connell Street, the statues form a more traditional assembly of patriots and prelates. At the southern end of the street stands Daniel O’Connell flanked by four lugubrious ‘Victories’, one sporting a bullet hole through the nipple. O’Connell won Catholic Emancipation in 1829 with a series of mass rallies, stopping short of the revolutionary measures advocated by the next figure down, Young Irishman William Smith O’Brien. O’Brien’s abortive rising took place in 1848, earning him five years in Van Diemen’s Land. Mangan was attracted to the Young Ireland movement, writing frequently for Thomas Davis’s paper The Nation before moving on to the more heated pages of John Mitchel’s The United Irishman in his last years. Mitchel too served his time in Tasmania, escaping from Australia for the US in 1859. Here he edited Mangan’s poetry, as well as serving more time in prison, this time for his vehement pro-slavery views during the Civil War (revolutionary idealism evidently had its limits).
     Further along the street is Father Mathew, the ‘Apostle of Temperance’ whose crusade for total abstinence became a nineteenth-century mass movement to rival O’Connell’s. At its height, in 1840, it claimed five million people, much to the discomfiture of the devout but bibulous Mangan. Wags claim that Father Mathew’s admonishing finger is in fact pointing in the direction of Mooney’s bar on nearby Abbey Street. If so, it wouldn’t be the only connection between religion and alcohol in Ireland. Until recently, all licensed premises were obliged to close for an hour between 2.30 and 3.30pm in what was dubbed ‘holy hour’, an attempt to dissuade feckless Irish menfolk from spending the entire day in the pub. An old Dublin joke describes a man being refused a pint of stout by the barman, holy hour having just struck. Glum-faced, he turns to leave, but the barman calls him back: ‘Perhaps you’d like a drink while you’re waiting?’
     Several hostelries known to have been frequented by Mangan remain in business. On Camden Street there is The Bleeding Horse, with its maze of interconnected rooms, upstairs and downstairs. There is Mulligan’s on Poolbeg Street, an eighteenth-century coach house within whose walls confines the smoke of centuries appears to have lingered, griming over everything not already grey, dark brown or black in colour. A perverse testimony to Mulligan’s authenticity is the complete absence of the literary tat with which so many Irish pubs are now accessorised. Mangan and Joyce may have drunk here, but you’ll have to go elsewhere if you’re looking for portraits of either on the wall.
     Mangan’s first employment was as a scrivener, that peculiarly hopeless profession shared by his fictional contemporaries Akakii Akakievich and Bartleby. Kendrick’s office on York Street where he worked was only a few doors away from the Dublin residence of Charles Maturin, author of the Gothic classic Melmoth the Wanderer. Across from York Street in St Stephen’s Green Mangan confronts us again, in a handsome bust by Oliver Sheppard commemorating the tow-haired young poet rather than the alcohol- and consumption-ravaged specimen he became by the end of his life. Also on the southside is Trinity College, where Mangan worked in the library in the early 1840s. Although it produced such patriots as Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet and Thomas Davis, Trinity was (with Dublin Castle) the epicentre of Unionist hegemony in Ireland. There is more than a little irony, then, in Mangan’s contributing simultaneously to the Dublin University Magazine and Thomas Davis’s paper The Nation, as he did during this time. John Mitchel has left a memorable description of the poet in the library: ‘an unearthly and ghostly figure, in a brown garment: the same garment, to all appearance, which lasted to the day of his death; the blanched hair was totally unkempt, the corpse-like features still as marble; a large book was in his arms, and all his soul was in the book’.
     His job at the college didn’t last, and Mangan’s last years were spent in increasing destitution. There were also, however, his years of greatest artistic triumph. There are few phenomena in Irish literature to compare with the torrent of verse he produced between 1845 and 1849, including ‘Siberia’, ‘Dark Rosaleen’, ‘Sarsfield’, ‘O’Hussey’s Ode to the Maguire’, ‘To the Ruins of Donegal Castle’, ‘The Deserted Mill’ and the outstanding ‘A Vision of Connaught in the Thirteenth Century’. A collection of translations, Anthologica Germanica (1845), was the one and only book of Mangan’s published during his lifetime. A second volume of translations, The Poets and Poetry of Munster, appeared shortly after his death from cholera-related malnutrition in June 1849. Also from his last years is the Autobiography, written at the request of his confessor. Like so much of his oeuvre, this had been unavailable for many years before the completion of Irish Academic Press’s edition of his Collected Works But even now that he is in print again, to speak of Mangan’s canonisation seems less than accurate. On the contrary, it is part of Mangan’s disruptive genius to place such a concept under serious strain. If order and stability (textual or otherwise) are prerequisites for admission to the Arnoldian or Eliotic canon, on both counts he remains recalcitrant and unassimilable. The textual history of his work is only the most obvious symptom of his fundamental apartness from the mainstream of Victorian verse. Readers who take the trouble to seek him out will not be entering a Celtic adjunct to Tennyson and Browning, but a strange and uncharted region like nothing else in nineteenth-century poetry. My sonnet sequence done, I walk from Fishamble Street to the derelict and atmospheric Misery Hill on the Dublin quays, and think of the end of Mangan’s ‘Siberia’:  

In Siberia’s wastes

     Are sands and rocks.

Nothing blooms of green or soft,

But the snow-peaks rise aloft

     And the gaunt ice-blocks.


And the exile there

     Is one with those:

They are part, and he is part,

For the sands are in his heart,

     And the killing snows.


Therefore, in those wastes,

     None curse the Czar.

Each man’s tongue is cloven by

The North Blast, that heweth nigh

     With sharp scymitar.


And such doom each drees,

     Till hunger-gnawn,

And cold-slain, he at length sinks there,

Yet scarce more a corpse than ere

     His last breath was drawn.

Editor's Note: David Wheatley is currently preparing a selection of James Clarence Mangan's poetry for Gallery Press.

[1] I am indebted to Chris Morash’s ‘Mangan: The Definitive Edition’ (Irish Literary Supplement, 18.1, Spring 1999, p. 22) for these details. 

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� 2001 Contemporary Poetry Review