An Irishman’s Diary on poet William Allingham
The Ballyshannon man who shook the complacency of the salon imperialists
William Allingham: “a man who understood empire, but remained an outsider, the boy from Ballyshannon who never forgot his roots”
An unsigned article on Ireland in the July 1866 edition of Fraser’s Magazine was remarkable for its time, and boldness. It could well have been penned by William Allingham, the Donegal bank clerk who left his ledgers behind after seven years to join the customs service in Belfast in order to better his chances of pursuing a literary career.
The article described a hard-pressed Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, confronting the gigantic military power of Napoleon more than half a century earlier in the Peninsular War. Significantly, the Iron Duke, who had served as chief secretary in Ireland not long before, found time “in the menacing pauses of the war”, as Fraser’s put it, to write to the cabinet in London about the state of Ireland: “He pointed out the weak moral influence of the British Government in that country, the misery and discontent of the poor, the want of loyalty among the middle classes, the dissatisfaction even of the rich and the disastrous results of religious dissension pervading deeply the frame of society.”
Given this state of affairs, the hold of England on Ireland might prove even less firm than his own on the Peninsula, Wellesley warned.
While the Ireland of 1866 was undoubtedly different, noted Fraser’s Magazine, it resembled “in some essential features the ominous sketch of 1810”. The reference to the iconic duke was less a case of deliberate name-dropping than authoritative justification for the argument that was to follow. It amounted to saying that if the man who saved the British Empire from Napoleon could address the question of social and religious inequity in Ireland in the middle of a war he was not at all confident of winning, then any reasonable reader must, at least, ask why.
The type of reader ripe for such persuasion peppered Allingham’s 1824-89 diary entries. His merchant father had taken him out of school at 14 to join the bank, but as a voracious reader he continued his education informally and managed to teach himself Latin, Greek, French and German.
Allingham’s tersely written diary notes could leave most of the Victorian greats in the ha’penny place, for the graphic detail and insight they afforded into the daily doings of the most notable writers of the era: the poet laureate, Alfred Tennyson for example, or the irascible historian-philosopher, Thomas Carlyle; even the pre-Raphaelite artist and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. These were all close friends of his over many years. It is clear that while he enjoyed their company and was prepared to suspend judgment in many sparkling encounters, he was anything but dispassionate when reference was made to Ireland. On the erudite Carlyle, he wrote thus: “He cares nothing for Ireland except what feeds his prejudices. His is the least judicial of minds.”
As for Tennyson, the poet laureate referred to Ireland as “that horrible island”, knowing nothing of its history, Allingham noted. Later, England’s most lauded Victorian poet was to say, patronisingly, of Ireland: “I heartily wish it was in the middle of the Atlantic, a thousand miles away from England. I like the Irish, but they’re a fearful nuisance.”
Allingham’s superb notation indicates a man who understood empire, but remained an outsider, the boy from Ballyshannon who never forgot his roots. As such he posed a veiled threat to the complacency of the salon imperialists, without displaying aggression.
The Ballyshannon man is remembered for his poetry rather than his journalism, yet he resigned his customs job in 1870 at the age of 46 to join Fraser’s Magazine as a sub-editor, and afterwards was editor for nine years. Yeats believed Allingham to have been his Irish verse master, “starting me in the way I have gone”, he confirmed.
Allingham’s 5,000-line epic narrative poem, Laurence Bloomfield in Ireland, had been serialised in Fraser’s in 1863. The poem stands as a parable on the evils of rackrent and the grotesque system of land tenure that preceded Davitt’s Land League and what was to follow. It was Allingham’s favourite, although its greatness was not recognised by the contemporary literati.
Significantly, however, the Russian novelist, Ivan Turgenev, claimed that he never understood Ireland until he read Laurence Bloomfield. And what gratified Allingham most was when Gladstone quoted from it in the House of Commons and described it as “an extremely clever work”. The British prime minister was not to become a home rule advocate for another 20 years, but Laurence Bloomfield had sown the seed.