An Irishwoman's Diary
JAMES JOYCE was well aware of the now largely forgotten Irish composer William Vincent Wallace. He was born in 1812, sharing a bicentenary with Charles Dickens. Wallace and Dickens had a great deal in common: besides genius, they were lively individuals.
Both lived hard, worked like demons, shared a cavalier attitude to marriage when confronted with the urges of new romance, and died relatively young. Dickens suffered a fatal heart attack at 58; Wallace expired five years earlier than the English literary giant, at an exhausted 53 – dying in a French chateau owned by his sister-in-law’s husband.
Yet within the span of his birth in Colbeck Street Waterford and a childhood spent mainly in Ballina, Co Mayo and his early death, Wallace travelled the Americas and beyond, enjoying huge success. The first of his six operas Maritana, based on the contemporaneous play, Don Cesar de Bazan, by Aldophe d’Ennery and Philippe François Pinel Dumanoir, opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on November 15th, 1845. Joyce mentions Maritana in the story A Mother from Dubliners, while one of Wallace’s songs is referenced in Joyce’s sublime masterpiece, The Dead, when Mr Browne laments the lack of good singing performances in Dublin. “He told too of how the top gallery of the old Royal used to be packed night after night, of how one night an Italian tenor had sung five encores of Let Me Like a Soldier Fall introducing a high C every time.”
Wallace’s father, Spencer, born in 1789, became the bandmaster of the North Mayo Militia which had been formed in 1793. Some sources claim that Spencer was a Scot; recent research maintains that he was Irish and that the family go back several generations in Ballina. Either way Spencer passed down a love of music to his son and taught him to play a range of instruments.
By the time the family moved to Dublin, young Wallace was sufficiently proficient to play in an orchestra accompanying the Italian virtuoso Paganini during a Dublin concert. Wallace was so impressed that he learned the Italian’s concert programme pieces and was soon making his living as a violinist.
In 1835 Wallace married Isabella Kelly from Blackrock, whose family home, Frascati House, would years later feature at the centre of a heated dispute between heritage and development interests. He and his wife, in the company of Wallace’s sister, Eliza, sailed to Tasmania before moving on to Sydney where he established a music academy.
Researching Wallace is fun, if confusing, because many of the yarns surrounding him amount to a mixed bag of fact and fancy. So discovered pianist and early Irish music historian Una Hunt who has also revived the reputation of George Alexander Osborne (1806-1893). Wallace was good-looking and a dangerous charmer. This may have inspired the story about the then governor of New South Wales, Limerick man Richard Bourke, presenting him with 100 sheep in the hope that Wallace would leave town without undermining too many marriages.
The composer certainly took business risks and accumulated debts, as is suggested by a report which appeared in the Sydney Gazette: “Mr Wallace, the Australian Paganini, left the colony in a clandestine manner, sailing for Valparaiso”. This may have been connected with his piano-importing venture.