Down the rushy glen – Brian Maye on poet, diarist and editor William Allingham

His letters and diaries provide a vivid insight into Victorian literary culture

Many of a certain age who went to school in Ireland will probably recall the following lines: “Up the airy mountain,/Down the rushy glen,/We daren’t go a-hunting,/For fear of little men.” They are the opening lines of The Fairies, a poem popular in school poetry anthologies for much of the 20th century. Its author is William Allingham, who was born 200 years ago on March 19th.

He was born in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, the eldest of five children. His father, also William, of English descent, was a local bank manager, and his mother, Elizabeth Crawford, died when he was nine. The sights and sounds of Ballyshannon and the surrounding countryside made a lasting impression on him as is clear from one of his most famous poems, The Winding Banks of Erne, which begins: “Adieu to Ballyshannon, where I was bred and born; / Go where I may, I’ll think of you, as sure as night and morn”.

One source states that he attended boarding-school at Killeshandra, Co Cavan, while another has it as Belfast Royal Academical Institution. In any event, he reluctantly left school at 14 to work in the bank in Ballyshannon for around seven years before joining the customs service and becoming principal coastal officer for Co Donegal. He continued to work in customs – for the most part – until 1870.

Having begun to compose poems, he sent a selection of them in 1843 to Leigh Hunt, the well-known English poet, critic and essayist, and centre of the Hampstead-based group (known as the “Hunt circle”) that included William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb. A correspondence and literary friendship followed and, four years later, Allingham began visiting London during his annual summer holidays, where Hunt introduced him to many of the leading literary figures of the day.


These included the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne (author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables), the famous Victorian poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (author of Vanity Fair), and Francis Sylvester Mahony, the Cork-born priest and humourist, who wrote under the pseudonym “Fr Prout” and composed The Bells of Shandon.

According to Linde Lunney, who wrote the entry on Allingham in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, the most important friendships he established were with the great Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, the pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti, and Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish-born essayist, historian and philosopher.

He corresponded extensively with these friends and recorded details of meetings with them in his diaries; “these and his letters are thus an excellent source on Victorian literary culture,” according to Lunney.

His first collection, Poems, which included The Fairies, was published in 1850; it was revised as Day and Night Songs in 1854 and a second edition, the following year, had additional poems, with illustrations by Rossetti and John Everett Millais, another pre-Raphaelite painter. Allingham tried his hand at journalism in London in 1854 but found it uncongenial and returned to the customs in Ireland until 1863. That year, he moved to Lymington in Hampshire to be nearer London literary life.

In 1864, he published Laurence Bloomfield in Ireland, a verse novel on the theme of contemporary Irish land issues. It was “his most ambitious work . . . incorporating local colour and some political satire”, according to Linde Lunney. It was praised by the novelist George Eliot, the philosopher John Stuart Mill, and the pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown.

Awarded a civil-list pension from 1864, he continued to publish, including Fifty Modern Poems (1865); The Ballad Book (1865), which was an anthology of traditional ballads; The Rambles of Patricius Walker (1873), an account of his walking tours, and Songs, Ballads and Stories (1877). He retired from the customs in 1870 and was subeditor and then editor of Fraser’s Magazine in London.

In 1874, he married Helen Peterson, who was a well-known illustrator and watercolour painter. They had two sons and a daughter. He retired from Fraser’s Magazine in 1879 and the family lived in Surrey and then Hampstead, where he died on November 18th, 1889. He was cremated and his ashes were returned to St Anne’s Church in Mullinashee graveyard in Ballyshannon, behind the house where he was born.

WB Yeats was certainly influenced by him, and the Ulster poet John Hewitt felt his impact strongly and tried to revive his reputation but his poetry is probably not much remembered nowadays. “His diary reveals why he is still of interest today: he found a niche in the heart of Victorian culture, though he came from a background and had had a life and employment markedly different from those of the people he encountered in London,” Linde Lunney perceptively remarked.