An Irishwoman's Diary
On December 31st 200 years ago Martin Mahony, who was eventually to move his Cork woollen-milling business to Blarney, welcomed the birth of his second son, Francis Sylvester.
This was to be a large family, and like several of his brothers Francis went to study at Clongowes Wood College before leaving Ireland, first for the Jesuit institute at Amiens and later for the order's seminary at Rue de Sevres in Paris.
This educational route could be said to have been his undoing as man and priest, but it created the personality, the legend and the legacy of "Father Prout", journalist, satirist and author of the celebrated song The Bells of Shandon.
Although said to personify (at the age of 22!) "the fanaticism, the dissimulation, the intrigue, and the chicane of a thorough Jesuit", Mahony, from his youth a brilliant classical scholar, was rejected by the order he loved.
After a time in Rome he was ordained instead, somewhat mysteriously, in Lucca for the Cork diocese, where he almost immediately found a cause which suited his impatient and passionate personality: in 1832 the city suffered an epidemic of cholera during which he worked alongside, and to the undying admiration of, Father Theobald Mathew, the "apostle of temperance".
Even Mahony's later steadfast enemy Edward Vaughan Kenealy admitted in his recollections that the young priest was remembered in Cork as being "the most zealous of all persons in the city in visiting the sick, relieving the afflicted, and bringing the comforts of religion to the dying".
The comforts of religion, however, were denied to Mahony himself - except, perhaps, in their most personal sense. His temperament was incapable of restraint; his wit could not annul the impact of his sarcasm; his idealism could not tolerate political and clerical equivocation. When his plans to build a chapel of ease to the North Cathedral led to stern admonitions from his bishop, he left Cork altogether, only two years after his ordination. He left the priesthood too - whether formally or not is uncertain, though he continued to say his Office throughout his life and was later described by his biographer Blanchard Jerrold as "a half-pay soldier of the Church - minus the half-pay". What is certain is that in London he entered on a career in letters, assisted by another Cork man, William Maginn, editor of Fraser's Magazine of Town and Country.
Other contributors, known as "the Fraserians", included Thackeray, Southey, Coleridge, Crofton Croker, Carlyle and Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd. (The group was memorably captured in a drawing by another Cork exile, the artist Daniel Maclise.)
It was in this company that Mahony developed the character of Father Prout, making the fictional priest the subject of the "Reliques of Fr Prout" as edited by the fictional Oliver Yorke. In her biography (Two Studies in Integrity) Ethel Mannin notes that a real Father Prout had ministered at the village of Watergrasshill when Mahony was a boy; the priest was dead when Mahony took his name, but even so might be imagined as circling violently in his grave at the discovery that his new identity gave him the parentage of Dean Swift and Stella and that it would later allow not only for instruction on the popular customs of Lenten observance but for accusations (wonderfully substantiated in several languages) of plagiarism against no less iconic an Irishman than Thomas Moore.
The fluency and biting accuracy of these parodies ensured success, in England at any rate. Although never wealthy, Mahony must have enjoyed his acclaim and professional esteem. He had a gift for enmity - his hatred of Daniel O'Connell, for instance, never subsided. But he had a gift for friendship too, and the softer, compassionate side of his personality gained him the long-lasting affection of Thackeray, for whom he found a house in Paris soon after Thackeray's marriage to Isabella Creagh Shaw of Doneraile.
His devotion to Father Mathew involved him in a resounding but unsuccessful campaign to have the Capuchin appointed Bishop of Cork - the role went instead to Bishop Delany. But he quarrelled with his journalistic colleagues and left them to write for Dickens on the Bentley Miscellany. Then he left this circle too, although it brought him the acquaintance of Robert Browning (who later described him as "the man I knew so little and liked so much") and access to the glittering London salons of Lady Blessington.
He stayed in Rome, inventing for Dickens the caustic persona of Don Jeremy Savanarola, before settling in Paris, from where he sent his dispatches for The Globe. He never returned to Ireland. Suffering from diabetes and reconciled to the Catholic Church through his friendship with the Abbé Rogerson, he was nursed by his sister Ellen Woodlock from Cork until he died at his hotel on the Rue des Moulins in May, 1866. He was no common man, wrote Browning in the obituary for the Pall Mall Gazette; he was "a priest and a Bohemian; a scholar and a journalist; a Cork man familiar to everybody in Rome; a Roman Catholic ecclesiastic well known in the convivial clubs of London".
Remembering him, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote that "the utmost kindness and warmheartedness have characterised his whole bearing towards us."
Something of this gentleness must have struck Mrs Margaret Oliphant too, who met him briefly in Paris "amid all the obliterations of old age". Mahony was the guest of a lady friend, who "bade her old gentleman sing me his great song, The Bells of Shandon, which he did, standing up against the mantelpiece, with his pale head, like carved ivory, relieved against the regular garniture de cheminée."
In an irony which he might have enjoyed Francis Sylvester Mahony was carried back to Cork for his Requiem Mass at St Patrick's Church - the very chapel of ease which exiled him in the first place. The funeral was presided over by Bishop Delany, against whose appointment he had fought so hard.
He is buried now under that same Shandon, "whose bells he cast to gold", his tomb unvisited and almost unknown.