Down at heel – An Irishman’s Diary about Charlotte Brontë

Certain events in Dublin aside, Easter 1916 was also an extraordinarily busy time for major literary anniversaries. There was of course the tercentenary of Shakespeare's death on April 23rd – the day before the Rising – and a similar milestone for Miguel de Cervantes, on the 22nd. But there was also the centenary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë, on Good Friday 1916, April 21st.

It was not as big an event, I'm sure, as next month's bicentenary will be. Even so, I notice that 100 years ago this weekend, she featured in this paper's "coming events" column (no, there was no mention of anything in the GPO), which advertised a National Literary Society talk on the Brontës, chaired by Dr George Sigerson.

The sisters are now and forever synonymous with the Yorkshire moors, but Ireland can claim a share in their fame too, via their father, Patrick, born the son of a farm labourer in Co Down on the 17th of March (no less), 1777.

If nothing else, he was responsible for the rebranding exercise that gave his children their exotic surname, without which they might have gone down in history by the somehow much less glamorous moniker of “Brunty”.


There are competing theories as to what inspired his name change in early adulthood. My favourite is that, having spent time as a blacksmith’s apprentice, he was thinking of another blacksmith – the mythical Greek one, Brontes – of the Cyclops – whose name meant “thunder”.

If so, a bit like Joyce, he could be said to have forged, in the smithy of his soul, the uncreated public image of his future offspring.

Alas, it seems just as likely that he was inspired by a contemporary news event of 1799, in which the celebrity admiral Horatio Nelson was given the title "Duke of Bronte" by a grateful King of Naples.

Soon afterwards, the former Patrick Brunty was enrolled as a student in Cambridge University, and going by the surname Brontë. So it may not have been so much a love of blacksmithing or Greek mythology that inspired him, as the need to climb socially and put some distance between himself and an impoverished Irish childhood.

Still, he brought a bit of Ulster with him, in speech at least, and it may have leaked into his daughter's work. I'm told by those who know that some of the linguistic idiosyncrasies of Jane Eyre are pure Down – for example, the bit where she tells Mr Rochester "I must mind not to rise on your hearth with only a glass of water"; or "There, sir, you are redd up and made decent."

To modern ears, “redd up” sounds like the past participle of “read up”. But in this context, apparently, it means “tidied” or (of hair) “combed”.  It’s an old English term, and so I suppose might have survived independently in Yorkshire, although I’m assured you’re more likely to hear it now in the north of Ireland, or Scotland.

The spelling of Brunty, by the way, was and remains interchangeable with “Prunty”, their common ancestor being Ó Pronntaigh – said, interestingly, to have originated with a well-known bardic family from Fermanagh. So maybe the Brontës’ literary fame was inevitable, under any spelling.

But the best-known Fermanagh Prunty of modern times has written his name in grass rather than literature. Joe Pat Prunty started working in land drainage in the 1950s, before becoming a specialist in laying sports fields.

And for decades now, his company has been colonising Ireland, especially the northern part, with hundreds of “Prunty Pitches”; supposedly a match for any weather, even the “wuthering” kind (it means “turbulent” or “stormy”) that a sister of Charlotte’s made famous.

As with the Brontës' moors, I tend to associate Prunty pitches with violent passions, although that's probably because I've witnessed too many Ulster GAA matches on them over the years. In any case, I'm sure the two families are related somehow, however far back.

It’s a sad comment on the fate of Patrick Brunty’s five children that Charlotte was easily the longest lived, although she died short of her 39th birthday.

She had married belatedly, a year earlier, after a long siege by the family curate, with whom she honeymooned in Ireland.

Officially, her demise was due to “pthysis”. But I see also that, in 1966, on her 150th anniversary, The Irish Times made her the subject of its second editorial. And the unnamed writer, with a brusqueness unusual in that quarter, suggested a different diagnosis – ie that her husband had “bored her to death”.