I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Cruel, cruel Margaret Stackpoole


Cruel Cruel, Margaret Stackpoole

Or was it Frances? There are different accounts out there. A pinch of salt ‑ medium to large ‑ is required when considering the many miseries and oppressions that, in his own telling, befell the poet James Clarence Mangan. If things were bad at home – the wretched Pater! ‑ conditions declined close to those of a galley slave when he was employed as an attorney’s scrivener in York Street. Or did they? Some of those who worked with him describe conditions which were not especially bad.

Despite the tall tales nobody seems to have a bad word to say about Mangan. Undoubtedly, this is to do with his troubled life and soul. Yeats, Joyce and many others admired this larger than life figure who sacrificed his health and life for his aesthetic and embodied the romantic idea of the artist. His life was indeed rough; he died at the age of forty-nine but the suspicion remains that he exaggerated its horrors.

One straw in the wind suggesting he may not have been exactly chained down in Hades is the reasonable social life enjoyed by the author of “Dark Rosaleen” in premises around D’Olier Street and Dame Street, mixing and drinking with contributors to various literary journals. He also seems to have been able, albeit in his somewhat dysfunctional manner, to attend to a matter of the heart.

The Stackpoole family lived on Mount Pleasant Square in the suburb of Ranelagh and it seems Mangan was on visiting terms. (Not bad going for a galley slave!) Indeed, it seems he took a particular shine to Margaret Stackpoole, a daughter of the house. According to Yeats, and by common assent, she was the prettiest of three daughters.

John Mitchel of 1848, to hell with O’Connell, Jail Journal and there’s nothing wrong with slavery fame, was quite pally with Mangan in his final years. Mangan had declared his support for Mitchel’s form of nationalism in 1848. Those politics did not appeal to Joyce – a latter day O’Connellite – and constituted his one criticism of Mangan.

In his account of Mangan’s life Mitchell seems surprised that the poet could have been on visiting terms at such a grand address and implies that he was out of his league. Of course Mitchel knew him in the later 1840s when Mangan was addicted to opium and wandered around Dublin with green tinted glasses, a massive cloak and large conical hat frequently attracting the attention of disrespectful urchins, much like those who followed Leopold Bloom when he left the Freeman office some sixty years later.

Nevertheless, given the poet’s meagre resources (according to Mangan’s own account his family lived in an unspeakable hovel on Chancery Lane), it is probably safe to conclude that he was always wholly outside the realm of rational consideration for one of Miss Stackpoole’s position in society. The Stackpooles were a landowning Norman family transplanted to Clare in 1651, where they continued to hold land. In the eighteenth century they converted to Protestantism and continued to prosper as major landowners in Clare. Some of the family moved to Dublin and they too were well got.

Mangan was probably accepted in Mount Pleasant Square – if it was Mount Pleasant Square (there are some anomalies) ‑ as an interesting young poet with a knowledge of foreign languages and literatures, that is to say for purposes of entertainment. Once he plucked up the courage and made his feelings known he presumably got the Prufrock treatment: “That is not what I meant at all.” or perhaps Margaret employed the time-honoured and ever serviceable “as a friend but no more” formula. Nothing so unusual there; rejecting and being rejected is, after all, an everyday occurrence.

What is interesting is the afterlife of the whole business, which involved a fair bit of what might be termed literary misogyny. The agreed interpretation is that Margaret was a right b***h, that she led on the poor poet, encouraging his hopes only to dash them in the cruellest manner. Mangan’s own self-focused view is reflected in the following lines from his autobiographical poem “The Nameless One”, written over a decade after the episode.

betrayed in friendship, befooled in love,
with spirit shipwrecked, and young hopes blasted,

This is pretty much in line with the self-pitying way he interpreted virtually everything that happened in his life. DJ O’Donoghue, in his life of Mangan, comments: “Mangan thenceforth looked upon the fair sex as essentially cruel and malicious and in one of his poems exclaims:

Man at most is made of clay ‑
Woman seems a block of granite!

In his account of Mangan’s life John Mitchel also takes an anti-Stackpoole line. This is probably the source of O’Donoghue’s opinion, as his other main source of information on Mangan, Father Meehan, does not appear aware of the Stackpoole incident. In Mitchel’s version ‑ which is his account of what an opium-addled Mangan told him some twenty years after the visits to Mountpleasant ‑ some classic objections to female ways are introduced. One assumes they are Mitchell’s own additions:

He (Mangan) was on terms of visiting in a house where were three sisters; one of them was beautiful, spirituelle, and a coquette. The old story was here once more re-enacted in due order. Paradise opened before him; the imaginative and passionate soul of a devoted boy bended in homage before an enchantress. She received it, was pleased with it, and even encouraged and stimulated it, by various arts know to that class of persons, until she was fully and proudly conscious of her absolute power over one other gifted and noble nature – until she knew that she was the centre of the whole orbit of his being, and the light of his life; then, with a cold surprise, as wondering that he could be guilty of such a foolish presumption, she exercised her undoubted prerogative, and whistled him down the wind.

In the American poet Loise Imogen Guiney’s account in 1892 there is no trace of gender solidarity but quite a bit of Michel’s influence:

His first love was given to a fair girl much “above him,” according to our strange surveys. She encouraged his shy approaches; and he was tremblingly, perilously happy. For the pleasantest period of his life he was in frequent social contact with interesting people of station and breeding, with those who made for him his fitting environment. But at the moment when he feared nothing he was taken like a bird in the fowler’s net, and cast scornfully away. Stunned and broken, he crept back as best he could to solitude.

Yeats, who also took an interest, seemed to think that he had made great discoveries regarding the poet’s love. In his account, Mitchel’s influence appears once more:

This love affair is the first of my new facts. Mangan met – between his twentieth and twenty-fifth year apparently – a Miss Stackpoole, one of three sisters, who lived in Mount Pleasant Square. She was a fascinating coquette, who encouraged him, amused herself with his devotion, and then “whistled him down the wind” … She was a handsome girl, with a tint of red in her hair, a very fashionable colour in our day, whatever it was then.

Of course Yeats was no stranger to the torments of unrequited love. And yet, while the resulting verse can be impressive, a lingering question remains: What part of “she’s just not that into you” do these intense poets find so hard to grasp.