Man, companioned by care, has incessantly trod
His dark way to the grave down this valley of tears.
– James Clarence Mangan
In early nineteenth century Dublin getting by was a considerable problem for most people. Indeed huge numbers did not get by at all but lived and died in abject poverty. For those born into what are now called the coping classes the stability of the home environment could be a crucial factor in avoiding the pecuniary abyss that gaped all around them. Two of the city’s great writers from that era, James Clarence Mangan and Thomas Moore, lived in this world where, without money, one could fall and fall.
Both were the sons of grocers from the city centre. One became an intimate of the Whig aristocracy and a bosom companion of Lord Byron; the other, though given to a feisty assertion of individuality – he sported a green cloak, blue glasses and a blonde wig ‑ took to the drink (and the opium) and, weakened from malnutrition and years of poverty, died in misery from cholera in 1849. If Moore was assisted by a stable family background and an especially earnest and dedicated mother, these were advantages which his fellow Dubliner did not enjoy.
James Clarence Mangan was born in 1803 on Dublin’s Fishamble Street, an ancient medieval thoroughfare that winds up from the river and which for many centuries was the site of numerous fish stalls. A certain Molly Malone is said by some ‑ and without a shred of evidence ‑ to have lived there. By the early eighteenth century it seems, the street was no longer devoted to the fish trade and had become rather posh. The general post office was located there before it moved to what is now O’Connell Street. The printer of Swift’s Drapier’s Letters, John Harding, had his office on the street, Henry Grattan was born there and the Fishamble Street Music Hall hosted the first performance of Handel’s Messiah. The street also once boasted another popular theatre, which asserted its high standards by declining to admit men or women without shoes or stockings.
Like many streets which were fashionable enough in the eighteenth century Fishamble Street declined slowly thereafter. One of the reasons was the arrival in the city of large numbers of the rural poor. The house in which Mangan was born had once been the residence the Ussher family, one of whose members, James Ussher, founded the library of Trinity College. By the late eighteenth century the building had become a grocer’s shop. The owner, a Miss Catherine Smith, had inherited it from her aunt. Catherine did not fare well in the marriage lottery, marrying one James Mangan, a Limerick schoolteacher. According to some reports Mangan was a man of education and refinement, which may have assisted in his courtship of Miss Smith, whose grocery shop offered the means to a comfortable income. All that had to be done was run the shop. What could possibly go wrong? A great deal, it seems: Mangan père went broke a full eight times. Refinement of itself may not always help in balancing the shillings and the pence or providing the steadiness the successful grocer surely needs. Although Mangan referred to him as “My own excellent though unfortunate father”, he was also critical of him and blamed him for the family’s problems. Referring to the successful Thomas Moore he wrote:
I share with an illustrious townsman of my own, the honour or the disreputability, as it may be considered, of having been born the son of a grocer. My father, however, unlike his, never exhibited the qualities of guardian towards his children. His temper was not merely quick and irascible, but it also embodied much of that calm, concentrated spirit of Milesian fierceness, a picture of which I have endeavoured to paint in my Italian story of “Gaspara Bandollo”. His nature was truly noble; to quote a phrase of my friend O’Donovan (in the Annals of the Four Masters), he never knew what it was to refuse the countenance of living man; but in neglecting his own interests – and not the most selfish misanthrope could accuse him of attending closely to those – he unfortunately forgot the injuries that he inflicted upon the interests of others. He was of an ardent and forward-bounding disposition, and though deeply religious by nature, “he hated the restraints of social life, and seemed to think that all feelings with regard to family connections and the obligations imposed by them were totally beneath his notice. Me, my two brothers, and my sister, he treated habitually as a huntsman would treat refractory hounds; it was his boast, uttered in pure glee of heart, “That we would run into a mousehouse” to shun him. While my mother lived he made her miserable; he led my only sister such a life that she was obliged to leave our house; he kept up a succession of continued hostilities with my brothers; and, if he spared me more than others, it was, perhaps, because I displayed a greater contempt of life and everything connected with it than he thought was shown by the rest of the family … May God assoil his great and eternal soul, and grant him eternal peace and forgiveness. But I have an inward feeling, that to him I owe all my misfortunes.
One gets a fairly clear idea of Mangan senior’s character from this: a disastrous father and businessman. In his improvidence he recalls Joyce senior and it is perhaps no coincidence that Mangan was one of the few Irish writers preceding Joyce of whom the latter spoke of positively. There were many similarities in their family situations and it is possible that Joyce saw much in Mangan which mirrored his own experience. They both behaved in public with a certain grandeur. Mangan said of his father that his
grand worldly fault was improvidence. To everyone who applied to him for money he uniformly gave double or treble the sum requested of him. He parted with his money, he gave away the best part of his worldly property, and in the end he even suffered his own judgment and discretion to become the spoil of strangers. In plainer words, he permitted cold-blooded and crafty men to persuade him that he was wasting his energies by following the grocery business, and that by recommencing life as a vintner he would soon be able not only to retrieve all his losses but realise an ample fortune. And thus it happened, reader, that I, James Clarence Mangan, came into the world surrounded, if I may so express myself, by an atmosphere of curses and intemperance, of cruelty, infidelity, and blasphemy, and of both secret and open hatred towards the moral government of God.
Meanwhile, up on Aungier Street, Mr and Mrs Moore were working all the hours to pay for young Tom’s elocution lessons.