John Banim

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John Banim
John Banim.jpg
Born (1798-04-03)3 April 1798
Kilkenny, Ireland
Died 30 August 1842(1842-08-30) (aged 44)
Windgap, County Kilkenny, Ireland
Pen name Barnes O'Hara[1]
Occupation Writer
Nationality Irish
Period 1820s–1830s
Genre Fiction, drama, essays
Subject Irish history, Irish life, social issues
Literary movement Romanticism
Relatives Michael Banim (Abel O'Hara)[1]


John Banim (3 April 1798 – 30 August 1842), was an Irish novelist, short story writer, dramatist, poet and essayist, sometimes called the "Scott of Ireland." He also studied art, working as a painter of miniatures and portraits, and as a drawing teacher, before dedicating himself to literature.

Early life

John Banim was born in Kilkenny. At the age of four, he was sent to a local school where he was taught the basics of reading and grammar. He was removed from this school at age five and sent to the English Academy at Kilkenny where his older brother Michael (1796–1874) was a student. An account of this school is given in the novel Father Connell. After five years at the English Academy, John was sent to a seminary run by the Rev. Magrath, considered to be the finest Roman Catholic school in Ireland, where he remained for a year before being sent to another academy run by a well-known teacher named Terence Doyle. Throughout his school years he read avidly and wrote his own stories and poems. As a boy he came up with a birthday tradition where he would gather all of his writings of the previous year, re-read them critically, and then burn the ones he found lacking.[2]

When he was ten, John visited the home of the poet Thomas Moore, bringing along some of his own poetry in manuscript. Moore encouraged John in his writing and gave him a season ticket to his private theatre in Kilkenny, where Moore himself was performing at the time.[2] In his thirteenth year he entered Kilkenny College and devoted himself specially to drawing and miniature painting. He pursued his artistic education for two years in the schools of the Royal Dublin Society, and afterwards taught drawing in Kilkenny, where he fell in love with one of his pupils, a girl of seventeen named Anne. His affection was returned, but the parents of the young lady interfered and removed her from Kilkenny. She pined away and died less than two months later of consumption.[2] Her death made a deep impression on Banim, whose health suffered severely and permanently.


After spending the whole of 1818 recuperating, he spent five months living in idleness and dissipation, a choice that he soon regretted, as he began to get into debt. He then chose to return to his former industrious ways; he painted portraits and contributed to a local paper, the Leinster Gazette, of which he became the editor.[2]

In 1820, he went to Dublin after deciding to commit himself to the work of literature. Upon his arrival in Dublin, he went to meet an old student friend, the artist Thomas J. Mulvaney, who aided and advised him. At this time, the Dublin artists where trying to obtain a Charter of Incorporation and a government grant for the aid of Irish artists. Banim had become a contributor to several important Dublin newspapers in the short time that he had been in the city, and he was able to use his position with the papers to help strengthen the artists's claim in the public press. In 1820, the artists were granted their charter, and they gave an address and a considerable sum of money to Banim for his support. Much of the money he made in his early days in Dublin went to paying off his debts.[2]

He became friends with the writer Charles Phillips, who helped him with his literary pursuits. Banim had thought of going to London, but Phillips convinced him to stay in Dublin. Phillips gave Banim advice in regard to some of his poetry and showed his early poem Ossian's Paradise to several publishers; it was published in 1821 as The Celt's Paradise. While still in manuscript the poem had been shown to Sir Walter Scott, who expressed a favourable opinion of it.[2] After the publication of The Celt's Paradise, he focused on writing a classical tragedy. Banim's play Damon and Pythias was performed at Covent Garden on 28 May 1821, with William Macready as Damon and Charles Kemble as Pythias. It was later performed at the Theatre Royal, Dublin.[2]

He visited Kilkenny at the end of 1821 where, with the help of his profits from Damon and Pythias, he was able to pay the last of his old debts. During his visit he discussed his future plans for novels and stories with his brother Michael. While in Kilkenny, he lodged in the home of a close friend of his father, a man named John Ruth. He spent his days in the company of his brother and of John Ruth's three daughters. In a matter of weeks he came to love John's youngest daughter, Ellen Ruth. Before asking her to marry him, he returned to Dublin to take care of his affairs. He returned to Kilkenny in February 1822, and, after a courtship of five months, he and Ellen were married.[2]

In 1822, he planned, in conjunction with Michael, a series of tales illustrative of Irish life, which should be for Ireland what the Waverley Novels were for Scotland; and the influence of his model is distinctly traceable in his writings. Another influence were the tales of everyday life by John Galt.[2]

He then set out for London, where he supported himself and his wife by writing for magazines and for the stage. Their first residence was at No. 7, Amelia Place, Brompton, the former home of John Philpot Curran. At the end of 1822 his wife fell ill, and in November gave birth to a stillborn child. Her illness required John to do more work to meet the costs of her treatment. In 1823 John's own earlier illness returned. He was sick for several months before recovering, his finances, by that time, greatly diminished.[2]

Unable to do much work for the weekly papers because of his illness, he began doing more work for monthly periodicals. This allowed him the time to do more carefully written and serious work. Around this time he was visited by the writer Gerald Griffin, new to London, and in need of guidance. Banim befriended Griffin and did everything he could to assist him, helping to edit his plays and to have them submitted for production.[2] Griffin said the following of Banim in a letter:

"What would I have done if I had not found Banim? I should never be tired of talking about and thinking of Banim. Mark me! he is a man – the only one I have met since I left Ireland, almost." [2]

Banim published a volume of miscellaneous essays anonymously in 1824, called Revelations of the Dead Alive. He met the American author Washington Irving the same year, finding him to be a good hearted and genuine man, while other literary celebrities he had met had disappointed him.[2] The first series of Tales of the O'Hara Family appeared in April 1825, achieving immediate and decided success. One of the most powerful of them, Crohoore of the Bill Hook, was by Michael Banim. The two had worked on the Tales through correspondence during 1823–24, periodically sending each other their completed work to be read and criticised. Banim and Gerald Griffin were still close friends, despite a misunderstanding that had temporarily parted them, and Griffin was often called upon to offer criticism on the Tales.[2]

Tales of the O'Hara Family, Second Series, 1826

After the publication of Tales of the O'Hara Family, John began work on a his novel The Boyne Water, a story of ProtestantCatholic relations during the Williamite War. He travelled back to Ireland, spending time in Derry and Belfast, to do research on the novel, which was published in 1826.[2] That same year, a second series of Tales of the O'Hara Family was published, containing the novel, The Nowlans.

Upon visiting John in London, in the summer of 1826, Michael found that his brother's illness had aged him and made him appear much older than his twenty eight years.[2] The next effort of the "O'Hara family" was almost entirely the production of Michael. The Croppy, a Tale of 1798 (1828), a novel of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, is hardly equal to the earlier tales, though it contains some wonderfully vigorous passages. The Mayor of Windgap, and The Ghost Hunter (both by Michael Banim), The Denounced (1830) and The Smuggler (1831) followed in quick succession, and were received with considerable favour. Most of these deal with the darker and more painful phases of life, but the feeling shown in his last, Father Connell, is brighter and more tender.

In 1827, John became friends with the young writer John Sterling. He accompanied Sterling on an excursion to Cambridge, which temporarily restored Banim's health. His illness soon returned, along with consequent poverty. He continued to write, and encouraged Michael in his writing of The Croppy. In July 1827 John's second child, a daughter, was born. In 1828 John's novel The Anglo-Irish of the Nineteenth Century was published anonymously, but wasn't well received by critics or the public.[2]

After another misunderstanding with Gerald Griffin, the two resumed their friendship through correspondence in the middle of 1828. Their friendship was of high importance to both writers, and brought them much satisfaction. During this time John and his wife lived in Eastbourne, East Sussex, where they had moved for the sake of John's health, and then Sevenoaks in Kent. In 1829 they moved to Blackheath, London for business purposes.[2]

In the Autumn of 1829, he went to France on the recommendation of his doctors. While in France he wrote The Smuggler, which went unpublished until 1831 due to a dispute with the publisher. He also submitted a novel called The Dwarf Bride for publication, but the manuscript was lost by the publisher. In June 1830 his mother died. John was unable to return to Kilkenny to see her due to his increasingly frail health. He continued to make something of a living contributing to periodicals and writing plays. In 1831 his first son was born. His son's birth improved John's state of mind after the death of his mother, but it also placed him in deeper financial need. In 1832 he suffered an attack of Colera but survived.[2]

At the end of 1832, his second son was born. Soon after, in January 1833, a movement to relieve his wants was set on foot by the entreaties of Ellen Banim to John's literary friends, and then by the English press, headed by John Sterling and his father in The Times. Contributions were also collected in Ireland. A sufficient sum was obtained to remove him from any danger of actual want. Among the contributors were Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey and Sir Robert Peel in England and Samuel Lover in Ireland.[2]

Later life

In 1833, he and his wife moved to Paris, in the hope that John would find a doctor who could help him with his condition. He was diagnosed as having an inflammation of the lower spine, and subjected to often excruciating treatments, which provided no relief. The death of his youngest son came early in 1834. He stayed in Paris throughout 1834, doing what writing he was capable of and spending time in the society of the distinguished literary men of the city. His oldest son died at the beginning of 1835, of croup.[2]

He returned to Ireland in July 1835, taking up residence in Dublin. On meeting him again in August, Michael Banim found his condition to be that of a complete invalid. He was often in pain and had to use opiates to sleep, but during the short intervals between the attacks of his illness, he was able to enjoy conversation and the company of his brother and friends. In September he returned to Kilkenny and was received with an address from the citizens of Kilkenny showing their appreciation of him, and a subscription from them of £85. After a short stay in his childhood home, he settled in Windgap Cottage, a short distance from Kilkenny. He passed the remainder of his life there, dying on 13 August 1842.[2]

Michael Banim had acquired a considerable fortune which he lost in 1840 through the bankruptcy of a firm with which he had business relations. After this disaster, he wrote Father Connell (1842), Clough Fionn (1852), and The Town of the Cascades (1862). Michael Banim died at Booterstown in 1874.


1865 cover of The Bit o' Writin by John and Michael Banim.

His strength lies in the delineation of the characters of the Irish lower classes, and the impulses, often misguided and criminal, by which they are influenced, and in this he showed remarkable power.

An assessment in the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition (1911) reads:

The true place of the Banims in literature is to be estimated from the merits of the O'Hara Tales; their later works, though of considerable ability, are sometimes prolix and are marked by too evident an imitation of the Waverley Novels. The Tales, however, are masterpieces of faithful delineation. The strong passions, the lights and shadows of Irish peasant character, have rarely been so ably and truly depicted. The incidents are striking, sometimes even horrible, and the authors have been accused of straining after melodramatic effect. The lighter, more joyous side of Irish character, which appears so strongly in Samuel Lover, receives little attention from the Banims.


See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Vol 3, pgs 668–670, Oxford University Press, 2004.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 2.18 2.19 2.20 2.21 Murray, Patrick Joseph (1857). The Life of John Banim. London: William Kay. Retrieved 3 November 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links