Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Banim, John

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BANIM, JOHN (1798–1842), novelist, dramatist, and poet, was born in the city of Kilkenny, 3 April 1798. His father pursued the double occupation of farmer and trader in all the necessaries of a sportsman's and angler's outfit. Prospering in business, he was enabled to give his sons, Michael [q. v.] and John, a good education. The latter, who was the younger son, was sent, after some preparatory training, to Kilkenny college. There he evinced aptitude for poetical composition, as well as talent for drawing and painting. Desiring to adopt the profession of artist, Banim was sent in the year 1813 to Dublin, where he became a pupil in the drawing academy of the Royal Dublin Society. He was constant in his attendance at the academy, and ‘he had the honour to receive the highest prize in the gift of the committee for his drawings placed in the first exhibition held after his year of entrance’ (Murray's Life). On leaving Dublin he became a teacher of drawing in Kilkenny, and while pursuing his profession was the subject of a romantic but unfortunate love-attachment. It had a very pathetic end in the death of the lady, and Banim embalmed his grief in the best of his early poems. The mental agony and bodily pain he endured at this time obtained so firm a hold upon his system that he was never afterwards able to shake off their evil effects. Driven almost to despair, he now spent several years unhappily and unprofitably. It became obvious to his friends that a complete change was essential, and accordingly in 1820 Banim removed to Dublin. It was largely owing to his efforts that the artists of the Irish capital obtained a charter of incorporation and a government grant, and to mark their sense of his services they presented Banim with an address and a considerable sum of money. Giving up the artistic profession, and devoting himself to literature, he wrote, in addition to much ephemeral work, a lengthy poem entitled ‘The Celt's Paradise,’ which was very favourably regarded by Lalor Sheil and Sir Walter Scott. This was followed by an unsuccessful dramatic composition, ‘Turgesius;’ but a second tragedy which he shortly produced, ‘Damon and Pythias,’ deservedly brought him high reputation. Although ‘Damon and Pythias’ is frequently stated to have been the joint work of Banim and Sheil, Banim's biographer affirms that the only assistance rendered by Sheil to the young dramatist consisted of an introduction and recommendation to a manager. ‘Damon and Pythias’ was performed at Covent Garden theatre 28 May 1821, with Macready and Charles Kemble in the principal parts. The success of this tragedy enabled Banim to pay his debts.

In the year 1822 John and Michael Banim conceived the idea of writing a series of novels which should do for the Irish what Scott had done for the Scotch in his ‘Waverley Novels.’ Hitherto such Irish characters as had appeared in fiction had been ridiculous and grotesque. There was a wealth of Irish feeling, sentiment, and patriotism which had heretofore been untouched and unrepresented, but which the Banim brothers now began to utilise and explore. John had now married, and, having settled in London, was working as a periodical writer, and contributing largely to the ‘Literary Register.’ He wrote another tragedy, ‘The Prodigal,’ which was accepted at Drury Lane (with parts cast for Kean and Young), but never performed. Towards the close of 1823, Banim was enabled to be of service to another Irishman of genius, Gerald Griffin, who had gone up to London for the purpose of pursuing a literary career. A series of essays by Banim, under the title of ‘Revelations of the Dead-Alive,’ met with great favour in 1824. The year following appeared the first series of the ‘O'Hara Tales,’ which at once enjoyed considerable popularity. The second of these tales, ‘The Fetches,’ was the work of John Banim, as was also ‘John Doe’ or ‘The Peep o' Day,’ with the exception of the opening chapter. He next wrote the ‘Boyne Water,’ a political novel, which dealt with the period of William of Orange and James II. It contained graphic descriptions of the siege of Limerick and other episodes of the time. ‘This work was severely handled by the critics, and we have good authority for stating that the author regretted having written it, and his brother prevented its being reprinted in the new edition of the “O'Hara Tales,” published by Messrs. Duffy & Son in 1865’ (Read's Cabinet of Irish Literature). As sometimes happens, however, that which the critics abused found fervent admirers amongst the reading public; and after the appearance of the ‘Boyne Water,’ Colburn offered a very large sum for the next tale of the O'Hara family.

Accepting the offer, John Banim produced ‘The Nowlans,’ a powerful though painful story. Success was insured to the toiler, but he was harassed by bodily affliction. Nevertheless he toiled on, suffering ‘wringing, agonising, burning pain.’ Though not eight-and-twenty, he had the appearance of forty, and he tottered as he walked. At this time he found an excellent friend in John Sterling. In 1826 Banim wrote his tragedy of ‘Sylla,’ founded upon the play of M. Jouy. Domestic illness and anxiety now preyed upon him, but he laboured on, producing ‘The Disowned’ and other stories for the second series of ‘The O'Hara Tales.’ In 1829 he went abroad, but continued to write for periodicals and for the stage. But he was straitened in circumstances as well as ill in body. Writing from Boulogne to his brother Michael, 25 Feb. 1832, he thus revealed his position: ‘Yes, it is but too true, I am embarrassed, more so than I ever expected to be. By what means? By extravagance? My receipts and my living since I left England would contradict that. By castle-building? No—“the visitation of God.”’ In another letter he stated that of twenty volumes he had written, and of treble their quantity of matter in periodicals, no three pages had been penned free from bodily torture. An appeal was made on his behalf in the ‘Times,’ ‘Spectator,’ and other journals, with liberal results, including contributions from Earl Grey and Sir Robert Peel. But Banim's sufferings increased; he lost the use of his lower limbs, and was pronounced incurable by his physicians. He was brought from France to London by easy stages, and finally he was conveyed home to Kilkenny. This was in the year 1835, and in passing through Dublin Banim was greeted with popular enthusiasm. He experienced much kindness from the lord-lieutenant, the Earl of Mulgrave, and a performance in his honour and for his benefit was given at the Dublin Theatre Royal. On arriving at Kilkenny his fellow-townsmen showed their appreciation of his genius by presenting him with an address and a handsome sum of money. Banim, who was of a warmly sensitive and grateful nature, was deeply moved by this tribute from his native city.

In 1836 Banim was granted a pension of 150l. from the civil list, chiefly owing to the exertions of the Earl of Carlisle, who more than once called upon the novelist in his little cottage of Windgap, just outside the town of Kilkenny. A further pension of 40l. was granted on account of Banim's daughter, whom he was otherwise unable to educate. These pensions greatly lessened his anxiety, and when the evening of his life closed in upon him prematurely it found him patient and resigned. When ‘Father Connell,’ the last joint work of the brothers, had been produced, it became apparent that John Banim was gradually sinking, and at length, on 13 Aug. 1842, he expired at the age of forty-four.

John Banim has been called ‘the Scott of Ireland.’ He delineated the national character in a striking manner, and his pictures of the Irish peasantry will doubtless live for many generations. ‘Fault has been found with him on the ground that there is throughout the whole of his writings a sort of over-strained excitement, a wilful dwelling upon turbulent and unchastened passions.’ Of the strong writing thus complained of, which was characteristic of both brothers, an example is furnished in the story of ‘The Croppy,’ relating to the rising in 1798. The authors wrote in this novel: ‘We paint from the people of a land amongst whom, for the last six hundred years, national provocations have never ceased to keep alive the strongest and often the worst passions of our nature; whose pauses, during that long lapse of a country's existence, from actual conflict in the field, have been but so many changes into mental strife, and who to this day are held prepared, should the war-cry be given, to rush at each other's throats and enact scenes that, in the columns of a newspaper, would show more terribly vivid than any selected by us from former facts for the purposes of candid though slight illustration.’

But full justice has been done to the realistic powers of Banim, one English critic acknowledging that he united the truth and circumstantiality of Crabbe with the dark and gloomy power of Godwin; while in knowledge of Irish character, habits, customs, and feeling, he was superior even to Miss Edgeworth or Lady Morgan. Had Banim possessed the hearty humour of a Lover or a Lever, he would have been saved from many of his literary excesses. As a delineator of life in the higher ranks of society, Banim conspicuously failed; his strength lay in his vigorous and characteristic sketches of the Irish peasantry, and these in their light and shade have something of the breadth and the strong effects of Rembrandt.

A selection from Banim's contributions to periodical literature (together with some sketches by his brother) appeared in 1838 under the title of ‘The Bit o' Writin', and other Tales.’ His other works are:

  1. ‘The Celt's Paradise.’
  2. ‘Turgesius.’
  3. ‘Damon and Pythias.’
  4. ‘Sylla.’
  5. ‘The Prodigal.’
  6. ‘The Moorish Wife.’
  7. ‘Revelations of the Dead-Alive.’
  8. ‘John Doe.’
  9. ‘The Fetches.’
  10. ‘The Boyne Water.’
  11. ‘The Disowned.’
  12. ‘The Smuggler.’
  13. ‘Peter of the Castle.’
  14. ‘The Nowlans.’
  15. ‘The Anglo-Irish.’
  16. ‘The Denounced,’ a work which included two tales, ‘The Last Baron of Crana,’ and ‘The Conformists.’

He also collaborated, as we have seen, with his brother in several of the O'Hara tales, furnished sketches as a basis for others, and wrote besides many essays, sketches, and stories of a slighter character.

[Murray's Life of John Banim, 1857; The O'Hara Tales, new edition, 1865; Read's Cabinet of Irish Literature; and the various works of Banim.]

G. B. S.