Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Griffin, Gerald

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GRIFFIN, GERALD (1803–1840), dramatist, novelist and poet, born 12 Dec. 1803, in Limerick, where his father was a brewer, belonged to an old family of the sept of Ui Griobhtha, a name subsequently changed to Griffin. He was educated at Limerick, wrote for local journals, and made various attempts in youth as a poet and critic. In 1820 his parents emigrated to Pennsylvania, and he went to Adare to reside with an elder brother, William Griffin, M.D. (1794-1848). Before he had attained his twentieth year he commenced four tragedies, among which was ‘Gisippus, or the Forgotten Friend,’ and wrote many spirited lyrics. In 1823 Griffin went to London in the hope of entering on a successful literary career. Through the intervention of John Banim [q. v.] he contributed to the ‘Literary Gazette’ and other periodicals. He conceived the idea of an English opera, entirely in recitative, and a work of this class—apparently entitled ‘The Noyades’—was produced by him in 1826 at the English opera-house, London. On the suggestion of Banim, Griffin essayed fiction, and wrote ‘Holland Tide,’ and three other tales, which were published together, and proved his first decided success. He also wrote two dramas for music, and commenced a comedy. Early in 1827 he returned to Ireland, and completed a first series of ‘Tales of the Munster Festivals.’ These were intended to illustrate traditional observances in the south of Ireland. Three volumes of the tales, completed in four months, were followed by a novel entitled ‘The Collegians,’ issued anonymously in 1829. This work, founded on occurrences in Munster, attained wide popularity. In 1830 Griffin contributed ‘Tales illustrative of the Five Senses’ to the ‘Christian Apologist’ (reissued as ‘The Offering of Friendship,’ 1854 and 1860), and published a volume entitled ‘The Rivals.’ Experience led Griffin to modify his expectations in relation to literary work, and, with a view to the legal profession, he entered as a law student in the university of London. A second series of Griffin's ‘Tales of the Munster Festivals’ was followed in 1832 by his historical novel entitled ‘The Invasion,’ by ‘Tales of my Neighbourhood,’ 1835, by the ‘Duke of Monmouth,’ 1836, and ‘Talis Qualis, or Tales of the Jury-room,’ issued in 1842. Griffin returned to Limerick in 1838, and contemplated entering on a life of religion. He eventually became a member of the catholic society of the Christian Brothers, a body devoted to teaching. Griffin discharged his duties as a brother of the order till prostrated by a fever, of which he died on 12 June 1840 at the North Monastery, Cork. Griffin's play of ‘Gisippus,’ which had been declined in the author's lifetime by Charles Kean and others, was produced in 1842 at Drury Lane by Macready, who impersonated the principal character, while Miss Helen Faucit appeared as Sophrania. In the same year it was published at London, and reached a second edition immediately. An edition of Griffin's novels and poems, with a memoir of his life and writings by his brother, William Griffin, M.D., was issued at London, in eight volumes, in 1842–3, and subsequently reprinted at Dublin. Many of Griffin's novels formed separate volumes of Duffy's ‘Popular Library’ issued at Dublin in 1854. His ‘Poetical Works’ were issued separately in 1851, and his ‘Poetical and Dramatic Works’ with ‘Gisippus’ in 1857 and 1859. A portrait of Griffin is extant at Dublin, in the possession of a relative.

By those acquainted with Irish life, Griffin's novels have been highly praised. Thomas Osborne Davis [q. v.], of the Irish ‘Nation,’ describes the ‘Collegians’ and ‘Suil Dhow’ as ‘two of the most perfect prose fictions in the world.’ The fidelity with which the scenery of South Ireland and the manners of the Irish upper and middle classes of the eighteenth century are depicted in the whole series to which these stories belong, leads Davis to compare Griffin with Sir Walter Scott. In ‘Gisippus’ Davis sees ‘the greatest drama written by an Irishman’ (cf. Davis, Prose Writings, ed. Rolleston, 1889, p. 282). Miss Mitford, a more sober critic, is hardly less enthusiastic in the sympathetic sketch which she gives of Griffin in her ‘Recollections.’ On Griffin's ‘Collegians’ Mr. Dion Boucicault founded his well-known play entitled ‘The Colleen Bawn; or the Brides of Garry-Owen,’ first produced at the Adelphi Theatre, London, on 10 Sept. 1860. A popular edition of the novel, illustrated by ‘Phiz,’ was issued in 1861 as ‘The Colleen Bawn; or the Collegian's Wife.’

[Life of Gerald Griffin, by his brother, 1843; Miss Mitford's Recollections of a Literary Life, 1859, pp.422–38; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

J. T. G.