Campbell, Joseph (1879–1944), poet and republican, was born 15 July 1879 at Loreto Cottage, Castlereagh Road, Belfast, seventh among ten children of William Henry Campbell (1842–1900), road-building contractor, and Catherine Campbell (née Canmer; d. 1918) of Belfast. From his father, a catholic and a Parnellite, he imbibed fervent nationalist politics, and from his mother, of mixed catholic–presbyterian stock, a strong interest in Gaelic culture. He spent much of his youth on his paternal grandfather's farm at Florrybridge, south Co. Armagh, where he developed a love of nature and local folklore. Educated at St Matthew's national school and at St Malachy's College, Belfast, where he excelled as a student, he left school in 1895 and was apprenticed to his father. A sensitive, moody, and solitary boy, in 1895 he succumbed to a nervous illness that lasted three years and limited his ability to work, but allowed him time to read widely. After his father died in 1900, Joseph took over the family business. His nationalist leanings were encouraged by the 1798 centenary celebrations and the Boer war (1899–1902). Around 1900 he joined the Gaelic League, used the Irish form of his name, ‘Seosamh MacCathmaoil’, and became a fluent Irish-speaker. He became a member of the informal ‘Firelight club’ that regularly met at Ardrigh, the home of F. J. Bigger (qv), and at a feis in Antrim in June 1902 he met Padraic Colum (qv) who became a lifelong friend. In 1903 Campbell contributed poems regularly to Arthur Griffith's (qv) United Irishman and Standish O'Grady's (qv) All Ireland Review. He wrote the words to several Ulster traditional airs collected by Bigger and Herbert Hughes (qv), published as Songs of Uladh (1904), the best known of which is ‘My Lagan love’. These traditional Irish airs strongly influenced his development as a lyric poet.
He became a founding member of the Ulster Literary Theatre in 1902, acted in several of its productions, and contributed a play, ‘The little cowherd of Slainge’ (1904). He was part of an Ulster literary and artistic circle that included Paul Henry (qv), Robert Lynd (qv), and Sam Waddell (qv) (who married Campbell's sister Josephine and, after she died, his sister Fanny). In 1904 Campbell and Bulmer Hobson (qv) edited the quarterly journal Uladh. Steeped in Ulster folklore and proud of the north's radical and dissenting tradition, he loved its robust vernacular and believed that its racial and linguistic differences had created a rich and resilient culture; his own work draws heavily on both Gaelic legend and Scottish folk-tale. Soon after the publication of his first volume of verse, The garden of the bees (1904), he moved to Dublin, where he obtained work as a clerk in the forestry department. His next collection, The rushlight (1906), gained him some favourable reviews and contained two of his best poems: ‘I am the mountainy singer’ and ‘I am the gilly of Christ’.
In 1906 he went to London, where he became secretary of the Irish Literary Society, and taught English (1907–11). His collections The man-child (1907), The gilly of Christ (1907), and The mountainy singer (1909) established him as a poet of real stature. Heavily influenced by the Gaelic poetic tradition, they combine a passionate devotion to nature with explicit Christian imagery. In London he married (23 May 1911) Nancy Maude (b. 1886), daughter of Col. Aubrey Maude of the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles); her family strongly opposed her marriage to a penniless Irish catholic poet. Returning to Ireland in 1911, he settled at Glencullen House, Co. Dublin, and contributed to The Irish Review and to Patrick Pearse's (qv) An Macaomh. He became a friend of Pearse and joined the staff of St Enda's, teaching Irish history. In 1911 he published his first volume of prose, Mearing stones: leaves from my note-book on tramp in Donegal, with his own drawings. His play Judgment, a tragic story of peasant life in Donegal, was produced at the Abbey in April 1912 and published by Maunsel; it attracted some notoriety for its earthy language, but was generally poorly received. Some months later Campbell was labelled ‘Mountainy Mutton’ in James Joyce's (qv) satirical poem, Gas from a burner (1912). His collection Irishry (1913) included two of his best-known poems, ‘The dancer’ and ‘The old woman’, both much anthologised. Earth of Cualann (1917) was inspired by the landscape of north-east Co. Wicklow: its pared-down pieces show strong Imagist influences such as the use of free verse (he had known Ezra Pound and T. E. Hulme in London). However, Campbell acknowledged a greater debt to Walt Whitman and William Blake, the two poets he most admired. He also admired the poetry of W. B. Yeats (qv), but regarded him personally as ‘a poltroon’ (Saunders, 62). In 1915 he moved to Kilmolin House near Enniskerry, which became a gathering place for young poets, including Austin Clarke (qv), although this did not prevent him from reviewing Clarke's The vengeance of Fionn (1918) very harshly.
Caught up in the political excitement of these years, Campbell was a founding member of the Irish Volunteers in Dublin (25 November 1913). He engaged in reconnaissance during the 1916 rising, after which he sheltered Desmond FitzGerald (qv) and his home was raided. In 1917 he joined Sinn Féin and assisted in several of their election campaigns (1917–20). A member of the republican district court for east Wicklow (1918–20) and vice-chairman of Wicklow county council (1920–21), he earned considerable unpopularity for attacking nepotism in the county council, and resigned 25 June 1921. In 1921 he bought a forty-three-acre farm at Lackandaragh, Glencree, Co. Wicklow, and moved there with his family. Strongly opposed to the treaty, particularly its acceptance of partition, he assisted the republicans in north Wicklow in the civil war and was arrested by Free State troops in Bray on 7 July 1922 and imprisoned in Mountjoy. The irascible, middle-aged Campbell found it difficult to fit in with his young and often poorly educated fellow prisoners, and he kept a diary of his prison experiences (TCD MSS 10173–6), extracts of which were published in 2001. It details the tense and overcrowded conditions in Mountjoy and his hatred for the Free State, which he believed was ‘founded on dishonour, built on corruption’; he saw the deaths of Griffith and Collins (qv) as ‘a miraculous interposition of providence’ (Diary, 39). On 20 February 1923 Campbell was transferred to the Curragh, where Francis Stuart (qv) recalled him as a ‘stocky, grey-haired poet . . . who marched round and round the compound in riding breeches and brightly polished boots’ (Stuart, 100) always talking about literature. During a hunger strike by the prisoners to secure their release, Campbell went ten days without food (19–28 October 1923). Released 23 December 1923, he was hardened and embittered, his religious faith shattered by the catholic church's condemnations of the anti-treatyites. His marriage broke up in August 1924 after he and his wife had affairs and, unable to find work, in March 1925 he emigrated to New York, where he stayed with his brother John. In November 1925 he founded the School of Irish Studies in New York, which was incorporated into Fordham University in 1927. He taught Anglo-Irish literature at Fordham until 1938, but lacking academic qualifications he was poorly paid and constantly in financial difficulties. He found it impossible to write while teaching, but put his energies into establishing the Irish Foundation in 1932 and relaunching the Irish Review in New York (April 1934); it lasted for only three monthly issues. Tired of his constant complaints and requests for a sabbatical, Fordham dismissed him in June 1938.
He returned to Ireland in 1939, and lived as a semi-recluse at Lackandaragh. He cherished an abstract ideal of Ireland but bemoaned its censorship laws, materialism, and cultural stagnation, and denounced the national schools for turning out ‘appalling types–tittering, cigarette-smoking girls and uncouth boys’ (Saunders, 137). The existence of a Fianna Fáil government did nothing to ease his disillusionment, since he saw de Valera's (qv) decision to enter the dáil as a betrayal of republicanism. He wrote the long poem ‘A vision of Glendalough' (1940), and made several programmes for Radio Éireann (1940–43) on literary, historical, and autobiographical topics. He had a rich, warm voice and proved to be an accomplished broadcaster. In 1942 he applied for a military pension for his republican activities, but was refused. He died from heart disease 5 June 1944 at Lackandaragh and his body was discovered two days later by a neighbour; he was buried in Dean's Grange cemetery. Roibeárd Ó Faracháin (qv) recalled him as ‘a simple man, with both kinds of simplicity: the kind which over-simplifies, and the kind that never complicates' (Farren, 91). Austin Clarke published a comprehensive collection of his poetry, The poems of Joseph Campbell (1963). His portrait by Estella Solomons (qv) is held in the Ulster Museum, Belfast.
His brother John Patrick Campbell (1883–1962) was a talented illustrator and designer who lived in New York from 1912; the writer Ethna Carbery (qv) was his cousin.