Griffin, Gerald (1803–40), novelist, was born 12 December 1803 in Limerick city, ninth among about fourteen children of Patrick Griffin, brewery manager, and his wife Ellen, sister of John Geary, a leading Limerick physician. For his first seven years Gerald lived in Brunswick St. beside his father's brewery; but that concern failed, so the family moved to Longhill, above the Shannon estuary, where they built a house called Fairy Lawn. There Gerald spent a happy childhood and adolescence, responding to the beauty of the countryside. His mother encouraged his love of literature but his education was scrappy, divided between home, a school in Limerick city, and a hedge school in Longhill, run by a Mr O'Donovan. Patrick Griffin's various business ventures failed, so in 1820 he resolved to emigrate with some of his family to Pennsylvania. Others, including Gerald, remained. The oldest brother, Dr William Griffin (1794–1848), set up house in Adare and became the head of the family. Gerald, who never saw his parents again, thought of becoming a doctor, and spent time in William's surgery; he also briefly managed a Limerick paper, the General Advertiser. However, a meeting with John Banim (qv), who had just written a successful play, ‘Damon and Pythias’ (produced Covent Garden, May 1821), determined him on a literary career. He wrote a tragedy, ‘Aguire’, and left in November 1823 for London, aged only 19.
His three London years proved difficult and permanently scarred this morbidly sensitive man. He sent ‘Aguire’ to a well-known actor, probably Macready, but it was returned without comment, and he was forced to make a precarious living as journalist and reviewer. His time in London cannot be termed a failure; considering his youth he did exceptionally well, writing (under pseudonyms) for a number of journals, including the Literary Gazette and the News of Literature and Fashion, which made him drama critic, and publishing a collection of short stories, Holland-tide (1827), for which he received £70. However, these achievements did not meet his lofty aspirations. Since he was talented, passionate, and Byronically handsome, many were willing to help him, but he was too proud to accept their assistance. He refused Banim's offer to introduce him to the celebrated Cork writer William Maginn (qv), who was famously generous to his fellow countrymen; and although a leading actress, Fanny Kelly, expressed interest in his second play, ‘Gisippus’, he never followed up or sent her the final act. Only after Griffin's death was ‘Gisippus’ produced, to great success, at Drury Lane theatre (23 February 1842). John Foster, biographer of Charles Dickens and Oliver Goldsmith (qv), called it one of the marvels of youthful productions in literature, but Griffin never wrote another play.
He left London in January 1827 and did not return, except on short working visits. Holland-tide, stories of regional Ireland, influenced by John and Michael Banim's (qv) Tales by the O'Hara family (1825, 1826), was published to favourable reviews as he was leaving. He followed it up that year with a second volume, Tales of the Munster festivals (1827). Despite their melodrama, both books have been praised by critics for their depiction of the peasantry; Griffin was outraged by the condition of the Irish poor, and neither sentimentalised nor ridiculed his subjects. Back in Adare he began and finished with great speed his most successful work, The collegians (1829). This was based on the notorious murder of a Limerick girl, Ellie Hanly (qv) in 1819, but Griffin set it in the 1770s, at the time of the Volunteers, of which his father had been a member. Through the depiction of gentry, middlemen, magistrates, shopkeepers, and peasants, he involved all of provincial Irish society in a book that won him popular fame, earned him £800 (which he sent to his father in Pennsylvania), brought him critical notice from Maria Edgeworth (qv) and Lady Morgan (qv), among others, and had lasting effect. The character of the Kerry horse-trader Myles na Coppaleen provided Flann O'Brien (qv) with one of his pseudonyms, while the Gaelic turns of phrase of the recently anglicised peasantry prefigured the Aran Islanders in the work of J. M. Synge (qv). It is considered by many as the best nineteenth-century Irish novel, and was adapted for the stage as ‘The Colleen Bawn’ by Dion Boucicault (qv) and for the opera as ‘The lily of Killarney’ by Julius Benedict. In a remarkable burst of creative energy Griffin brought out in the same year two highly praised novellas, The rivals and Tracy's ambition (1829), both dealing with agrarian violence, of which he had instinctive understanding. During the 1830s’ tithe wars he deplored the actions of the Ribbonmen and understood the reasoning behind the coercion act, yet concluded that ‘it was a dreadful law directed against unhappy wretches who were driven by need’ (Griffin).
1829 proved Griffin's literary highpoint; he then entered on a decade of moral agonising which culminated in his decision to give up writing and enter the Christian Brothers. None of his 1830s work had the force of his earlier fiction: The Christian physiologist (1830) was a series of didactic tales; The invasion (1832) and The duke of Monmouth (1836) were historical novels, which did not manage to turn their meticulous research into strong writing. He had come to view literature as an inadequate moral guide (and was concerned at his own ability in The collegians to create compelling villains) and an insufficient tool to better the condition of the Irish poor. Politically he was O'Connellite and in 1832, at the request of the Limerick electors, he approached Thomas Moore (qv) to stand for parliament. However, he saw education, even more than politics, as the key to raising the people, so on 8 September 1838 he entered the Christian Brothers order at North Richmond St, Dublin. He was perhaps influenced in this decision by the impossibility of his love for a married woman, Lydia Fisher, daughter of the quaker writer Mary Leadbeater (qv). They met about 1829 and were very close (though never intimate) for a number of years until Griffin cut off all ties.
Taking Joseph as his name in religion, he lived briefly in Dublin before transferring in June 1839 to the order's house in Cork, where he continued his life of prayer and teaching before contracting typhus and dying on 12 June 1840. A final set of stories, Talis qualis, or Tales of the jury room, was published posthumously (1842). Although his popularity with the reading public declined in the twentieth century, his place in Irish literature is secure and he is critically noticed in every major study.