Hannay, James Owen (‘George A. Birmingham’) (1865–1950), novelist and Church of Ireland clergyman, was born 16 July 1865 in Belfast, son of Robert Hannay, Church of Ireland rector of St Anne's, Belfast, and his wife Emily (née Wynne). Hannay experienced a strongly evangelical upbringing (the contrast between the absolute prohibition on theatre-going in the Belfast of his youth and his later activities as a dramatist was to arouse frequent comment). He was educated at Haileybury School, Hertfordshire, and at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), where he graduated in 1886.
The major influences on his religious beliefs were George Salmon (qv), the partial inspiration for the character of McNiece in The Red Hand of Ulster (1912), whose celebrated lectures on the infallibility of the church he attended at Trinity, and his father-in-law F. R. Wynne, bishop of Killaloe, 1893–6, of whom Hannay wrote the official biography. Hannay regarded Salmon's arguments as unanswered because unanswerable, and held him to have proved that no one and nothing (that is, neither the church as the authority held to by high churchmen and Roman catholics, nor the Bible as that upheld by evangelical exponents of biblical literalism) could be considered infallible. Wynne, originally a high churchman, regarded himself as a moderate evangelical but was regarded by some observers as a broad churchman; he accepted most of the theories of advanced biblical scholarship while believing that the gospels on the whole were reliable records of the career of Jesus, that they established his claim to divinity, and that it was possible for the believer to have a personal relationship with him. Wynne placed great emphasis on pastoral work and discouraged what he saw as excessive dogmatic and ritual ‘formalism’.
Hannay was ordained deacon in 1888 and appointed curate of Delgany, Co. Wicklow. In 1889 he received priest's orders, and in the same year married his third cousin Adelaide Susan Wynne (d. 1933), for whom he claimed literally to have conceived ‘love at first sight’. Their marriage was happy; they had two sons and two daughters and Hannay dedicated many of his books to her. In 1892, after leaving Delgany because of a quarrel with the rector, Hannay accepted the position of rector of Westport, Co. Mayo, ministering to five small and remote congregations. This was seen by some friends as burying his talents, but in retrospect Hannay believed his various changes of residence had been guided by God; he always sought adventure and expressed distaste for those whose highest ambition was a secure life in a comfortable official position. His early years in the area were devoted to patristic study, leading to his appointment as Donnellan lecturer for 1901 at Trinity College; his lectures were subsequently published as The spirit and origin of Christian monasticism (1903). Hannay and his wife (who shared these scholarly pursuits) debated whether they should adopt a more contemplative life; at one point he considered seeking a chaplaincy on the remote island of Tristan da Cunha. Less introspectively, the Hannays loved sailing in Clew Bay, which provided the backdrop for many of his later farces and adventure stories.
From about the beginning of the twentieth century Hannay developed an interest in Irish current affairs, inspired by the reading of Irish historians such as W. E. H. Lecky (qv) – he remarked that the study of Irish history was fatal for anyone who wished to remain a unionist – and by the growing cultural and literary revival. He developed the view (echoing Standish James O'Grady (qv) and Lecky) that the Irish protestant gentry had made a fatal mistake in looking to a treacherous and opportunistic Britain to preserve their privileges rather than providing leadership in reviving the Irish nation. He saw post-Gladstonian unionist governments and Irish unionist leaders as cynically exploiting their Irish followers while mocking and betraying them as expediency dictated. He believed that the policies described as ‘killing home rule with kindness’ encouraged dependency, involved unprincipled appeasement of the catholic church, and led to a society dominated by bureaucrats: he observed at close quarters the abuse of government aid during a period of great hardship in the west of Ireland in 1897–9, and his work contains frequent mocking portrayals of fictitious famines devised to obtain government assistance and piers built by the Congested Districts Board where no boat could ever land.
Although Hannay rejected his youthful anglican toryism, he retained some of its attitudes, which were reinforced by formative memories of the land war and the resistance to Gladstonian home rule. The land war figures most prominently in his novel The bad times (1908), which combines denunciations of agrarian violence with portrayals of complacently corrupt landlords and oppressed tenants; Hannay embodies an important example of the thesis that the Irish renaissance began as a response to the land war. Hannay remarked in his autobiography that the one political viewpoint he had never been tempted to adopt was British liberalism, which he regarded as self-righteously hypocritical. He felt no attraction to the Irish Parliamentary Party: such discussions of Irish society as Irishmen all (1913) contain scathing accounts of the corruption, cynicism, and intellectual vacuity of Connacht United Irish League (UIL) activists, and party officials. He regarded the catholic church as authoritarian, unscrupulous, and self-seeking: though he believed that it inculcated deep and sincere religious belief in its followers, he predicted that without intellectual underpinning this would disintegrate rapidly in a wider world. He thought, however, that the Gaelic League, the cooperative movement, and Sinn Féin could bring about a true national revival based on individual self-reliance and free discussion.
From c.1904 Hannay began a literary career with the twin aims of expressing his ideas and financing his children's education. Starting in 1905 he published a series of three novels that may be seen as a loose trilogy: The seething pot (1905) concerns a young landlord attracted to a nationalist leader (based on Parnell (qv)) and brought down by clerical opposition; Hyacinth (1906) is about an Irish-speaking Church of Ireland clerical student trying to discover his mission in life among the social, political, and religious tensions of post-Parnellian Ireland; and Benedict Kavanagh (1907) relates the story of the illegitimate son of a dead nationalist leader (also modelled on Parnell), brought up by unionist relatives and enduring mildly Joycean tensions as an impecunious clerk.
Hannay initially used the pseudonym ‘George A. Birmingham’ for reasons of confidentiality, but he maintained it after the revelation of his true identity and eventually used it even for serious theological works. He also used the pseudonym ‘Eoghan’ when writing for the Irish Protestant of Lindsay Crawford (qv) and Sinn Féin edited by Arthur Griffith (qv). The revelation in 1906 that Hannay was Birmingham aroused considerable local and national controversy. This was exacerbated by the fact that Hannay tended to combine descriptions of identifiable individuals (Hyacinth, for example, contains characters clearly based on Maud Gonne (qv), George Moore (qv), and Standish O'Grady) and familiar locations with actions based on his interpretation of recent Irish history. The parish priest of Westport, Father McDonnell, took particular offence at the portrayal in The seething pot of a priest living in a town clearly modelled on Westport, who is a self-seeking bully and takes bribes from the local landlord to keep land agitation in check. Hannay stated that this was not a personal portrait of McDonnell, since the novel had been largely written before the priest came to Westport; the character was intended to symbolise Hannay's view of the social role of the catholic church as an institution, though this did not answer McDonnell's point that the mise en scène made the identification inevitable, whether intended or not.
Not content with stating his objections, Father McDonnell mounted a press campaign against Hannay and tried to organise a boycott of the rector. The dispute spread beyond Westport when the Tuam catholic clergy arranged to exclude Hannay from the Connacht Feis despite his position on the Coiste Gnotha of the Gaelic League. Hannay received some support from Achonry priests (led by a Sinn Féin curate, Father O'Connolly of Ballaghaderreen, who may be a model for the saintly Gaelic League priest in Benedict Kavanagh) and was re-elected to the Coiste Gnotha as part of a reaction against clericalist attempts to suppress the Portarlington branch, which had quarrelled with the local parish priest; but he found himself boycotted by the Gaelic League in Connacht while nominally a member of its national leadership. He eventually resigned from the Coiste Gnotha; though he publicly expressed his continued support for the movement, he privately felt that it had betrayed its principles by not defending him more wholeheartedly.
Further controversy was caused by Hannay's portrayal in Hyacinth of ‘Robeen’, a Connacht woollen mill run by nuns, which drives Irish competitors out of business through a combination of sweated labour, government subsidies, and sectarian boycotting. This was widely taken as a slur on the Foxford woollen mill founded by Agnes Morrogh Bernard (qv), and Father Thomas Finlay (qv) publicly disputed the accuracy of Hannay's account of its wage rates. Although Hannay denied that he had intended to portray Foxford, he made it clear that he did not approve of it and corresponded with Francis Sheehy-Skeffington (qv) about the possibility of publishing an exposé of its wage rates. (It is arguable that Hannay in his condemnation of the Foxford enterprise ignored the extra costs imposed by its peripheral location, exaggerated its damaging effect on other woollen mills, and underestimated its benefits to the locality.) Although details of Hannay's novels are more open to criticism than he or most defenders admitted (even Griffith, himself a critic of clerical politics, complained that Hannay appeared to believe that Irish catholics would submerge Ireland beneath the Atlantic if the clergy told them to do so), his opponents’ central objection rested on its being unacceptable for a protestant to express the idea that catholicism was false and his own religion superior to it with the same freedom routinely employed by catholic polemicists in discussing historic misdeeds of the Church of Ireland.
With Spanish gold (1908) and The search party (1909) Hannay developed a new and lucrative métier as a writer of Irish farce. He wrote extensively for papers such as the Westminster Gazette on conditions in the west of Ireland, and also advocated votes for women. By 1912, when he was the principal speaker in opposition to a motion in the Church of Ireland synod denouncing home rule, Hannay had managed to alienate both his own congregation and much of the catholic nationalist population of the area. In that year he was appointed a canon of St Patrick's cathedral (a position he held until 1922). Deciding that a change of scene might be advisable, he took advantage of the success of his farce General John Regan to resign his living and go on a lecture tour of America (described in Connaught to Chicago (1914)). On his return he briefly served as rector of Mount Mapas, Killiney, Co. Dublin, but left for another American tour in 1914–15. Meanwhile when General John Regan was performed at Westport in 1914 by a travelling company of actors it provoked large-scale riots, in which an actor playing a priest was knocked unconscious and his clerical collar placed on a stick and burnt; police baton charges were necessary to clear the principal open space in the town.
Hannay's conviction of the justice of the allied cause in the first world war led to a falling out with many of his separatist friends. On his return from America he volunteered as an army chaplain and served from 1915 to 1918; his experiences are described in A padre in France (1918). After the war he was rector of Carnalway, Co. Kildare (1918–22). The Irish Republican Army (IRA) intimidation of alleged collaborators, which he witnessed in this period, left Hannay with an abiding detestation for that organisation, expressed in the novel Wild justice (1930), very loosely based on the case of Mrs Lindsay, in which a southern unionist exile in Britain murders two Irish republicans responsible for the killing of his pregnant wife and chauffeur. From 1922 to 1924 Hannay was chaplain to the British legation in Budapest, with responsibility for anglican believers across large areas of central Europe. This period (described in A wayfarer in Hungary (1925)) gave him considerable sympathy for the reduced position of the post-imperial Magyars; less happily, it led him to echo the hostility voiced by these new friends towards the allegedly subversive and money-grubbing Jews of Budapest. These expressions reflect casual prejudice rather than obsessive anti-Semitism, and he condemned Nazi persecution of the Jews in the 1930s.
In 1924 Hannay accepted the living of Mells in Somerset. His experiences here gave him a fascination with the ancient history and paternalism of the rural Church of England, expressed in Bindon Parva (1926), a series of short stories set in different centuries about rectors of the same Devon parish experiencing various moral and spiritual crises. He remained a prolific writer, largely though not entirely of humorous works; in all he published about sixty books. These make increasing use of elderly or otherwise ineffective narrators who stand at some distance from the central action. In 1935 Hannay moved to the parish of Holy Trinity, Kensington, where he remained for the rest of his life, continuing to perform his parochial duties throughout the blitz. In 1946 he paid his final visit to Ireland to accept an honorary Doctor of Literature/Letters (Litt.D.) degree from TCD. Hannay died 2 February 1950 at his home, 187 Queen's Gate, Kensington, London, and was buried in the churchyard of St Andrew's, Mells, Somerset.
Hannay's principal contemporary reputation was as a gifted farceur, the author of such romps as Send for Dr. O'Grady (1925). More recently his reputation as a shrewd observer of the Irish society of his day has revived. Some interpretations, such as Paul Durcan's poem (in History and the public sphere: essays in honour of John A. Murphy (2005)), which imagines Hannay's spirit revisiting the now-secularised Westport rectory and benignly blessing post-catholic Ireland, underplay Hannay's specifically religious inspiration. He seems to have felt an ambivalent fascination for the prophet Jeremiah, who supplies the titles for several of his novels, as denouncer of the complacencies and wishful thinkers of church and state; at the same time, he was aware of the elements of fantasy and wishful thinking in his own prescriptions for the Irish problem. The failed prophet or saint, seen tragically or humorously, is a recurrent figure in his later work: both prophet and farceur require a sense of detachment. Writing to the former Board of Trade inspector Hilda Martindale (qv), whom he had assisted in investigating sweated labour in the Westport area, towards the end of his life, Hannay remarked: ‘My own experience is that the solitary hope we have of avoiding actual despair is a resolute determination to see the comic side of things … If we didn't extract food for laughter out of failure we should go under. Once let your mind get fixed on the pathetic side of the failure and you are done’ (Martindale, Canon Hannay, unpaginated). The Hannay papers are in the Manuscripts Department, TCD Library.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).