Mahony, Francis Sylvester (‘Father Prout’) (1804–66), priest and humorist, was born 31 December 1804 in Cork, the second son of seven sons and four daughters of Martin Mahony, a woollen manufacturer, and his second wife, Mary Mahony (née Reynolds). Educated at Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare, he seemed destined for a career in the priesthood and was sent to St Acheul, Amiens (1819), and then to a Jesuit seminary in Paris. From there he went to Rome to study philosophy (1823–5), before returning to Clongowes to teach. A brilliant student and scholar, he was described as being the same in his youth as he was at his death: ‘caustic, irascible, opinionated, argumentative, [but] with a sharp sense of irony and satire’ (Mannin, 137).
Within two months of his return to Clongowes he was appointed master of rhetoric, but his rapid rise was halted abruptly after an ill-fated class outing to nearby Celbridge, in the course of which both students and master drank heavily and Mahony made a loud attack on the character of Daniel O'Connell (qv). There was uproar when the inebriated class returned past curfew, and Mahony was soon transferred to the Jesuit college of Fribourg, Switzerland. He went from there to Florence, where he was expelled by the Jesuits. Though he was ordained a secular priest in 1832, it seems he had persistent doubts about his vocation, which were shared by his superiors. He returned to Ireland in 1832 to assist in the Cork mission that was treating the cholera epidemic. The conflicts in his character resurfaced, however, and in 1834 he left suddenly after a serious disagreement with the local bishop. He moved to London, where he became a journalist and writer; for the rest of his life he was independent of church authority.
In 1834 Mahony began writing for Fraser's Magazine, and, like the other distinguished contributors, adopted a pseudonym – ‘Father Prout’; he also published as ‘Don Jeremy Savonarola’. Mahony had known a real Father Prout – Daniel Prout (qv), the parish priest of Watergrasshill, in his childhood – but in all other respects the character was the creation of his imagination. He invented biographical details and even a biographer; The reliques of Father Prout was published in 1837. His writing at this time was sharp and acerbic, and often brilliant: Thomas Moore (qv) was accused of plagiarism, O'Connell was regularly abused, and Prout won a wide readership. After a while Mahony's inspiration faded, and he moved to the staff of Charles Dickens's Bentley's Magazine. Conviviality was never Mahony's problem, but it seems alcoholism was, and in the engravings of the literary dinners, Thackeray, Coleridge and Carlyle are each shown with a glass of wine, whereas he is shown with three.
Deciding to travel on the Continent in 1837, from then on he lived abroad. He was Rome correspondent for the Daily News (1846–58), and Paris correspondent for the Globe from 1858 until his death. His health failed in the early 1860s and he became lonely and irritable. He burned his papers in his final days, and died 18 May 1866 at Paris. His body was brought back to Cork and he was buried in the vault of Shandon church. After his death he was remembered chiefly for ‘The bells of Shandon’, a nostalgic poem about Cork that may have been written when he was at Clongowes. It was the least of his works, but it achieved an enduring fame and became a popular song. Mahony was an erratic character, and his writing, sometimes spectacular, sometimes mediocre, reflected this.