Banim, John (1798–1842), artist, novelist, playwright, and poet, was born 3 April 1798 in Kilkenny city, the eldest son of Michael Banim (perhaps originally Bannon), farmer and shopkeeper (he sold sporting goods), and Joannah or Judith Banim (née Carroll) from near the Slieve Bloom region north-west of Kilkenny. His brother, Michael Banim (1796–1874), merchant and novelist, was born 5 August 1796 in Kilkenny city; besides the brothers, one daughter survived to adulthood. Educated at G. C. Buchanan's protestant English Academy in Rothe House and Fr Magrath's catholic school, Michael began training for the bar at 16 but relinquished it after two years to help rescue his father's business (endangered when some debtors defaulted), and for the next quarter-century did well in trade.
John's early career
John showed early talent in writing and art and was something of a family favourite. He was educated in several Kilkenny schools (including Buchanan's, Magrath's, and Kilkenny College) and (deciding to become a professional artist) at the Dublin Society's drawing schools (1813–15). In 1816 he returned to Kilkenny to teach art; an unhappy love affair with a pupil, exacerbated by the hostility of her protestant family, culminated in her death from tuberculosis in November 1817. The episode marked him permanently, producing recurrent themes in his writing and – through rheumatic fever contracted after he walked several miles to attend her funeral and spent three nights out in the open – the spinal tuberculosis which, aggravated by overwork, eventually destroyed his career. (It is possible that the disease was multiple sclerosis. Some scholars privately speculate it might have been syphilis; this can probably be discounted as he remained compos mentis until death.) After a year's illness, John plunged into five months’ unspecified dissipation; alarmed at the debts he had contracted, he resolved to relaunch his career. He had become a contributor to a local whig (i.e. pro-catholic) paper, the Leinster Journal; he subsequently became editor and to the end of his life boasted that he had written it into existence.
Deciding that to become a successful artist would require further training which he could not afford (though his background as a visual artist is reflected in his descriptions of light and shadow effects and his emphasis on dramatic tableaux – some of which in turn inspired such visual artworks as Daniel Maclise's (qv) Inauguration of Captain Rock), John moved (1820) to Dublin, where he contributed to several national and provincial papers (notably the Limerick Evening Post, for which he wrote on theatrical matters and other ephemera as ‘A Traveller’). At this time he experienced serious poverty. He gave journalistic support to the Society of Artists in Ireland (of which he was a member) in their campaign to establish the Royal Hibernian Academy. T. J. Mulvany (qv), whom he had first encountered at art school helped him at this stage and throughout his life. In 1820 John published a long poem on the story of Oisin in Tír-na-nÓg, The Celt's paradise (1821), drawing on the work of Charlotte Brooke (qv) and eroticising the story in the manner of Thomas Moore (qv). The poem was promoted by Richard Lalor Sheil (qv), who also assisted Banim in having his neo-classical drama Damon and Pythias staged by Macready at Covent Garden.
Literary collaborations: ‘the O'Hara Family’
John returned to Kilkenny where he paid off his debts and discussed with Michael his new project of writing a series of ‘national tales’ which would ‘raise the national character in the estimation of other lands by a portrayal of the people as they really were’ (Murray, 93). Impressed by the cogency with which Michael commented on his projects and the extensive knowledge which he displayed of peasant life and customs, John persuaded him that they should become literary collaborators and publish their tales as by ‘the O'Hara Family’. Their first two publications were prefaced with letters between ‘Barnes O'Hara’ supposedly an Irish law student in London, and his brother ‘Abel O'Hara’ writing from the family homestead in Ireland. The ‘O'Hara’ names were not originally intended to be straightforward pseudonyms but literary personae of the type used in Scott's Tales of my landlord (these are presented as having been written by a sentimental invalid, ‘Peter Pattieson’ and edited for posthumous publication by the provincial schoolteacher ‘Jedediah Cleishbotham’), in order to present different genres as the product of different individual sensibilities (the prologue to the first series of Tales by the O'Hara family (1825) attributes the grim story of agrarian violence ‘Crohoore of the Billhook’ – in fact written by Michael – to a fictitious third O'Hara brother, Richard) and to allow the recruitment of additional collaborators. (John offered to publish some of Gerald Griffin's (qv) stories as the work of an additional O'Hara before Griffin achieved an independent literary reputation, and in 1838 Harriet Martin's Canvassing was published as an O'Hara Tale with Michael's The mayor of Wind-Gap.) The original scheme was soon abandoned, and Barnes became equated with John and Abel with Michael (though John occasionally referred to himself as Abel from absent-mindedness – e.g. Murray, 189).
A few critics treat Michael as a nullity; it is clear, however, that though John was the more confident and sophisticated writer of the two and the moving force behind the partnership (his letters quoted by Murray and Michael's recollections in the notes to reprints teem with references to literary projects which were to remain unaccomplished), Michael possessed considerable gifts as a social observer. (He was an occasional correspondent of the folklorist-novelist Patrick Kennedy (qv)). The Banims generally exchanged their manuscripts by post as they wrote (the Earl of Clifden assisted them by sending them under his parliamentary frank), giving each other freedom to amend or comment as they saw fit; Michael's notes to a reprint of their works after his brother's death show clearly the extent to which each work can be attributed. Their first collaboration was a never-reprinted story in the European Magazine, ‘Molcht na Vaugha, or the Mother's Curse’.
On 27 February 1822 (after a short courtship) John married Ellen Ruth or Rothe of Cappagh, Inistioge, Co. Kilkenny, daughter of a gentleman farmer reduced to penury by extravagance. The young couple moved to Brompton in London, where John combined hack journalism with work for the Literary Register (July 1822-May 1823) while beginning the first series of Tales. He wrote a ghost story, ‘The Fetches’ and ‘John Doe’ (to which Michael contributed descriptions of Irish Shrove Tuesday customs and a country wedding). At first Ellen assisted John with reviewing, but after their first child was still-born in November 1822 she suffered serious health problems involving considerable financial expense. John added to his burdens by writing occasional pieces for Thomas Arnold, proprietor of the English Opera House (‘whom he found, for the rest of his life, liberal, honourable and a steady friend’ (Murray, 121) and assisting the newly-arrived and impoverished Gerald Griffin, although their friendship was interspersed with misunderstandings compounded by Griffin's touchiness. John found financial relief by writing and selling a satire (in the style of Blackwood's Magazine) on contemporary fads presented as the reminiscences of a clairvoyant, Revelations of the Dead-Alive (1824).
English interest in Irish matters was increasing through the persistence of agrarian violence and of the catholic question; John told Michael that they were engaged in a race against the impending Irish tales of P. J. Whitty and E. E. Crowe (qv) while ‘John Doe’ was to have been called ‘Captain Rock’ but had to be re-named after the appearance of Moore's book of that name. The first series of O'Hara Tales appeared at the beginning of 1825 and was an instant success. John followed it up with The Boyne water (1825), a pseudo-Scottean depiction of the Williamite war in Ireland, for which John toured Ulster and the Boyne battlefield (assisted by Samuel McSkimin (qv)) while Michael visited Limerick and other southern settings. Its highly didactic narrative attributes the seventeenth-century conflict to the fears and machinations of religious bigots, and implicitly suggests that a similar outcome can be avoided in the 1820s by granting catholic emancipation. Although the novel's protestant bigots (led by George Walker (qv)) are handled at greater length, it seems likely that its generalised expressions of anti-clericalism were sincerely meant, for though acutely resentful of his position as a second-class citizen John was at this time a religious sceptic. (He returned to the practice of catholicism after reading William Paley's Evidences of Christianity (1794), noting the irony that a work critical of popery should produce this result.)
The Second Series of O'Hara Tales (1826) is chiefly remembered for The Nowlans, now generally regarded as John's best work despite melodramatic excrescences. Its central character is a young cleric (he has taken a vow of celibacy – i.e. is at least a subdeacon, though it is not clear whether he has been ordained priest) who elopes with a young protestant woman; their marriage is haunted by his feelings of guilt (which she cannot understand), they sink into poverty and she dies in childbirth. The novel draws on John's own experiences of urban poverty and reactions to his wife's sufferings; it also features a satirical portrayal of the ex-priest turned Orangeman Samuel O'Sullivan (qv). Although generally praised by modern critics, its treatment of sexual guilt (possibly inspired by J. G. Lockhart's novel about an adulterous Scottish presbyterian minister, Adam Blair (1822)) was thought excessively frank even by regency standards; John bowdlerised the second edition, and it was excluded from the posthumous collected works.
During the writing of the Second Series John's illness recurred, leaving him in chronic pain and causing serious financial difficulty (increased by the birth of a daughter, Mary, in 1827). Michael filled the gap with a novel about the 1798 rising in Wexford, The croppy, drawing on contemporary newspapers and local Kilkenny memories of 1798 and 1803. Like many other Banim novels, it features a Byronic anti-hero (sardonically named ‘Judkin’ in memory of the notorious ultra-loyalist flogger Sir Thomas Judkin-Fitzgerald (qv)) and a theatrically melodramatic plot whose main features are concealed for much of the novel, leading unwary readers to identify for at least part of the novel with a character apparently driven into rebellion by apparent injustice but finally revealed as the villain, while the apparent villain becomes an (entirely colourless) hero. The political implications of this device are debatable. (The novel takes the O'Connellite line that the government deliberately provoked the rebellion to secure the union.) The book is dedicated to the Kilkenny antiquarian Sheffield Grace, whose ancestors feature in The Boyne water and The last Baron of Crana (1829).
John's later life and work
John's intensifying illness was accompanied by growing bitterness at the continued resistance to catholic emancipation, reflected in his anonymously published society novel The Anglo-Irish of the nineteenth century (1828). This combines an ‘absentee's return’ plot reminiscent of Maria Edgeworth's (qv) The absentee (1812) with satirical depictions of London society and the Dublin haute bourgeoisie (presented as morally bankrupt bigots). It includes bitter portrayals of Lord Castlereagh (qv) and John Wilson Croker (qv) (whose support for catholic emancipation is denounced as pretence) and hostile references to the duke of Wellington (qv).
In the period between the Clare election and the passage of the emancipation act Michael was an O'Connellite activist at local level in Kilkenny, while John wrote angry verses (collected in Chant of the cholera (1831)) satirising the evangelical ‘Second Reformation), denouncing Wellington as ‘a foul foreign fungus’, and proclaiming that Irish catholics will take up arms rather than submit to continued exclusion. One of these poems ‘The Irish peasant to his priest’, better known as ‘Soggarth Aroon’, declares that the mutual attachment of priests and people derives not from the servile and superstitious fear to which it is ascribed by opponents of citizen rights for catholics, but by the memory of shared faithfulness and endurance in the penal days. It was often recited in later decades as a generalised and somewhat vacuous eulogy to the Irish catholic priesthood. John also began work on two short novels about the penal code, published in 1830 as The denounced; after emancipation he revised his manuscript to remove any references which might cause bitterness, and it is generally felt that they suffered in the process. The published version is dedicated to Wellington.
In 1829 John moved with his family to France for medical reasons; he survived two attacks of cholera (1832) but operations left his legs useless while he still suffered from chronic pains and two sons (born 1831, 1832) died in infancy. His last completed novel The smuggler (1832), set in a Kent village where he had earlier convalesced, had its publication delayed because of quarrels with the publisher; thereafter he was only able to produce short stories for the Annuals, collected in The bit o’ writin’ (1838). Returning to Ireland (July 1835), John was greeted with popular acclaim and benefit performances in Dublin and Kilkenny. He settled in Windgap Cottage, on the eastern outskirts of Kilkenny city; he was wheeled around in a specially-built vehicle, occasionally gave lessons in a local school which Michael had helped to fund, and gathered material for a never-completed work called ‘The lies of history’ (possibly a history of Ireland). In 1836 the chief secretary, Viscount Morpeth (qv), secured for him a civil list pension of £150 and an annual £40 for his daughter Mary's education. John Banim died 13 August 1842. After Mary died in 1844 a pension was granted to her mother.
Michael's later life and work
Michael Banim went on to produce some novels of Kilkenny in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, The Ghost-hunter and his family (1833) modelled on his mother's parents and siblings, The mayor of Wind-gap (1838), and Father Connell (1842), inspired by childhood memories of Fr Richard O'Donnell (d. 1811), catholic dean of Ossory and pastor of St. John's parish, Kilkenny. These are disfigured by obtrusive sentimentality and melodramatic plots (which might have provided a stunning coup de theatre on the stage of the English Opera House but are impossibly convoluted on the printed page) and by a double standard of outrageous proportions (it is explicitly stated in more than one Banim novel that a man can be reformed after sexual sin but a woman who has lost her virginity – even through rape – is thereafter unfit for decent society); these have received little attention from critics by comparison with the work of the 1820s. They nevertheless possess considerable interest for their portrayal of Kilkenny in the pre-railway era, opposing the hard-won virtues of catholic middle-class domesticity to the assumption of superiority by even plebeian protestants and recording the teeming vagrants of pre-Famine Ireland with a mixture of sympathy, pity, fear and revulsion. John had begun to handle such material in The denounced, and though he assisted Michael only on the composition of Father Connell, his sickness and the death of his mother (1830) bred in him an intense nostalgia for the days of his youth and he encouraged his brother to handle this material. Father Connell is of particular interest for its portrayal of devotional life and priestly habits at the start of the nineteenth century (albeit seen from the perspective of an admiring altar-boy); John Thomas Troy (qv), archbishop of Dublin (1784–1823), makes a cameo appearance. In these works, as in those of Gerald Griffin, the ideal self-representation of the Irish catholic middle-class receives one of its earliest formulations, with a great deal more frankness about the pervasive violence, sexual temptations, and encompassing poverty against which that ideal was defined than are to be found in later Victorian representations.
About a year after his marriage (1840) to Catherine O'Dwyer of Tipperary, which took place around the time of his father's death, Michael was nearly ruined through the failure of a merchant handling his property. These circumstances may account for John's involvement with Father Connell, which the grief-stricken Michael came to believe had shortened his brother's life.
Michael subsequently suffered a serious illness – ‘for two years his life was despaired of’ (Read). However, he managed to re-establish himself in business on a smaller scale in Henry Street. He served Kilkenny city as a town councillor (1845–6) and alderman (1846–62) for St John's ward; as mayor (1850); and from 1856 as postmaster, an appointment he owed to the earl of Carlisle (formerly Lord Morpeth), now lord lieutenant (1855–8, 1859–64). During the 1850s Michael assisted Patrick Murray (1874–23) in writing The life of John Banim (1857), which went through ten editions to 1869. His final published writings were a story, ‘Clough Fion’ (Dublin University Magazine, 1852, published in book form in the US in 1869; its searing description of the clearance of a populated townland by a socially ambitious middleman and the melodramatic and sentimental manner in which it evades the situation thus established are typical of the Banims’ work), and a temperance novel set in a Co. Clare holiday resort, The town of the cascades (1864; heavily echoing Dickens, and containing an admiring description of Fr Theobald Mathew (qv) apparently drawn from personal observation). Michael supplied notes and introductions to a new edition of the O'Hara stories (Dublin, Duffy, 1865–6; consciously echoing Scott's ‘Magnum’ collected edition). In 1873 deteriorating health forced him to retire to Booterstown, Co. Dublin; the Royal Literary Fund granted him an annual allowance, and after his death (30 August 1874) his widow received a civil list pension. R. R. Madden (qv) assisted in obtaining the grant; his papers in the RIA contain some material connected with this and a few chapters of an abandoned Michael Banim novel, ‘The Hell-Fire Club’ (edited by Bernard Escarbelt in Etudes Irlandaises 1976).
Michael had three daughters. Anna died in 1903; Mathilde (d. 1907) illustrated Here and there through Ireland (1891) written by Mary (d. 1939). A portrait of Michael Banim by T. C. Thompson is in the NGI. A portrait of John Banim by G. F. Mulvany (qv) is in the NGI; a bust is in the Tholsel, Kilkenny.