The Bard of Erin ... A Man of Many Parts

By John Bruton

I remember, as a child, playing over and over again our old 78-rpm records of John McCormack’s songs, which had been the property of my late grand uncle and namesake. Many of the songs in the great Irish tenor’s repertoire had been written over 100 years previously, by another Irishman, the poet and author, Thomas Moore (right). They were widely known as “Moore’s Melodies”.

 I knew little or nothing else about Moore, although I remember I had a stamp, in my now long lost stamp collection, which had been issued in his honour in 1952. So it was with only mild interest, that I picked up a copy, of the biography of Moore by Ronan Kelly, first published in 2008 by Penguin in a Dublin bookshop. I am glad I did.

The Moore that emerges from these pages is much more than a mere sentimental and patriotic balladeer.

 In fact, the melodies themselves were not Moore’s work at all, but had been collected by Edward Bunting from traditional local sources. But Moore composed the words to accompany, and give life, and meaning, to the melodies. From these compositions came his celebrity, and much of his badly needed income.

As well as the author of popular songs, Moore was a substantial poet, and friend of other poets, like Byron, Shelley, Rogers and Wordsworth. He was also an active political satirist, supporting the Whig party against the Tories.

He was a biographer and historian. He wrote biographies of Lord Byron, of the United Irishman Lord Edward FitzGerald, and of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. He was so close to Byron that Byron entrusted him with his own auto biography, a work that was destroyed, unpublished, after Byron’s untimely death, because of a dispute with some of Byron’s  friends.

 Moore wrote a substantial history of Ireland, and his poetry was accompanied by substantial explanatory footnotes that were the fruit of extensive historical research.

He was born in Aungier Street in Dublin on 28 May 1779, to a Catholic merchant family. His mother’s people, the Codds, were from Wexford, and the Moores were from  Kerry.

He was privately educated, and went to Trinity College, Dublin, at the age of only 15, where he became a close friend of Robert Emmet and was on the fringes of the United Irishmen. His support was more literary than physical. He wrote an anonymous piece complaining of “the horde of foreign depredators who murder the happiness of our country”. He took no part in the rebellions of either 1798 or 1803, and in order to pursue his literary career, he went to England after finishing college and never returned permanently to Ireland.

In England, his literary fame gradually enabled him to become friends with many members of the Whig aristocracy, including Lord Lansdowne and the future Prime Minister, Lord John Russell. He was the recipient of political patronage from the Whigs, notably a sinecure in Bermuda adjudicating on the ownership of captured cargoes. Lord John, a lifelong friend, was to go on to be the Whig Prime Minister during the Irish Famine, and later the editor, after Moore’s death in 1852, of the published version of Moore’s diaries and correspondence.

Although he cultivated an English accent, and married a Protestant, Moore remained an active critic of British rule in Ireland, and supporter of Catholic Emancipation. He considered himself “English” when visiting America or France, but “Irish” when he was living in England. He returned to Ireland frequently.

Because Moore wrote so much, for publication and in private letters and diaries, Ronan Kelly’s book  presents a deep insight into the attitudes and lifestyle of a generation of Irish people who  experienced the  1798 rebellion, the Act of Union, and the struggle for Catholic Emancipation, but who had yet to absorb the full horror and bitter political fruits of the Famine.

Like many others of their era, the domestic lives of Moore and his wife, Bessy, a former actress, were  beset by tragedy, debt and extravagance.  All their children predeceased them. Moore lived beyond his means, and was constantly borrowing  from his publishers on the strength of works that were not yet complete. As a result he was constantly under pressure to meet deadlines.

Initially supported financially by his own parents, he in turn had to support them in their declining years, as well as buying commissions in the army, and paying debts, for his sons.

The political climate in Ireland changed greatly during Moore’s lifetime. As Ronan Kelly succinctly puts it, “While O Connell (right) and his ‘Catholic Nation’ marched triumphantly to the tunes of Moore’s Melodies, the Protestant population developed a freshly defensive mindset; eighteenth century ‘Patriots’ became nineteenth century Unionists”, a tendency accentuated by the evangelical revival  among Protestants in the early nineteenth century.

Thus  while Moore’s college friends in Trinity in the 1790’s were mainly Protestant, and shared his nationalist sentiments, by the end of his life the divisions between the religious communities in Ireland had become much more marked.

While he fully supported O Connell’s aims, Moore was critical of the Liberator’s tactics, probably because these tactics embarrassed the Whig friends Moore had made in England.

Moore suffered a stroke in 1849, and seems to have been in mental decline in the years prior to that, the Famine years, which may explain why there is apparently no reference to that tragedy in his correspondence or writings.

His friendship with the then Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, whose laissez faire policies contributed so much to the famine disaster, does not seem to have been put to use, on  what was to turn out to be a matter of life and death for the country  to which Moore had otherwise devoted his literary talents.

But then Moore’s four volume history of Ireland ended in 1600, which suggests that he may, like many then and since, have been more comfortable romanticising past wrongs, than performing the more difficult task of righting present ones. 

After his stroke in 1849, Tom Moore was disabled for the rest of his life and was cared for by his wife Bessy, who said that, in these few years, she had been “happier now than she had been for her whole life”. She said she had ”her husband to herself” at last. Tom Moore died on 26 February 1852.

There are statues of Tom Moore in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, in Central Park in Manhattan, in Ballarat in Australia, and in College Green in his native Dublin.

Ronan Kelly is a meticulous and entertaining biographer and I look forward to his next book.

John Bruton, a former Teachta Dála in Ireland’s Dáil Éireann, served as the nation’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) from 1994 to 1997, and as Ambassador of the European Union to the United States from 2004 to 2007.  He is currently President of IFSC Ireland.  A graduate of University College Dublin, with degrees in economics and law, he is a passionate student of history.  John has graciously agreed to write book reviews on occasion for The Wild Geese. You can get more of John's perspectives on Irish -- and world -- affairs at http://www.johnbruton.com/.

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Tags: History of Ireland, Poetry, Traditional Music

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