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A novelist, dramatist, lyricist; b. 12 December, 1803, at Limerick, Ireland; d. at Cork, 12 June, 1840.
His parents came from good families in the south of Ireland. Thirteen children were born to them, nine boys (of whom Gerald was the youngest) and four girls. When Gerald was seven years old his parents moved to Fairy Lawn by the river Shannon about twenty-seven miles from Limerick. Gerald received a good education; he had many teachers, but he owed most to his mother, a woman of deep religious feeling and great talent. "She was", as Dr. Griffin Gerald's brother and biographer, remarks "of exceedingly fine tastes on most subjects, intimately acquainted with the best models of English classical literature, and always endeavoured to cultivate a taste for them in her children". Gerald's early life was happy and profitable. When free from his books he was wont to roam through the neighbouring countries, so rich in ruins, which told him of the past glories of his native land. At that time, too he got an insight into the customs of the people and became familiar with the popular legends and folk-tales which he later worked into his stories. In 1820 the family at Fairy Lawn was broken up. The parents with several of the children emigrated to America and settled in the State of Pennsylvania. Gerald, with one brother and two sisters, was left behind under the care of an elder brother, a practising physician in Adare, County Limerick. Gerald had thought of following the professlon of his brother, but love of literature had too strong a hold on him. His chief interest was in the drama. The modern stage he considered in a decadent condition. Boy though he was, he conceived the bold project "of revolutionizing the dramatic tastes of the time by writing for the stage". With this idea in view he wrote several plays, expecting to have them staged in London. When only nineteen years old he started on his quixotic journey—"a laughable delusion", he called it some years later, "a young gentleman totally unknown coming into town with a few pounds in one pocket and a brace of tragedies in the other". His life during the first two years was life in a city wilderness; it is sad reading. He could not get an opening for his dramas, he did not live to see his "Gisippus" acted at Drury Lane in 1842, when Macready presented it in his effort to restore the classical drama to the stage.
Disappointed in his dramatic aspirations he tried his hand at all sorts of literary drudgery; he translated works from the French and the Spanish; he wrote for some of the great magazines and weekly publications, most of which, he says, cheated him abominably. And yet he kept on writing, ever hopeful of success, though he was often in straitened circumstances, going for days without food. His resolve to rely on his own efforts for success, and his abhorrence of anything that savoured of patronage, kept him from making known his needs. To disappointment was added ill-health, an affection of the lungs and palpitation of the heart. At the end of two years he obtained steady employment in the publishing house as reader and reviser of manuscripts, and in a short time became frequent contributor to some of the leading periodicals and magazines. He wrote on a great variety of topics and displayed such talent that his services were well rewarded. What spare time he had he devoted to the writing of novels wishing by this means to make known the people and places with which he was most familiar—those of the south of Ireland. And so he started a series of short stories, "Anecdotes of Munster", which he later called "Holland-Tide". This series established his reputation and enabled him to give up his literary drudgery. No longer haunted by the failure he returned to Ireland. Though broke down by poor health, he kept on working and produced his "Tales of the Munster Festivals". His next work "The Collegians", published in his twenty-fifth year, assured him of fame and fortune. It is perhaps the best of his novels. It gives a comprehensive picture of every phase and gradation of Irish life. The story is well worked out, giving the strongest proof of the dramatic talent of the author. It was dramatized in the popular play, "The Colleen Bawn", but, unfortunately not by Griffin. He took up the study of law at the London University, but in a short time removed to Dublin for the study of ancient Irish history, preparatory to his work "The Invasion", which was published in 1832. This work had a good sale and was highly praised by scholars, but never became popular. For several years more he kept at his literary work.
It became evident, however, that a great change had come over him in his views of fame and fortune. In a letter to his father in 1833 he told of the desire he had "for a long time entertained of taking orders in the Church", and adds, "I do not know any station in life in which a man can do so much good, both to others and to himself, as in that of a Catholic priest." This idea of doing good had been the motive power at work with him; but soon the conviction had forced itself upon him that he had overrated the value of fiction, and he was afraid that "he was wasting his time". The rest of his life may be briefly told. With the exception of a tour through Scotland and a short trip on the Continent, he lived with his brother, keeping up to some extent his literary labours, but devoting more and more time to prayer and to teaching the poor children of the neighbourhood. This last occupation was so congenial that he resolved to enter the Institute of the Christian Brothers, a society which has as its special aim the education of children of the poor. It was apparently a sense of the deep responsibility of the duties attached to the priesthood that caused him to turn to the humbler position of Christian Brother. But before entering upon his religious life he gathered together and burned almost all his unpublished manuscripts. On 8 Sept. 1838, he entered the Institute and there as Brother Joseph spent the rest of his life content and happy. Writing to an old friend he said "he felt a great deal happier in the practice of this daily routine than he ever did while roving about the great city, absorbed in the modest project of rivalling Shakespeare and throwing Scott in the shade". In June, 1839, he was transferred from Dublin to the south monastery of Cork, where he died of typhus fever at the early age of thirty-six.
Notwithstanding the severe trials he was put to during his residence in London he remained singularly pure-minded, and the purity of his mind is refected in all he wrote. Though he thought he had failed, he really succeeded in his aim of furnishing healthy food to the imagination. He knew the Irish character, and portrayed faithfully its many peculiarities. The same may be said, but perhaps in a lesser degree, of the Banim brothers, but not of the other novelists of this period. Lover, Lever, and Carleton do not give the true sketches of Irish life, for they were out of sympathy with it. An edition of the novels of Griffin in ten volumes was published in New York in 1896.
DANIEL GRIFFIN, The life of Gerald Griffin (London, 1843); READ, Cabinet of Irish Literature (London, 1891); Dublin Review, vols. XV, XVI.
M. J. Flaherty.