J.S. Le Fanu’s “Shamus O’Brien” (1850)

1896a Downey009 copyAs today is Poetry Day here in Ireland, I thought I’d share a poem by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873). If Le Fanu is one of Ireland’s overlooked authors (when remembered it is mainly for his ghost stories and sensation novels), then as a poet he is certainly almost entirely forgotten. Though this was not always the case.

It wasn’t until over twenty years after the author’s death that the Poems of J.S. Le Fanu (London: Downey, 1896) were collected under the editorship of family friend Alfred Percival Graves. But as Graves indicates in his introduction, Le Fanu had been a lifelong poet, and was writing “brilliant doggrel” as a young man, the only surviving example being a valentine to “a very pretty” Miss K——:

“Your frown or your smile make me Savage or Gay / In action, as well as in song; / And if ’tis decreed I at length become Gray, / Express but the word, and I’m Young.”

One of Le Fanu’s earliest successes as a poet was “The Ballad of Shamus O’Brien”, though curiously his authorship was, even at the height of the poem’s popularity, not known. In fact, it was commonly attributed to Samuel Lover (1797-1868) who popularised the ballad in America in 1846. In a letter to Le Fanu’s brother William, Lover wrote:

grande_jslfs2“In reading over your brother’s poem while I crossed the Atlantic, I became more and more impressed with its great beauty and dramatic effect—so much so that I determined to test its effect in public, and have done so here, on my first appearance, with the greatest success.”

So enduring was the ballad’s popularity that it was adapted as an opera by Charles Villiers Stanford in 1895. Long out of print in the twentieth-century, Swan River Press issued in 2011 a new edition of Le Fanu’s poetry as a limited edition hand-bound booklet, copies of which are available here.

“Shamus O’Brien” first saw print in the July 1850 issue of the Dublin University Magazine, a magazine to which Le Fanu is now intricately connected as both contributor and editor. And even here it appeared anonymously, as many of his contributions did. A brief introductory note explains the poem’s popularity with public recitations, and notes the misattribution to Samuel Lover.

And so, for Poetry Day Ireland, we wish to share with you Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Ballad of Shamus O’Brien” as it first appeared in the Dublin University Magazine:





If you’re looking for more Irish poetry, please check out our previous post on George William Russell (AE).

J.S. Le Fanu’s “Shamus O’Brien” (1850)

The Green Book 5


“In Ireland we have a national apathy about literature . . . It began to descend on us after we became self-governing; before that we were imaginative dreamers.”

— AE to Van Wyck Brooks, 10 October 1932

So wrote the poet, painter, and mystic George William Russell (1867-1935) — better known by his spiritual name AE — less than a year before he left Ireland after a lifetime working to enrich a nation he loved and dedicated himself to. Yet his vision of Ireland as an enlightened society was seemingly at odds with the mass desire for the cultural censorship and social conservatism that coincided with the birth of the Irish Free State.

Today, with the continuation of a crippling austerity policy — which includes the treatment of the arts as commodity, the considered monetisation of our public museums, financial cuts to arts funding, and the budgetary destitution of the National Library, among other similar injuries masquerading as common sense measures — one wonders just exactly how the arts are valued in a nation that still proudly sells itself as “the land of saints and scholars”.

Leaves for the BurningFifty years later, a sentiment similar to AE’s was echoed by author Mervyn Wall (1908-1997) in a fascinating interview (reprinted in this issue) in which he asserts that, “When the new Free State was set up, it settled down to very mundane things . . . since 1922 there has been no inspired leadership whatsoever, leadership that would say here is a small country starting off fresh and here is the opportunity to make something wonderful of it.” But instead of leaving Ireland, as so many of our luminaries did (and still do), Wall wrote a pair of brilliant fantasy novels, The Unfortunate Fursey (1946) and The Return of Fursey (1948), sharply satirising both Church and State — and though they tried, the Irish censors could find no specific reason to ban Wall’s books. Similarly acerbic, his 1952 novel, Leaves for the Burning, with its accumulation of exaggerated and improbable details, is often read as a satire, but as critic Robert Hogan points out, should be considered more of a realistic (“albeit one-sided”) depiction of post-war Ireland. Wall, incidentally, worked for the Arts Council from 1957-1975, and his legacy includes Ireland’s tax exemption for artists scheme, which I might add the current government occasionally talks of abolishing because of its perceived “cost to the taxpayer”. Many of Wall’s comments in this interview, though conducted over thirty years ago, feel just as relevant today.

draculaAlso in this issue you’ll find Kevin Corstorphine’s survey of a selection of stories by Cork-born author Fitz-James O’Brien (1826?-1862). O’Brien left Ireland at a young age, and eventually settled into a bohemian literary lifestyle in New York before perishing in the American Civil War. Corstorphine looks at O’Brien’s better known stories, like “What Was It?” and “The Diamond Lens”, and those less read but equally deserving of examination, such as “The Lost Room” and “A Dead Secret”. We’ve also got an essay by noted Stoker-scholar Elizabeth Miller, who considers in detail the 1901 abridged paperback edition of Dracula. Published during Stoker’s lifetime, and possibly even condensed by his own hand, Miller’s essay sheds just a little more light on the mind of the Dubliner who penned the most influential horror novel of all time. Finally, though Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s bicentenary celebrations are now over, here are two short, but important pieces by Richard Dury and James Machin that are simply too good to pass up: new discoveries that notably expand the ever-growing list of the Invisible Prince’s admirers.

PCS-1-420x640A word should also be said about this issue’s cover painting, “The Princess on the Ridge of the World” by Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951). Pixie, as she was known to her friends, was an accomplished artist who not only illustrated Bram Stoker’s final novel, Lair of the White Worm (1911), but in 1909 contributed the eighty drawings that adorn the iconic Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck. The painting on the cover of this issue, which kindly comes to us from the Collection of John Moore, was a gift from Pamela Colman Smith to AE. An inscription on the back of the painting reads: “To AE, with all good wishes to you and yours for Christmas and the New Year and all time. Yours, Pixie. Xmas 1902.” Beside the inscription is a small drawing of a pixie. As a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Pamela Colman Smith was likely introduced to AE through their mutual friend W.B. Yeats. This is the first time “The Princess on the Ridge of the World” has been published.

AE’s comment regarding our national apathy toward literature—and art in general—is provocative and disheartening, and the natural instinct will be to deny it, pointing to one example or another of independent artistry or do-it-yourself creativity existing in Ireland today. And yes, AE’s comment was made nearly a century ago. But I do not think his assertion should be dismissed without first deep consideration tempered with honesty free from national pride.

However, given the gloominess of AE’s words at the start of this piece, I thought we might do well to end it with a comment he made to Seán Ó Faoláin in a letter from 1933, a decidedly more hopeful prescription from the man who helped shepherd into the world writings we now associate with Ireland’s literary identity.

“We have imagined ourselves into littleness, darkness, and ignorance, and we have to imagine ourselves back into light.”

Brian J. Showers
Rathmines, Dublin
17 March 2015

Order The Green Book 5 here.


“Editor’s Note” Brian J. Showers

“Fitz-James O’Brien: The Seen and the Unseen” by Kevin Corstorphine

“A Story-teller: Stevenson on Le Fanu” Richard Dury

“Arthur Machen and J.S. Le Fanu” James Machin

“Shape-shifting Dracula: The Abridged Edition of 1901″ Elizabeth Miller

“An Interview with Mervyn Wall” Gordon Henderson


Digby Rumsey’s Shooting for the Butler (Martin Andersson)

Wireless Mystery Theatre’s Green Tea (Jim Rockhill)

Dara Downey’s American Women’s Ghost Stories in the Gilded Age (Maria Giakaniki)

J.S. Le Fanu’s Reminiscences of a Bachelor (Robert Lloyd Parry)

Charlotte Riddell’s A Struggle for Fame (Jarlath Killeen)

Karl Whitney’s Hidden City (John Howard)

“Notes on Contributors”

The Green Book 5

Ghost Story Awards 2014

Dreams of Shadow and SmokeWe are pleased to announce that our first anthology, Dreams of Shadows and Smoke: Stories for J.S. Le Fanu, edited by Jim Rockhill and Brian J. Showers and published on the bicentenary of the author’s birth, has won the inaugural Ghost Story Award for Best Ghost Story Book 2014.

Congratulations are also due to D.P. Watt, whose tale “Shallabalah” (published in the Ghosts & Scholars Newsletter 26) won Best Ghost Story.

We’ve still got copies of Dreams of Shadow and Smoke available on our website for anyone interested—we still have a handful of copies signed by numerous contributors!

Thank you again to everyone who voted and contributed to this project. Below is a note from Jim Rockhill and Brian J. Showers:

Note from the Editors

We are both delighted to learn that Dreams of Shadow and Smoke: Stories for J.S. Le Fanu has won Best Ghost Story Book for 2014. More to the point, we are grateful that so many readers enjoyed the anthology. In some ways, this award could not have been given to a more appropriate book (bear with us here!): we say this not as editors, but because this book—much like the Ghost Story Awards—reflects a deep admiration for the ghostly tale, and serves as a celebration of our genre as a whole, both past and present. As is always the case with anthologies, the success of this book belongs wholly with the authors whose works define the volume. And despite the debt owed to our nineteenth-century touchstone, we hope the stories in Dreams of Shadow and Smoke show that literature of the uncanny continues to evolve, and we expect that the Ghost Story Awards (surely its very existence reflects a healthy and vibrant genre) will only further promote tales of the supernatural, weird, unheimlich, odd, fantastic, and strange. Anyway, enough said!

Jim Rockhill & Brian J. Showers

The winning anthology beside Le Fanu's death mask.
The winning anthology beside Le Fanu’s death mask.
Ghost Story Awards 2014