Wednesday 26 April 2023

Robert Logan: ‘Ireland and the Moulding of Patrick Brontë’

Robert Logan, chair of the Irish section of the Brontë Society, gave the Brussels Brontë Group an absorbing overview of the Irish heritage of the Brontë family, focusing on the experiences of Patrick Brontë before he moved to England in 1802 and how these in turn reflected on the lives of his literary children. 

The detailed discussion on Saturday 22 April 2023 included several providential relationships, a family story about a swarthy orphan and the seminal impact of the Irish Rebellion of the late 1790s on Patrick’s views and outlook.

Even after they become famous writers, there was very little attention given to the Irish background of the Brontë sisters for most of the nineteenth century. In her 1857 biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell includes “only one short paragraph referencing Patrick’s Irish background,” Logan said in his enlightening talk. 

It wasn’t until the 1890s “that the Irish dimension to the Brontë story was revealed,” he said. 

William Wright was the first to really promote the famous family’s Irish background with his 1893 book The Brontës in Ireland, which detailed the history of Patrick’s ancestors before and during his time in County Down. Wright’s work was based on extensive research of oral histories from people familiar with Patrick’s family over several generations. While the book has been criticized for its lack of written evidence, it revealed “the Irish angle to the Brontë genius,” Logan said. “The book was a sensation in its time,” he said. 

One account that Wright brought to light has particular resonance for fans of Wuthering Heights. Logan recounted the narrative as reflected in Wright’s book. It goes something like this: 

Patrick Brontë’s great-grandfather was a farmer and a dealer in cattle in Ireland who frequently traveled to Liverpool to sell stock. On one of these journeys, his wife persuaded him to adopt a swarthy infant that was found abandoned on the ship. They called him Welsh. Over time, this boy became indispensable to the father and his favorite, arousing the jealousy in the other siblings. 

Then, after the sudden death of the father while on a trading trip and the disappearance of the money he had gained in cattle-dealing, Welsh was evicted from the family home. The boy eventually regains the trust of one of the female siblings, Mary, and they end up getting married. Childless initially, they approach one of the other siblings with an offer to adopt one of their children, which was accepted. That young boy was Hugh Brunty. 

But Hugh was brought up in appalling conditions, subjected to cruel misuse and constant heavy work. So after several years, he ran away and made his way north to County Down. There was no need to point out the parallels with Heathcliff’s story in Emily Brontë’s novel. But Logan also pointed out that Wright’s account, which is based on oral history, came many decades after the actual events, “so it’s possible that people adapted their stories” to the action in Wuthering Heights

In County Down, Hugh eventually eloped with Alice McClory. The couple had a large but very poor family, the first child of which was Patrick, who became a teacher in 1798 and later changed his name to Brontë. 

“Patrick’s progress wasn’t feather-bedded,” Logan said. But it was fortuitous. 

Robert Logan
In Ireland, Patrick benefited from several providential associations, and their impact on him filtered through to his gifted children. These associations included the Reverend Thomas Tighe, who appointed the teenaged Patrick as a teacher at Drumballyroney School and later helped him get to Cambridge. 

Another positive impact was a book published just after Patrick was named as schoolmaster – Practical Education by Richard Edgeworth, the father of the Anglo-Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth. Edgeworth’s theory of education was based on the premise that a child's early experiences are formative and that the associations they form early in life are long-lasting. 

Logan explained that in this “ground-breaking, hugely influential” work, Richard Edgeworth advocated that: “The child should be treated as a rational being, lured sympathetically to think for itself, kindled to delight in the development of its intellectual powers.” Edgeworth added: “The child should be encouraged to experiment and think freely and without interference,” Logan said. “Surely Patrick must have read this book,” he said, suggesting a source for Patrick’s liberal parenting style. 

But political developments also had an impact on Patrick and his family in Ireland. His brother William participated in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and had to spend a long time in hiding. “Patrick was very aware of the political realities and consequences of political action,” Logan said. 

“His whole life in Ireland was riddled with disputes, and the growing dissatisfaction of the nonconformists and the Roman Catholics; the consequential rise of the United Irishmen, open rebellion,” Logan said. “Ultimately all of this must filter through to his children, the way he taught him.” 

“All their novels have rebellion at their core,” Logan said.

-- J.H.

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