Sunday, September 05, 2010

The life and writings of James M'Henry of Larne (1785-1845)

"Work! An' was it for that, after a', that I left the snug toonlan' o' Maughrygowan, an' cam' owre the ocean, whan I thocht I wad become a gentleman on my very landin! Work! why what waur could I hae done at hame, than to hae laboured for my daily bread! But I was nae quite at that need either. Eh! Sirs - Nelly, puir lass! is as little likely to become a 'lady in Pennsylvania' as the sang we used to sing says, that she was in her ain country!".


These are the first words spoken by Gilbert Frazier, an Ulster-Scots emigrant who left the countryside between Coleraine and Londonderry in April 1723, and sailed with his wife Nelly to Philadelphia. Gilbert was the key character in the novel The Wilderness; or, Braddock's TImes - a Tale of the West, which was published in New York in 1823.

It was written by James M'Henry who was born in Larne on 20 December 1785, and may well have been inspired by his own life. He studied medicine at Glasgow University, while there he published a poem about the 1798 Rebellion - which he would have witnessed as a teenage boy - entitled Patrick: A Poetical Tale of 1798 (published by McKenzie, Glasgow 1810). M'Henry returned to Co Antrim and became a doctor in Larne in 1811 - he then moved to Belfast in 1814 and emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1817. He lived there for 25 years during which time he became one of the most celebrated writers and novelists of his generation. He was Editor of the American Monthly Magazine, first published in 1824 (first volume is available on GoogleBooks, featuring some of his own work, and runs to a colossal 574 pages). In 1842 he returned to Ulster and became American Consul in Londonderry, a post he held until his death on 21 July 1845.

The characters of M'Henry's works were predominantly Ulster-Scots - in the preface of Hearts of Steel (1825) he wrote that "the majority of actors in both works belonged to the population of Ulster; the lower and middle classes of whom speak a dialect very similar to that spoken by the Scotch Lowlanders, from whom they are mostly descended". When Lady Morgan / Sydney Owenson's 1806 novel The Wild Irish Girl characterised Ulster as "... a Scottish colony; and in fact, Scotch dialect, Scotch manners, Scotch modes, and the Scotch character almost universally prevail..." he may have been pleased by her recognition of the cultural distinctiveness of the Province - but when the description went on to attack the alleged "chill", "calculating industry" and "luxury" of Ulster he was far from happy.

He is said to have used the preface of Hearts of Steel to respond directly to Owenson, but also more broadly to writers of her ilk, who were elevating the idea of romantic Gaelic Ireland and lambasting Scottish Presbyterian Ulster . Have a read at the bottom of page vi and the top of page vii - doubtless Owenson was one of the "tribe of romance writers who have... spread this false notion of the Irish character which has gone abroad through the world. That these writers in general knew extremely little of the people they undertook to describe is evident..." - which of course, in the addition to my recent blog post entitled "He Shoots He Scores", is still an issue today.

Chapter Two of The Hearts of Steel has been described as a "tour de force" - the deathbed scene of an old Antrim farmer called John Rainey, in which he admits his part in a crime of passion that saw him commit a murder, which the dying victim mistakenly said had been carried out by Rainey's best friend. Rainey was then tasked with giving his friend fifty lashes at Carrickfergus Castle, during which the innocent man died - making Rainey a double murderer. The language is marvellous.*

M'Henry has also been described as a "personal friend and ardent admirer" of another son of east Antrim, President Andrew Jackson, and in 1829 published a volume entitled "Jackson's Wreath or National Souvenir" (available here on GoogleBooks). James M'Henry was a hugely significant figure of his generation, regarded as the first "Irish-American" novelist and deserves to be better known in Ulster today. Like so much of Ulster-Scots heritage M'Henry has been forgotten and ignored. Nobody is sure where he was buried - his brief entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says he died at Larne. A blue plaque either near Larne (if his birthplace or even grave could be traced) or the site of the former Consuls' premises in Londonderry should be considered.

(If M'Henry were alive today, he might even have been featured in an episode of "Jackie's the Boy".)


- Memoir of James M'Henry's life

- The Wilderness on

- biography of James M'Henry (p43 - 55)

-The Wilderness as a searchable text base from Stanford University, California

* this chapter was featured in Frank Ferguson's Anthology of Ulster-Scots Writing (Four Courts Press 2008). This blog post was inspired by a series of old emails from 2005 that I recently stumbled over, from John Erskine, Philip Robinson and Richard MacMaster. With thanks to all of them for their interest and for sharing their thoughts and information.