Remembered by his contemporaries as a bohemian, James Clarence Mangan was a victim of morbid melancholy, opium, and alcohol. He was prone to painful introspection, which, intensified by his Catholicism, led to frequent withdrawals from friends, family, and society. This, combined with his recurring financial difficulties and physical neglect, resulted in a troubled, though artistically intensive, life and an early death at the age of forty-six.
The poet was born in Dublin, where he spent his whole life. His father gave up his position as a schoolteacher to run the grocery business he had inherited through his wife. He sent James to a Jesuit school where the boy started learning Latin, Spanish, French, and Italian—languages that would determine to a great extent the course of his career. A rather eccentric child, he experienced severe difficulties dealing with the “outside” world and withdrew into an eight-year-long state of blindness, allegedly caused by excessive exposure to rain. His relatives found him hard to reach and considered him “mad.”
Mangan was fifteen when he became the family’s breadwinner—his father had gone bankrupt. The first job he took was at a scrivener’s office. It was at this time that he started publishing his first poems in the Grant’s and New Ladies’ almanacs and when his mysterious blindness disappeared. Two years later, however, in 1820, an illness and a severe emotional disturbance led to a diagnosis of hypochondriasis. His poetic apprenticeship ended in 1826, but his ill health persisted. By this time, Mangan had moved away from his family and had started publishing nationalistic poetry. He continued earning a meager living by doing clerical work. In 1833, he supported a parliamentary petition for repeal of the Act of Union between Ireland and Britain. His political activism motivated him also to start learning Gaelic and establish close contacts with Gaelic scholars.
In 1834, the Dublin University Magazine, Ireland’s most prestigious periodical at the time, started accepting Mangan’s poetry for publication. This marked the beginning of a long-term collaboration; in Dublin University Magazine, the twenty-two chapters of Mangan’s Anthologia Germanica = German Anthology: A Series of Translations from the Most Popular of the German Poets (1845), as well as numerous other “translations” from various languages, would appear for the next twelve years. The following few years were also eventful: In 1836, Mangan met Charles Gavan Duffy, the future founder of the nationalist Young Ireland Party and its weekly magazine The Nation, both active advocates of physical-force politics as the only means to achieve Irish independence.
Two years later, Mangan was hired by George Petrie, a famous antiquarian, to work at the Ordinance Survey Office. The project involved surveying and remapping the whole of Ireland for the purposes of the British government. This was arguably the most enabling experience in Mangan’s life as, on one hand, it strengthened his contacts with Gaelic scholars and, on the other hand, allowed him to get acquainted with numerous historical sources and manuscripts, and through them, with Ireland’s ancient past. Touched by concrete visions of the glory of the ancient Celts, Mangan began reworking Eugene O’Curry’s prose translations of Irish bardic verse, gaining confidence in the strength of his own artistic voice. These poems, “translations” from the Irish, appeared in the Irish Penny Journal, founded in 1840 with the task of popularizing the country’s Gaelic past.
Although the late 1830’s marked a very fruitful period in Mangan’s artistic life, they had detrimental effects on his health, which worsened to such an extent that friends started referring to him as “poor Mangan.” They also realized that he had...
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