Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilson, Robert Arthur

WILSON, ROBERT ARTHUR (1820?–1875), Irish humourist and poet, was born at Falcaragh, co. Donegal, where his father, Arthur Wilson, was a coastguardsman, about 1820. His mother, whose maiden name was Catherine Hunter, a native of Islandmagee, co. Antrim, contrived to give him a fairly good education at home before sending him to Raymunterdoney school. He became a teacher at Ballycastle, Antrim, after leaving school, but only for a short period. About 1840 he emigrated to America, where he remained some years, working as a journalist. On his return to Ireland he joined the staff of a paper in Enniskillen, whence he proceeded to Dublin to take up the position of sub-editor of the ‘Nation,’ under Charles Gavan Duffy. His knowledge of the tenant-right question was found particularly useful in his new employment. But his restlessness prevented him from remaining long in Dublin, and he went back to Enniskillen, editing there successively ‘The Impartial Reporter’ and ‘The Fermanagh Mail.’ In 1865 he went to Belfast, where he became the leading writer on the ‘Morning News.’ In a short time he was recognised as the most popular of Ulster writers. His ‘Letters to my Cousin in Ameriky,’ which appeared in the paper under the signature of ‘Barney Maglone,’ made the fortune of the paper, and were read with delight, not only in Ulster, but over the rest of Ireland. The circulation of the ‘Morning News’ was enormously increased, and for some years Wilson's clever prose satires on local celebrities and humorous lyrics proved the most popular literature in the north. To the ‘Ulster Weekly News’ and other journals, under the signatures of ‘Young Ireland,’ ‘Erin Oge,’ and ‘Jonathan Allman,’ he contributed racy poems in northern dialect, many of which are still familiar to Ulster men. His eccentricities and irregularities, however, prevented him from doing any enduring work, and his tendency to drink became more and more pronounced as he grew older, and finally led to his death. While on a visit to Dublin during the O'Connell centenary celebrations in 1875, he drank more than usual, and on 10 Aug. was found dead in his room. His body was removed to Belfast, and buried, in the presence of a vast number of people, in the Borough cemetery, where a monument has been erected to his memory by public subscription. Some of his poems are admirable—all are racy of Ulster. A small selection from them was published in Dublin and Belfast, 1894, under the title of ‘Reliques of Barney Maglone.’ The volume, which was edited by F. J. Bigger and J. S. Crone, contains a portrait and a biographical introduction by the present writer. The only work issued by Wilson himself was a humorous ‘Almeynack for all Ireland, an' whoever else wants it,’ London, 1871.

[O'Donoghue's Poets of Ireland; Belfast Morning News, 11–15 Aug. 1875; information from Mr. John Wilkinson, Falcaragh, co. Donegal.]

D. J. O'D.