Mahony, Francis Sylvester (DNB00)

MAHONY, FRANCIS SYLVESTER, Mahony, Francis Sylvester, best known by his pseudonym of Father Prout (1804–1866), humorist, born at Cork in 1804, was second son of Martin Mahony, a woollen manufacturer, whose factory at Blarney still flourishes. His mother was Mary Reynolds. He claimed descent from an old Irish family, the O'Mahonies of Dromore Castle, co. Kerry. After attending the jesuits' college at Clongoweswood, co. Kildare, he and a brother Nicholas entered the jesuits' college of St. Acheul at Amiens in 1812. Determining to become a jesuit, in spite of his father's desire that he should go to the bar, Francis was soon transferred to the seminary in the Rue de Sèvres in Paris, and having spent his two years' novitiate there or at the country house of the seminary at Montrouge, he proceeded to the jesuits' college at Rome. In due course he was admitted to the order. His remarkable facility in writing Latin verse and prose, and in speaking Latin, attracted the notice of his teachers at an early period, but an impatience of discipline roused doubts in the minds of his superiors as to his fitness for his vocation. The Abbé Martial Marcet de la Roché-Arnaud, an enemy of the jesuits, who seems to have met him and other jesuit students at Rome, credited him, on the other hand, in his ‘Les Jésuites Modernes,’ Paris, 1826, with all ‘the fanaticism, the dissimulation, the intrigue, and the chicanery’ usually deemed jesuitical characteristics. In August 1830 Mahony was appointed prefect of studies at the jesuits' college at Clongoweswood, and in October he was promoted to be master of rhetoric. His pupils included John Sheehan a well-known writer under the pseudonym of ‘The Irish Whisky-Drinker,’ and Francis Stack (afterwards Serjeant) Murphy. In November Mahony accompanied his pupils on a coursing expedition across country to Maynooth. They were entertained on their return by John Sheehan's father at Celbridge, and at supper Mahony offended the parish priest, Daniel Callinan, by disrespectful remarks about Daniel O'Connell, for whom he always showed a total want of sympathy. He returned with his companions to Clongoweswood very late at night and half intoxicated, and his resignation consequently followed. After a short sojourn at the jesuits' college at Freiburg he went again to Italy. At Florence he was informed by the provincial of the jesuits that his association with the order was at an end. Mahony felt the indignity keenly, but showed no animosity against his former colleagues, whom he subsequently defended from conventional accusations in an essay called ‘Literature and the Jesuits’ (cf. Prout, Reliques). No longer a jesuit, he sought to become a priest. For two years he attended theological lectures at Rome, and in 1832 obtained, with some difficulty, priest's orders. In 1832 he was directed to join the Cork mission, and displayed courage and devotion as chaplain to a hospital in Cork during the cholera epidemic of that and the following year (Hibernia, 1 Feb. 1882; cf. KENT'S Introduction). Anxious to obtain the erection of a new church, to be administered by himself, he came into collision with his bishop over some point of detail, and hastily severed his connection with his native city. He thereupon made London his headquarters, and soon abandoned the active exercise of his profession. On a few occasions he preached and conducted mass in the Spanish ambassador's chapel. But his tone of thought and conversation was unclerical. His interests were mainly literary, and, befriended by his fellow-townsman, William Maginn [q.v.] , he readily adopted the bohemian mode of life that then characterised London literary society.

In April 1834 Mahony sent to ‘Fraser's Magazine’ an article entitled ‘Father Prout's Apology for Lent, his Death Obsequies, and an Elegy.’ A real Father Prout, parish priest at Watergrasshill, co. Cork, ‘a man of quiet, simple manners,’ was well known to Mahony in his boyhood, and died in 1830. But Mahony's ‘Father Prout,’ although located at Watergrasshill like the real personage of the name, is, for all practical purposes, a creation of Mahony's imagination, suggested to some extent by Goldsmith's ‘Vicar.’ For two years (1834–6) Mahony contributed, month by month, his ‘Reliques of Father Prout;’ accounts of fictitious episodes in Prout's career, with his views on life and literature. Very varied learning was offered, with engaging lightness (cf. The Days of Erasmus). In entertaining comments on current literature, Mahony, following the example of Christopher North, introduced Sir Walter Scott in conversation with Father Prout and his friends, or he parodied the style of Dionysius Lardner, or defended Harriet Martineau and Henry O'Brien from their critics, or explained his contempt for Bulwer-Lytton. But his original poems and playful translations into Latin, Greek, French, and English verse, with which he freely interspersed the papers, are their most attractive features. Campbell's ‘Hohenlinden’ turned into Latin sapphics, and Millikin's ‘Groves of Blarney’ in Latin, French, and Greek metres, are very clever tours de force. In the paper called ‘The Rogueries of Tom Moore’ Mahony renders some of Moore's best-known verses into Latin or French, and then wittily charges Moore with plagiarism. His translations into English verse, from Horace, Béranger, or Victor Hugo, from modern Latin poets, like Vida, and from Greek poets, like Simonides, are less pleasing. Here he often degenerates into a wordy jingle, which does injustice to his originals, and in his own lyrics, of which ‘The Shandon Bells’ is the best-known example, the same defect is apparent. The brilliance of the papers helped, however, to establish ‘Fraser's Magazine’ on a firm basis, and secured for their author a wide reputation. He regularly attended the meetings, at taverns or clubs, of the ‘Fraserians,’ the contributors to the magazine, and he came to know the most distinguished men of letters of the day. His ‘Reliques’ came to an end in 1836, and he collected them—representing that they were edited by a fictitious editor, Oliver Yorke—in two volumes in the same year, with illustrations by his friend and fellow-townsman Maclise.

In 1837 ‘Bentley's Miscellany’ was founded, with Charles Dickens as editor, and on the first page of the first number appeared an original poem by Mahony, ‘The Bottle of St. Januarius.’ To the same number he contributed a clever French rendering of Wolfe's ‘Burial of Sir John Moore,’ which he entitled ‘Les Funerailles de Beaumanoir,’ and pretended to regard as the original of Wolfe's poem. A few pages later appeared Mahony's English parody of Chatterton, with translations into both Pindaric and Horatian verse. Some seventeen or eighteen poems followed in succeeding numbers, and he contributed a few readable notes to the edition of De la Boulaye de Gouz's ‘Tour in Ireland in 1644,’ which his friend Thomas Crofton Croker [q. v.] published in 1837. Although Mahony enjoyed the convivial society which he found in the literary clubs of London, at Lady Blessington's house at Kensington, or with Harrison Ainsworth at Kensal Lodge, he was always of restless and uncertain temper. Towards the close of 1837 he abandoned London. In January 1838 appeared in ‘Bentley's’ some genial lines sent by him from Genoa—‘A Poetical Epistle from Father Prout to “Boz.”’ After that date he made a long tour through Hungary, Greece, and Asia Minor, and only reached the south of France on his return journey in 1841. From Bordeaux he sent further verse to ‘Bentley's Miscellany,’ and in 1842 he took the publisher's part in the dispute between Bentley and Ainsworth. Despite his previous relations with Ainsworth, Mahony now attacked him with brutal violence in a mock-heroic poem entitled ‘The Cruel Murder of Old Father Prout by a Barber's Apprentice, a Legend of Modern Latherature, by Mr. Duller of Pewternose’ (Bentley's Miscellany, 1842, xi. 144).

After a short sojourn in London and a visit to Malta, Mahony, in 1846, set out for Rome to act as correspondent for the ‘Daily News,’ which had been founded in 1845, and was edited by Dickens. His contributions ceased at the end of 1847, and he thereupon published them in a volume entitled ‘Facts and Figures from Italy, by Don Jeremy Savonarola, Benedictine Monk, addressed during the last two Winters to Charles Dickens, Esq., being an Appendix to his Pictures,’ i.e. to Dickens's ‘Pictures from Italy,’ London, 1847, 8vo. The conservatism which had characterised his papers in ‘Fraser’ was here exchanged for advanced liberalism, and he declared himself in full sympathy with the Italian patriots. Mahony was well known to English visitors in Rome, and frequently attended Mrs. Jameson's Sunday evening parties (Macpherson, Life of Mrs. Jameson, p. 239).

From Rome Mahony, about 1848, removed to Paris, and there, except for rare visits to England, he remained till his death, living in an entresol in an hotel in the Rue des Moulins. When in London in 1851 he gave evidence before the parliamentary committee on the Mortmain Acts. He was long a familiar figure in Galignani's reading-room in Paris, but his temper grew shorter and his remarks more caustic as he grew older, and he avoided all general society. ‘His habits,’ wrote S. C. Hall, who visited him in his old age, ‘were, indeed, those of a recluse. He saw little or no society, kept no servant, and lived a life the very opposite to that of a gentleman’ (Book of Memories, p. 238). Mahony owned some shares in the ‘Globe’ newspaper, and in 1858 he became Paris correspondent to the journal, and he continued his daily contributions till within a fortnight of his death. He showed that he still retained some interest in the literary affairs of London by contributing an inaugural ode to the first number of ‘Cornhill Magazine,’ January 1860, and he expressed there very warm admiration for an early friend, Thackeray. He was also till late in life an occasional writer in the ‘Athenæum.’ In spite of his frankly Bohemian habits, Mahony is said to have worn to the last ‘an ineradicable air of the priest and seminarist’ (Life of Mrs. Jameson), but he often chafed at the paradox. In 1863 he drew up, in very scholarly Latin, a petition to Rome asking permission ‘to resort thenceforth to lay communion.’ The petition was granted, together with a dispensation enabling him, in consideration of failing eyesight and advancing age, to substitute the rosary or the penitential psalms for his daily office in the breviary. He died in Paris, of bronchitis and diabetes, on 18 May 1866, after receiving extreme unction from his friend Monsignor Rogerson. His sister, Mrs. Woodlock, was present during his last illness, and he was buried in the vaults of Shandon Church in Cork. A proposal in 1873 to place a memorial tablet in the Cork Library came to nothing.

Maclise included Mahony's portrait in his well-known group of ‘Fraserians.’ An engraving from a photograph by M. Weyler of Paris appears in the ‘Final Reliques,’ in Mr. Charles Kent's ‘Works of Father Prout,’ and in Bates's ‘Maclise Portrait Gallery,’ p. 463. A friendly caricature of him in the garb of a monsignore, executed by an Italian artist while Mahony was living at Rome, was exhibited at Cork.

Mahony had personally less amiability than is proverbial with Irish humorists, and his cosmopolitan culture often obscured in his more scholarly essays the character of his nationality. But vivacity was rarely absent, and in both his prose and verse he grew at times so hilarious as to bring him to the verge of nonsense. Elsewhere, as in his essay on ‘Dean Swift's Madness,’ he showed himself capable of pathetic eloquence. He himself claimed to be ‘a rare combination of the Teian lyre and the Irish bagpipe; of the Ionian dialect, blending harmoniously with the Cork brogue; an Irish potato seasoned with Attic salt.’ He is described in his best days as a brilliant talker abounding in wit and sarcasm.

The ‘Reliques,’ revised and ‘largely augmented,’ was included in 1860 in ‘Bohn's Illustrated Library.’ In 1876 Douglas Jerrold edited ‘The Final Reliques of Father Prout,’ in which he reprinted Mahony's Roman correspondence and his ‘Notes from Paris,’ and many personal reminiscences. ‘The Works of Father Prout,’ edited by Mr. Charles Kent, 1881, include, with a few omissions, Mahony's contributions in prose and verse to ‘Fraser's’ and ‘Bentley's’ magazines, with the inaugural ode that appeared in the ‘Cornhill Magazine’ in January 1860.

[Information from Mrs. Mahony of Ardfoile, Cork, which differs in its account of Mahony's early life from other biographic notices; Mr. Charles Kent's Memoir prefixed to his edition of Mahony's Works, 1881; Final Reliques of Father Prout, ed. Jerrold, 1876; Bates's Maclise Portrait Gallery, 1883, pp. 463–88; notices by James Hannay in Universal Rev. February 1860, and in North British Rev. September 1866 (Aytoun, Peacock, and Prout); Athenæum, 26 May 1866; Cork Examiner, 23 May 1866; Pall Mall Gazette, 23 May 1866.]

S. L.