The story of John de Jean Frazer, a somewhat forgotten poet from Birr. By Pádraig Turley.

When the well-known musical historian Terry Moylan drew my attention to the Offaly poet John de Jean Frazer, I was forced to confess I had never heard of him, much to my shame. I made enquiries about him and surprisingly few had knowledge of him. Shannonbridge native, James Killeen, currently resident in Illinois, was able to tell me that Master John Lane, who taught in  Shannonbridge National School, was aware of him and mentioned him. He always referred to him as Frazer, finding the de Jean a bit much. James also told that Francis Reddy, the son of Michael Reddy M.P. used to enthuse about the Nationalistic poetry of Frazer.  

The object of this Blog is to rescue from the mists of time the name and career of this significant Birr poet.  Writing in the first half of the 19th century John de Jean Frazer, has left a considerable body of work. His work is hard to source outside the major libraries and college archives.

This is a shame, as his poetry has not been published in a sole collection for a long time. It would be wonderful if this Blog were to give an impetus to someone to undertake such a project, as I feel his writings should be more readily available.

The questions I shall try to answer are, who was he, where did he hail from, what are his most notable works, what were his politics, his religion and his family details.

He is said to have been born and reared in Parsonstown, now Birr, King`s County, however like a lot of things about him there is a degree of uncertainty. On the 100th anniversary of his passing in 1952 The Westmeath Independent did a piece where it said tradition claimed he was from Moystown, near Clonony Castle. There is also a suggesting that he may have been from near Ferbane, guess his poem `Brosna`s Bank` lend a bit of credit to all these claims.

There is some conjecture as to the exact year he was born. We know his date of death was 23rd March 1852, at which time he is recorded as being 48 years old, suggesting he was born in 1804. The current Birr Tourism Brochure gives his year of birth as 1804. However ` A Compendium of Irish Biography 1878` by Alfred Webb gives his date of birth as 1809. Webb also gives his year of death as 1849 which we know is incorrect, so it seems Webb may have needed a better editor. I am inclined to accept the 1804 figure, especially as I discovered his wife was born in 1800.

He is believed to come from a Presbyterian family, but unfortunately records of Presbyterian births/baptisms for Birr only commence in 1854. His family were said to be from Huguenot stock. I have been unable to unearth details of his parents.

FAMILY DETAILS:

I trust this research I have done into his family, may assist in sketching out his story. We know he married, and again we do not have actual details of the marriage. However, when one of his daughters Anna Maria Walsh then a widow was remarrying a John Donovan in 3rd May 1883 in St. Peter`s Catholic Church, Hudson, New Jersey,  she gives her parents’ names as John Frazer and Letitia Reynolds, so this points to John de Jean Frazer`s wife as Letitia Reynolds. I tracked down the record of Letitia Frazer`s death which records she died 9th March 1872 at 35 St. Mary Street, Dublin aged seventy-two years, and described as the widow of a cabinet-maker, cause of death given as chronic bronchitis, the informant being Emily Frazer. Interesting she is described as widow of a cabinet-maker rather than widow of a poet. As his eldest daughter Louise was born in 1830 it is likely he married 1828/30.

He had at least three daughters, Louise, Letitia and Mary Anne, together with one son Robert A.

 Letitia is a forename that travels down through further generations of the family.

His daughter Mary Anne Fraser married the Fenian John Walsh (1842-1882) from Baltracey, county Kildare on the 7th November 1867 in a Registry Office in Dublin pursuant to licence. At the time of the wedding John Walsh is of full age, living in 85 Coombe, parish of St. Luke, described as a Pawn Brokers`s Assistant, the son of a Patrick Walsh a Land Agent, while Mary Anne Frazer is residing at 35 Mary Street, in the Parish of St. Mary, Dublin, she is described as a dressmaker, daughter of John De Jean Frazer, a cabinet maker.

What is interesting about the wedding details is that the witnesses are John Frazer and Murid Frazer, opening up the suggestion that these are siblings of Mary Anne and thus children of John De Jean Frazer, or at least they were husband and wife and John Frazer was a son of John De Jean Frazer. Mary Anne Walsh and John Walsh had one daughter Anna Marie. John Walsh, a Fenian who was associated with the Invincibles, died 1882 in New York. Mary Anne Walsh nee Frazer remarried a John O`Donovan as mentioned above. Mary Anne Walsh and John O`Donovan had one daughter Ellen Letitia Donovan born 3rd May 1884, who subsequently married a Malcom Carmichael. Carmichael, a Scot by birth, would turn out to be a colourful character, whose life ended in 1923, while running a bootleg schooner that sunk en route to Martha`s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

John De Frazer`s other surviving daughter Letitia Frazer married the Fenian Thomas Clarke Luby on 23rd September 1852 in Dublin. At the time of the marriage Letitia Frazer was described as a Presbyterian. Thomas Clarke Luby and Letitia Luby (née Frazer) had three children, James (1856-1925), John (1858-1911) and Katherine (1860-1932).

Fenian – Thomas Clarke Luby

Thomas Clarke Luby died 29th November 1901, while Letitia Luby (née Frazer) died in July 1903, and both are interred in Bay View Cemetery, 321 Garfield Avenue, New Jersey. Thomas Clarke Luby, who was born 15th January 1822, is of course remembered as a hard line Fenian, who with James Stephens founded the oath-bound Irish Republican Brotherhood.

While researching this piece I consulted the book `Fenian Memories` by the well-known doctor and Fenian sympathiser Mark Ryan, from which we learn that Luby was a Presbyterian although his mother was a Catholic, he met James Stephens in Lombard Street, now Fenian Street, he Luby wrote a book `A Life of Daniel O`Connell`, married a daughter of John De Jean Frazer, and their daughter Mrs Katherine L. Maurice gave his, Luby`s, papers to the National Library. However, in 1865 while in Mountjoy Jail, as prisoner 7116 Luby is recorded as being a Roman Catholic. This might be an error by the Prison authorities.

John de Jean Frazer had at least one son who died at an early age, which caused him inestimable distress. From the burial records in Glasnevin Cemetery it appears his son was Robert A. Frazer who died 18th February 1845 aged ten years, sadly a mere few months before a daughter Louise Frazer, who died 14th April 1845 aged fifteen years. I discovered that this Robert Frazer was baptised on 16th April 1834 in St. Mary`s Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, the baptismal sponsors being Michael Redney and Norey Frazer. As Frazer was not to convert to Catholicism until 1844, this event suggests that his wife Letitia was a Roman Catholic. I have heard that there was a convention then with regard to `mixed` marriages, that boys were raised as Catholics and girls as Protestants, at least before the installation of Paul Cullen as Archbishop of Dublin.

Frazer who was a contributor to the Nation, and after a number of verses were published complaining of his long silence, he wrote what was described by the editor of the Nation as ` one of the most tender and touching ballads he had ever read, and the more so that the death of a dear child gives it a force beyond the reach of art.` His answer was: THE REASON OF THE POET`S SILENCE: a powerful poem that contains this verse:

Oh, God !-But, prayers availed me not!

The darkening angel entered,

And made one universal blot-

A world-wide desert of the spot

Where all my hope was centred!

The heart, the eye, I loved to light

With song, are dark and hollow:

What marvel, if my spirits slight

The guerdon on the minstrel`s flight?

I cannot tempt the inborn might

Of that young heart to follow.

HIS CAREER:

There is a suggestion that John De Jean Frazer, a Presbyterian was intended for the ministry, however nothing came of this and he became a cabinet maker. John Forrestall in Ard na h-Eireann the magazine of the Tullamore Gaelic League of 1903, said Frazer and his older brother, who incidentally had hoped to be an artist, were apprenticed to a cabinet-maker in Green Street, Birr, but John left before his apprenticeship was complete.

He came to Dublin in the early 1820`s. He is said to have been sworn into the Orange Order. Later coming under the influence of Daniel O`Connell`s repeal movement he is reported to have recanted and left the Order. I have been unable to prove his membership of the Orange Order. The Museum of Orange Heritage, notwithstanding having a large amount of material relating to King`s county have no record of him. Martin McDermott in a preface to `Songs and Ballads of the Young Ireland` published in 1896 said de Jean Frazer was an Orangeman and a Presbyterian.

In 1843 in The Spirit of the Nation he published the poem `Song for July 12th 1843` which is an appeal for the reconciliation of Orange and Green. It includes the words `Let the orange lily be thy badge, my patriot brother, the everlasting green for me; and we for one another.` Sadly this is one hatchet which has not yet been buried.

In 1844 he converted to Catholicism. This did not go swimmingly, for in October 1844 he published a letter in the Nation, where he took issue with, what he perceived as the narrow-minded dogmatism of a priest holding forth on the irreligion of the Young Irelanders.

He made his livelihood as a cabinet maker, and it seems that later in his short life, due to failing health, he lived in very poor circumstances.

This Blog is mostly concerned with him as a poet, however it has to be said, that it is amazing he was able to leave such a fine body of quality work, which he produced under what must have been the most severe pressure.

He wrote under the name John de Jean and also used pseudonyms J. de Jean, `Z`, `Y` `F` and of course John de Jean Frazer. He wrote for the Dublin University Magazine, the Pilot, the Irish Felon, the Irish Tribune and most famously the Nation, where he made almost weekly contributions. In 1851 he edited a short lived Dublin paper named the Irish Trade Advocate, which only lasted for two months.

Daniel O’Connell

He lived during a time of great change, the American and French revolutions had recently taken place, the Napoleonic wars had ended, the First and Second Reformations were exciting folk, O`Connell`s Catholic Emancipation and Repeal Movements were afoot, and of course the tragedy of the Irish potato famine. These were all back drops to his life. He had come to Dublin, at a time when the consequences of the Union with the U.K., was materially damaging the city.

He is generally credited with `Eva O`Connor`, a poem in three cantos, which was published in 1826 in Dublin. This is available from the British Library on-line.

His first major collection published was `Poems for the People` by J. De Jean, printed in 1845 by J. Browne, 21 Nassau Street, Dublin. The Voice of the Nation received the publication thus `Men who think such thoughts must be in earnest, and earnestness is the foreshadow of success.` This is available on line from the British Museum.

In 1851 `De Jean Poems` was published by James McGlasham 50 Upper Sackville Street, Dublin and Wm. S. Orr & Co., London and Liverpool, and was printed by John Mulvany 47 Fleet Street, Dublin. A copy of this edition is available from Offaly History and may be consulted by appointment. He dedicates these poems to the memory of the late Mrs. Smith, Upper Fitzwilliam St., Dublin in `warm acknowledgement of the long and unvarying friendship, with which she laboured to promote the interest, and improve the literary tastes of the author.` I have been unable to track down who this benefactor was.

In a long preface where he acknowledges that the volume is a selection of his contributions to the Dublin University Magazine, the Nation and other leading periodicals, he makes one very interesting and telling observation. He says `On behalf of the kind friends who edit the volume, and to whom the selection and arrangement was necessarily committed, I am requested to say, they believed that the Subscribers would be antagonistic on some of the materials to be selected from; and that, in attempting to give unalloyed satisfaction to any, they should not throw out every piece whose peculiar complexion might, possibly, cause a little offence to one party; when the very complexion might, probably, be the author`s only recommendation to the other.` What may be pertinent here is that his poem `The Queen`s Visit`, which expresses his outrage at Queen Victoria`visit of 1849, was not included. This poem includes the lines, `Rise, wretched Erin, from thy children`s graves.`

The following is the contents page of this edition:

Also in 1851 he published his labour poems under the title `Lays of Labour`. A short write up of this publication in the Nation of the 5th April 1851 tells us it contained seven poems making a total of 52 verses. The reviewer gave his principal poems from this as `The Working Man`, `The Mind of the Age`, and `The Prophesies of Heaven.`

How good a poet was he? While, I shall readily confess that I am not qualified to answer this question fully, I do feel he was a fine poet. I do not have details of his education but he clearly was well educated, and certainly well read. He was said to be of Huguenot stock, and having recently read John Stocks Powell`s `Schooling In Ireland A Clustered History 1695-1912` I can appreciate just how important education would have been to one from such stock. In the King`s County Chronicle of May 1st 1919 in a piece entitles `A Forgotten Voice` it says he had started to study theology but had to give it up. There is no doubt that he did not get an advanced higher level education, and in reports one finds comments to the effect that had he been able to access University he would have been a truly great poet. His monumental poem Jephtha`s Vow based on the biblical story from the Book of Judges is clearly the work of a very scholarly and well- read person, it is a complex poem of twenty-three verses.

In `The Northern Patriot` of 22nd February 1896 there is a discussion on what they term `peasant` poets such as John Keegan from Queens County, Michael Doherty known as the Rebel poet of 48, James Orr of the Ulster Weavers, Francis Davis of `the Belfastman`, and our subject John de Jean Frazer. On the subject he quotes Gavin Duffy, a great supporter of de Jean Frazer, `Of the known writers Clarence Mangan was the best. The unknown ones were as great a surprise to the founders of the Nation as to the public. I can still recall the mixture of delight and alarm with which I read contributions from new correspondents, so striking and effective, so far above the range of Poet`s Corner verses, that I was tormented by a suspicion that they must be plagiarisms or adoptions of poems which escaped my reading. A scratchy school-boy manuscript, written on ruled paper, which might easily have repelled an impatient man from further enquiry, proved, when deciphered, to be William`s resonant `Munster War Song`; and John Keegan`s fine peasant verses came in a handwriting on which the scythe and spade had left their broad mark, and De Jean Frazer`s town lyrics in feminine scrawl, which gave little promise of the vigour and feeling they disclosed.` Gavin Duffy was a great supporter of de Jean Frazer and always ensured that he was paid for his contributions to The Nation.

John de Jean Frazer died at his lodgings in Jervis Street, Dublin on 23rd March 1852, and is interred in Glasnevin Cemetery, where records say he was forty-eight years old. The Jervis Street abode was also given when his children Louise and Robert passed. He seems to have been ailing for a long time and it would appear he left his family in straitened circumstances.

I came across an obituary by J.H.G. who I believe to be the Tipperary born Revd. John Henneberry Green. He says Frazer was the author of three books. He did not know the name of the first one which was published by admiring patrons at a great price of ten shillings. J.H.G. says his `Poems for the People` published in 1845 by Mr. Brown of Nassau Street, Dublin contains exclusively of political effusions, containing 120 pages at a price of 6d. While it sold tolerably well, the author was left with several copies on his hands, which he hoped would sell now to assist the family. He also says Frazer wrote an Irish Historical Drama which was still in manuscript. J.G.H. says of his work `Even in his most familiar moments I always found his language, in point of syntax, critically exact, and his thoughts, where the topic admitted, keen, ponderous and pointed.` In one of his visits to Frazer`s home he described `the inclined posture of his weakly frame`, indicating  how ill Frazer was in his declining years. J.H.G. gives one nice insight into Frazer`s opinion of another poet. Of James Clarence Mangan, Frazer said `For the life of me I cannot see where Mangan`s merit is at all.` He alluded to the few original thoughts Mangan had left after him and his ignorance of languages, -Irish as well as German which he presumes to translate. Ouch! He was a virtual contemporary of Mangan who lived from 1803 until 1849. It may have been a wee bit of rivalry, perhaps. This comment suggests the de Jean Frazer could speak the languages in question.

To help alleviate the financial stress on his widow and children, The Nation reported on a meeting held in The Mechanic` Institute to raise funds. Mechanic` institutes were educational establishments originally formed to provide adult education. It was a well-attended meeting under the Chairmanship of Tuam born Irish Nationalist and lawyer, Martin A. O`Brennan. There were many contributions lauding the work of de Jean Frazer, and expressing the hope that there would be a positive response to their call for help. There was one nice little barb, where they referred to the recent meeting of the nobility and gentry in Charlemont House, for the erection of a testimonial to the memory of Moore. Why should not the people also testify their regard for the memory of the poet of the working man, whose sweetest songs had been composed for the delight of many a humble fireside. I did not find any report on the success or otherwise of this fundraising venture. His daughter married the Fenian Thomas Clarke Luby later the same year, and one would hope some assistance might be forthcoming from the Fenian quarter. I did find an acknowledgment in the Nation of 31st July 1852 of a sum of seven shillings for his widow.

In the Freeman`s Journal of 3rd February 1854 we find Poems by J. de Jean. (Dublin J. Mullany, Fleet Street)- `This reissue of the collected poems of the late gifted De Jean Frazer appears in shape of an exceedingly beautiful little volume, embracing all the choicest morceaux from his sweet muse. The fine national feeling, the amiable character, the pure and unsophisticated genius, and the sad, heart-depressing destiny of poor de Jean have been too recently before our readers to have been forgotten. They are gracefully touched in the memoir written by James Burke, Esq., Barrister at Law, and prefixed to the little volume. One point in it we should allude to, hoping that it will tend to effect the promoting the extensive circulation of the book, which in every respect is worthy of a wide-spread popularity- namely, that the profits arising from its sale, after payment of printing expenses, will be devoted to the  meritorious purpose of assisting the poor poet`s widow and daughters, who, while he lived, toiled hard to cheer his last years, and prop his declining health. That it may be useful for that object we sincerely and heartily hope.` It seems James Burke did not in fact know de Jean Frazer but was in attendance at the above mentioned meeting in The Mechanic`s Institute.

I found an interesting physical description of de Jean Frazer in Martin McDermott`s preface to `Songs and Ballads of the Young Ireland` published in London in 1896. He says `I remember seeing him once, when he was pointed out to me at a meeting. A pathetic face, square and earnest, with great bombe forehead, and eyes somewhat bleared as though with night work or study; thick set in figure and draped in a long brown overcoat, lightish haired and blue eyed. After much inquiry I failed to obtain a portrait of this excellent man and poet.` Martin McDermott, a poet himself, was born in 1823 so he would have been just thirty years old when de Jean Frazer passed. It is likely he saw him in his late twenties.

While his memory may have dimmed somewhat over time, knowledge of him was extant in the late 1930`s in his native town as the following piece from www.dúcas.ie illustrates.

Folklore Commission Schools contributions:

Birr (Mercy Convent) Birr or Parsonstown. 13th June 1938

Teacher: Sr. Flannan.

Vol. 0821 Page 210

Contributed by

Mr. F. Kennedy:

J de Jean Frazer, Poet

Mr. F. Kennedy, Emmet Street, Birr, told me that J. Frazer, Poet was born in a house on the banks of the Brosna at Birr in the nineteenth century. He was a cabinet-maker by trade and he was also talented as a poet. He wrote many beautiful poems including `Clondalla“ and `The Wild Geese`. Most of his poems were about his native town and county. One day while out walking he found a nest of young wild duck at Clondalla and he brought them into a pool which was in Duke Square at the time. People came to feed the young ducks every day and they stayed there for some years until an old duck came and took them away with her. Frazer wrote this poem about his native land.

`Clondallagh`.

“Are the orchards of Scurragh

With apples still bending?

Are the wheat-ridge and furrow

An Cappaghneale blending!

Be they fruitful or fallow

A far dearer old friend

Is the bog of Clondallagh.

Fair Birr of the fountains

Thy forest and river

And miniature mounts

Seem around me for ever:

But they case from past

No home memories to hallow

My heart to the last

Like the bog of Clondallagh!

How sweet was my dreaming

By Brosna`s bright water:

While it dashed away, seeming

A mountain`s young daughter.

Yet to roam with it`s foam,

By the deep reach or shallow

Made but brighter at home

The turf fires from Clondallagh.

`If whole days of a childhood

More mournful than merry.

I sought thro` the wild wood

Young bird on ripe berry:

Some odd sprite or quaint knight

Some Sinbad, or Abdallagh,

Was my chase by the light

of bog fire from Clondallagh.

There the wild duck and plover

Have felt me a prowler

On their think rush cover.

More fatal than fowler:

And regret always me yet.

For the crash on the callow;

When the matched hurlers met

On the plains of Clondallagh.

`You simply measure

The mass with a soundless

Quick step, was a pleasure

Strange, stirring and boundless;

For it`s spring seemed to fling

Up my foor, aaaand to hallow

My spirit with wing

O`er the sword of Clondallagh.

`But alas! In the season

Of blossoming gladness

May be stewed over reason

Rank seeds of vain sadness.

While a wild, wayward child

With my young heart all callow,

It was warmed and beguiled

By dear Jane of Clondallagh.

`On the form with her seated,

No urchin dare press on

My place, while she cheated

Me into my lesson.

But soon came a fond claim

From a lover to hallow

His hearth with a dame

In my Jane of Clondallagh.

`When the altar had risen,

From Jane to divide me

I seemed in a prison,

Tho` she still was beside me;

And I knew more the true.

From the love, false or shallow,

The farther I flew

From that bride of Clondallagh.

`From the toils of the city,

My fancy long bore me

To sue her to pity

The fate she brought o`er me

And the dream, wood and stream

The green fields and the fallow

Still return, like a beam

From dear Jane of Clondalla

To sum up he was clearly a man of deep thoughts, who had empathy with his fellow man. He was troubled by the world around him, and was very touched by the plight of his fellow citizens. Coming as he did from an Anglo-Irish background he made what must have been a hazardous journey from membership of the Orange Order to the place where he identified his country`s ills with oppression from the British. In his political poems he rails relentlessly against the wrongs wrought on Ireland by the British. As we have seen his daughters both married prominent Fenians, and that torch was carried on through future generations. His poetry is well worth investigation, and I would hope that Offaly people of this time do just that. For his work to live again, would be a decent monument to him, as sadly he lies in an unmarked grave.

P.S. Serendipity, when I mentioned to Michael Byrne, that I was doing this piece, he said `Birr`s Mangan`. Many years ago, when I `emigrated` to Dublin, we lived in a house on Clarence Mangan Road, which is situated in an area called The Tenters. Before housing development had taken place, it was called the tenters fields, where flax was processed in the linen trade. The name Tenters comes the word tenter, meaning a framework on which fabric is held tight for drying. This industry was established here by Huguenots, from the same stock as our subject John de Jean Frazer.