Anniversary of Birr poet John de Jean Frazer (1804-1852). By Padráig Turley

Today, 23 March 2022 we mark the 170th anniversary of the death of John de Jean Frazer (1804–1852). A poet and a cabinet-maker, a native of Birr county Offaly he was born into a Presbyterian family. While `J. De Jean` was his preferred nom-de-plume, he also used pseudonyms `Z`, `Y`, `F` and `Maria`.

His first major poem was Eva O`Connor published in 1826, by Richard Milliken, Grafton Street, Dublin. During the 1840s individual poems, increasingly expressing radicalised politics, appeared in newspapers and periodicals of the day including The Nation, The Dublin University Magazine, The United Irishman, The Felon and The Freeman`s Journal.

 In 1845 a substantial number of his poems were gathered together and published as Poems for the People by J. Browne, Nassau Street, Dublin. This collection contained eighty-two poems, a mixture of lyrical and polemical pieces.

[An article on de Jean Frazer appeared in the 1903 issue of Tullamore’s Ard na hEireann magazine by Sean MacCaoilte (Forrestal, d. October 1922) and as such was part of the cultural context for the Gaelic League and the Irish Cultural Revival in the Tullamore locality. Thanks to Offaly Archives which holds a copy. Ed.]

Frazer suffered ill-health towards the end of the 1840s and was unable to support his family. This caused supporters to publish a collection of his work in the hope it would provide an income.  This was Poems by J. de Jean published in 1851 by James McGlashan, Sackville Street, Dublin. There were thirty-two poems in this collection, some of them quite lengthy.

The title page to the 1851 collection. Courtesy of Offaly History Library at Bury Quay

He established and edited a newspaper himself entitled The Irish Trades Advocate to which he contributed a column called `Lays of Labour` which consisted of poems supportive of the rights of the working man.

Why are we remembering him today? If I might be permitted to quote musical historian and former archivist at Na Píobairí Uilleann Terry Moylan who says:

He deserves the attention of the modern readers. Frazer`s poetry was written very skilfully, in the style of his time. He adhered rigidly to the metres that he adopted, and succeeded in creating work in a language register that was seemingly everyday in character without violating his chosen structures, or straining effect with `heightened` language. He displayed great imagination in the use of different verse forms, and even varied the metre and structure within individual pieces. His use of imagery is remarkable, and constantly provides the reader with memorable couplets that could easily be used as those of well-known writers. A particular talent that he displayed was his use of the device of alliteration. He constantly discovered novel ways to use commonplace words in seemingly commonplace combinations that are pleasing to read, and never seem gratuitous or forced.

The Nation Newspaper, 8 July 1843 courtesy of Offaly History library at Bury Quay

In political terms he became known as one of the better known poets of the Young Ireland movement, publishing extensively in The Nation newspaper. He expressed the views of that movement in a trenchant, memorable fashion, which caused him to be celebrated in the second half of the 19th century. His subjects included, the Famine, the economic condition of Ireland, and the degradation of the Irish peasantry.

A binding for volume 3. Courtesy of Offaly History (a member)

 Two of his daughters married prominent Fenians. We find him honoured by Cumann Lútchcleas Gael, for in 1888 we find a club called De Jeans affiliated to the Dublin County Board of the G.A.A.

In his lyrical pieces he displayed an affecting tenderness, while avoiding a sentimental or maudlin tone. His imaginative use of imagery, and novel comparisons, lift his verse above many of his contemporaries.

The poems reflecting his youth in Birr are very beautiful and recapture the environs in a way that will appeal to Offaly people.

He was also an artist of some merit. He painted landscapes, mostly of scenes from county Wicklow. He had a brother who had planned to attend art college but for financial reasons was unable to. Two of his paintings recently sold in the U.S.A.

Offaly History are currently involved in a project to republish all his poems in one complete edition. His poetry has been included in anthologies throughout the 19th and 20th century. However, this project, will be the first time his complete works have been captured in one tome. It is anticipated that this publication will be available later in the current year. It is hoped that this generation of Offaly people will enjoy his work, as previous generations clearly did.

The 1851 Collection courtesy of Offaly History library at Bury Quay

As we mark his passing 170 years ago, he lies in, as of yet, an unmarked grave in Glasnevin cemetery.  His grave is located in the shadow of the O`Connell Monument, which is apt, as it was Daniel O`Connell`s Repeal movement that first brought him to a Nationalistic disposition. The failure of the Repeal Movement brought him on to more hard-line political point of view, and sympathy with the Young Ireland Movement.

Has he anything to say to us today? Well as we look on in horror at the events in Ukraine today his poem `Song for Tyranny` is very appropriate.

Come, Tyranny, listen!—my song may be,

Tho’ foolish to liberty, wise to thee!

Thou art beset with inveterate foes;

(And one of the fiercest the minstrel knows:)

’Tis worth the listening, to learn how long

                The nation will brook thy chain;

While thou addest new insult to ancient wrong,

                To torture the heart and brain!

When ice shall be over the cataract spread,

And the river roll mute o’er a rocky bed;

The people shall cease to complain of the gyves,

Thou hast set to obstruct the free flow of their lives;

And till some spirit—of brave, most brave—

                To marshal and counsel men,

Shall step from the people, like foam from the wave;

                Thou shalt be secure, till then!

When sleeps the aspen, while duller trees

In concert complain of the blighting breeze;

The Nation thou ever hast most oppress’d,

Will cease to demand that her wrongs be redress’d:

And when the swarm shall start, without sting,

                On the path of the leading bee;

The people shall strive, without pow’r, to wring

                Their natural rights from thee!

When the speck in the captive’s cell has won

His sicken’d heart from the broad, bright sun;

The Nation, imprison’d in bonds, will live,

Content with the meed thou shalt deign to give;

And when the Bacchanal shall have quaff’d

                The wormwood juice for wine;

The people will relish the vinous draught

                Of liberty, less than thine!

But ice on a torrent—a river to breathe

No murmur, if rocks interrupt it beneath;

An ocean of waves, without foam upon one;

An aspen asleep, till the breeze has gone on;

A stingless swarm—a captive’s soul,

                Without a sigh to be free;

A Bacchanal fond of a bitter bowl;—

                Are things that will never be!

And tho’ the Nation be now, as of old,

Like a pile on fire, with a part still cold;

The many—on fire with their noble claim—

The few—yet cold to their own deep shame;

Yet soon even they, with the same desire,

                Shall burn to break thy thrall;

And, brittle as thread that is touch’d by fire,

                Thy fetters shall drop from all!

John de Jean Frazer.

May he Rest in Peace.

Our thanks to Padráig Turley and Terry Moylan for all their work on the forthcoming collection of John de Jean Frazer to be published by Offaly History. All pics courtesy of Offaly History

From The Nation 1843