Who is the Birr poet John De Jean Frazer? By Terry Moylan

This question has popped up recently arising from the launch last week in Birr by Offaly History of a book containing the complete poems of John De Jean Frazer. The Tullamore launch is Thursday 24 Nov. at Offaly History Centre at 5 p.m. so the editors may get to meet you there. You are welcome to attend.

John De Jean Frazer was a poet and cabinet-maker, the son of a Presbyterian Church minister from Birr, then known as Parsonstown. He was also a quite accomplished artist.

While his exact date of birth is not known, it is pretty certain he was born in 1804 and died a young man in 1852.

He was believed to from Huguenot stock, this belief coming from the use of `De Jean` in his name. We are not sure of this, and certainly a recent DNA test by one of his descendants cast doubt on this, as it showed no French DNA but rather Scottish. Frazer is certainly a Scottish name and is quite common in Ulster. His being from a Presbyterian family tends to make me believe that a Scottish ancestry is more likely to be correct. The `De Jean` in his name could be explained by possible sympathy with the ideals of the French revolution.

He was from Birr as I said above, and this is reflected in many of his poems such as `Brosna`s Banks`, `Clondallagh`, `Woodfield` and others. There are suggestions that he was from Ferbane and Moystown but I feel these are prompted by his poem `Brosna`s Banks` and I think they do not stand up to scrutiny. In The Pilot of 19 February 1854 we find a report of this poem describing it as `a tributary of the Shannon that runs between King`s County and Tipperary`. This, of course, is the Little Brosna. He always retained his love of Birr which is reflected rather poignantly in the final four lines of his poem Brosna`a Banks:

If then the gifted—good—and brave

   Admit me to their glorious ranks;

My memory may—tho` not my grave—

   Be green upon the Brosna`s banks.

We know he had at least one brother, Robert, who is commemorated in the poem ‘The Memory of a Young Artist only brother of the author`. The records reveal that he had at least one sister, Elizabeth, who is interred in the same grave as Frazer. She married one Patrick Daly, living in Salem Terrace, Dublin, and died in 1862 when her age was given as 52, giving her year of birth as 1810, close enough to Frazer. I have not been able to find any further siblings though I would be surprised if there were none.

He and his brother were apprenticed to an upholstery firm in Green Street, Birr. His brother had intended going to art college but due to lack of finance this had to be abandoned. It seems the firm in Birr ran into financial difficulties and this led to Frazer moving to Dublin in his early twenties.

We do not have exact details of his marriage but we do know that he married one Letitia Reynolds. This information was obtained on the re-marriage of his daughter Anna Maria to one John Donovan in the U.S.A. when she gave her parents  as John Frazer and Letitia Reynolds. As some of his children were baptised Roman Catholics, it is likely she was of that faith. They had six children that we know of, Louisa born 1830, Letitia born 1832, Robert Alexander born 1835, Jane born 1836, John born 1838, and Many Anne born, I believe, in 1839 though there are doubts over this as during her life she gives dates suggest she was born at a later date. When she married in 1867 she was of full age, so she was born before 1846.

Robert died in February 1845, aged 10 years, from influenza, his death giving rise to two powerful poems `The Reason for The Poet`s Silence` and `The Peerless One`. Louisa died April 1845, also from influenza. This death gave us his the lovely poem `To a Daughter`s Memory`.

His daughter Letitia went on to marry the well-known Fenian leader Thomas Clarke Luby. His son John married Emily McNally.

His daughter Mary Anne married another Fenian, John Patrick Walsh from Baltracy, county Kildare. Both his sons stood trial for their Fenian activities, and would emigrate to the U.S.A.

There are various references to the fact that he had been a member of the Orange Order. I have not been able to establish this as a fact. The Museum of Orange Heritage has no record of it but felt it was unlikely. However, I found so many references to it I feel, on the balance of probabilities, that he was. At the time it was more than likely a cultural thing rather than a conviction. However, he came under the influence of O`Connell`s Repeal movement and obviously changed his allegiances. His poem `Song for July 12th, 1843` is a strong appeal for Orange and Green to reconcile.

It seems Frazer converted to Catholicism in 1844. I failed to find any baptismal record to verify this, but I have been informed that, under Canon Law, a second baptism would not be necessary as he was already baptised in a Christian ceremony. One has to wonder if his conversion was a response to a negative reaction to his poem `Song for July 12th, 1843`.

What did Frazer look like physically? Well, we have the one drawing of him, which features on the cover of recent published The Complete Poems of John De Jean Frazer by this society. We know he was in ill health for a long time before his death, as we have a first-hand account from Lady Mary Ferguson who, with her husband, visited Frazer in 1848 while on their honeymoon. She describes Frazer as `sickly`.  A further description comes from Martin MacDermott who, in his preface to Songs and Ballads of the Young Ireland, published in 1896, wrote `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; thickset in figure and draped in a long brown overcoat, lightish haired and blue eyed’.

His favoured style of poetry seems to have been lengthy narrative pieces. His earliest publication was the nearly 2,000-line poem ‘Eva O’Connor’, published in 1826 when he was just 22 years old. His conversion to nationalism, evidenced by his support of O’Connell’s Repeal Movement, and Davis’s Young Ireland, moved him to devote his poetic talents to shorter pieces articulating the aspirations of those movements, and giving voice to the sense of grievance commonly felt by Irish people at the time considering the many different ways that Ireland was exploited and mis-governed by the Westminster Government. These political pieces appeared in the nationalist press, in periodicals such as The Nation, The Freeman’s Journal, and several others, and were anthologised in 1845 in Poems for the People, in the introduction to which Frazer frankly acknowledged the political tenor of the collection, and indicated that he hoped it would have a politicising effect on Irish people.

Nevertheless, he retained his liking for narrative verse and, in his final published collection, in 1851, he returned to that form. That collection, entitled Poems by J. De Jean, which was brought out by admirers as a way of providing him with some income during his ill health, contained a number of such pieces, including an epic poem on a biblical story, as well as several pieces on Irish legends and Irish life. The collection also contains a further selection of items re-printed from newspapers, including affecting personal poems and poems of place, but also includes the ferociously savage ‘The Three Angels’ in which he considers the effect of the three horsemen, War, Pestilence, and Famine, who bring the fourth, Death, in their train. In three lengthy sections he depicts the shocking results of the free play of those curses on people. In the third section, on Famine, he is clearly dealing with the Famine in Ireland, and paints a horrifying picture of the state of Ireland during that visitation.

The same year, the year before his death, he embarked on a new venture, the publication of a weekly newspaper devoted to support for workers’ rights and conditions. Entitled The Irish Trades’ Journal, it is certainly the first socialist newspaper published in Ireland, and one of the first in the wider world. It appeared weekly, but only for seven weeks. In each issue Frazer included a poem over the nom-de-plume J.A.C. Plane. This was his private joke; a ‘jack-plane’ was one of the tools he would have used in his trade as a cabinet-maker.

His death, in 1852, was marked by many expressions of regard and sympathy in the newspapers to which he had so prolifically contributed. Lectures and presentations were given on his life and work, and a committee was set up to consider how his family might be helped. However, his star faded as the century wore on. He was still a favourite of the Fenian movement, in which his two sons-in-law took a prominent part, but his name was submerged as other issues claimed public attention. Disestablishment and the abolition of tithes, the Land War, the career of Parnell, the Home Rule campaign, not to speak of the British colonial wars in Africa, the First World War, and the 1916 Rising — all these brought other voices to the fore to speak for Ireland, and Frazer’s work faded into oblivion.

Not total oblivion, of course! Single poems continued to feature in collections of Irish verse, which is where I first came across him. Intrigued by his unusual name, I began to look out for him whenever I would acquire another collection. Eventually I shared my interest with my friend Pádraig Turley, himself a son of Offaly, and together we determined to bring Frazer back from oblivion. We would give him the position we believed he deserved, and we would give modern Irish people the chance to renew acquaintance with a once-celebrated Irish poet. The more of his poems we discovered the more convinced we were that this was a task well worth completing. Shortly after starting on this project, a blog written by Pádraig for Offaly History attracted the attention of Frazer’s great-great-great-grand-daughter Laurel Jean Lewis Grube, who lives in the USA. She readily agreed to become part of our effort, and her resources added greatly to the finished product. It was great that she and her husband were able to travel and be with us for the launch and that on Thursday 24th in Tullamore.

I wish to record my appreciation to Pádraig and Laurel for sharing this work with me, and for making it such an enjoyable and rewarding experience.