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Banim, John [pseud. Abel O'Hara]locked

  • Katherine Mullin

Banim, John [pseud. Abel O'Hara] (1798–1842), novelist and playwright, was born in the city of Kilkenny, on 3 April 1798, the younger son of Michael Banim, a proprietor of a gun and tackle shop, and his wife, Joannah Carroll. His elder brother, Michael Banim [pseud. Barnes O'Hara] (1796–1874), was also born at Kilkenny, on 5 August 1796. The brothers were educated locally at Dr MacGrath's Catholic school, but an improvement in the family fortunes allowed John to be sent to St John's College, Kilkenny, where he gained an education more usually reserved for protestants. At sixteen, Michael began legal training, but financial troubles forced him to give up his studies to take over his father's business. Meanwhile, John had demonstrated a precocious talent for painting, and in 1813 he joined the drawing academy of the Royal Dublin Society, where he won the highest prize at the end of his first year. After graduating in 1816, he returned to Kilkenny to take up work as a drawing-master in a girls' boarding-school. There he fell in love with one of his pupils, the daughter of a protestant land agent, but her father on religious grounds refused him permission to marry her. She was removed from Kilkenny, and when she died several months later from tuberculosis, John believed she had died for love of him. His disappointment precipitated a period of depression from which his biographer Patrick Murray dates the first symptoms of the spinal disease that would eventually prove fatal.

In 1820 John Banim returned to Dublin, where he turned to journalism, contributing to the Leinster Gazette, the Limerick Evening Post under the pseudonym A Traveller, and various magazines. Hampered by debts, he travelled to London to advance in his profession, and there he was introduced to Richard Lalor Sheil, a playwright and politician influential in the campaign for Catholic emancipation. Banim's poem 'Ossian's Paradise', based on the legend of St Patrick's attempt to convert the pagan hero Ossian, was shown by Banim to Sir Walter Scott, who admired it; in 1821 it was published as The Celt's Paradise. Sheil also introduced Banim into theatrical circles, and although his first play, Turgesius (1820), remained unstaged, his second, Damon and Pythias, was performed at Covent Garden on 28 May 1821. The tragedy, using classical settings reflecting Banim's ascendancy education and with William Macready and Charles Kemble in the principal roles, was successful enough to allow Banim to return to Kilkenny and discharge his debts.

On 27 February 1822 John Banim married Ellen, the daughter of John Ruth, a Kilkenny farmer, and in March the couple travelled to London, where they set up home in Brompton, and Banim joined the staff of the newly formed Literary Register. While in Kilkenny, he had outlined to his brother Michael a plan for a series of national tales that the two would write in collaboration. Over the next two years the brothers worked upon a first volume, John being supported in London by the friendship of the Irish novelist Gerald Griffin, while Michael was gathering material in Ireland. The brothers adopted the pseudonyms Abel and Barnes O'Hara respectively, and were in constant communication over drafts of each other's fiction. An insight into the close collaborative nature of the Banims' writing practice can be gathered from John's letter to Michael at this time, in which he requests 'your severest criticism […] sit in judgement and send me all your opinions sincerely given' (quoted in Cronin, 46). Each brother freely edited the work of the other, deleting passages, adding new sections, and even reshaping the other's characters or plot.

John Banim's third play, The Prodigal, was accepted at Covent Garden in 1823 but was never performed. Frustrated, he published Revelations of the Dead-Alive (1824), a satire upon the London literary scene. Within a year the publication of John's John Doe, or, Peep O'Day and The Fetches, and Michael's Crohoore of the Billhook as Tales from the O'Hara Family made the Banims part of that scene. The Tales reflected the brothers' commitment to Daniel O'Connell's campaign for Catholic emancipation, and both Crohoore and John Doe endeavoured to explain the underlying causes of Whiteboy agrarian violence. Crohoore, which focused upon 'life in the cabin', was considered by many contemporary critics to be the best of the O'Hara tales. The Edinburgh Review remarked that 'It is pleasant after ages of bad romances in politics to find good politics in romances' (EdinR, 43, 1826, 172), while Gerald Griffin praised the Banims' 'excellent tact in seizing on all parts of national character which are capable of effect' (Griffin, 231).

Tact was essential to the Banims' success, as they published in London, and wrote in English at a time when 50 per cent of the Irish population spoke Gaelic. While John Banim might remark to his compatriots that his work was inspired by 'an indignant wish to soften the hearts of Ireland's oppressors' (Wolff, introduction to Murray, xlvi), to his English readers he described 'the uniform political tendency' of the Tales as 'for the formation of a good and affectionate feeling between England and Ireland' (Wolff, xlvii). As Michael Banim explained, it was necessary to 'insinuate through fiction the causes of Irish discontent, the conclusion to be arrived at by the reader' (Webb). All three of the first collection of tales endeavoured to attract English readers by placing an Englishman abroad figure at the centre of their narratives. The presentation of dialogue between Irish characters (rather than any more overt form of direct address to the reader), was also a preferred method of persuasion for hesitant English well-wishers.

Following the success of the Tales, Michael Banim spent several months in 1825 researching a second volume, through travel in the south of Ireland and correspondence with folklorists such as the bookseller Patrick Kennedy. In 1826 he travelled to London, partly to celebrate the birth of his niece, Mary, and partly to supply his brother with background information. John Banim's third novel, The Boyne Water, was a direct and controversial appeal for Catholic emancipation set in the 1690s during the battle of the Boyne; it concludes by insisting that the English had reneged upon the treaty of Limerick, which had expressed conciliatory intentions towards Catholics. Again, an English readership was encouraged to identify with the hero, Robert Evelyn, an Anglican Orangeman. With his sister he meets a Catholic brother and sister, Edmund and Eva McDonnell; the couples fall in love, but are driven apart by sectarian violence. Some of the novel's dialogue was written in Gaelic, with translations footnoted.

The Boyne Water was published in 1826, together with John Banim's The Nowlans and Peter of the Castle as the second volume of Tales from the O'Hara Family, dedicated to Thomas Moore, 'Ireland's True Son and First Poet'. The Nowlans, the first in a long line of Irish Catholic novels about 'spoiled priests', including George Moore's The Lake (1905) and Gerald O'Donovan's Father Ralph (1913), was especially favourably reviewed, and in 1895 W. B. Yeats admired the novel enough to include it in his list of thirty best Irish books. Reviewers commented that the O'Hara family 'borrowed largely from the storehouse of Sir Walter's machinery' (Monthly Review, 4th ser., Jan 1827, 131), and The Boyne Water, which stood for more than a century as the most widely acclaimed Irish historical novel, was favourably compared with Scott's Waverley.

In 1827 Michael Banim began work on The Croppy, which like The Boyne Water invited support for Catholic emancipation. The Croppy traced the cultural confusion of the 1820s to the 1798 rising, penetrating to the heart of the Wexford rising while retaining the Banim spirit of reconciliation. It appeared in a third volume of O'Hara tales, alongside John's The Conformist, about a Catholic victim of the penal laws who ousts his family from their hereditary holdings by turning protestant, and The Last Baron, encouraging Catholic secession from the materialism of Ulster. Both John Banim's novels were heavily revised in the wake of the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1828, and the volume was prefaced with the hope that English readers would not be offended, and was dedicated to Arthur, duke of Wellington.

Later in 1828 John Banim published another novel, The Anglo-Irish in the Nineteenth Century, where the hero, the absentee landlord George Blount, has his hatred and contempt for the 'uncivilised Irish' challenged by his love for a 'wild Irish girl' who initially masquerades as a sophisticated Frenchwoman. Banim's satire on the political divisions between social classes in Ireland appeared anonymously, and the contrast with the O'Hara tales was so pronounced that it was thought to have been written by Sydney Owenson's husband, Charles Morgan.

During the following year John Banim became severely ill and moved to Boulogne to convalesce. Financial hardship advanced with ill health, and the success of the O'Hara tales in America and their translation into French and German in 1830 was not enough to defray the increased expenses necessitated by medical care and the birth of two sons in 1831 and 1832. John worked on The Smuggler, his only novel set in England, and contributed several light pieces to the English Opera House, mostly adaptations of the first volume of O'Hara tales. These successes failed to prevent the Banims from declining into further poverty, and at the end of 1832 John Banim's wife, Ellen, visited John Sterling, the editor of The Times and a friend of her husband's. Sterling organized a relief fund in The Times, and Richard Lalor Sheil set up a similar subscription fund in Dublin to 'assert the eminence of an author who had reflected so much honour upon his country' (Murray, 226).

Although John Banim's financial distress was alleviated by these tributes to his reputation, his sufferings continued. In 1834 he became paralysed from the waist down and was pronounced incurable by his doctors, and later that year both his sons died. He became eager to leave France and return to Ireland, and his arrival in Dublin in July 1835 was greeted with much enthusiasm. Performances of his play Damon and Pythias and of his adaptations of the O'Hara tales were given for his benefit at the Dublin Theatre Royal. Shortly after his arrival in Kilkenny, John Banim was granted a civil-list pension of £150 per annum, with an extra £40 for his daughter. Although too ill to write, he managed to assist his brother with his stories The Ghost Hunter and his Family and The Mayor of Windgap, which appeared along with The Smuggler in a fourth O'Hara volume.

The Bit o'Writing appeared in 1838, and represented a collection of twenty stories including sketches by Michael Banim and selections from John Banim's contributions to periodical literature. The large sales of the collection combined with Michael's commercial success in the family business to make the brothers wealthy, and in 1840 Michael Banim married Catherine O'Dwyer, with whom he had two daughters, Mary and Mathilde. However, within a year of his marriage Michael's business collapsed due to the bankruptcy of a merchant, and he lost the greater proportion of his fortune.

In preparation for the next O'Hara volume, Michael Banim had researched the Kilkenny branch of the Whiteboys, the Whitefeet: a rural protest movement committed to the abolition of church tithes. Michael had interviewed Whitefeet leaders, and wished to write another novel as a companion to Crohoore of the Billhook, his earlier examination of Whiteboyism. Yet John Banim advised him 'we have given too much of the darker side of the Irish life: let us for the present treat of the amiable' (Murray, 240), and the brothers instead collaborated on a character study of a kindly priest who had been a friend since childhood. Father Connell (1842), although in parts sentimental, gave a grim picture of pre-famine rural poverty.

On 13 August 1842 John Banim died at Kilkenny of the progressive spinal illness that had afflicted him since his teens. He was diagnosed as suffering from spinal tuberculosis, although his symptoms also indicate multiple sclerosis. His wife, Ellen, and daughter, Mary, survived him, although Mary died a year later. Michael Banim had lived in his brother's shadow for most of his life, as John Banim was not only better known, but was also considered to be the possessor of 'the poetic vein', whereas Michael's talents were considered to rest more mundanely in the close observation of social background and peasant life. In 1852 Michael Banim published a short story, 'Clough Finn, or, The Stone of Destiny', in the Dublin University Magazine. Later that year he was appointed postmaster of Kilkenny, which distracted him from writing for another decade. In 1864 his final book, and the only one to bear his name, appeared; The Town of the Cascades was a temperance novel describing the disastrous effects of drink upon family life.

During the 1850s Michael Banim assisted Patrick Murray in writing a biography of his brother, and The Life of John Banim was published in 1857, running through ten editions in London and Dublin until 1869, and reprinted in facsimile by Robert Lee Wolff in 1978. In 1865 Banim wrote the introduction and notes for the collected works of the ‘O'Haras’, the first edition to be published in Dublin. Michael Banim became ill in 1873, and resigned as postmaster in order to retire to Booterstown on the coast of co. Dublin. A grant from the Royal Literary Fund did little to defray the financial hardship in which he spent his last years. He died at Booterstown on 30 August 1874, and his widow received a civil-list pension. His daughter Mary became a journalist for the Weekly Freeman and travel writer, best known for Here and There Through Ireland (1893), a nationalist account of a journey through post-famine Ireland.

The Banims gained a lasting posthumous reputation as nationalist novelists, and several of the novels were reprinted in the twentieth century. As Sir Charles Gavan Duffy remarked in 1891, 'Moore's Melodies, Griffin's and the Banims' novels have been a constant cordial to the sorely tried spirit of our people' (Gilligan, 81).


  • P. J. Murray, The life of John Banim (1857) [ed. with an introduction by R. L. Wolff (1978)]
  • A. Brady and B. Cleeve, eds., A dictionary of Irish writers (1985)
  • M. D. Hawthorne, John and Michael Banim: a study in the early development of the Anglo-Irish novel (1975)
  • B. R. Friedman, ‘Fabricating history, or, John Banim refights the Boyne’, Éire–Ireland, 17/1 (1982), 39–56
  • A. J. Webb, A compendium of Irish biography (1878)
  • L. C. Sanders, Celebrities of the century: being a dictionary of men and women of the nineteenth century (1887)
  • J. F. Waller, ed., The imperial dictionary of universal biography, 3 vols. (1857–63)
  • EdinR, 43 (1826), 172, 365
  • K. Lubbers, ‘Author and audience in the early nineteenth century’, Literature and the changing Ireland, ed. P. Connolly (1982), 25–36
  • W. J. McCormack, ‘A manuscript letter from Michael Banim’, Éire–Ireland, 8/1 (1973), 95–6
  • D. Gilligan, ‘Natural indignation in the native voice: the fiction of the Banim brothers’, Anglo-Irish and Irish literature: aspects of language and culture, ed. B. Bramsbäck and M. Groghan, 2 (1986), 77–91
  • R. Welch, ed., The Oxford companion to Irish literature (1996)
  • J. Cronin, The Anglo-Irish novel, 1 (1980)
  • T. Flanagan, The Irish novelists, 1800–1850 (1959)
  • D. Griffin, The life of Gerald Griffin (1857), 231


  • BL, letters to Sir Robert Peel, Add. MSS 40413, fol. 317; 40419, fols. 55, 57
  • NL Scot., letters to Sir Walter Scott


  • E. Fitzpatrick, pen-and-ink drawing, repro. in Murray, Life of John Banim, frontispiece
  • G. F. Mulvany, oils, NG Ire.
  • T. C. Thompson, oils (Michael Banim), NG Ire.
  • lithograph, NG Ire.
Edinburgh Review, or, Critical Journal
National Gallery of Ireland
T. H. Ward, ed., (1885); repr. (Graz, 1968)
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
British Library, London