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The Irish Roots of the Brontë Sisters

There have been upwards of 25 films based on ‘Jane Eyre’ since the first silent-film version was made in Italy in 1909. In 2011, cinema viewers were treated to Cary Fukunaga’s film in which Kerry-born Michael Fassbender portrayed the darkly Byronic hero, Rochester, with the brilliant Mia Wasikowska as the eponymous Jane.

Haworth, Yorkshire, March 1855. The Rev. Patrick Brontë tried to ignore the sounds of retching and racking coughs that echoed down the stairwell. The Irish clergyman stared out the window of the Yorkshire parsonage he had called home for over thirty years. He had little cause for optimism. He had already buried his wife and their other five children. Charlotte would be dead before the summer was over, and no doubt the child she carried would die too.

The story of the Brontë family is every bit as epic as that of the extraordinary novels which Patrick’s three daughters Charlotte, Emily and Anne managed to pen during their tragically short lives, namely Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. Raised on the windswept moors of West Yorkshire, the Brontë sisters legacy of brooding anti-heroes and tortured romance exudes the distinct influence of their Irish ancestry.

By some accounts, the ancestors of the Brontë family hailed from Warwickshire or Derbyshire and moved to Ireland in the 17th century. Douglas Hyde, Ireland’s first President and founder of the Gaelic League, ascribed them a rather more Hibernicised origin and pinpointed them as descendants of Pádraig Ó Pronntaigh [Prunty], a prolific scribe who died in County Louth in 1760.

 

Welsh Brunty – The Heathcliff Prototype

 

Family lore holds that Patrick Brontë’s great-grandfather Hugh Brunty was a cattle trader from County Down who bought a farm on the River Boyne in County Meath from which he sailed his cattle to Liverpool. On a trip to Wales, he befriended a dark-skinned street urchin whom he took home, raised as his son and named Welsh. In time, Welsh married Hugh’s daughter Mary. He also secured possession of the farm by apparently deceiving Mary’s brothers. The brothers were apparently so livid that they attacked Welsh; two or more of them were convicted for assault and sentenced to hard labour in 1750 but, rather than serve this prison sentence, they apparently fled from Ireland. It is notable that a Barnabas Brunty arrived in North America in 1750, with six sons, and settled in what later became West Virginia. [1]

 

Hugh Brunty – The Storyteller

 

The same family narrative holds that Welsh adopted one of Mary’s nephews, another Hugh Brunty, who may have started his life in County Fermanagh. Welsh apparently treated young Hugh as a general dogsbody and thrashed him whenever he resisted. Fans of ‘Wuthering Heights’ will have spotted multiple parallels in the story so far although, given the dreamy minds of many early Brontë biographers, such tales must be read with arched eyebrows.

Whether Hugh was raised by such a Heathcliff-like uncle is open to question but we do know that the Brontë sisters’ grandfather was called Hugh Brunty (or Ó Pronntaigh) and that he was born near Drogheda, County Louth, in about 1750. Family lore holds that he ran away from home (ie: Welsh’s rule of terror) at the age of 16 and found work just north of Dundalk in the limekilns between Mount Pleasant and Faughart. He later worked as a corn-roaster and general labourer, becoming a skilled fence-maker. Whilst he could neither read nor write, he was also renowned as a storyteller. Amongst those who reputedly heard his tales was Sam McAllister, a Presbyterian from Antrim, who would go on to find fame as Michael Dwyer’s sidekick and saviour during the siege of Derrynamuck in 1799.

In 1776, Hugh was married at Magherally church near Banbridge to Alice McClory. Some accounts say that the couple eloped and married in secret, and her name is sometimes given as Eleanor. Her father was a well-to-do man who lived in a house by Ballynaskeagh, County Down, that was big enough to be marked on the first Ordnance Survey maps.

Hugh and Alice settled in a small, thatched stone cabin between the rolling drumlins of Imdel (or Emdale) and Lisnacreevy, just south of Ballynaskeagh and north-west of Rathfriland. [2] Remarkably, the building still stands today, albeit in dilapidated condition  In about 1792, Hugh and Alice moved to the much larger McClory home by Ballynaskeagh.

 

The Rev. Patrick Bronte (1777-1861)

 

Born in the Imdel home on St. Patrick’s Day 1777, the Rev. Patrick Brontë was the eldest of Hugh and Alice’s ten children. During his childhood, he became close to the parish’s inspired Wicklow-born clergyman, the Rev. Thomas Tighe, a man with strong literary connections of his own. Tighe’s grandfather had known Jonathan Swift, his niece Mary Tighe was a celebrated Romantic poet, and his nephew George Tighe would become best friends with Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, and her poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Haworth Parsonage in West Yorkshire where the Bronte family lived.

The Rev. Tighe greatly impressed upon Patrick a desire to learn, and it is said that the boy was rarely seen without his face burrowed in a book. Differing accounts suggest Patrick initially went to Banbridge to serve an apprenticeship as a weaver, a blacksmith or a draper. Ultimately, he started as a teacher in Glascar (Glasker), near his parents’ home at Ballynaskeagh. The story runs that schoolmaster James Harshaw offered him the job when he stumbled upon the lad reading ‘Paradise Lost’ aloud in the ringfort in Imdel.

Patrick reputedly excelled as a teacher, using innovative methods. The small thatched cabin where he taught, now the Brontë Museum, stands close to the church where Patrick’s parents, brothers and sister are buried.

In 1799, he was dismissed from the school, possibly for his involvement with the United Irishmen during the 1798 Rising; his brother William fought at the Battle of Ballynahinch and his parish was much embroiled in the conflict.

The Rev. Tighe, a Cambridge graduate, then offered to sponsor Patrick’s education and enrolled the young man in St. John’s College, Cambridge, England, to study theology. That said, other sources claim it was through a massive act of Patrick’s own will that he won a scholarship to St John’s. Was Patrick Bronte an exile? Was he simply disillusioned with living in post-Rebellion Down? Or was he simply availing of the Rev Tighe’s timely offer?

In September 1802, Patrick sailed from Ireland with £7 in his pocket. He was admitted to St. John’s as ‘Patrick Branty’ but, two days later, he changed the spelling to ‘Brontë’, in tribute to his hero, Lord Nelson, the honorary Duke of Brontë.

Patrick quickly made his mark at Cambridge, winning a series of prizes that were specifically aimed at poor but promising students. His success even caught the eye of William Wilberforce, who led the campaign for the abolition of slavery.

In 1805, the year Nelson trounced the French at Trafalgar, Patrick applied to be ordained. He was recorded as ‘Patrick Bronte’ when admitted to his BA from Cambridge in May 1806. Three months later, the 29-year-old Rev. Patrick Brontë, BA, briefly returned to Ireland to visit his ailing mother and to preach his first sermon in Drumballyroney Church.

There have been over 20 film and TV adaptations of Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, including one in 2011 by British film director Andrea Arnold, which took the Best Cinematography prize at the Venice International Film Festival. I still think Kate Bush’s 1978 song (see below) has as much ambience as any of them.

After he was ordained, the bespectacled Irishman held various ministries in Essex, Shropshire, and Yorkshire. In 1811, he published a book of ‘Cottage Poems’, including a poem called ‘The Irish Cabin‘, available via Google Books here. In 1812, he married Maria Branwell, the daughter of a merchant from the craggy coast of Cornwall and a kinswoman of my mother-in-law’s people. Over the next eight years, Patrick and Maria had a son, Branwell, and five daughters, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Emily and Anne.

In 1820, Patrick was appointed Curate of Haworth. Stricken with cancer, Patrick’s wife Maria died soon after their arrival and her sister Elizabeth thereafter helped raise the children. The two eldest girls died in early childhood in 1825, Maria from tuberculosis, and perhaps Elizabeth from the same ailment.

Patrick ensured his remaining four children were expertly educated at home, maintaining a constantly updated library of books, magazines, and newspapers. His Irish background cannot have been too far from his mind as his children are said to have spoken with an Irish accent when they first went to school. Anne Brontë also wrote of how she longed to go “home” to Ireland with her fathers’ brother, Hugh Brunty. [3]

The three girls – Charlotte, Emily and Anne – excelled at music, drawing, reading and writing. In 1846, they published a joint volume of poems under the masculine pen-names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. They sold two copies.

They had rather more success when they teamed up with Thomas Cautley Newby, a small-time London publisher whose other offerings for 1847 included The Macdermots of Ballycloran, an unmitigated flop written by an unknown postal clerk living in Ireland named Anthony Trollope.

By the close of 1847, Newby had published three novels by the “Bell” siblings, namely Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë), Wuthering Heights (by Emily Brontë) and Agnes Grey (by Anne Brontë). All three are considered literary classics.

It was not until July 1848 that the true identity of the Bells was revealed. However, this astonishing literary dynasty was to be shattered by tuberculosis a few short seasons after their annus mirabilis. Emily died aged 30 in 1848, less than three months after jer only brother Patrick succumbed to chronic bronchitis brought on by an addiction to alcohol and laudanum.

Anne died the following year aged 29.

Charlotte Brontë spent her honeymoon in Ireland. Her epic novel ‘Jane Eyre’ was published on 16 October 1847.

Arthur Bell Nicholls at the time of his marriage to Charlotte Brontë in 1854.

The Rev. Patrick Brontë might have had higher hopes for his daughter Charlotte, who had become quite well known. At least two stage adaptations of ‘Jane Eyre’ were performed in her own lifetime, aimed at prosperous working-class audiences with a penchant for domestic melodrama.

Charlotte received several marriage proposals along the way, including one in 1839 from David Bryce, an Irishman who was serving as curate at Christ Church, Colne. Lancashire. I do not know quite how she responded but poor old Bryce died on 17 January 1840, aged 29.

On 29 June 1854, Charlotte married Patrick’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls (1819-1906), contrary to her father’s wishes. Nicholls was born at Kilead, near Aldergrove in County Antrim. Patrick Brontë strongly disapproved and sacked his curate but he later relented and took him back in.

Charlotte and Arthur honeymooned with the Nicholls family in Cuba House, Banagher, in the Irish Midlands, calling in at Limerick City and Kilkee, Co. Clare.

Charlotte was pregnant with their only child when, aged 38, she was attacked by “sensations of perpetual nausea and ever-recurring faintness.” She and her unborn child died on 31 March 1855. Arthur Nicholls subsequently moved to Banagher, County Offaly, where he died and was buried in 1906. Nichollas came in for some strong criticism from devotees of Charlotte who blamed him for her death, but Clement K. Shorter, who knew him, had this to say:

‘I have met him in Ireland several times; I have found him to be an upright, intelligent, interesting, kindly man, a man.who has now as always a great feeling of love and devotion for his richly endowed wife and is proud of her great fame. I had to unthink all that I had heard as to his being in every way a different man from what we hero-worshippers might, not without impertinence, have conceived of as a suitable husband for Charlotte Bronte. He is a man whom any woman might revere, and I was pleased to feel as I did, that here before me was the man who brought a little gleam of sunshine and happiness into the home and into the life of one of our greatest novelists, and who still keeps up a warm interest in his old home at Haworth and its Bronte associations. It is utterly untrue as has been hinted that he discouraged his wife’s. literary aspirations. She read to him every fragment of her writings, and she wrote many short papers after her marriage.’ [4]

The Rev. Patrick Brontë was the last of his family to die, passing away at the age of 84 in June 1861. Given the Irishness of his talented progeny, it is no wonder that his daughter Emily is amongst those included in ‘The Oxford Book of Irish Verse’. Emily was also the subject of Frances O’Connor’s 2022 biographical drama ‘Emily,’ starring  Emma Mackey, with Adrian Dunbar as her father.

 

End Notes

 

A scene from ‘Jane Eyre’ (2011) with Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska.

[1] Jim Andrews, who emailed me on this subject in August 2014, had a database of Barnabas’ descendants in the US that was approaching 1,000 by then. He proposed that the other brothers may have moved or returned to Fermanagh or maybe to County Longford. It would be wonderful if anyone could verify whether this assault and flight story is true – Wright and Cannon both wrote about it.

[2] The nearby town of Rathfriland was once seat of the Magennis’s, Lords of Iveagh, and ancestors of Arthur Guinness. By the time of Patrick’s birth, it was a prosperous linen town with market house, streets, lanes, tenements and gardens.

[3] Both Patrick Bronte and his son Branwell were described as Irish. For more, see The History of the Bronte Family: From Ireland to “Wuthering Heights” by John Cannon (Sutton Publishing Ltd; 2000).

[4] Clement K. Shorter (1898) New Light on the Brontës, Brontë Society Transactions, 1:8, 10-19, DOI: 10.1179/bronsoc.1898.1.8.10