Turtle Bunbury

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By Turtle Bunbury

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.

This month (Sept 2011) sees the opening of not one but two new movies based on novels by Patrick Brontë’s daughters.

Cary Fukunaga’s version of Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’, on show now at a cinema near you, has received much acclaim, not least for Kerryman Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the darkly Byronic hero, Rochester.

Meanwhile, a new adaptation of Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ by British film director Andrea Arnold has just taken the prize for best cinematography at the Venice International Film Festival.

But the story of the Brontë family is every bit as epic as that of the extraordinary novels which Patrick’s three daughters penned during their tragically short lives.

Raised on the windswept moors of West Yorkshire, the Brontë’s literary legacy of brooding anti-heroes and tortured romance exudes the distinct influence of their Irish ancestry.

By some accounts, the Brontë sisters ancestors 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 as descendents of Pádraig Ó Pronntaigh, a prolific scribe who died in Co. Louth in 1760.

Family lore holds that Patrick Brontë's great-grandfather Hugh Brunty was an cattle trader from Co. Down who was said to have sailed his cattle to Liverpool from the Boyne River and a farm in County Meath. 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 and secured possession of the farm, apparently decieving 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 labor in 1750. Rather than serve this prison sentence, these brothers apparenty fled from County Meath. A Barnabas Brunty arrived in the US in 1750 with six sons and settled in what later became West Virginia. Jim Andrews, who emailed me on this subject in August 2014, had a database of Barnabas' descendants in the US approaching 1,000. 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]

He also adopted one of Mary’s nephews, another Hugh, who hailed from Femanagh. Welsh apparently treated young Hugh as a general dogsbody and thrashed him whenever he resisted.

At the age of 16, young Hugh ran away, finding work just north of Dundalk in the limekilns between Mount Pleasant and Faughart. He then eloped with the daughter of a neighbour from Ballynaskeagh whom he married in secret in Banbridge. The Rev. Patrick Brontë was their son.

Fans of ‘Wuthering Heights' may spot the parallels and, given the dreamy minds of many Brontë biographers, such tales must be read with arched eyebrows

We know that the Brontë sisters’ grandfather Hugh Brunty (or Ó Pronntaigh) was born near Drogheda, Co. Louth, in about 1750. We also know that he was married at Magherally church near Banbridge in 1776 to Alice (or possibly Eleanor) McClory. Whether he was raised by a Heathcliff-like uncle, or whether he and his wife eloped remains historical hearsay.

In any case, Hugh and Alice set up home in a small thatched stone cabin between the rolling drumlins of Imdel (or Emdale) and Lisnacreevy, just south of Ballynaskeagh.[i] This is where Patrick, the eldest of their ten children, was born on St. Patrick’s Day 1777. Remarkably, the building still stands today, albeit in dilapidated condition.

Hugh worked as a corn-roaster and general labourer, becoming a skilled fence-maker. And whilst he could neither read nor write, he was also renowned as a storyteller.[ii]

During his childhood, young Patrick 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 knows 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.

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 Glasker; 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. [iii]

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.[iv]

The Rev. Tighe, a Cambridge graduate, then offered to sponsor Patrick’s education. He enrolled the young man in St. John's College, Cambridge, England, to study theology.[v] 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.

He 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 he was admitted to his BA from Cambridge in May 1806. And in August 1806, 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.

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. Over the next eight years, they had a son and five daughters.

In 1820, Patrick was appointed Curate of Haworth. Stricken with cancer, Maria died soon after their arrival and her sister Elizabeth thereafter helped raise the children. The two eldest girls died in early childhood, allegedly due to the brutality of the headmaster at their boarding school.

Patrick ensured his remaining children were expertly educated at home, maintaining a constantly updated library of books, magazines and newspapers.

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

In 1847, they had rather greater success. Emily published ‘Wuthering Heights’, Charlotte published ‘Jane Eyre’ and Anne published ‘Agnes Grey’.[vii] All three are considered literary classics.

Tragically, all three sisters were to be killed by tuberculosis. Emily died aged 30 in 1848, less than three months after their only brother Patrick succumbed to chronic bronchitis brought on by an addiction to alcohol and laudanum.

Anne died the following year aged 29.

The Rev. Patrick Brontë might have had higher hopes for his daughter Charlotte. In 1854 she had married his curate, the Co. Antrim born Arthur Bell Nicholls; they honeymooned with his family in Banagher, Co. Offaly.

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.

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’.


[i] 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.

[ii] Amongst those who reputedly heard Hugh Brunty’s tales was Sam McAllister who would go on to find fame as Michael Dwyer’s sidekick and saviour during the siege of Derrynamuck.

[iii] By 1792, the Bruntys had moved to the much bigger McClory house at Ballynaskeagh. The house is big enough to be seen on Ordnace Survey maps of the day.

[v] Other sources claim it was through a massive act of Patrick’s own will that he won a scholarship to St John's.

[vi] Charlotte Bronte apparently spoke with an Irish accent when she first went to school. Her sister Anne wrote how she longed to go “home” with her fathers’ brother, Hugh Brunty. 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) - http://www.amazon.co.uk/History-Bronte-Family-Ireland-Wuthering/dp/0750924063

[vii] At least two stage adaptations of ‘Jane Eyre’ were performed in Bronte's own lifetime, aimed at prosperous working-class audiences with a penchant for domestic melodrama. The first silent-film version was made in Italy in 1909.