He is best known for writing The Faeries but William Allingham’s influence was far-reaching and can still be felt today.
The Allingham name is synonymous with the Donegal town of Ballyshannon and is celebrated for good reason. William Allingham was cited as an inspiration by greats such as William Butler Yeats and the Irish revivalists as well as writers of the modern era.
The son of a bank manager, Allingham was born in Ballyshannon in 1824. Though of English nationality Allingham considered himself to be first and foremost a Ballyshannon man, referring to it always as his hometown. In his poem Adieu to Belshanny he wrote:
“Yet dearer still that Irish hill than all the world beside;
It’s home, sweet home, where’er I roam, through lands and waters wide.
And if the Lord allows me, I surely will return
To my native Belashanny, and the winding banks of Erne.”
The young William Allingham was the eldest of five surviving children. As a boy, he loved life on the banks of the Erne, recalling in his poetry the carefree days of fishing and exploring the hills and lakes of the area.
Tragedy struck the household with the death of his mother when William was only nine years old.
Some years later he was sent to boarding school in Killeshandra, Co Cavan but it was reported that he was very unhappy there.
With his father in poor health, he returned to Ballyshannon and took a job in the bank. A plaque on the wall of the AIB in Ballyshannon tells that it was in that building that Allingham worked.
He didn’t particularly like working in the bank and left to take up a role in the Custom’s House. He would remain a Customs Officer for much of his adult life.
The outdoors and the local way of life held great appeal for Allingham and had a lasting impact on him. So too did music and folklore. Even before he began writing his own poetry, Allingham was a great admirer and collector of folk ballads. He was captivated by the manner in which they survived and evolved, carrying their stories and themes through generations.
“But in the sun he sang with cheerful heart,
Of coloured season and the whirling sphere,
Warm household habitude and human mirth,
The whole faith-blooded mystery of earth;
And I, who had his secret, still could hear
The grotto’s whisper low through every part.,”
(from The Singer).
Allingham’s poetry suggests that he was very much a part of the community in Ballyshannon. He writes of attending dances, of being in love, of friends in town and the exotic charm of those living in the heather-coated hills.
He left this life behind when he moved to London but it is clear that it remained very much in his heart and at the core of his sense of self.
One particular element of his work that sets him apart is the strong sense of place that roots even the most fanciful verse in solid ground.
In The Faeries, the reader follows the old king as he troops from the Rosses to Slieveleague, two familiar regions on the west Donegal coast. Other poems refer to well-known townlands and landmarks in Ballyshannon and the surrounding countryside, such as the Knader and Kilconey.
His poetry is also defined by his ability to convey such simple pleasures as a garden of flowers in full bloom or the joy of an unexpected encounter with the natural world.
“Here, too, the darting linnet hath her nest
In the blue-lustered holly, never shorn,
Whose partner cheers her little brooding breast,
Piping from some near bough. O simple song!”
(from In a Spring Grove).
Despite his relatively comfortable existence, Allingham was not oblivious to the trials and tribulations of the less well-off around him.
The Eviction tells of despair arriving on the hillside as the sheriff and his hired men approach. It echoes the cries of women, the curses of men, the frightened children and the utter sorrow of one member of the household in particular:
“One old man, tears upon his wrinkled cheek,
Stands trembling on a threshold, tries to speak,
But, in defect of any word for this,
Mutely upon the doorpost prints a kiss”
(from The Eviction)
Allingham’s poem The Girl’s Lamentation shows another dark side to Irish society, that of a young unmarried woman who becomes pregnant. Told in the voice of the woman, her shame, anguish, fear and loneliness are heart-breaking.
“And what, O what will my mother say?
She’ll wish her daughter was in the clay.
My father will curse me to my face;
The neighbours will know of my black disgrace.”
The poem tells of how the man has gone off without a thought, leaving the narrator to deal with the burden of her plight alone.
Although best known in Donegal for his poetry, Allingham is acclaimed in England for his work as an editor and as a diarist.
His posthumously published diary tells of his years in London, where Allingham was acquainted with Leigh Hunt and members of a group of poets known as the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood that included Thomas Carlyle, Alfred Tennyson and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
His first book of poems was published in 1850. At this time, Allingham was still working as a Customs Officer. His postings in the British Isles included the Isle of Man, Coleraine, New Ross, Ballyshannon and London.
He continued to write and publish, building his reputation and eventually securing a civil list pension for his poetry.
Allingham’s father died in 1866. William travelled home for the funeral in what is thought to be his last visit to Ballyshannon.
He retired from the Customs soon afterwards and became sub-editor of Frazer’s Magazine. In 1874 he was appointed editor.
In the same year, Allingham began another significant chapter in his life with marriage to the English water colour artist, Helen Paterson. She was highly regarded as an illustrator but turned her attention to painting under her married name, Helen Allingham.
Helen shared her husband’s sharp awareness of the characteristics of the people and places around her. She knew the world was changing and through her painting she documented the old cottages and houses as well as the ways of life of their occupants. Her foresight in doing so helped create a visual record of an era now long gone.
The couple had three children together, moving to Surrey in 1879 following Allingham’s resignation from Frazer’s Magazine. There followed a productive period for Allingham with his poetry. A number of collections were completed and published and his civil list pension was significantly increased.
The family moved to Hampstead where William Allingham died in 1889. His ashes were brought back to Ballyshannon and buried in the grounds of St Anne’s Church.
A six-volume collection of his poetry was published posthumously, as was a collection of prose. William Allingham: A Diary was published in 1907.
As previously mentioned, W.B. Yeats was greatly influenced by Allingham, both poets being equally enthralled with the folklore, the people and the landscape of Ireland’s north-west.
He also inspired Walter de la Mare, in particular for his 1923 collection Come Hither.
Ulster poet John Hewitt was deeply influenced by Allingham. With the publication of The Poems of William Allingham in 1967 which he edited, Hewitt ensured that the Ballyshannon poet’s work and influence lived on.
Modern day references to Allingham’s work include lines from The Faeries quoted in the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and in the 1990 science fiction novel Dare To Go A-Hunting by Andre Norton.
Fans of the late great novelist Terry Pratchett will not be surprised to learn that The Wee Free Men featuring the tiny, ferocious but big-hearted Nac Mac Feegles was written with the working title ‘For Fear Of Little Men.’
And as recently as last weekend, hundreds of visitors that included writers, musicians, artists and artisans converged in Ballyshannon for the Allingham Festival.
The annual four-day celebration of creativity held in the poet’s honour is a fitting tribute to the Ballyshannon boy who saw the extraordinary in the ordinary and shared it with the world.
The Boy from his bedroom-window
Look’d over the little town,
And away to the bleak black upland
Under a clouded moon.
The moon came forth from her cavern,
He saw the sudden gleam
Of a tarn in the swarthy moorland;
Or perhaps the whole was a dream.
For I never could find that water
In all my walks and rides:
Far-off, in the Land of Memory,
That midnight pool abides.
Many fine things had I glimpse of,
And said, ‘I shall find them one day.’
Whether within or without me
They were, I cannot say.
– By William Allingham
The above article written by myself ©Siobhán McNamara originally appeared in the Donegal Post newspaper on November 9, 2016