Tuesday 23 January 2018

Poetry: A Jesuit who hoped his poem would ring a bell

Francis Sylvester Mahony (Father Prout) 1804-1866
Francis Sylvester Mahony (Father Prout) 1804-1866

Ulick O'Connor

Francis Sylvester ­Mahony was a Jesuit who taught in ­Clongowes Wood College in the 1830s. This year is the 150th anniversary of his death. He infuriated ­numerous superiors in the ­Society of Jesus with his poems and antics, and as a ­result was fired.

It didn't take a feather out of him because he went ahead and got himself ordained in Lucca, Italy. He went on to become a splendid poet who had ­sufficient eminence to be asked by William Thackeray to write the introduction to the first edition of the Cornhill magazine in 1860. Writing under the name of Fr Prout, he appeared in almost every important anthology of the time.

His most famous poem is 'The Bells of Shandon' in which he has set out to evoke the harmony of swinging church bells in verse.

That he was ultimately successful in this has been acknowledged by generations of readers who have heard just this when they read the poem out loud.

Fr Prout was not reticent about the effect that he thought his "bell poem" might have. He has described in prose what he set out to do.

"I wanted to produce, as Victor Hugo did with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the bells of the cathedral in rapid succession, a musical roar, something more gladdening, more dazzling, more tumultuous, a storm of bells, a furnace of campanology, something that would even distantly imitate in the language of the great romance itself, ten thousand brazen tones breathe all at once from flute of stone three hundred high"

Fr Prout had set his sights on the mountain top. The reader can judge if he has achieved it.

The Bells of Shandon

With deep affection,

And recollection,

I often think of

Those Shandon bells,

Whose sounds so wild would,

In the days of childhood,

Fling around my cradle

Their magic spells:

On this I ponder

Where'er I wander,

And thus grow fonder,

Sweet Cork, of thee;

With thy bells of Shandon,

That sound so grand on

The pleasant waters

Of the River Lee.


I've heard bells chiming

Full many a clime in,

Tolling sublime in

Cathedral shrine,

While at a glib rate

Brass tongues would vibrate-

But all their music

Spoke naught like thine;

For memory, dwelling

On each proud swelling

Of the belfry knelling

Its bold notes free,

Made the bells of Shandon

Sound far more grand on

The pleasant waters

Of the River Lee.

Francis Sylvester Mahony (Father Prout) 1804-1866

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