Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

Thomas Moore, "The Poet of the People of Ireland"

Beautiful words set to beautiful music appealed to many who had not been roused to sympathy with Ireland by the greatest orator of modern times.

Thomas Moore, born about four years later than O'Connell, not only stirred millions of apathetic Irish to remember their own nation and its needs, but also furthered their cause among the aristocracy of England, whom political agitation had left cold.

Set to the harp, that once famed instrument of Erin, his words recalled the pride of his race, the sadness and the genius that were part of it. They broke through a long silence to express emotions that evoked generous sympathy by the surpassing sweetness with which they voiced their appeal." The bards of Ireland, formerly so powerful in their influence on politics, had become mere strolling entertainers, glad to accept the shelter of the humblest inn or cabin. They had fallen with the great houses, that had honoured them as guests, and their music was no longer heard at national assemblies. It was held suitable now for weddings, wakes and patterns or "patrons," which celebrated the festivals of saints. Even the national airs were dying out when Thomas Moore was born. He seemed unlikely to influence the destiny of a nation in the humble surroundings, where he first saw the light. His parents were struggling trades-people of Dublin, by no means able to provide for their children's education without great efforts. The mother, however, was ambitious, and sent Thomas to the best school she could afford, for he was a brilliant boy and far outshone Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the great dramatist, who was his schoolfellow for some years. When he was thirteen, the affairs of Ireland had reached a dangerous pitch of excitement. Several of the United Irishmen were his friends, and he remembered sitting at a public dinner on the knee of Napper Tandy, one of the heroes of '98. The toast "May the breezes of France blow our Irish Oak into verdure," especially delighted his youthful imagination.

Moore's family were Catholics, and blessed the law which removed the prohibition against Catholic barristers. They sent Thomas to the University of Dublin, where he could not, however, compete for a scholarship on account of his religion. There was some discussion whether it would not be prudent to enter the young student as a Protestant, but the mother refused to consent.

Moore spent the early time of his career at college in the study of classics and verse-writing, The days passed pleasantly for him, till the troubled spirit of the age found its way to the university. Moore belonged to a debating society, of which the ill-fated Robert Emmet was chief orator. When the conspiracy of the United Irishmen was discovered, many of Moore's friends were found to be concerned in it, and he was called upon to give evidence against them. Though only seventeen or eighteen, he acted with sturdy independence, refusing to say anything that was likely to injure his companions, even when threatened with suspension from the university. He came through this ordeal favourably at last, and was able to enter himself as a student at the Middle Temple, London, as soon as his mother had saved enough for his expenses.

It was usual in those days for a poet to find a patron, who would help him either by money or influence, and Moore was introduced to Lord Moira for this purpose. He obtained permission to dedicate a translation of "Anacreon" to the Prince of Wales and was presented to him personally. This honour launched him on his career as a man of letters. A revival of ancient Irish airs, which were published in 1796, awakened Moore's genius for music, really greater than his talent for verse. He had begun by practising on an old harpsichord, which his father had taken in payment for some debt. He improved his knowledge, gathered together fragments of old melodies and wrote the songs for them, which came to be associated with the music as if written in days of long ago. He owed his success in society less to his promise as a poet than to his remarkable gifts as a musician. The doors of great English houses opened to him for the sake of his songs. He began to publish his "Irish Melodies" in 1807 and his "National Airs" in 1815.

Moore's popularity became unbounded, but in the very heyday of success he was never forgetful of his humble family. He worked for them unceasingly, and at the same time was unflagging in his devotion to Ireland. For the cause of Catholic emancipation he used all his gifts of wit, satire and eloquence without fear. His own sympathy was so deep that he won the sympathy of other3, and it coloured hi. writings with a passion that reawakened the long past power of the bards of a former age.

Moore's "Poems of the East" had equal music and pathos. "Lalla Rookh" indeed, won a success that rivaled the fame of Scott and of Byron. Three thousand guineas were offered for the poem before it was written—a sum that must have been very acceptable to a poet in needy circumstances! Moore accepted neither bounty nor bribery and all his life had to struggle for the means of subsistence. He took the burden of his family when his mother died, refusing all offers of help from his friends. The people of Limerick offered to provide him with the necessary estate if he would enter Parliament, as O'Connell entreated, but he was afraid of binding himself to a certain course of action, and refused the seat. Thomas Moore in public life would hold no man master.

Sentiments of patriotism and martyrdom inspire the four long books of "Lalla Rookh," as they inspire the "National Melodies." Ireland was in the poet's heart when he wrote of the East, and the tragedy of a fierce and hopeless struggle. Moore gained some renown for a "Life of Byron" but he lives by the glory of his "National Melodies." Burns in Scotland and Beranger in Provence are the only modern song-writers to be compared with him. Shiel and O'Connell, the greatest of his countrymen were accustomed to quote the lyrics of Moore, for they well knew their effect upon an audience. Irishmen, who listened to Moore's verses, were not only encouraged in new patriotism—they also turned to wild adoration of the poet himself. Sir Walter Scott was delighted by a reception given to Moore in a theatre at Edinburgh. "The house," he says, "received him with rapture. I could have hugged them for it."

As a poet or musician little fault can be found with Moore. As a man he was, perhaps, tarnished somewhat by vanity and worldliness. Yet he worked faithfully to the end of his life, bearing much sorrow and loss. He married in early youth a wife almost as penniless as himself. The two had several children, but lost them one by one. The gaiety of the poet vanished before this affliction.

Moore died in England in 1852, and it is said that his love of music never left him but with life itself, for he sang a favourite air on the day before he died.