Times Past: Hannah Lynch - Irish author and political activist
Historian Jonathan Smyth's latest edition looks at the Irish author Hannah Lynch with Cavan roots...
The death of Hannah Lynch on January 9, 1904, in Paris had robbed the world of a talented author whose passing was marked by an outpouring of grief from the literary world. In the Freeman’s Journal, an article in honour of Hannah was written by Miss Frances Low who said that she had died at the zenith of her literary powers, adding that literature had sustained as great a loss as when Robert Louis Stevenson had died.
An unnamed ‘Frenchman of letters’ added that Hannah was the ‘most brilliant woman of modern times’. She deserved these accolades and, sadly, it appears that she did not always receive such compliments while she was alive.
Hannah was to join the growing ‘Irish colony’ of writers in Paris, which included amongst others, the great Oscar Wilde. As Katherine Tynan recalled, on one occasion at a party arranged by Lady Jane Wilde, Hannah was introduced to Oscar as Miss Lynch, ‘a young Irish genius’. To which Oscar replied: ‘Are not young Irish geniuses as plentiful as blackberries?’
Amongst Lynch’s friends listed in the Freeman’s Journal there was Mrs John McBride (Maud Gonne), Madame Arvede Barne, Madame Dulcaux and M. Bikolus. Hannah never married and chose rather to devote her life to political activism and writing and when she died, her death was reported on both sides of the Atlantic.
Hannah Lynch was born in Dublin on March 25, 1859, to Michael Lynch and Anna Theresa Caldwell who were originally from Virginia, Co Cavan, and had moved to Dublin to improve their prospects. Anna Theresa was said to have come from a staunch Presbyterian background and Michael was of the Catholic faith, which his daughter Hannah would also follow.
Since his arrival in the city of Dublin, Michael had become a successful ‘shopkeeper, merchant and property holder’ according to the book Hannah Lynch and Spain Collected Journalism of an Irish New Woman, 1892-1903, by Pere Gifra-Adroher and Jacqueline Hurtley. Tragically, Hannah’s father died before she was born and her mother remarried a man named James Cantwell who was involved in the Fenian movement. Cantwell became a successful businessman and owned the Star and Garter Hotel in Dublin.
Ladies Land League
Hannah was raised in a home dedicated to learning where the reading and discussion of books, politics and intellectual ideas were encouraged. She was educated abroad at a French convent, which led to her love of that country before also attending an English convent for a time. Hannah, having completed her studies, returned to Ireland where she worked as a governess, teaching the children of well to do families. Having developed a liking for travel, she then went to Spain where she had a lengthy stay in Barcelona during which time she learned Spanish. She then gave serious consideration to the idea of becoming a concert pianist and had lessons ‘in London’ with George Landsdowne Cottell. Another possible caree was that she might study medicine ‘at a women’s college’ in the United States, but she decided against this option.Hannah came back to Ireland and from 1881 to 1882 she worked with Anna Parnell and the Women’s Land League. She was to be appointed secretary to the London branch. Her earliest experience of the publishing world came about when the editors of ‘United Ireland’ were sent to jail and Hannah took over the printing and distribution of the newspaper.
Eventually, her involvement in the Ladies Land League came to an end when Parnell decided to close the organisation down. Lynch was not happy with Parnell’s decision and went to the Isle of Wight to recuperate having become ill.
Fools were not to receive much comfort from Miss Lynch and as Frances Low noted, ‘her outspoken criticism upon Irish matters and especially upon Irish politicians, coupled with her scathing wit, had made her enemies almost from her childhood’.
Lynch did have a lot of friends and ‘a fair sprinkling of enemies’, who did not always concur with her views. Frances Low wrote that many found Hannah too outspoken and recalled her courage in standing by her convictions. The story is told of a young Irish author, fallen on hard times who was receiving less than favourable terms from their publisher. A friend told the writer, ‘I will give you an introduction to Hannah Lynch, tell her the whole thing; and she will settle that problem for you with her pen’. Unfortunately, Hannah died and the two writers never had an opportunity to meet.
Up to a few days before her death, Hannah had been working on a manuscript for her next book and, when illness set-in, she took to her bed where she died with the crucifix clasped between her hands. At the church of St Philippe du Roule, a requiem mass was held for the repose of her soul. A week after her death, Frances Low called over to Lynch’s house where she was greeted by Maude Gonne McBride and Miss Lynch, a younger sister of the deceased. Hannah Lynch had just ‘turned forty’ before fate intervened and, although on the cusp of major success, the moment had passed for her to fulfil her true potential.
Her books include ‘Autobiography of a Child’; ‘French Life in Town and Country’; ‘Toledo - The Story of an Old Spanish Capital’; ‘Dr. Vermont's Fantasy: And Other Stories’; ‘The Prince of the Glades’; and ‘George Meredith: A Study’. She also co-authored a book with José Echegaray, called ‘The Great Galeoto; Folly or Saintliness; Two Plays Done from the Verse of Jose Echegaray Into English’.
They are worthy of being read and are most recommendable.