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THE LIFE OF THE REV. FRANCIS MAHONY, "FATHER PROUT."
AN assumed name has often acquired a celebrity in literature, as contrasted with which that of the author himself, down to the very last, dwindles to comparative insignificance. Thomas Ingoldsby, for example, is far more widely known to the generality of readers than Richard Harris Barham; while many upon whose ears the name of Bryan Waller Procter might sound but strangely would, nevertheless, be perfectly familiar with his pseudonym as a lyrist, Barry Cornwall. Similarly, it may be taken for granted, that while, as a rule, the Parisians of the days of the Citizen King enjoyed, with the greatest gusto, the fame of Timon, the majority of them either knew nothing whatever, or next to nothing, of the individuality of Louis de Cormenin. With anonymous writers it happens, perhaps, the most frequently, that the mask having been first allowed to slip awry, is eventually thrown away altogether. Boz, after this fashion, was soon tossed aside like a superfluous domino, when Dickens, still a very young man, quietly stepped to the front, according to Thackeray's expression, and calmly took his place in perpetuity among the first of English humorists. Thackeray himself, as it fell out, required a little longer time before he was enabled, in his own person, to supersede his supposititious alter ego, Michael Angelo Titmarsh. Only very seldom, a nom de plume gets to be so far identified with an author, that it becomes, so to speak, a convertible term with his patronymic. In this way, the merest casual mention, at any time, of Elia, is about equivalent to the express naming of Charles Lamb. Again, it but exceptionally occurs that a writer of note indulges in the luxury of building up for himself two or three distinct pseudonymous reputations. Swift's reduplicated triumph in that way is about the one solitary instance that can be adduced-an instance notably commemorated by Pope's famous apostrophe in the “Dunciad”–
O thou! whatever title please thine ear,
Otherwise, it has been the general rule, in this particular, among authorsand for that matter, indeed, it may be said, among artists as well-to
select some imaginary title, and hold to it consistently. In the history of Italian art it is in this manner noteworthy that more than one of the great painters acquired fame under the merest nickname or sobriquet-Maso di San Giovanni being better known to the world at large as Slovenly Tom, otherwise Masaccio, and Jacopo Robusti, by reason of his father's craft, as the Little Dyer, otherwise Tintoretto. In our own time, again, there have been two skilled draughtsmen who have enjoyed a wide popularity, the one in France as a caricaturist, the other in England as a book-illustrator, each of whom in turn has had his real name virtually obliterated—or, at any rate, in a great measure eclipsed-by an eccentric pseudonym. One of these has long been universally known on the other side of the Channel under his fantastic signature of Cham in the Charivari, hardly any but his personal intimates being acquainted with his actual designation, Amédée de Noë. While, with regard to his contemporary and compeer amongst ourselves, though for upwards of forty years he has been familiarly before the public under his grotesque nom de crayon as Phiz, comparatively few have, even as yet, accustomed themselves to identify him under his homely surname, Browne. Reverting, however, from the artistic to the purely literary experts who have, at different times, indulged in this innocent kind of masquerading, it may be argued, with some show of reason, that the fashion, afterwards so much in vogue in this country, was first set in earnest when Sir Richard Steele began to discourse in the Spectator as Mr. Shortface, and his associate Addison, through the same medium, from behind the classic mask of C.L.I.O. Improving, from the very outset, upon the design thus happily hit upon between them, those congenial intimates, besides, there and then, by simply harmonizing their fancies, called an entirely new personality into existence: one ever since familiarly known in the world of letters, and instantly recognizable by all to this day as Sir Roger de Coverley.
What Steele's and Addison's Sir Roger de Coverley was to the Spectator, that, a little more than a hundred years afterwards, was Professor Wilson's Christopher North to Blackwood, and that, a very little later yet, was the Rev. Francis Mahony's Father Prout to Fraser. Each in turn was a creation, each was a central and dominant figure in a group of originals. Each was not only witty and humorous in himself, but the cause of abounding wit or humour, as the case might be, in those with whom he was associated. If around Sir Roger de Coverley there were clustered, not infrequently, in happy commune, such sympathetic characters as Captain Sentry, and Sir Andrew Freeport, and Will Honeycomb, with Christopher North there were hilariously allied, in the carousals of the Blue Parlour, Tickler, and the Ettrick Shepherd, and the English Opium Eater; while, at Father Prout's bidding, there were brought together—at least upon one memorable occasion Jack Bellew, Dan Corbet, and Dick Dowden, to chop logic and cap verses, to crack jokes and bottles far on into the small hours, at the hospitable board of the good old parish priest of Watergrasshill. That Christopher North needed no crutch-being, in fact, that stalwart athlete, both physically and intellectually, John Wilson-everybody knew who had the smallest acquaintance with that wonderful repertory of sarcasm, frolic, wit and wisdom, the "Noctes Ambrosianæ." With the identity merged in the purely imaginary character of Father Prout, however, it has been from first to last quite otherwise. The author, in this
instance, has not merely, in a great measure, disappeared from view behind the veil, as it were, of his own productions, but what few glimpses have been caught of him have been obtained through a medium so misted over by prejudice, that nothing has hitherto been secured in his regard but a few distorted outlines of his character. It seems only just and fair, therefore, everything considered, that some effort should at length be made to dissipate, so far as may be in any way possible, the haze until now enveloping the reputation of the scholarly Bohemian who was the author of these Reliques.
FRANCIS SYLVESTER MAHONY, better known among his intimates as Frank Mahony, but best known of all to the outer world as "FATHER PROUT," was born in 1804, at Cork, in Ireland. Although his parentage on both sides showed him to be distinctly a member of the middle classes, his father was reputed to have descended from a younger branch of one of the most ancient families in the county Kerry, the Mahonys, or, more strictly, the O'Mahonys, of Dromore Castle. For a brief interval, indeed, towards the close of his life in Paris, the subject of this memoir not only had the aristocratic O prefixed to his surname upon his visiting card, but the family crest besides, engraved above it. These little coquetries with the airs of high life, however, he at the very last, as in truth better became him, abandoned Nevertheless, during the time when he was still indulging in such harmless luxuries as the O and the heraldic device just mentioned, he showed himself ready enough upon occasion stoutly to vindicate his right to the possession of both. Playfully asked by a lady friend, whose good opinion he greatly regarded, why he had not long before claimed his own by assuming the prefixed vowel, he not merely answered at once by word of mouth, but deliberately wrote to her on the morrow, that he valued her esteem altogether too highly to render himself ridiculous by assuming what he had no right to possess. At the same time, he referred her to an authority in these matters, from which she might recognize, at a glance, what claim he really had to employ an escutcheon that had been borne by his race for at least two centuries and a half. This authority, he explained, was readily accessible among the records relating to the siege of Limerick preserved in the Bermingham Tower of Dublin Castle, from which it might be seen that among those who marched out of the beleaguered city, and who, on arriving at Cork, refused to cross over to France, was one who had stood to his guns like a trump, having served throughout the defence in the artillery,—to wit, his (Frank O'Mahony's") great-great-grandfather.
However chivalrous may have been the surroundings of his ancestors, there can at least be no doubt of this, that his immediate progenitors were persons of the homeliest status. For a dozen years after his entrance into the world, Francis Sylvester Mahony (without the O) flourished at Cork, growing up there into a shrewd, bright-eyed, saucy-faced gossoon, while picking up with about equal readiness the brogue that never afterwards altogether forsook him, and the rudiments of an education which, a little later on, was to ripen, on the continent, into the soundest scholarship. In point of fact, he was just twelve years of age when he first quitted his native place for those foreign shores which for half a century afterwards had, for him, a supreme fascination. His student days began thus betimes in the Jesuit College of St. Acheul, at Amiens. Thence, a little while further on, he was transferred by the Fathers of the Society of Jesus to their