William Allingham

Image of William Allingham Reading

The poet William Allingham was born on the Mall in Ballyshannon on the 19th of March 1824 in a house which still bears a plaque to his memory.  As a young boy, William had a good ear for music and picked up tunes from his nurses and his neighbours. His interest in literature he acquired from his Aunt Maryanne, his father and relations.  Before going to boarding school in Killeshandra, Co. Cavan, the young William attended Wray’s School on Church Lane, adjacent to St. Anne’s Church, where the only subject on the curriculum was Latin! At the age of 14 his father found him a post in the Provincial Bank at Ballyshannon. The building now houses the Allied Irish Bank and visitors can see and read  lines written by the young banker and poet about one hundred and seventy years ago. There is also a bust of the poet on display in the bank.

In 1846 William obtained a post in the Customs and became Principal Coast Officer in his home area where his duties included visiting wrecks and checking incoming and outgoing vessels. In 1850 the first book of his poetry was published entitled, Poems, which included, The Fairies and The Goblin Child of Ballyshannon and was dedicated to his literary friend Leigh Hunt. Four years later he published a second book, Day and Night Songs, followed in 1855 by The Music Master. He moved to London where his most important poem of nearly 5,000 lines, Laurence Bloomfield in Ireland, was published in 1863.  In 1870 William finally made the decision to leave the Customs to become sub-editor of Fraser’s Magazine in London.

The year 1874 was a significant year for William Allingham, as he was offered the editorship of Fraser’s Magazine with a salary of £400 per annum. He also married Helen Patterson at the Chapel at Little Portland Place, London, on the 22nd August. Helen’s career as an artist blossomed in 1874 when two of her paintings, The Milkmaid and Wait for Me, were accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. She achieved the rare honour for a woman of becoming an Associate of the Royal Watercolour Society.  They had three children: Gerard, Eva and Henry.

The family later moved to Surrey where Helen painted her very popular Surrey Cottages which still attract attention today. Helen and William Allingham had a very supportive relationship and shared a wide circle of literary and artistic friends. In 1888 they moved to Hampstead but William’s health deteriorated. He died peacefully about 2 o’clock on Monday 18th November 1889 in London. At his own request he was cremated at Woking. A few friends and relations were present. There was no funeral service. Mr. F.G. Stephens, the oldest of his friends there gathered together, read aloud Allingham’s own Poet’s Epitaph. His ashes are interred in St. Anne’s in Ballyshannon.

One of his most famous poems is, ‘The Fairies’ and it is still taught to children in schools. Here is the first verse:

Up the airy mountain
Down the rushy glen,
 We daren't go a-hunting,
 For fear of little men;
 Wee folk, good folk,
 Trooping all together;
 Green jacket, red cap,
 And white owl's feather.
 Down along the rocky shore
 Some make their home,
 They live on crispy pancakes
 Of yellow tide-foam;
 Some in the reeds
 Of the black mountain-lake,
 With frogs for their watch-dogs,
 All night awake

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