Browsing through our Special Collections at Maynooth University Library my eye was drawn to a book whose tan colour cover and romantic illustration conjured up images of intrigue and adventure and sent me on a mission to find out more about the book and its author Elizabeth Hely Walshe. The search proved to be rewarding and gives a glimpse of the world of Irish evangelist writers.
Miss Elizabeth Hely Walshe was born in Limerick in 1835. She was a protestant evangelical writer who spent part of her life in Canada although it is not clear when she emigrated. Her father was a clergyman and a member of the Royal Irish Academy. She was greatly influenced by the evangelist Reverend H. Grattan Guinness, who visited Canada in 1861. Elizabeth had returned to Ireland by 1865. She was a Sunday-school teacher, an accomplished musician and artist and was very interested in the education of the poor.
The book held in Special Collections in Maynooth University Library is The Foster-brothers of Doon, a tale of Irish Rebellion of 1798 (London, Religious Tract Society c. 1865) and was first published in 26 parts in the Leisure Hours Magazine (London 1864). Set during the 1798 rebellion, it contains accounts of events at Vinegar Hill, Wexford Bridge, and features foster-brothers Myles Furlong, a County Wexford blacksmith and Captain Butler, a loyalist. The story leans to the loyalist side and is written from a Protestant point of view as is evidenced by wording in the preface
“It is the strong conviction of the writer, produced by long and intimate acquaintance with the Irish people and their history, that the superstition and priest craft of Roman Catholicism form the chief cause of the troubles of that most beautiful yet most unhappy island”
Hely Walshe regularly contributed to evangelical magazines such as the Leisure Hour Magazine (1852) and Sunday at Home (1854). These were heavy large format periodicals that could be enjoyed in a domestic setting. Hely Walshe collaborated with George Etell Sargent (1830-1883) on many “thinking stories for boys and girls” for these publications. It is little wonder then that “A select list of The Religious Tract Society’s Illustrated Tales for Adult and Juvenile Readers” is bound in at the back of the book in question. This list makes for an interesting study in itself. It contains lists of popular illustrated stories for boys and girls by various authors such as Joseph Hocking (1860-1937) and Evelyn Everett-Green (1856-1932). There are brief descriptions of the stories and recommendations from newspapers of the day such as The Times, The Daily News and the Guardian. Illustrators of the books are also noted.
Elizabeth Hely Walshe died of consumption in the Isle of Wight in 1869. Several of her publications were reprinted long after her death.
Cedar Creek; from the shanty to the settlement, a tale of Canadian life (1863) tells the tale of Irish immigrants who settled near the upper Ottawa River in Canada. The book was illustrated by Sir John Gilbert
Golden Hills. A tale of the Irish Famine (London, Religious Tract Society, 1865). A tale of the Famine and also of the Ribbonmen. In her preface the author writes. “We pray that the religion of the Bible may yet be the religion of Ireland”. She considers the Famine an opportunity for conversion of Catholics.
The Manuscript Man; or, the Bible in Ireland (London: Religious Tract Society 1869). A story of proselytizing in west Connaught and the distribution of the Bible in Irish to Catholic tenantry by Protestant landowners. The life of one family is adversely affected after converting to Protestantism and they subsequently emigrate to America.
Margaret Kelleher, ‘Irish Famine in Literature’, in The Great Irish Famine, ed. Cáthal Portéir [Thomas Davis Lectures Series] (RTÉ/Mercier 1995), p.234f. [Kelleher comments on Golden Hills (1865), which condemns agrarian assassinations by ‘lawless Riband tribunal’ (p.6)].
See also brief reference in Kelleher, ‘Prose Writing and Drama in English; 1830-1890 […]’, Cambridge History of Irish Literature, ed. Kelleher & Philip O’Leary (Cambridge UP 2006), Vol. 1 [Chap. 11], p.466 [includes the bio-dates 1835-68].
Chris Morash, The Hungry Voice (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1989), calls her a novelist of the Famine of 1845 and quotes: ‘In 1850 the horizon was clearing. The lessening agricultural population had more elbow room … overgrown estates, encumbered with heavy charges, were broken into a variety of smaller properties, freed from burden, passing from effete hands of the old possessors into the vigorous hands of men from the middle class.’ (From Golden Hills, London: Religious Tract Society, 1865, p.266; Morash, p.18.)
An electronic guide to Irish Literature http://www.lgif.ie/authorDetails.action;jsessionid=4B90264CC5262B7BF01E80F15E1631B7?authorId=1676
Susan Durack, Special Collections, Maynooth University Library.