Through the glass darkly

Lady Morgan and the chemist: An unlikely friendship

She was a vivacious, witty young woman, intelligent, interested in everything, passionate about her country, and determined to make her own way in a man’s world. He was an elderly, brilliant, and very eccentric scientist. Yet these two became friends, and she has left us a vivid and very funny account of their late-blooming friendship.

She was Sydney Owenson (c1776-1859 ), the daughter of Robert Owenson, an Irish actor born in County Mayo, and Jane Hill, an English Protestant whom he had met while on tour. Robert had changed his name from MacOwen to Owenson for professional purposes – O’s and Mac’s signalled too clearly one’s origins. He established a music hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin, where plays and songs were performed in Irish.

Sydney later claimed she was born on Christmas Day aboard the packet boat plying between Holyhead and Dublin. However, she was given to imaginative retellings of her life, and, as she steadfastly refused to give her age, we must not press too hard for the truth when it is of no real importance.

Her mother died when she was just a girl and, as the actor’s life is always a precarious one, she became, for a time, the family breadwinner. When times had been good, she attended a series of boarding and finishing schools so she found no difficulty gaining employment as a governess and an author. Her first novel, St Clair, or the Heiress of Desmond, was enough of a success that she could devote herself to writing. Then, in 1806, she published The Wild Irish Girl, and suddenly everyone who mattered in Dublin and London was talking about this new book. Like all of Sydney’s novels, it mixed romantic melodrama with an uncompromising advocacy of Irish nationalism and culture. Written in the fashionable epistolary fashion, it tells the story of a young man who is banished to his father’s Irish estate. There he encounters what were to become the stock elements of the Irish novel – a ruined castle, a poor but honest priest, a peasant descended from kings, and Glorvina, the ‘wild Irish girl’, who awakens the young man to a sense of the wrongs done by England to Ireland.

In the years that followed, Lady Morgan – she married Sir Charles Morgan in 1812 – became one of the most popular and talked about literary figures of the first half of the 19th century. She knew everyone, from Lord Byron to Maria Edgworth, and was admired by Shelley and Sir Walter Scott. In addition to novels, she wrote travel books on France and Italy, and an autobiography. She died in 1859 and is buried in Brompton Cemetery, London.

Richard Kirwan (1733-1812 ), was born at Cloghballymore, Co Galway. His father was Martin Kirwan of Cregg Castle, and his mother, Mary French, daughter of Hyacinth French. At least four children, including Richard, were born to them, the eldest of whom, Patrick, inherited the Cregg estate on his father's death in 1741. In 1755, however, he was killed in a duel, and Richard, the second eldest, who had been sent abroad to study under the Jesuits at St Omer, was summoned home to run the estate, which brought him an income of more than £4,000 a year. In 1757 he married Anne, daughter of Sir Thomas Blake of Menlo. She died after giving him two daughters. Once they were seen to, he continued his studies in London, where he was awarded the Copley medal for chemistry and made a Fellow of the Royal Society. He eventually returned to Ireland in 1788 and became President of the Irish Academy.

Richard Kirwan's fame rests on his numerous scientific publications, the most enduring of which is probably the Elements of Mineralogy, published in 1784, which was the first systematic treatment of the subject. But he interested himself in a host of different studies, from theology - he was born a Catholic, later became a member of the Church of Ireland, and ended his days as a Unitarian - to language, law and even music. He died in Dublin in June 1812 at the age of 79, and is buried in St George’s Church, Temple Street.

It was during the last years of Kirwan’s life, when he was living in Dublin, that Lady Morgan became a friend. With the writer's flair for description, she has left us a vivid picture of the great scientist:

"A tall gaunt figure, wrapped from neck to heel in a dark roquelaure (ie, a large cloak, almost like a mantle ), with a large leaved hat flapped low over the face, presented the very picture of Guy Fawkes, with nothing wanted but his dark lantern."

Barnaby ffrench

Next week: The Eccentric Mr Kirwan


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