Sunday 17th March 2019 is St. Patrick’s Day, Ireland’s national day, and traditionally a celebration of the life of St. Patrick himself, a 5th-century Christian missionary from Roman Britain (some sources say Scotland, some Cumbria which is just south of the border between England and Scotland). There are various sources and accounts of St. Patrick’s life, but here’s a quick recap of the general consensus regarding his biography. St. Patrick is synonymous with Ireland, a country he found himself in after being kidnapped from Britain and enslaved. Whilst in Ireland, St. Patrick’s spiritual development began, and he converted to Christianity. After returning home to Britain, St. Patrick continued to study and preach Christianity and was eventually ordained as a priest. He also seems to have spent time studying and preaching in France. However, St. Patrick travelled back to Ireland to spread the Christian word. His position as a foreigner in Ireland spreading the news of a growing religion at that moment in history cannot have been an easy one, however, he persisted, and in addition to being a symbol of Ireland, is also a symbol of Christianity. The jury is still out as to whether or not he really did banish any snakes though.
As stated above, the details of St. Patrick’s life are sketchy at best, and he has arguably become something of a mythological figure despite being a real person. This is primarily down to the fact that St. Patrick lived in a time when it was more difficult to record and pass down written histories, and instead, facts were passed down the generations verbally, quite possibly leading to the embellishment of some, whilst others were diminished. Either way, St. Patrick’s name has survived the centuries, and he remains associated with both his adopted religion and his adopted country. His life is celebrated on 17th March each year as he is widely thought to have died on this date. However, we cannot be entirely sure.
It isn’t just the histories of those who lived many hundreds or even thousands of years ago that become distorted. The lives of my beloved Brontës have also been transformed, and in some cases disfigured, by the myths, rumours, and stories that have sprung up between 21st-century Brontëites and the family. Charlotte, Emily and Anne are giants of English literature thanks to the novels they penned which include Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Widfell Hall, not to mention their wonderful poetry. Their only brother, Patrick Branwell Brontë (more commonly referred to by his middle name), was undoubtedly addicted to both drink and drugs, and the stories that have sprung up around him between his birth in 1817 and 2019 have not failed to promote this fact, but at the cost of all others, including the fact that he was a talented writer in his own right.
Another figure who has suffered a similar fate to Branwell is the father of the siblings, another Irish Patrick with a connection to Ireland’s national day, and it seems fitting that he should also be remembered and celebrated this St. Patrick’s Day. Patrick Brunty (or Prunty) was born at Emdale, Northern Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day, 17th March 1777. The details of his early life, like St. Patrick’s, are a little sketchy, but we can ascertain that he was the eldest of ten children born to Hugh Brunty and his wife, Eleanor (or Alice) McClory. According to the information on the website of The Brontë Parsonage Museum, Patrick was an apprentice blacksmith and linen weaver in his youth, however, his high level of intelligence led to him becoming master of the local village school at the tender age of sixteen. Patrick was an exceptionally gifted individual. Even more remarkably, he was initially self-educated, however, he was helped in his studies and quest for education by two local clergymen, Andrew Harshaw and Thomas Tighe.
Patrick eventually left Ireland to continue his studies in England, where he enrolled at St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1802. This is famously where Patrick shed his family name of Brunty/Prunty, and adopted one that would one day become famous worldwide, Brontë, which means thunder in Greek. Patrick Brontë graduated four years later in 1806, and although he returned to Ireland shortly after this, he spent the remainder of his life in England, settling wherever the church took him after he was ordained into the Church of England in 1807. Patrick held curacies at Wethersfield in Essex (1807), and Wellington in Shropshire (1808) before he found himself in Yorkshire, an adopted home that he and his family would become synonymous with, just like St. Patrick who made the reverse journey, became associated with his adopted home of Ireland after leaving Britain so many centuries earlier. It is interesting to note that, just like St. Patrick, Patrick Brontë’s position as a foreigner in England, spreading the word of Christianity, cannot always have been easy.
Following his move to Yorkshire, Patrick Brontë preached in Dewsbury (1809), Hartshead (1810), and Thornton (1815), where his youngest children, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne were born to him and his wife Maria Branwell Brontë. It wasn’t until 1820 that the Brontë family made their way to the village of Haworth when Patrick was appointed the Perpetual Curate of Haworth, Stanbury and Oxenhope. Patrick lived in Haworth for four decades, outliving his wife and, tragically, all six of his children, dying at the age of 84 on the 7th June 1861. After his wife died in 1821, Patrick enlisted the help of her sister, Elizabeth Branwell, in raising his children. However, despite all of the love and care Patrick showed to his family, he was the victim of gossip, malicious depictions, and rumours which persisted for over a century regarding his true nature. Although Patrick’s reputation has recovered a little in the recent decades, early Brontë biographers, including the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, portrayed him as a cold, uncaring, and eccentric figure who ran a strict and unhappy household, stating that he “was, of course, much engaged in his study, and besides, he was not naturally fond of children and felt their frequent appearance as a drag both on his wife’s strength, and as interruption to the comfort of the household”.
Gaskell portrayed Patrick in an extremely unflattering and unfair manner in her “biography” of Charlotte Brontë, something made worse by the fact that it was Patrick who asked her to write the piece about his last surviving child as she had become a friend of Gaskell’s in the final few years of her life. It is only really the recent publication of Patrick’s letters and biographies such as Dudley Green’s Patrick Brontë: Father of Genius that have helped to heal the wounds opened by Gaskell regarding the Brontë patriarch’s reputation. Far from being cold, tyrannical, and distant, Patrick was a loving father who allowed his children an unusual amount of freedom regarding their literary consumption, and this freedom to read enabled them to become familiar and enamoured with writers such as Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Walter Scott, with tales such as The Arabian Nights, and with periodicals such as Blackwood’s Magazine and Fraser’s Magazine.
The material read by the young Brontës fuelled their imagination and enabled them to create worlds such as Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal, and bring to life Lord Charles Wellesley, the Duke of Zamorna, the Earl of Northangerland, Mina Laury, Elizabeth Hastings, and Augusta Geraldine Almeda. In addition to their literary freedom, Patrick also discussed the political and religious ideas and struggles of the day with his children, content which often made its way into their writings, demonstrating his appreciation of their understanding and thirst for knowledge. In addition to his attempt to educate his children at home, the fact that Patrick cared enough to get an education for his daughters in particular shows his respect and concern for not just their present, but their future. Patrick was not a wealthy man, and he knew his daughters would have to make their own way financially in the world. Although he probably expected that Branwell would have a successful career and help out, he was keenly aware that they would have to be responsible for themselves, and he did everything he could to equip them for this.
As well as the literature they read helping to feed and develop their imagination, the creation of the Brontës’ imaginary worlds and characters was kickstarted by Patrick when he famously bought Branwell a box of toy soldiers, which his son then shared with his sisters, bringing to life The Twelves for the first time.
Papa bought Branwell some soldiers from Leeds. When Papa came home it was night and we were in bed, so next morning Branwell came to our door with a box of soldiers. Emily & I jumped out of bed and I snatched up one and exclaimed , “This is the Duke of Wellington it shall be mine!” When I said this, Emily likewise took one and said it should be hers. When Anne came down she took one also. Mine was the prettiest of the whole and perfect in every part. Emily’s was a grave-looking fellow. We called him “Gravey”. Anne’s was a queer little thing, very much like herself. He was called “Waiting Boy”. Branwell chose “Bonaparte”.— Charlotte Brontë, The History of the Year
This is not the act of an uncaring or disinterested parent, but one with a regard for his offsprings’ happiness just as much as their education. The Brontë parsonage may have known tragedy, but it was also a place of much love and joy, the latter being evident from the siblings’ playful Glass Town tales. Crucially, despite concerns for their health, finances, education, and spiritual welfare, the Brontë children were allowed to play and to just be children. Although his bad eyesight meant that Patrick couldn’t read the tiny books produced by his children, I’d be prepared to bet that he knew about their existence, and didn’t move to stifle their creativity. I believe that subjugated and unhappy children could not dream up such worlds or produce such writings. Although Patrick was an author himself, penning titles such as Cottage Poems, The Rural Minstrel: A Miscellany of Descriptive Poems, The Cottage In The Wood, and The Maid Of Killarney, his devotion to and open-mindedness regarding his children’s education, intellect, and creativity produced a nurturing environment in which characters were born, explored, then put aside or further developed into the likes of Jane, Rochester, Heathcliff, and the strong-willed Helen.
Patrick was truly a father of genius, something he was all too aware of; when attempting to defend himself against Gaskell’s allegations he stated, “Had I been numbered amongst the calm, sedate, concentric men of the world, I should not have been as I now am, and I should, in all probability, never have had such children as mine have been”. Perhaps he was implying that they had inherited certain characteristics from him, or perhaps he was happy and confident that his respect for and efforts to educate his children had paid off. Patrick really is a hidden giant of English literature for his love and support of his children. Whoever, whatever, and wherever you are, spare a moment for Patrick Brontë and raise a glass to him this St. Patrick’s Day. We have much to thank him for, and much to learn from him.
Elizabeth Gaskell quote is from The Life of Charlotte Brontë (Middlesex: Penguin, 1997) by Elizabeth Gaskell.
Charlotte Brontë quote is from An Edition of the Writings of Charlotte Brontë: Volume I The Glass Town Saga 1826 -1832 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987) edited by Christine Alexander.
Patrick Brontë quote is from The Letters of the Reverend Patrick Brontë (Gloucestershire: Nonsuch Publishing Limited, 2005) edited by Dudley Green.
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