Little-known in his own lifetime, Jeremiah Joseph Callanan (1795–1829) is now regarded as one of the most important nineteenth-century Irish poets writing in English. Born in Ballinhassig in County Cork, he went to Maynooth to study for the priesthood but left in 1818 to study medicine at Trinity College Dublin. At TCD he won the vice-chancellor’s medal for a poem on the accession of George IV but had to withdraw due to lack of money.
Callanan returned to Cork and from there enlisted in the 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment, bound for Malta. Friends came to his aid and he was bought out of the army at the Isle of Wight. Callanan returned to Cork and tried to establish himself as a writer. He spent a brief period teaching in a school in Carlow and some time travelling around West Cork (including Clonakilty, Skibbereen, Lough Hyne, Ballydehob and Mizen Head), gathering material for a projected collection of ‘Munster Melodies’.
His surviving manuscripts were collected by the antiquarian John Windele and are held in the Royal Irish Academy, bound together as the ‘Literary Remains of J.J. Callanan’. As a record of the thoughts and literary aspirations of a talented but thwarted young man these ‘Literary Remains’ remain a unique and valuable record from pre-Famine Ireland. Some of the material presented on the Deep Maps website is drawn from these manuscript notes.
Callanan contracted tuberculosis in 1828 and travelled to Lisbon in the hope of recovery. There he acted as a tutor for a Cork merchant family. He boarded a ship for Cork in early September 1829 but was had to disembark because too ill to travel. He died in Lisbon 19 September 1829 , aged 34, and is buried there.
His reputation largely depends on a collection that he published in London in 1829, The Recluse of Inchidoney. Its poems and translations went on to inspire a range of writers, including Samuel Ferguson and W.B. Yeats. Yeats, who never visited West Cork, records his memories of the poem:
and yet I who had never wanted to see the houses where Keats or Shelley lived would ask what sort of place Inchedony was, because Callanan had named after it a bad poem in the manner of Childe Harold (Yeats, p.104).
Despite being disappointed in Callanan’s style, Yeats still finds inspiration in the idea of a poet ‘who went to West Cork to try to realize his life-image’ (Welch, p.18). Callanan’s surviving poems of the West Cork coastline encompass nature, commerce, language and empire. They express a complex relationship between Irish places and English-language poetry and remind us of the long and rich history of literary responses to the coast.