Forgotten Moore was one of the great Irish satirists

There is no doubt that Ireland has produced some fascinating individualists and writers of varied convictions. Francis Frankfort Moore (1855-1931), who hailed from Limerick town, has been all but forgotten, so I thought, until I noticed last autumn that an American publisher had issued a new paperback of one of his novels - Phyllis of Philistria (1895).

I had stumbled on FF Moore years ago by two paths - firstly, Professor ATQ Stewart (in his The Narrow Ground: Aspects of Ulster (1609-1969, 1977) had quoted Moore at length and the other path was from the fact that Moore was the brother-in-law of Bram Stoker, the fame author of Dracula.
Moore published over 80 novels, plus various factual books, of which his political memoir The truth about Ulster (Evelyn Nash, 1914) is best known. He also wrote several plays ranging from scenes of Goldsmith’s life to one on Nell Gwynn and including a four act verse play entitled The Mayflower (1892). He was prolific in anyone’s estimation.

Moore was the son of a successful Limerick jeweller. His parents were Prebyterians and he was sent to be educated at Belfast Academical Institute where he showed an early aptitude for poetry, publishing a volume of verse in 1872 and receiving an encouraging letter from the American poet Longfellow. He published his first novel sojourners Together in 1875 and the year after joined the Belfast Newsletter as a journalist.

He remained on the staff of the Belfast Newsletter until 1892 becoming assistant editor before he moved to London, although he continued to have a close connection with the newspaper writing a column In Belfast By the Sea (1923-24). He broke with his parents’ religion and became an Anglican (Church of Ireland) but was a committed Unionist. “It is better to be separated from the rest of Ireland than from Great Britain,” he wrote.

He met Alice Grace Balcombe, one of the six daughters of Colonel James Balcombe of Clontarf, near Dublin. Florence, the fourth daughter, had married Bram Stoker of Clontarf, whose best-known novel was to be Dracula (1897). Florence had actually rejected Oscar Wilde’s offer of marriage in favour of Bram.

Alice Grace was the youngest of the Balcombe children. The eldest daughter, Philippa had married Dr. J Freeman Knott of Dublin and their daughter was to be Dr Eleanor Knott, the leading authority of Middle and Early Modern Irish.

By the 1890s, when he married Alice, Moore had been producing at least one book a year as well as his journalism, reporting on the Berlin Congress of 1878, which ended the Russian - Turkish War and gave the administration of Cyprus to Britain. He then went to South Africa in 1879 to report on the Zulu War.

His early novels were adventures and he won much acclaim for his stories of the sea of the type Jack London was later to make into literary classics. He was represented by the AP Watt literary agents, founded by Alexander Watt in 1875 and reputed to be the world’s first literary agency.

In spite of his own Unionist views, Moore was no religious bigot and could deal, in his novels, with ‘sensitive themes’. In the Ulsterman (Hutchinson, 1914) he has the son of a bigoted mill-owner marrying a Catholic girl and The Lady of the Reef (Hutchinson, 1915) he has an English artist living in Paris, inheriting some property in Co Down and going to claim his inheritance but finding himself bewildered by the sectarianism there.

Nor was he worried about writing historical novels with Irish themes such as Castle Omeragh (Constable, 1903) set in the west of Ireland during Cromwell’s ravages and its sequel Captain Latymer (Cassell, 1908) in which his hero is transported to Barbados by Cromwell’s administration and escapes with the daughter of Hugh O’Neill, the nephew of Owen Roe.

His major success came with the Jessamy Bride (Hutchinson, 1897) published the same year as his brother-in-law’s now famous Dracula. The Jessamy Bride is recorded as the year’s bestseller, and is a novel about Oliver Goldsmith’s final years.

By this time Moore and his wife had settled in London and were regular audience members at the Lyceum Theatre where Bram was manager.

Moore’s wife was to die in 1901 and he remarried to Dorothea Hatton and moved to Lewes, Sussex, where he died in 1931.

Several of Moore’s plays were published, like Nell Gwyn, oliver Goldsmith, Discover, The Queen’s Room and The Mayflower. His plays were staged at The Gaiety, Dublin and The Royal in Limerick as well as in London. He is mentioned briefly in Peter Kavanagh’s book The Irish Theatre (1946).
But, after his death, Moore’s fiction seems to have been mostly forgotten. Perhaps not so curious is the fact it is his views on Unionism that have now been resurrected after Professor Stewart quoted him in The Narrow Ground.

Patricia Craig used quotations in her The Rattle of the North (1992) and Jonathan Baron followed suit in A History of Ulster (1992) while Patrick Maume wrote on Ulster men of Letters: The Unionism of Frank Frankfort Moore, Shaun Bullock and St John Irvine (Unionism in Modern Ireland, Richard English and Graham Walker, 1996).

One thing that commentators seems to forget is that Moore was a great satirist and though he disliked what he saw as ‘Home Rulers’ and believed in Unionism he was no religious bigot. While he anticipated Partition he was very uncomfortable with the Unionism that arose after 1922.

He began to advocate a new Unionisn based on economic modernisation and full civil liberties for everyone. But history had passed him by. His satires of Home Rule such as Diary of an Irish Cabinet Minister (1893), The Viceroy of Muldoon and the Rise and Fall of Larry O’Lannigan JP (1893) are in the gentle mould of Somerville and Ross rather than the turbulent bigotry of Carson and Craig.

One may dislike Moore’s politics but he was a major Irish writer of his day. It is a pity that the 1985 edition of the Biographical Dictionary of Irish Writers consigned his birthplace to Belfast rather than Limerick and allowed him an entry of only three lines. It is also sad that, if people do know of Moore these days, he is remembered only for his Unionism rather than for his fiction.

Courtesy of the Irish Post
March 2003