James Owen Hannay (George A. Birmingham)
Clergyman / Novelist
This Novelist lived in Westport, Co. Mayo for a short time. Aside from being a Novelist he was a Clergyman, Playwright, Gaelic Leaguer, Public Speaker also a Lecturer.
James’s Paternal Grandfather was of Scottish origin. The Hannay family lived at Bushmills. George’s Father Robert Hannay (1835–1894) was born there. The family later moved to Belfast as his father was a rector in St. Anne’s Church, his mothers name was Emily she was a daughter of Rev. William Wynne. Her father had been 37 years ministering at Moira, Northern Ireland. James Owen Hannay was born on July 16th 1865. He was the eldest son plus brother to Agnes, Robert and William.[i] During 1889 Hannay married Adale Wynne (daughter of Frederick Richards Wynne (1827–1896) a Church of Ireland clergyman who later became a bishop). He studied Church Theology with his wife, they published two books. They had two sons, Robert and Seamus plus two daughters Theodosia and Althea. [ii]
When James was an infant his father hired a private tutor for him, a Dr. Drew who was the Leader of the Orange Order of Northern Ireland. James Hannay received his further education in Temple Grove School in England. He later attended a public school, Haileybury School. He returned to Ireland to study at the Divinity School of Trinity College, Dublin.[iii] was awarded an honoury Doctorate of Literature during 1946 from Trinity College Dublin.
When Hannay graduated during 1888 he was ordained an Anglican Minister then began to work as a curate in Delgany, Co. Wicklow. He was Rector of Carnelway in Co. Kildare from 1918 – 1920. Rev. James Hannay served as Chaplain to the viceroy. He served as Chaplain in France and Flanders during W. W. 2. He opened a small Chapel at St. Lunain plus ministered in Budapest to the British Legation. Following this he published an essay called “Man to Man” in a collection of Essays with Anglican Chaplains that had served titled “The Church in the Furnace.” Reilly Eileen 1992 “An Irishman looks at his world.” Birmingham made history by celebrating the first Holy Communion Service in the Irish Language on St. Patrick’s Day at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin also he administered Holy Communion at three locations from 1914 to 1916 on each consecutive Easter Sunday at Bealieu, aboard the Lusitania plus in a Y. M C.A. hut! [iv] He returned to Mells Somerset in South West England, he officiated there from 1924 to 1934 as Canon of the Holy Trinity Church in South Kensington, London where he served until his demise. [v]
Rev. James Hannay ministered in Westport at Holy Trinity Church plus outlying churches from 1892. He was instrumental in founding a literary circle with most of its members Anglo–Irish Protestants like himself. His wife, Ada spoke of the literary merits of poems by the Young Irelanders at one such event. Many of his novels were written during the Hannay’s time in Westport. He founded a Temperance Society, a literary Society, was Chairman of the Protestants Orphan Society plus was Chaplain and Board member of the Westport Workhouse. Unfortunate for him the Catholic Clergy in the town objected to some of his writings. [vi]
He longed for an independent Ireland. His conflict regarding Nationalism and Unionism is represented more vividly in “Benedict Kavanagh” and “The Northern Iron” which were published during 1907.[vii] Bermingham defended and explained the also tried to persuade Irish Protestants of its importance and value to them. Birmingham was elected to the Coiste Gnólha Executive of the League. He wrote many articles in defense of the Gaelic League in the Church of Ireland “Gazette.” At the general synod of the Church of Ireland during 1912 he was the sole member to support home rule. In the Mayo News, 19th May 1906 edition a joint statement was published of several Catholic priests who denounced Hannay, they also demanded an apology. At a meeting of the Gaelic League – with 22 members present – in the same year on 27th September the chairman (a Catholic priest) made a motion to expel him, the motion carried as Hannay withdrew from his position. [viii]
As a young curate James O. Hannay had collaborated with his wife Ada to make up deficiencies in their living standards by writing articles. He forwarded his first work to a London publisher and it was accepted, he received a cheque for ten pounds. He penned books on Christian Theology; “Spirit and Origin of Christian Monasticism” in 1903. [ix] He produced periodicals in the Irish, British and American Press. His first work was a Biography of his father – in – law Frederick R. Wynne D. D. Bishop of Killaloe. [x] He wrote the “Wisdom of the Desert” 1904 Scriptoria Books under his own name. [xi] While living in Co. Mayo James Hannay used the pseudonym G. A. Birmingham to publish a large volume of fiction including; “The Seething Pot” and “Hyacinth,” also “General John Regan” (these antagonized the Clergy in Westport), “The Lighter Side of Life” plus “Spanish Gold.” to name but a few. His “From Connacht to Chicago” was also published as “From Dublin to Chicago.” The novel “Over the Border” is a humorous one that portrays his sincere wish for reconciliation between every humour. He wrote two Biographies “Isaiah” during 1937 then “Jeremiah” in 1939 with a Political Essay; “Appeasement” that same year. [xii] His autobiography written in 1934 “Pleasant Places” portrays his deep pious faith along with his humour. His last novel, the sixty – first was published following his demise during 1950. [xiii] Birmingham lectured in Ireland at Trinity College Dublin, the Limerick Young Protestants Society, Sinn Fein, plus the National Union of Women’s Suffragette Societies he toured with his lectures in the U. S.[xiv]
His wife Ada died January 31st 1933. James Hannay died in London age 84 years on 15th February 1882. He is interred in Twynolm Churchyard, Scotland.
A Memorial on the wall of James Hannay’s birthplace (that now is the Administration Building of Queen’s University, Belfast) states “James O Hannay, George A. Birmingham, Novelist, 1865 – 1950, Born inthis house July 16th.” Today a Plaque marks his time in Delgany, Co. Wicklow that says: “James Owen Hannay: Pastor, Scholar, Author who wrote as George A. Birmingham entered upon his Ministry as curate of this Parish 1888 – 1892”. A Memorial Bust of him at the church inSt. Patrick’s at Mells Somerset Englandhas an inscription; James Owen Hannay (G. B.) “Canon of St. Patrick’s, Rector here 1924 -1934.” In her “As I know Him” author Hilda Martindale describes episodes that show Birmingham’s sense of humour plus deep faith, his Christianity, once he wrote to her these words ” I do not suppose it is easy to do good anywhere. It is certainly desperately hard in Ireland. My own experience is that the solitary hope we have of avoiding actual despair is a resolute determination to see the comic side.” [xv] John Gibbons has written re G. A Birmingham in the Westport Historical Cathair na Mart Journal in 1982, Vol 2 No. 1 Pages 23 – 26.
James Hanney’s Personal Papers are held at Trinity College Library Dublin. [xvi] Prior to Arthur Oram’s son James being elected Mayor of Devizes in Wiltshire he requested that Hannay be invited as chairman of his inaugural banquet. (He had met Vicar Hannay as a young sixteen year old in Newport, Co. Mayo.) The Wiltshire Gazette, dated 12th November 1936 devoted a page to the Banquet including this excerpt from Canon Hannay’s reply to the toast, “He had taught their Mayor his Catechism.” The paper described Hannay as better known as George Birmingham, the author of novels based on local inhabitants and the islands of Clew Bay.” [xvii]