Helena Callanan


b. ?1869- ; born in Cork; contrib. to Cork newspapers, and to The Irish Monthly from its foundation in 1873 - its editor Fr. Matthew Russell later acting as editor of her collected poems as Verses Old and New (1899), thence becoming her editor; issued Gathered Leaflets (1885); later became an inmate of the Cork City and County Asylum for the Blind, patronised by the Dowden-Allman family; age given at 65 in 1911; date of death unknown; her poem “The Shamrock” was widely printed over Oscar Wilde’s name, originally in The Weekly Sun (London) during Aug. 1894 - leading to a controversy involving charges of plagiarism which he eluded in claiming that the submission was made by a third party.

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Gathered Leaflets (Cork: Purcell & Co. 1885), vi, 45pp. [19cm.; copy in BL]; Verses Old and New / by Helena Callanan, Asylum for the Blind, Cork ([Cork]: printed at the Eagle Works [...] 1899), 108pp. [ill., 18cm./8°; ded. to the editor, Matthew Russell, S.J.; copies in BL, Cambridge UL; TCD Lib.]

Note: Gathered Leaflets can be downloaded at OpenLibrary.org [online] or read at Internet Archive [online; both accessed 22.12.2014]. A reprint copy can be ordered at Amazon - online. [See “The Shamrock” from same, infra].

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Frank Callery
, A History of Blindness in Irish Society [pending in 2014] - chap. on Cork City and County Asylum for the Blind.

[...] Helena published some of her early work in the Cork newspapers but found an invaluable outlet when contrib. to Cork newspapers and The Irish Monthly (ed. T. A. Finlay and Fr. Matthew Russell S.J.) from 1873 by — there had been a previous Irish Monthly Magazine in 1832-34, started and contributed to by poet and barrister Thomas Kennedy. (Finlay was later to found the Lyceum, 1887-1894, and The New Ireland Review, 1894-1911). From the outset The Irish Monthly provided a platform for many Irish writers and encouraged those who subscribed to its pages, among whom was Helena Callanan. Helena sent her work to Father Russell and he, in effect, became her editor. In the early 1880s she published her first book of verse Gathered Leaflets and included in this was a poem entitled The Shamrock. This poem was subsequently published in The Weekly Sun (a London journal edited by T. P. O’Connor, M.P.) on Sunday, August 5th 1894, p. 4, over the name of Oscar Wilde. It was later copied into The New York Sun on August 19th 1894, where it was noticed by the Rev. William J. McClure, of Mount Kisco, New York, who wrote a letter to the editor (published in The New York Sun on August 23rd 1894) calling attention to the scrap album in his possession which contained a copy of the poem cut from The Cork Weekly Herald of the early 1880s. Mr. McClure pointed out several variations in the lines and asked how Oscar Wilde’s name came to be associated with the verses. In an editorial, August 31st 1894, The New York Sun commented upon Mr. McClure’s letter and requested its namesake, The London Weekly Sun to explain matters. On September 16th The Weekly Sun, reprinted Mr. McClure’s communication under the heading of “Is it Plagiarism? What Saith Mr. Oscar Wilde?” It added: “No comment of ours is necessary. All that remains is for Mr. Oscar Wilde to favour us with a word or two in elucidation of the singular mystery. [...] Mr. Dana’s [paper] (The New York Sun) having appealed to us, we, in turn, appeal to Mr. Wilde.” Wilde wrote to the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette on September 20th 1894 and thus began a stream of letters and rebuttals which did favour to neither. The assistant editor of The Weekly Sun said in explanation on September 21st 1894 “A correspondent had sent in the poem. The name of Mr. Oscar Wilde was appended to it. In a covering letter the correspondent said “I have copied this poem on ‘The Shamrock’ from an old Irish newspaper which I happened on by accident. It is so beautiful and its sentiment is so fine and tender that it came to me as a revelation. Oscar Wilde may be a flaneur and a cynic, but it is quite evident from this poem that deep down in his heart he has kept the fire of patriotism burning with a white purity”. Wilde was indignant and rebutted the accusation, choosing to call the verse ‘doggerel’!
  It is impossible to establish if Wilde did plagiarise the poem; and it is easy to see that the ‘voice’ is not that of the known Wilde. We do not know if the real author Helena Callanan was aware of the controversy; if she was, she must have been secretly pleased. Following Gathered Leaflets she published a second volume in 1899 entitled Poems Old and New — by Helena Callanan, Asylum for the Blind, Cork. The dedication was: ‘Inscribed respectfully with gratitude to the kindest of editors, The Rev. Mathew Russell, S.J.’ In her preface she says:

‘In offering this collection of simple verses to the public, I am perfectly conscious that they possess little or no claim to literary merit. But, remembering the kind consideration with which a previous little Volume — Gathered Leaflets — was received, I am encouraged to collect the verses I have written since then, together with a few culled from Gathered Leaflets by special request. This explains the title “Verses Old and New”. I am also encouraged by the kindness of many friends who have promised, both personally and through their acquaintances, to help in the sale of my little book. — Helana Callanan, Asylum for the blind, Infirmary Road, Cork. August 11th 1898. Printed at the Eagle Works, South Mall and Smith Street, 1899.’

The Freeman’s Journal review of her book said this is ‘Full of sunshine and colour, full of taste and melody, and a cheerful tenderness’. The Irish Monthly said ‘There is nothing but brightness and sweet music in the thirty three poems she has gathered into this dainty volume”. A copy of Verses Old and New has been digitised by the University of Califonia (online). Hellena’s work also made it into The Household Library of Irish Poets, collected and edited by Daniel Connolly (New York, 1887). Here, two of her poems “Withered Flowers” and “Saint Agnes” appeared alongside the work of that other Cork poet, James Joseph Callanan (not believed to be related) author of “Gougane Barra”. Helena was born in Cork city circa 1849 (although Connolly erroneously gives her possible birth date as 1864). She was still living at the asylum in 1911 when she gave her age as 62; she became a member of the Irish Association for the Blind in 1929.

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The Shamrock” (Written for an Album)

There are thoughts sweet perfume breathing,
Bright and sage and full of beauty,
Culled from past and present ages,
O’er thy album’s pages strewn.
From the rich domains of fancy
Loving hands with care have gathered
Every bud of sweetest meaning
They were planted all too soon.

Else I might find some stray blossom
With fresh dew of thought upon it;
Yet I fain with thy fair garland
Would one tiny field-flower twine
One green spray of native shamrock,
Fragrant with historic mem’ries,
On each leaf in letters golden
I’d engrave a gift divine. [9]

Faith, firm Faith, bright, strong, enduring
Faith, that life’s fierce storm and passion
Shall pass by, and leave unclouded;
Be this blessing thine for aye.


Hope, that glimmereth through darkness,
Charms the present, gilds the future,
With warm rays of heaven’s glory,
Imaging eternal day.

Love, God’s crown of bliss, outshining
All the joys e’er known or dreamed of,
Perfect as thy fairest vision,
Be this treasure thine, to keep.
In thy inmost heart close folded,
May it ever walk beside thee,
Safe without regrets or shadows,
Fears to fright, or tears to weep.

In the pages yet ungarnished
Wilt thou give my shamrock welcome
Only for the fervent wishes
Fondly wreathed around the stem?
Tribute to thy grace and beauty,
And the mellow light of kindness
That illumes thy gentle spirit,
And thy heart, thy purest gem.

—From Gathered Leaflets (1899), pp.9-10; available at Internet Archive - online.