Harold Frederic was born in Utica in New York State in 1856. In the 1880s, when he was the New York Times correspondent in London, he started visiting west Cork, particularly the Mizen and Sheep’s Head peninsulas. In the following years he wrote articles about this area and he also penned a book and a series of short stories set in west Cork. His death in 1898 led to a sensational trial. This tarnished his reputation, and until recent years his work was often overlooked. The following is a short examination of his life and his connection to west Cork.
Frederic was born on the 19 August 1856 in Utica in New York State. His family were German and when he was just 18 months old his father died. Though his mother remarried, she remained the dominant figure of his early life. Two other events of his youth would also influence him throughout his life, these were the American Civil War and the influx of Irish emigrants into the Utica region. Though he had no Irish ancestry, he developed a strong interest in and love of Ireland. He later told Horace Plunkett that “the ‘Irish Question’ possessed for him a fascination for which he could give no rational explanation.”
As a young man Frederic developed a interest in photography and he found employment in the newspaper industry, taking and touching up photographic images. He quickly migrated to journalism and in time he became editor of the Utica Daily Observer and then the Albany Evening Journal. Politically, Harold Frederic was a Democrat and a strong supporter of Grover Cleveland, who he helped become governor of New York. His views were out of step with the majority in upper New York State, which at that time was solidly Republican. This conflict led to Fredric leaving the Albany Evening Journal. However, his reputation as a journalist and his connection to senior Democrats led to his appointment, in April 1884, as the London correspondent of the New York Times, a position he would hold for the rest of his life.
Once in Europe, Frederic travelled to France, which was then experiencing a major Cholera outbreak. His reporting from the ground won him many admirers. In London he became a man about town, joining many clubs and societies. Chief among them were Irish institutions such as the London Irish Literary Society. It members included William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Bram Stoker and Douglas Hyde, and of these he was particularly close to Shaw. One of his great interests was Irish politics and he befriended many members of the Irish Parliamentary Party including Charles Stewart Parnell. He became a close friend of Tim Healy, who was originally from Bantry, and it is through this friendship that Frederic was introduced to west Cork. In the late 1880s he frequently reported on Irish affairs, with a strong pro-Irish stance. This was not always popular with his editor in New York, but Frederic’s reputation as a journalist and his connections to senior members of the Democratic party, including now President Cleveland, meant that his position was secure.
In the early 1890s circumstances changed for Frederic. In his personal life, his marriage to Grace Williams broke down. By 1891 he was living with another woman, Kate Lyon, and they had three children together. Divorce, while technically possible, was not a option for someone of his standing in the late Victorian era. As well as giving him a new life his relationship with Kate also deepened his connections with west Cork as her mother was an O’Mahony. Frederic became fascinated with the history of the O’Mahony sept and the couple became regular visitors to the Mizen and Sheep’s Head (Muintir Mháire) peninsulas. Professionally things also changed. After the Parnellite split, Frederic was in a difficult position. He knew that Parnell was still very popular with Irish-Americans, but he was a close friend of Tim Healy, who was a leader of the anti-Parnellite faction. Eventually he came out on the anti-Parnell side and this damaged his standing among Irish-Americans.
Afterwards Frederic, like many in Ireland, spent less time following politics and more on cultural issues. Also at this stage Frederic was supporting two households and this meant that he was in financial difficulties. He turned to writing fiction, which was something he always wanted to do, and it was also a way to earn extra, much-needed cash. His first novel, Seth’s Brother Wife, was published in 1887, but it was from 1890 that he became a prolific writer. His output at times contained factual pieces, such as his 1891 study of the new German emperor Wilhelm II. However, most of his writings were fiction, including his 1892 novel The Return of the O’Mahony. Set mainly in the Mizen Peninsula, this is the story of a American Civil War soldier who impersonates the heir to the O’Mahony chieftainship, who had died in exile. The story is full of melodrama and coincidences, that was standard fare for novels of the time and it was described by Frederic’s biographer Stanton Garner as ‘an inferior novel’. However, one thing that did shine through was Frederic’s knowledge and love of the west Cork landscape. This is especially true of the chapters entitled ‘The Lady of Muirisc’ and ‘Near the Summit of Mt. Gabriel’.
Throughout the 1890s Frederic continued to write novels. The most critically acclaimed was The Damnation of Theron Ware, which was published in 1896. He also wrote a number of short stories and in 1895 he approached the editor of the British magazine, Black and White, to suggest a series of seven or eight stories about the O’Mahony sept ranging in time from the 1100s to 1602. As it happened only four of these stories were ever published and the date range covered was much shorter. The first story ‘In the Shadow of Gabriel’, was set circa 1550 and it tells of the coming-of-age of Turlogh, the young chieftain of Dunbeacon. The final story, ‘The Truce of the Bishop’, also dealt with Turlogh. It was set in the early 1600s, in the time after the English had taken control of much of west Cork, including Rosscarbery, where Turlogh journeyed to bury his kinsman, Bishop Laurence Malmoon. The other stories were ‘The Path of Murtogh’ set in Dunlough in 1579 and ‘The Wooing of Teige’ set in Ballydevlin in the 1580s. These stories relied heavily on the myths and stories of the O’Mahony family that Frederic had learnt. While they may not always be to the taste of a modern reader they are still a fascinating read and once again demonstrated Frederic’s love of this part of west Cork.
As well as writing fiction about his beloved west Cork, Frederic also penned at least two factual pieces about the area. These include an article that appeared in the New York Times Sunday Supplement of 1 November 1896 and was called ‘The Coast of White Foam’. It contained a description of many sites in the Mizen Peninsula, but concentrated on Dunlough (Three-Castles) Head and it contained Frederic’s own photographs of the rugged coast and of Dunlough Castle. The second article called ‘A National School on the Irish Coast’ appeared in the Sketch magazine of July 1896. It was a general description of what a tourist to west Cork might expect to encounter, with an account of the author’s visit to Dunmanus National School. This article contained just one image, that of the pupils at that school. In this article Frederic stated that West Carbery was where ‘I best love to spend my vacations’ and that he had ‘made many hundreds of photographs’ of the area. One can only wonder if any of the original images survive somewhere today?
In 1897 Harold and Kate were accompanied on their trip to west Cork by the American writer Stephen Crane and his wife Cora. In 1898 Frederic suggested that both couples should vacation there again. However the Spanish-American War broke out and Stephen Crane went instead to Cuba, so Harold, Kate and Cora travelled without him and spend some time in a house at Ahakista. It was Frederic’s last trip to Ireland as in the late summer of 1898 he suffered a stroke and he died on 19 October of that year.
Initially the reaction to his death is one of shock at the early death of a respected journalist and author. In little time the story of his double life and second household emerged, which in the late Victorian age was deemed quite shocking. The story was further complicated by the circumstances of Frederic’s death. Kate was a Christian Scientist and when Harold fell ill no medical assistance was called for, instead Kate summoned a healer named Athalie Mills. Eventually Kate Lyon and Athalie Mills were both charged with and tried for manslaughter. Their trial was a sensation, though both were found innocent. There is an old saying that there is ‘no such thing as bad publicity’, however in Harold Frederic’s case this was not true. The circumstances of his death and the subsequent trial of Kate Lyon damaged his reputation and for decades afterwards he was largely forgotten. In more recent times his work has been rediscovered, however his west Cork connection is something that still needs further examination.
Sources and Further Reading
Bennett, Bridget, The Damnation of Harold Frederic: his lives and works, (1997).
Frederic, Harold and Jack Morgan, The Martyrdom of Maev and other Irish stories, (2015). This was the first publication to bring all of Frederic’s Irish short stories together into one volume.
Frederic, Harold, ‘A National School on the Irish Coast’ first published in 1896 was republished in Skibbereen Historical Journal Vol. 7 (2011).
Garner, Stanton, Harold Frederic, (1969).