I noticed a mention of Dermody on an information panel in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church in Lewisham, which I run through several times a week (his tomb is in the foreground).
I thought little more of it until I read his short biography on the on-line biography site of his birthplace county in Ireland, which summarised his life as
a monument to genius mis-applied and golden opportunities cast away
Dermody was born in Ennis is County Clare in 1775 and was clearly precocious, as by the age of nine he was acting as a teaching assistant for his father, a classics teacher, and already writing poetry. However, he was also drinking heavily with his father’s friends, possibly as a result of the death of his mother.
Drinking amongst children was, perhaps, less frowned upon than it would be now. Less than 50 years later Dickens describes a ten year old David Copperfield as asking for ‘the very best ale’ in a pub in Cannon Street ‘just draw me a glass of that, if you please, with a good head on it.’
While many children threaten to run away from home, few get very far; the 10 year old Dermody armed only with a couple of shillings and a copy of Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones’ headed off for Dublin. In Dublin, Dermody seems to have had several patrons notably the actor, Robert Owenson, and the Dowager Countess of Moira. However, with his continued drinking and increasingly republican views having alienated him from those who wanted to support him he headed across the Irish Sea.
For London now happily bound,
For a while we are free from that damnable ground
Where merit is spurned, where virtue is lost,
And invention chok’d up with Hibernian frost.
So bidding farewell to each opulent rogue
Who murder’d our hearing with nonsense and brogue….
Soon after his arrival in England he joined the British Army and fought in the Peninsula Wars where he seemed to deal with his alcoholism; but after being wounded and pensioned out of the army, Dermody returned to his former ways despite finding a new patron in J. Grant Raymond.
(Picture from information board in St Mary’s Churchyard)
His links with Lewisham came right at the end of his life, poverty drove him away from Central London to a ‘dilapidated hovel’ in Perry Vale on the Forest Hill and Sydenham borders. He was found there by his patron, who arranged for him to be brought back to Central London and nursed to health. But it was too late, he died in the ruined cottage in July 1802 and was buried in St Mary’s Churchyard.
Dermody published two books of poems, which after his death were collected as The Harp of Erin.
His name lives on in Lewisham through two street names Dermody Road and Dermody Gardens.
There is a small ‘village’ green with a pub where the two meet, so it is perhaps apt to end with the first few verses of his ‘Elegy on a Country Alehouse‘
Dim burns the taper with a twinkling flame,
The sooty coal forsakes the narrow grate,
Frail glasses broke a broken purse proclaim,
And vacant jugs the landlord’ bill relate.
Here let me, then, the ruined state bewail,
Fair alehouse, fairest of the busy green;
With tears bemoan thy abdicated ale,
With signs survey the cellar’s solemn scene.
Here oft, immersed in politics profound,
The social curate smoak’d his ev’ning pipe;
Here too the clerk hi mantling goblet crown’d,
And press’d the blushful glass in beauty ripe.