Great Place/ Great People: Joseph Campbell

A young Joseph Campbell
A later, portrait of Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell was born into a strongly nationalist family in Belfast, in 1879. Campbell attended school at St Malachy’s College in North Belfast where he exhibited a natural flair for English. However, after leaving school he became an apprentice to his father, as a road-building contractor. A ‘nervous illness’ that lasted a number of years from 1895 allowed him to, once again, reconnect with his love of literature by allowing him the time to read widely.

After joining the Gaelic league in 1900, Campbell began to identify by the Gaelic version of his name, Seosamh Mac Cathmhaoil, and practised the Gaelic language to a fluent level. Some of his most successful poems emerge from this early period, including ‘My Lagan Love’ in 1904. Throughout his poetry there is a strong Irish folklore theme and also Scottish influences are also expressed. This is reflective of his mixed parentage, his father was an Irish Catholic but his mother was of Scottish Presbyterian descent, but also of the unique cultural make up of Ulster.

Campbell’s wife Nancy Maude

Campbell left his beloved Ulster in 1906 to pursue a career in English teaching in London. During which time, Campbell also gave speeches at Sinn Fein meetings in the City. In 1909 an unlikely attendee caught Campbell’s eye, an upper-class English woman called Nancy Maude. She was the grand-daughter of Colonel Sir George Maude, the Crown equerry to Queen Victoria and her father was a Scots Guard, their familial connections to both crown and country were clear. However, Maude’s tenuous familial connections to Irish ancestry on her mother’s side made her curious of the political situation in Ireland at the time. Her family strongly opposed her union with Campbell, who they viewed as a dangerous radical, so the pair married in secret in 1910. Following this bold move, Maude would never speak to her family again.

The couple moved to Co. Wicklow in 1911 where their marital home proved a gathering point for young, radical Irish poets and politicians. In November 1913, Campbell would prove influential in founding the Irish Volunteers in Dublin, a military group aimed at undermining British rule in Ireland. The group would later instigate the 1916 Easter Rising, in which Campbell served as an intelligence officer and hid Irish Nationalist fugitives in his home, such as Desmond FitzGerald. Campbell later became a Sinn Fein politician in 1917, where he campaigned against the 1922 treaty that would succeed 6 Ulster counties to British rule. He was later interned, between 1922/1923, at the hands of the Free State forces following his militarised opposition of the treaty. He partook in a hunger strike during this time.

Following his release from prison, Campbell’s life spiralled out of control. He lost faith in the Catholic Church, as they had opposed anti-treatites like himself. Additionally, his relationship with his wife crumbled owing to rumours of infidelity, leading to their separation in 1924. He migrated, by himself, to New York in 1925 where he struggled to write his poetry alongside his demanding teaching career, which was both poorly paid and unstable. Campbell was fired from his role in 1938 and he returned to Ireland shortly afterward. He died as a recluse in 1944.

Campbell is a relatively obscure Irish poet, with his creative talent often being overshadowed by his involvement in contemporary politics. In this respect, he emerges as a divisive figure. But his love of his country and region is his lasting legacy, with his pride shining through in his work, and certainly a sense of pride of place is something we can concur with at Great Place North Belfast!

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YEAR: 1833

Location: Antrim Road