Regarded as Ireland’s most precocious and most erratic genius, Dermody was employed as classical teacher in his father’s school aged just 9. By then, he had already acquired from his father a love for literature and the bottle. Ridiculous though it sounds, on his beloved brother’s death in 1785, Thomas determined to give up drink and set out for Dublin with two shillings in his pocket.
He became assistant to a Dublin bookseller, to whose son he also taught Latin, and while there, he became acquainted with many learned and influential Dubliners, each of whom in turn, helped Dermody until his dissolute conduct compelled them, in despair of effecting a reformation, to drop him. First there was Dr. Houlton, a professor of Trinity, then Mr. Owenson the actor, then the Rev. Gilbert Austin, a Dublin schoolmaster who published a volume of Dermody’s poems at his own expense, then a Mr. Atkinson with whom Dermody stayed for some time, and finally the Dowager Countess of Moira.
During this time Dermody was improving his knowledge of European literature and the classics, a knowledge which is abundantly evident in his later poems; but he couldn’t or he wouldn’t improve his way of living. “I am vicious,” he said, “because I like it.” Lord Chief Justice Kilwarden offered to pay his fees at Trinity College as well as to allow him £30 per annum until his studies were complete, but Dermody, by this time fonder of the gutter than the College Hall, refused to accept the offer.
All this happened before Dermody was nineteen years old. At this age, he enlisted in the army and behaved uncommonly well under military discipline. He became corporal, sergeant and eventually 2nd lieutenant, served with distinction and was wounded in France, and on his return to England, was retired on half-pay.
In London Dermody resumed his former dissolute habits, and was again lucky in his choice of patron, J. Grant Raymond, who later wrote his biography and now assisted him to publish a second volume of verse. However, in spite of Raymond’s help and several contributions from the Royal Literary Fund, he could not be saved. Penniless and broken down in body and mind, from the effects of disease and privation, he died in a miserable hovel near London at the early age of twenty-seven, a monument to genius mis-applied and golden opportunities cast away. He was buried at Lewisham, where a monument with a lengthy inscription marks his grave.
Whatever has been said of his morals, none has ever criticised Dermody’s literary integrity. His biographer wrote of him:—“There is scarcely a style of composition in which he did not excel. The descriptive, the ludicrous, the didactic, the sublime—each, when occasion required, he treated with skill, with acute remark, imposing humour, profound reflection and lofty magnificence.”
In addition to a volume of verse published when he was seventeen, Dermody also published a pamphlet on the French Revolution in 1793, “The Rights of Justice or Rational Liberty”; to which he annexed a poem entitled “The Reform.” “Poems, Moral and Descriptive, 1880,” and “Poems on Various Subjects, 1802.” In 1806, Raymond published the “Life of Thomas Dermody, interspersed with pieces of original poetry”; and in 1807 “the Harp of Erin, or the Poetical Works of the late Thomas Dermody,” also in two volumes.
Source Clare Library (click here).