|Patrick's mother, Alice McClory's house, near Rathfriland, Co. Down|
Now, have ye ever heard of a guy called Patrick Brunty? Probably not! But you've most likely heard of his famous daughters, Charlotte and Emily Brontë – the authors of 'Jane Eyre' and 'Wuthering Heights', respectively – and their sister, Anne?
Patrick was born in 1777 to the east of Co. Down, near Rathfriland – not far from the Mourne Mountains. Although he later went to Yorkshire in England and became a Church of England clergyman, he started out much more humbly and with very little education to speak of.
As a teenager he worked in a linen factory, then became an apprentice blacksmith. He must have picked up some learning somewhere because, at the age of sixteen, he started his own school and took in pupils. During the 1790s he taught at Glascar School and was apparently dismissed for forming a romantic attachment to one of his pupils. He was certainly romantic – his wife to be once wrote to him as "My dear saucy Pat!'
Pat Brunty went on to teach in Ballyronan School in Co. Down, which is still there – just a small cottage, really. And, in 1802, at the age of twenty-five, he won a scholarship to Cambridge University – an outstanding achievement for a self-taught Irish peasant boy in those days. At University, he obviously decided to distance himself from his Irish background – a bit of a handicap at that time. He changed his name to Brontë – possibly the result of his hero worship of Lord Nelson, Brontë being one of his titles.
In 1806 he gained a BA degree from Cambridge and was ordained as a Deacon in the Church of England. He came home to Co. Down for several months after this, preaching in Drumballyroney Church, beside the school he'd left behind. Back in Cambridge, he was ordained as a full clergyman in 1807. Not satisfied with his success, he published a book of poetry, 'Cottage Poems', in 1811. He also had a short lived romance with Mary Burden, before meeting and marrying Maria Branwell in 1812. He published another book of poems, 'The Rural Minstrel' in 1813 – full of romanticism, wild nature, strong emotions and a love of the Irish countryside. You can easily see where his daughters got their literary skill from.
Patrick Brunty – or Brontë, as he had become – was obviously a very ambitious and determined man. He didn't allow his humble background to hinder him from achieving his ambitions, although he was to experience a lot of hardship in his life. He became a curate in Yorkshire in 1820 and moved there with his six young children. His wife died from cancer within a year. And, unfortunately, the experiment of sending the four eldest girls away to school resulted in the death of the two oldest from poor nourishment and bad hygiene. Patrick taught the remaining four children himself, at home. He was, after all, an experienced teacher and he obviously passed on to them his own enthusiasms .
On one occasion Patrick lined up his four remaining children, and asked them a series of questions about their ambitions, and about the people they most admired. From him they learnt to love the wild countryside around them, to read widely and vociferously, to feel deeply, to express their feelings frankly, and to desire, above all else, fame as writers.
Patrick died at the age of 84, outliving all of his children. His daughters Charlotte and Emily, are probably best known for the heroes they created, Rochester and Heathcliff – fierce, wild, independent men, both. But they are matched with equally independent women, who are accepted as equals by their men. How much of this came from the influence of Patrick Brontë, encouraging his daughters to see themselves as individuals, not trapped by society, as he had done himself?
Patrick's home in Haworth, Yorkshire, has been preserved as a centre for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year. Unfortunately, nobody thought of preserving his birthplace in Co. Down. His mother, Alice McClory's house is still in existence, though it's a bit tumbledown, and the schools where he taught. The remains of the cottage where Patrick was born have been preserved by the Brontë Homeland Trust. You can go there and follow the Brontë Trail. It's well worth a visit. Stand inside the ruined walls, and realise that from these tiny rooms originated the genius that became known to the world as ‘the Brontë Sisters’.