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Mary Anne Sadlier (1820 - 1903):
Novelist and writer

Mary Anne Sadlier spent most her adult life in North America, but she always kept a close eye on her native Ireland and the Irish diaspora, who featured in much of her considerable literary output and who benefited from her practical assistance. She was a keen Irish nationalist and an avid Roman Catholic, whether writing religious tracts or supporting Catholic organisations and institutions, not least against Protestant opinion, practice, and institutions; some contemporaries even saw in her writing a personality precluded from more active politics by her gender in its time.

She was born Mary Anne Madden in Cootehill, County Cavan, daughter of a merchant who had been successful, and was said to have been a refined man of literary tastes, who encouraged his daughter's writing interest. However, he experienced some business failures and died in 1844; Mary then emigrated to Montreal. She had published some verse in 1839 in a "genteel" London periodical, La Belle Assemblée, and wasted little time publishing in Canada beginning with Tales of the Olden Time: a collection of European Traditions, initially serialised in True Witness, a Catholic periodical, later by subscription in 1845. Madden told a correspondent later that she wrote primarily out of financial necessity being a rather penniless immigrant. In November 1846 she married James Sadlier, partner (with his brother) and Montreal branch manager of D & J Sadlier & Company, the New York Catholic publishing house. The brothers were also immigrants from Ireland. The couple were close collaborators professionally as well as personally. Sadlier produced the writing (including articles and religious tracts) while her husband was very much the publisher, practically-minded and very much aware of the market.  For her novel Alice Riordan; the Blind Man's Daughter she was said by her daughter Anna to have altered the original ending on the commercial advice of James. (Anna became an authoress in her own right; her novel Arabella, first published in 1907, was reprinted as recently as 2006).

Sadlier and her family (she had seven children of whom one was adopted) lived for 14 years in Montreal during which time she published amongst numerous smaller pieces, six novels. New Lights; or Life in Galway appeared in 1853 and was one of the first depictions of the Famine of 1845-1851 in literature. It featured strident criticism of what was known as "souperism", which was a practice whereby starving Irish Catholics were fed by Protestant philanthropy, though on condition that they convert.

The Sadliers moved to New York in 1860, where Sadlier published 26 books, including 14 novels, within nine years, also contributing articles to Irish-American and Catholic journals, sometimes gratis. Their weekly salons at their home made it a central meeting-place of the Irish-American intelligentsia and literati of North America, including such figures as New York Archbishop John Hughes (originally from Annaloghlan, County Tyrone), Orestes Brownson, a noted intellectual and convert to Catholicism, and Thomas D'Arcy McGee, from Carlingford, County Louth, the journalist, poet, and Irish nationalist who was one of the Fathers of Canadian Confederation. Magee was as an emigrant and Irish nationalist himself was interested enough in Sadlier's emigrant literature to have considered contributing to this genre himself. But this was not to be. In 1868, he was assassinated by a Fenian or Fenian sympathiser; that movement had been repelled by Magee's apparently having resiled from their harder brand of Irish Nationalism - Magee had been involved in the Young Ireland movement and had escaped to North America from County Donegal in the wake of the unsuccessful rebellion in 1848, aided by Bishop Maginn of Derry, but clearly was becoming more and more conservative in nationalist eyes. Anna Sadlier later wrote that Magee's death was "a crushing blow to Mrs. Sadlier and her husband, who were his enthusiastic friends." Sadlier published some of Magee's poetry in 1869.

Even worse for Sadlier, her husband died that same year. This, apart from being a bitter personal blow, shifted many business responsibilities onto Sadlier; the business, though run efficiently enough by Sadlier and Denis, her brother-in-law, faced increased competition, not helped by some unsuccessful investment decisions. Throughout the 1870s, her literary output rather fell off, though she produced short plays, some translations from French, and Catholic religious pamphlets for children. She also involved herself in charitable activities, much of them specifically aimed at establishing Catholic alternatives to Protestant charitable insstitutions, which she, previously having decried "souperism", saw as proselytising in a similar way. While she had described what she saw as this practice in her writing (such as the novels Willy Burke and Aunt Honor's Keepsake), she founded the Home for Friendless Girls, the Foundling Asylum and the Home for the Aged.

In 1885 Denis died, his son William gained control of the company, and Sadlier relocated to Montreal, where several of her children (including Anna) were living. Because of her reduced financial circumstances, she once again began to write for a living, half a century since last she had been forced to. Contemporary mentions of here refer obliquely to unpropitious times and "residence in lesser quarters"; friends and supporters set up a fund for her, though and 1895, Notre Dame University awarded her its Laetare Medal (awarded annually to an American Catholic "whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church, and enriched the heritage of humanity"). In 1902, the year before she died, Sadlier received a "special blessing" from Pope Leo XIII in recognition of her "illustrious service to the Catholic Church".

Sadlier's enormous corpus of work, sixty novels and numerous smaller pieces, may or may not be of outstanding literary merit, and they fell into obscurity after her death. One curious feature of her depiction of women was that she was constantly exhorting them to aspire to be housewives and mothers, to take the home more seriously than commerce or industry, and in one novel, The Blakes and Flanagans, the character Eliza is criticised for learning French instead of learning how to sew - but Sadler herself not only wrote, published, part-ran a business and helped establish charitable organisations, but in particular herself translated frequently from French. However, her output is without doubt of socio-historical interest, as it contains detailed descriptions of the experience of Catholic Irish immigrants in nineteenth-century North America by one who herself was just that.

Born: 31 December 1820
Died: 5 April 1903
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann

Dictionary of Irish Biography;; Dictionary of Canadian Biography ;;