Richard Ryan (biographer)

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Autobiographical journal entry by Richard Ryan explaining his life and plans in 1819, including his Irish dictionary of national biography The Worthies of Ireland.

Richard Ryan (18 April 1797 – 20 October 1849)[1] was a British writer of Irish descent.[2]

He was the son of Oxford Street, London bookseller and publisher Richard Ryan and was educated at St Paul's School, London.

Ryan produced the first Irish biographical dictionary Biographia Hibernica, a Biographical Dictionary of the Worthies of Ireland, from the earliest periods to the present time in 1819 and 1821. He was also a poet, writing for newspapers and biographies of poets. In his later career he was a lyricist for popular music, a playwright of several West End plays, and a book editor.

Richard Ryan lived in Camden Town, London, from 1819 until his death in 1849.

Early life[edit]

Oxford Street in 1816. Richard Ryan was born in 1797 in a building in the background of this view to the west of the Pantheon (foreground).

Richard Ryan was the son of Elizabeth Ryan (1759–1830)[3] and Richard Ryan (1750–1818). He was born at their home in Oxford Street near the Pantheon, London It was one of several locations on Oxford Street where his father ran a book-selling business for 35 years, from 1784.[4] An 1840 street view of the buildings on Oxford Street (including the old numbering), can be seen online.[5]

Ryan attended Soho Academy [6] and St Paul's School.[7] He initially worked as a bookseller with his father after leaving school but decided to close the bookshop in 1819, a year after his father died on 29 July 1818,[8] to focus on his writing.

Many London booksellers in the early nineteenth century were what would now be known as publishers. Richard's father had published extensive catalogues and books over the years and he must have assisted his father in the publication of these once he was old enough. In 1818 he published the third edition of An Essay on the Antiquities of the Irish Language by Charles Vallancey which had originally been published in 1772. He took the opportunity to add a catalogue section at the back of the book with more than 100 listings of Works relative to the History, Antiquities, and the Language of Ireland on sale in his bookshop.[9]

First Irish biographical dictionary[edit]

Richard Ryan is known for his biographical books, the best-known being Biographia Hibernica, a Biographical Dictionary of the Worthies of Ireland, from the earliest periods to the present time, 2 vols. 8vo, London.[10] Volume One of the Worthies of Ireland was published in April 1819 and Volume Two in 1821.

The Worthies of Ireland is regarded as the first general Irish biographical dictionary.[11] Irish poet and Nobel Prize in Literature winner Seamus Heaney mentioned Ryan's efforts at the launch of the Dictionary of Irish Biography in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 2009.[12][13]

Poetry and drama[edit]

Following the success of his first literary effort, Ryan focused on publishing several books of poems and creating biographical dictionaries of his passions: Dramatic Table Talk about the theatre, followed by Poetry and Poets. He continued to write poetry on various subjects for newspapers including The Morning Post[14] and The Lancaster Gazette.[15] In November 1824 the Time's Telescope; The Astronomer's, Botanist's and Naturalist's Guide, for the year 1825 (8vo) featured a 62-page article on English Sacred Poetry by him.[16]

Books written by Richard Ryan about poetry and the theatre included:

  • Eight Ballads on the fictions of the ancient Irish and other poems, 8vo, London, 1822.[17]
  • Poems on sacred subjects. To which are added several miscellaneous, 8vo, London, 1824. Ryan dedicated this book to his friend Quaker poet Bernard Barton.
  • Dramatic Table Talk, or Scenes, Situations, & adventures, serious & comic, in theatrical history & biography, 3 vols, 12mo, London, 1825.
  • Poetry and poets, being a collection of the choicest anecdotes relative to the poets of every age and nation; together with specimens of their works, and sketches of their biography, 3 vols. 12mo, London, 1826.

Published under an alias[edit]

  • The Christian Religion; An Account of Every Sect, its Origin, Progress, Tenets of Belief, and Rites and Ceremonies, Carefully Compiled from the best Authorities, 12mo, London, 1840. This book was published under the initials R.R.[18]

As editor[edit]

Richard Ryan was editor of one of the earliest books about New Zealand, published in 1832.

It is not known if Ryan travelled further than Ireland, but he was editor of several books about expeditions to countries further afield, including Greece, Australia and New Zealand. In October 1824 he edited and wrote the preface to Greece in 1823 and 1824 by Hon. Colonel Leicester Stanhope, 5th Earl of Harrington which detailed Stanhope's correspondence with the Greek committee in England. Stanhope was with Lord Byron when he died in Greece that year. Ryan was mentioned in The Morning Chronicle as being given documents relating to the book, by Stanhope. These included "several original letters" written by Byron to Stanhope, as well as some journals written by Stanhope.[19]

Books edited by Richard Ryan include:

  • Greece in 1823 and 1824, by Colonel Leicester Stanhope, London, 1824.
  • A narrative of a nine months' residence in New Zealand in 1827: together with a journal of a residence in Tristan D'Acunha, an island situated between South America and the Cape of Good Hope by Augustus Earle, London, 1832.[20]
  • Narrative of a Voyage Round the World, and description of British Settlements on the Coast of New Holland by Thomas Braidwood Wilson, London, 1835.[21]


  • Everybody's husband: A comic drama, in one act, London, 1830. Performed at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.
  • Everybody's husband a farce in one act, London, 1831. Performed at the Queen's Theatre, Tottenham Street, February 1831.
  • The Irish Girl. Performed at the Adelphi Theatre, by the English Opera Company, September 1830 [22] and July 1831 [23]
  • Quite at home: a comic entertainment in one act, London, 1836. Performed in the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.
  • Le pauvre Jacques a vaudeville in one act by Theodore Cogniard, translated from French by Richard Ryan, London, 1836. Performed by the French Company at the St. James's Theatre, July 1836.

Another play submitted to the Lord Chamberlain, London was Second sight: a tale of the Highlands in two acts, 1836. The original manuscript of this play is in the British Library.

Ryan wrote the "introductory remarks" to The tailors, (or 'quadrupeds,') a tragedy for warm weather, London, 1836. Performed at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.[24]


Richard Ryan wrote lyrics to popular songs which were set to music by well known composers. Several were published years after he died. The music included:

  • "Oh! Childe me not", "The Fairy's Gift"[25] and "The Fairy-formed Harp: A Ballad" by Charles Smith, (all 1824)][26][27]
  • "Oh! Take this Rose" by Augustus Meves, 1824[28]
  • "The fair maid of Perth", the celebrated Scottish ballad sung by Mr. Sinclair at the Nobilities Concerts. Written by Richard Ryan and dedicated by permission to Sir Walter Scott by E. Solis, 1829[29]
  • "I’d Be a Nightingale: Ballad" by E. Solis. Sung by Miss Graddon, c. 1830[30]
  • "My bark shall tempt the seas no more: a ballad" by E. Solis[31]
  • "O saw ye the lass wi'the bonny blue e'en!: as sung by Mr. Sinclair" by John Sinclair, originally published in Eight Ballads, 1822.[32]
  • "The Morn Breaks All Beautiful and Bright" was the celegrated Barcarolle in Auber's Opera of Masaniello. Performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane it was "adapted to English words" by Richard Ryan and arranged for the piano forte by John Barnett in 1828[33]
  • "The merry Swiss girl: a Swiss melody" by Thomas Valentine and Thomas A Birch, 1829[34]
  • Written for Stephen Glover (composer) was "A Voice from the Waves, duet", released in January 1849.[35] Another song written in 1849 for Stephen Glover was "Music and her sister song: duett"[36] and "Happy Days, duett" [37] "There's a sweet wild rose: duet" was set to a ballad by Stephen Glover in 1856 and 1871[38]
  • "The Flying Dutchman" by John Parry Jr, published between 1856 and 1866.[39]

Personal life[edit]

In a journal from early 1819 Ryan writes:

I was born in Oxford Street London, on 18 April 1797 in which street my father kept a bookselling establishment for upwards of thirty years. My education I received partly at Soho Square Academy and partly at St Paul's School which latter "Garden of Knowledge" I was removed from to assist my father in his business. When it came to be my own, by the demise of my father in July 1818, I declined following, having initiated a taste for Literary Composition and which I cultivated by writing pieces of Poetry on various subjects for the newspapers – these were the produce of my leisure hours. My more important literary pursuit being to compile and write a work of Irish Biography in 3 vols (each volume to be published separately) to be called "A Biographical Dictionary of the Worthies of Ireland" which I propose that contain the lives of every native of Ireland celebrated in his own or other countries of whom accounts are to be found by considerable research, or are to be supplied by my writing to several distinguished literary characters in Ireland to whom I had the letter of introduction from various quarters. Of this work prior to commencing it, I had dreamt rather a "golden dream" ...

Three pages of the journal were saved by his family along with many newspaper clippings of his poems that were kept by him at the time, several of which were submitted (or published) anonymously, or under the initials R.R., but subsequently signed. Also in the journal he describes people who he was contacting to write the Worthies of Ireland.

In the next entry in the journal, written presumably in 1821 but undated, he writes: "I now for the first time in my life began to think that I shant not clear a fortune by my first literary undertaking." He describes how the first volume was printed "with a fine portrait of John Philpot Curran..." Regarding the sale of the first volume of Worthies of Ireland he writes: "I sent a quantity of copies to Ireland where I expected it would have the greatest sale – but there it met with little or none. In this country it sold much better – but the sale in both countries was such as to make me determined never to complete the work. This determination however I was induced to change two years approximately afterwards by my printer consenting to take the expenses on himself provided I would finish the work in one more volume. This I agreed to do...". Five editions of both volumes were published in 1821 and 1822 and are held by 37 libraries worldwide.[40]

One of his friends was the Irish writer Thomas Crofton Croker (1798–1854) who moved to London from Cork, Ireland in 1819. Croker, who is known for his extensive research into ancient Irish poetry and Irish folklore, attended his wedding and then helped Ryan with contacts and accommodation when Ryan lived in Croker's hometown of Cork in 1822 and 1823.;[41] Ryan maintained a friendship with him for more than 30 years. Ten letters from Richard Ryan and one from Elizabeth Ryan to Croker written between 1822 to 1845 are in Cork Library Archives. They show a personal friendship with Croker's family in Cork and also of Croker with Ryan's family in Camden Town. In 1827 Elizabeth Ryan sold her late husband's extensive collection of books about Ireland to Croker for £50, and wrote to him following the sale.

After closing down the Oxford Street bookshop, Richard Ryan moved to 2 Upper Park Street, Camden Town (renamed and numbered 50 Park Street in around 1823 and now 28 Parkway), at the end of 1818 with his mother and two other family members, John and Mary Ryan.[42] He married Amelia Cecilia Didier (1803–74) at St Marylebone Parish Church, Westminster in May 1822. They were living in Cork when their first child Richard Jr was born in 1823. On return to London they lived in Park Street Camden Town again until January 1825, moving to their own house at 6 Adams Terrace (now 277 Camden High Street),[43] as Ryan's success grew and their family grew in size. They returned to 50 Park Street after the death of his mother in February 1830. His four other children were: Edmund (1825–86), Alfred (1827–38), Elizabeth Bridget (1830–33) and Jane (1834–1915). Jane later married to become Jane Armitt and later Jane May.[44]

277 Camden High Street in 2013. Richard Ryan lived here with his family from 1825 to early 1830.

Despite his earlier success as a biographer and poet and playwright, including critical acclaim for Everybody's Husband, it is possible that he lost money investing in the production of The Irish Girl, which did not get good reviews on its second run in 1831 and closed early.[45] In March 1835 he was jailed in King's Bench Prison, Southwark, for unpaid taxes and his family's situation was described in letters to the Literary Fund by Ryan's referees as 'critical' as they had lost everything, including their furniture, with neighbours lending them beds. Ryan continued to write poetry and prose for publication from the prison, sending articles to Thomas Crofton Croker to forward to Fraser magazine. The Literary Fund paid the debt, releasing him from prison. Despite some success as an editor, playwright and writer between 1835 and his death in 1849 the Literary Fund helped him again in the 1840s. The applications to the Fund, held in the British Library, have revealed several previously uncredited works by Ryan.[46]

In around 1844 the family moved to 5 Pratt Street, Camden Town (now number 9). His eldest son Richard Jr had a "paralysis-type disability", possibly autism, living at home unable to work until around 1846,[47] or in accommodation nearby,[48] until 1849. Richard Jr married Maria Hall in May 1846 and produced Richard Ryan's first grandchild, Elizabeth, in 1847.[49]

Ryan had a heart attack in early September 1849 and died seven weeks later on 20 October.[50] He was buried in the 19th century cemetery for St James's Church, Piccadilly, on 25 October 1849. The cemetery became St James's Gardens, Camden, in 1878 with only a few gravestones lining the edges of the gardens.[51] His remains and those of many other people buried there are thought to have been moved when Euston Station was expanded and are now buried under platforms 12 to 15 of the station although they may still be under the gardens which are located between Hampstead Road and Euston Station.[52]

Posthumous success[edit]

Richard Ryan was acknowledged for his biographical work in the British Dictionary of National Biography in 1895.[53]

His lyrics continued to be published for several years after his death. Published in his final year of life in 1849, "A Voice from the Waves" was written to music by Stephen Glover, an answer to a popular duet "What are the Wild Waves Saying".[54]

A Voice from the Waves in the dead of night
A voice from the waves in the dead of night,
Sung melodious o'er my pillow,
As I lay on my couch in slumber light,
Lull'd to rest by the heaving billow!
It spoke not of human hopes and fears,
That o'ercloud time's hours flying,
But it told of the dead of former years
That in ocean's bed were lying!

A voice from the waves in the dead of night
Sung melodious o'er my pillow,
As I lay on my couch in slumber light,
Lull'd to rest by the heaving billow!
Lull'd to rest,
Lull'd to rest by the heaving, the heaving billow!

And thus it sung,
And thus it sung,
The voice the voice from the waves,
And thus it sung,
And thus it sung,
And thus, thus it sung
I come from the deep,

I come from the deep, I come from the deep,
Where the seaflower gently uncloses,
Where fiery youth hath a dreamless sleep,
And the warrior in calmness reposes
Where the parent and child lie side by side,
Doom'd by destiny ne'er to sever;
Where the husband fond, and his new made bride,
In death's embrace are clasp'd forever!

Each wave rolls over the burial place
Of earth's children in countless numbers,
Of ev'ry hue, and clime, and race
Where no tempest can break their slumbers.
Of ev'ry hue, and clime, and race
Where no tempest can break their slumbers.

The voice was hush'd, the vision fled,
But my heart felt a pang of sorrow,
Till the daystar o'er me, her bright beams shed,
Commencing a glorious morrow!
'Till the daystar o'er me, her bright beams shed,
Commencing a glorious morrow,
Commencing, commencing a glorious, a glorious morrow.
The voice was hush'd, the vision fled.
The voice was hush'd, the vision fled.


  1. ^ A letter written (above) records his correct date of birth, incorrectly listed elsewhere as 1796 (on his death certificate his age is listed as 53, but he was 52). Also listed correctly in Time's Telescope, 1825 p. 91. Birth date of 18 April 1797 is also registered on Baptism records with St George's Hanover Square, Westminster, 10 September 1802.
  2. ^ His father Richard's obituary from The Gentleman's Magazine Mar 1819, p.286: "Mr. Richard Ryan was a native of Ireland..."
  3. ^ Morning Post, 20 February 1830: DIED at her house in Park-street, Camden-town, Mrs Ryan, aged 71, widow of Mr. Ryan, bookseller, and mother of Richard Ryan, author of several works in prose and poetry.
  4. ^ "They were given notice in late 1813 to vacate their building when Regent Street and Oxford Circus were to be created but they were still in the same location "near Argyle Street" in 1816 according to R.Ryan's catalogue for 1816. Morning Chronicle, 1 January 1814: Books at reduced prices – R.Ryan, 339 Oxford Street, opposite Great Portland-street, acquaints the public, it has been intimated to him, that the premises in which he now resides must be taken down, in consequence of the intended plan for the New Street, into Regent's Park; he therefore will dispose of his extensive collection of books at very reduced prices ... Numbering of Oxford Street started at Tottenham Court Road and went along the north side of Oxford Street to Marble Arch before going down the south side to Tottenham Court Road again. The shop next to the Pantheon was number 359. Ryan's bookshop was at 351, 353 and 339 over the years.". 
  5. ^ "Oxford Street". Retrieved 2015-03-02. 
  6. ^ For more about Soho Academy visit
  7. ^ "Read the eBook Admission registers of St. Paul's school, from 1748 to 1876 by England) St. Paul's School (London online for free (page 22 of 52)". Retrieved 2015-03-02. 
  8. ^ The Gentleman's Magazine Oct 1818, p.375 and Mar 1819, p.286: Mr. Richard Ryan was a native of Ireland, and kept a bookseller's shop in Dublin, but quitted it for this country; and resided, for upward of 35 years, in Oxford-street, carrying on a respectable business in the sale of second-hand books. He was a man of some humour, scrupulously exact in his dealings, and much esteemed by all who knew him.
  9. ^ An Essay on the Antiquities of the Irish Language third edition, 1818, p. 115-122.
  10. ^ Biographia Hibernica: A Biographical Dictionary of the Worthies of Ireland from the earliest period to the present time, written and compiled by Richard Ryan (London: John Warren; Dublin: M. N. Mahon, R. Milliken, and Hodges & M’Arthur)
  11. ^ C.j. Woods, "A guide to Irish biographical dictionaries" in The Maynooth Review / Revieu Mha Nuad Vol. 6, No. 1, May 1980
  12. ^ There have been previous dictionaries of this nature, of course, such as the early 19th century account by Richard Ryan of 'the Worthies of Ireland' as he called them, and the one compiled by the Belfast born physician John Smith Crone in 1928, but none have attempted to be as exhaustive or extensive as the volumes now brought triumphantly to completion by our esteemed editors, Dr James McGuire and Dr James Quinn.
  13. ^ "Royal Irish Academy | Projects | Dictionary of Irish Biography | Seamus Heaney on the DIB". 2009-12-16. Retrieved 2015-03-02. 
  14. ^ Poems in the Morning Post include Friendship, 22 August 1827 and The Pen and Sword, 17 November 1829
  15. ^ Lines, 23 July 1831
  16. ^ Time's Telescope 1825, p.p. xxxi – civ
  17. ^ Eight Ballads on the fictions of the ancient Irish and other poems (London: John Warren, 1822)
  18. ^ This book is listed on application forms to the Literary Fund by Ryan held in the British Library.
  19. ^ Morning Chronicle, 2 October 1824.
  20. ^ Listed as work done by Richard Ryan when applying to the Literary Fund in 1845 and 1849; the editorial is unnamed in the book.
  21. ^ Listed as work done by Richard Ryan when applying to the Literary Fund.
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^ "The Tailors, (or "Quadrupeds, "); a Tragedy for Warm Weather, in Three Acts, as Performed at the". Retrieved 2015-03-02. 
  25. ^ The Harmonican,p. 274;+composed+by+Charles+Smith&source=bl&ots=YQRSXJDtm1&sig=D35NQPFDDm8KJ1Gs6ehWF6AeR5A&hl=en&sa=X&ei=eWX8VJnrFMqN7AaAkoCwDA&ved=0CCcQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=The%20Fairy%E2%80%99s%20Gift%3A%20a%20ballad%20%2F%20written%20by%20Richard%20Ryan%3B%20composed%20by%20Charles%20Smith&f=false,
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^;+composed+by+Charles+Smith&hl=en&sa=X&ei=UWb8VPOsNaLR7Qag54HgAw&ved=0CCEQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=The%20Fairy%E2%80%99s%20Gift%3A%20a%20ballad%20%2F%20written%20by%20Richard%20Ryan%3B%20composed%20by%20Charles%20Smith&f=false
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^
  34. ^
  35. ^ The Era, 7 January 1849: "New Music: In the gentle and reproachful melancholy of the sweet music to which these lines of which Mr Richard Ryan are allied, we find something which goes directly to the heart of any one who can sympathize and who has experienced the sentiment they convey..."
  36. ^
  37. ^
  38. ^ The Era, 15 January 1871: There's a Sweet Wild Rose, Duet By Stephen Glover. Words by Richard Ryan. We presume a new edition of a duet already very popular. It is one of the best duets ever composed by Mr. Glover.
  39. ^
  40. ^ "Biographia Hibernica : a biographical dictionary of the worthies of Ireland, from the earliest period to the present time (Book, 1821)". 1999-02-22. Retrieved 2015-03-02. 
  41. ^ The first letters from Richard, from Cork to London, were written in June 1822 - March 1823.
  42. ^ It is not known who they are, but they appear to be an aunt and uncle. Their names are listed in the St Pancras Poor rates books North Ward between October 1822 and 1837. The rates were paid by "Ryan" until 1822 when they were paid by "Mary Ryan" until 1832, "John Ryan" until 1837 and "Richard Ryan" until 1844.
  43. ^ Listed in the St Pancras Poor rates books North Ward.
  44. ^ On 3 October 1848 Richard Ryan was the witness to the marriage of his wife Amelia's sister Elizabeth to William Russell in Fulham, London. At the time of the 1851 census Amelia and Jane Ryan were living with Elizabeth and William Russell. On 13 September 1855 Jane Ryan married Thomas Burbidge Armitt at St George, Hanover Square, London. In 1861 Jane married James May in St George Hanover Square, London. Amelia Ryan lived with Jane until her death in 1874 according to census returns in 1861 and 1871. Jane died in 1915. (Source Free BMD Death Index)
  45. ^ Declared utterly devoid of all merit as to composition or plot by the Theatrical Observer (12 July 1831), it closed after six performances.
  46. ^ Editing jobs listed on application forms to the Literary Fund in 1835, 1842, 1845 and 1849 include "A narrative of a nine months' residence in New Zealand in 1827", "Narrative of a Voyage Round the World" and the writing of the book "The Christian Religion", 1840, published under the initials R.R.
  47. ^ Letters to the Literary Fund in the British Library describe his son's condition. However he married in 1846 and was listed as working as a messenger copying clerk in the 1851 census.
  48. ^ His son Richard was present at his death at Ryan's home 5 Pratt St on 20 October 1849. Richard Jr's address was listed as 28 Pratt Street at that time.
  49. ^ Baptisms in St Pancras: Page 93, 30 July 1847. Elizabeth to Richard & Maria, Pratt Street.
  50. ^ Listed on his death certificate.
  51. ^ "St. James’ Gardens". London Cemeteries. 2011-07-12. Retrieved 2015-03-02. 
  52. ^ "The body now lying under Platform 12 at Euston Station is . . . | London My London | One-stop base to start exploring the most exciting city in the world". London My London. 2013-08-10. Retrieved 2015-03-02. 
  53. ^ Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 50, page 37.
  54. ^ Reported in The Era, 7 January 1849.There is a sweetness about this duet, when sung by any two equal voices, that one cannot soon forget. Its perfection is, that cannot find out any particular movement to cite as a beauty, it is all so complete.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain"Ryan, Richard". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900. 

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