The Rev. James De La Cour was the second son of Robert De La Cour, Esq. of the county of Cork, in Ireland, a Gentleman of good landed property, and descended from an antient and respectable family. He was bred at the University of the city of Dublin; and being early captivated with the writings of Mr. Pope, which were then as much the rage in Ireland as in England, he neglected the Fathers for the Muses, and dedicated all the time which could he spared from the indispensable duties of the College to the study and practice of poetry.
His genius supported his inclination; as before he reached the age of twenty he produced a Poem entitled, Abelard to Eloisa, in imitation of Mr. Pope, which was thought to possess a good deal of the spirit and harmony of the master. From this he proceeded to publish shorter poems and sonnets which were all favourably received; when in the year 1733 (our Author being then about the age of twenty-two), he published his Prospect of Poetry, which he dedicated to the Right Hon. the Earl of Cork and Orrery.
This Poems though partly didactic, abounds in many beautiful descriptions of the proper subjects for poetry, ornamented with much classical taste, and above all polished to a degree of harmony which at once reached perfection. So creditable a publication, and at such an age, gained him much and deserved applause; and in his list of admirers he had to count on some of the best judges in both countries.
Soon after this he took holy orders but the praise of the Poet slackened the zeal of the parson. Instead of exciting that public curiosity which Swift recommends all young Clergymen to obtain, viz. "Does the Doctor preach here to day?" De La Cour produced his sermons as matters of ordinary duty; his muse was the mistress which engaged his principal attention; and, as the Muses generally love "the gay and busy haunts of men," this pursuit was of no service to his promotion or clerical character. The soil of a commercial town, too, is not favourable to poetical talents. Amongst mere matter of fact men, the man of rhymes is at least an equivocal character; but when joined to that of a Clergyman, it doubly injures his reputation.
Poor De La Cour had not the prudery of profession to trim with this humour of the people whom he was consigned to live with: he unfortunately, too, loved his bottle as well as his muse; and though he had the example of graver divines (if he had their art of concealment) of indulging in the former with impunity, duplicity formed no part of his character: if he occasionally drank too much, he had the vice of being "found out;" and this being perhaps too often repeated, he sunk in the esteem of his fellow-citizens, who said poetry affected his head; and in a little time they dubbed him with the title of "the mad Parson."
Under this general character, the graver kind of people grew cautious of his acquaintance, whilst the young ones solicited his company for the sake of "smoking the parson." In time he fell so much into, this last seduction, that he was the volunteer of any party who would engage him for the night. This constant dissipation at least enfeebled his understanding; and the charge which malice and ignorance at first fastened on him was now realized; his intellects were at times evidently deranged; and he fancied himself, after the example of Socrates, to be nightly visited by a demon, who enabled him to prophesy all manner of future events.
In the career of this unhappy impression, the following circumstance deserves some notice: A gentleman one day meeting the Doctor in a bookseller's shop, during the siege of the Havannah, asked him, whether he could tell him when the garrison would surrender? "O yes," says De La Cour, very confidently, "I'll tell you the precise day; it will be on the 14th of August next." "Do you pledge yourself for that day?" "So much so," replied the Doctor, "that I will stake my character as a prophet on it, and therefore I beg you will take a memorandum of it." The Gentleman immediately noted it in his pocket book; and it so happened, that on that very day we had an account of its surrender to the British arms.
A public event thus predicted six weeks before it happened, and falling in so accurately according to the prediction, of course made a great noise in a little place. The common people wondered at, and even philosophers could not resist pausing on the coincidence of circumstances; but the Doctor was elated beyond measure. He now claimed the diploma of a prophet, and expected to be consulted on the issue of all important circumstances.
He continued thus many years prophesying and poetizing; and though in the first he made many mistakes, in the latter he, in a great measure, preserved the "vis poetica;" particularly in his Satires on individuals, which sometimes exposed and restrained those too cunning for the law, and too callous for the pulpit.
He had originally a little estate of about £80 per year left him by his father, which with the hospitality of his friends, enabled him to live independent. Towards the latter end of his life, he sold this to his brother-in-law for a certain sum yearly, and his board and lodging; but at the same time restrained himself from staying out after twelve o'clock at night under the penalty of one shilling. In consequence of this the Doctor's balance at the end of the year was very inconsiderable.
He died about the year 1781, at advanced age of seventy-two, leaving behind him many monuments of poetical talents, and adding another testimony to the truth of the following observation:
"Those who, in confidence of superior capacities or attainments, disregard the common maxims of life should be reminded, that nothing will supply the want of prudence, and that negligence and irregularity long continued will make knowledge useless, wit ridiculous, and genius contemptible."...
The Account of Mr. de la Cour in your Magazine for July, p. 301 [sic], is very correct, for I once knew him personally, and testify the truth of what has been said of him in respect of his private life. It has been said, that "great wits are allied to madness," and it has often proved so. — I remember often seeing him in a morning, walking with the officers of the main guard (near the Exchange at Cork), to and fro in the front of the line, in his canonical habit, i.e. gown and band, which he generally wore, although I never knew that he had any benefice, or that he ever preached in any of the Churches at Cork. He wore his hat cocked after the then clerical mode, and a dark brown flowing curled wig, which I do not remember ever to have seen powdered. He was, as you say, generally called the mad Parson; but by the vulgar, Mr. Dallycote. He was of French extraction, and, if I remember right, had used to write his name De la Court. His evenings were generally spent at the Blakeney Tavern, among young thoughtless military officers, opulent merchant's songs, and other Cork bucks. About 1757 he was desired to compose some lines as an inscription for a new sign of General Blakeney, on which was the day of the month and year that the General was born in; they are as follow:
Courage was born this day, with Blakeney bred,
The Bay shall never wither on his head.
DE LA COURT.
But such lines as these can confer no credit on their author: the less therefore said about them the better.
There was another quondam Parson at Cork the same time as the above, the Rev. Marmaduke Dallas. Whether he too was a poet, I do not now remember; but I believe he was silenced or suspended by Bishop Browne, for celebrating a marriage illegally. I remember as I was once going to Carrigrohane Church (two miles from Cork) one Sunday morning, I overtook the old Gentleman, who was on foot as well as myself, and had some discourse with him; during which, some shewy Gentlemen passed us on horseback. Mr. Dallas made some observations on high and low life, and said, that "provided all was right within, people on foot were as well off as those who rode." The city of Cork in those days had many eccentric characters, both in genteel life as well as among the vulgar, and I make no doubt the case is the same now. And if I am not mistaken, A. Murphy, Esq. James Barry, Esq. and General Carleton, were natives of that ancient and flourishing city, the fourth, for population and extent in the British dominions.
Walsall, Dec. 10, 1797.