James Mason 1849-1905

Jim Hayes

Dire Poverty

James Mason, 1878

A cold winter's day in impoverished famine-stricken Ireland was not a propitious time to be born if you were a mere peasant's or labourer's son. So it was with a child born on the 19th of November in the year 1849, somewhere in Kilkenny. We know very little about this child's early life, we don't even know the name he was born with, we can't even be sure of the name or names he received at baptism, but we can surmise with some certainty that his early years were ones of privation with scant opportunities for education and having to suffer the hungers and hardships concomitant with dire poverty.

This was not a child born to the drawing room refinements or parlour games of the Big House. But nonetheless there was something special to be noticed about this boy. Perhaps it was just the brightness in his eyes bespeaking a lively intelligence seen only by his parents, or perhaps by a hedge school teacher, if he was fortunate enough to attend one, or perhaps, and this is most likely in view of ensuing developments, he came to the attention of one of the proselytising charities operating soup kitchens or other such works of mercy among the Irish peasantry at the time. For he was incubating a talent that would make him in his prime one of the great chess players of the age.


Where and how he spent his more formative years can only be conjectured, as the next we hear of him is as a youth of just over 11 years, now bearing the name James Mason and arriving in New Orleans. With a new name, ostensibly adopted by his father to avoid prevalent anti-Irish prejudice, and possibly a change in religious persuasion, as we know he did not die in that in which he was baptised, probably adopted as a means of mere survival and for the purpose of acquiring assisted passage from Ireland to the promised land of America, the evidence suggests that they travelled via the cotton trade routes between Lancashire and the Confederate States arriving in ante bellum New Orleans in early 1861, not one of the traditional eastern seaboard entry points used by the mass of the famine-fleeing Irish at the time.

At any rate, whatever the means and methods of his arrival in America, James, and probably his family, reverted to the familiar and set out for New York to seek fame and fortune like so many more of their countrymen before them. It does appear, significantly, that James possessed a major asset acquired prior to leaving Ireland and denied to many of his emigrant kin, he was highly literate and had obviously received some degree of formal education. Arriving in New York he worked briefly as a boot black, a par-for-the-course job for an immigrant Irish kid, but soon became a newsboy around Park Row and the Bowery and started frequenting the chess cafe's in the area. Showing an aptitude for the game, he came in time to the notice of J.Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald who employed him in the newspaper's offices and gave him the opportunity of pursuing his joint ambitions of becoming a journalist and a top flight chess player.

The Strongest Player in New York

Before long he was the strongest player in New York, becoming champion of the old New York Chess Club, the precursor of the Marshall and Manhattan clubs, and representing New York in matches against Philadelphia. News of his prowess reaching the Old World, he received a challenge from Henry Bird, the noted English master, to a match played in New York which Mason won convincingly by 11 games to 4. In 1876, fifteen years after arriving in America, he made his mark nationally when he became effectively American chess champion by winning the Centennial and Fourth National Congress held in Philadelphia. The tournament book, now very scarce and valuable, in a biographical note described him as "Jas. Mason, of New York, of world wide reputation, a player who combines both soundness and brilliancy, qualities rarely united. Mr. Mason has won many notable victories, and has long been anxious to cross swords with the masters of Europe".

Mackenzie, the Scottish born American champion, did not take part in this tournament, a fact sometimes used to denigrate Mason's achievement; however, a few years later, Mason silenced his detractors by defeating Mackenzie in a three game match, the score being draw, win, draw. Following on his victory in the Centennial Congress, Mason subsequently took first prize in the prestigious New York Clipper Tournament. During this time he was also refining his skills as a writer with his commentaries and annotations in the chess journals, and in conjunction with Sam Loyd, the noted problemist, edited the American Chess Journal, the foremost American chess magazine.

In 1878, Mason was sent to Paris by some of his New York admirers to compete in the International Masters tournament, but didn't achieve anything of note. From there he went to London, in which city he decided to remain, believing correctly that the opportunities to play chess were better in Europe than America. Early in 1879 he played a match with the great English champion Blackburne, in which he was victorious. In the coming years Mason played in all the top international tournaments but in spite of some notable successes, particularly in the Vienna 1882 tournament, the strongest held up to that time, where he was third behind Steinitz and Winawer, the Simpsons Handicap Tournament 1884, where he was first ahead of Gunsberg and Blackburne, and Hamburg 1885, where he was second equal with Blackburne, a flaw in his personality began to manifest itself. This was best described many years later by the great Lasker, when writing his obituary: "Mr Mason's play as a player was very high, but he could have achieved the highest place of all, had he not possessed characteristics that unfit anyone for the attainment of success".

Hilarious Condition

Mason had unfortunately become fond of drink and reportedly lost many a game while "in hilarious condition". In tournament after tournament he would invariably lead the field until the halfway stage, even ahead of the great masters of the day, Steinitz, Zukertort et al, and had play been confined to only one game against each opponent, he would undoubtedly have been counted among the most successful tournament winners of all time, but then, again quoting Lasker, "the Celtic part of his brain heated up and he would leave the board at a critical stage and not return." In the great Hastings Tournament of 1895 he was even found at one such critical stage asleep in the fireplace! Again and again, after putting a string of victories together against illustrious opponents, he invariably would have what came to be known as "Mason's day" when everything would blow up in his face and he would eventually come in, trailing well down in the prize list, having lost to non-entitities, when he had defeated the top masters.

Querulous, crotchety and questioning, he became a most difficult problem for tournament organisers, one famous player holding as a souvenir a chess box which was used by Mason as a missile in enforcing an argument against one of the managers of the Sixth American Chess Congress. His escapades also extended, on at least one notable occasion, to the non chess-playing world, when he was hauled up in front of magistrates for breaking a window during some form of a street fracas. In spite of his barrister's defence plea, on the effect of the strain of playing high level chess, he was, to his chagrin, fined £5.


Nevertheless, he was always an opponent to be reckoned with, no matter whom he opposed. Mason excelled in the slowly developing attack and in niceties of pawn play was considered a pioneer. By his example he contributed towards the making of modern chess which aims at being both positionally sound and aggressive. Mason, not by reason of chess inadequacy, but by reasons only of personal aberrations and idiosyncracies, failed to fulfil his early promise. But it is in his writings that he will be best remembered. In the literature of chess he has produced some of the best work that has ever come from a chess master. For many years he contributed to, and annotated games for, the British Chess Magazine, and was co-author with W.H.K.Pollock, twice Irish chess champion, of the St Petersburg 1895-6 tournament book.

The books that he wrote still remain classics of lucid chess exposition. In 1894 he published The Principles of Chess, an immediate best seller with over 13,000 copies sold within a few years. He followed this with his second book, The Art of Chess in 1895. Incidentally, both these books are still available, albeit heavily edited, from Dover, one hundred years after their first publication. Thereafter, in 1897, came Chess Openings and, in 1900, Social Chess. The editor of the British Chess Magazine said of him "He simply revelled in happy metaphor and aphorism, it seemed impossible for him to write a dull sentence. He combined all the imaginativeness of the Irish with the smartness of the American. His books have rightly taken their place as classics."


In 1903 James Mason fell ill. For some time he had been curtailing his over-the-board activities and concentrating on his writing, becoming the chief annotator for the British Chess Magazine. A curt three line statement in this magazine announced his plight to the chess playing world. "We have to report with regret that Mr James Mason is prostrated with serious illness. The latest reports we have record some improvement, but the danger of relapse is still acute." The following December the British Chess Magazine stated that he had indeed suffered such a relapse and confirmed that, even in the event that he should recover, his position was so precarious that it was doubtful that he could continue writing, now his only source of income. As his resources were exhausted the magazine announced that it was opening a fund to assist him. They appended some extracts from a letter received from his sick bed, "I am grateful for your letter just to hand, I had not thought to trouble you with an account of my illness. However I suppose I must do so now. On 10th-11th June, about midnight, I had epileptoid seizure: pretty bad-convulsions, coma, etc--narrow squeak. Since then, have been slowly recovering: but there is no saying when I shall be well enough to tackle any real work, or what the sequel may be, epileptic establishment or some intercurrent affection of permanent damage to system? Idleness, with a lot of work before me must be my fate, perhaps for a month or more to come, very bad for yours sincerely, J.Mason".

At regular intervals thereafter the magazine reported on his condition: in January 1904, "We regret to report that Mr James Mason is gradually getting worse and his case is almost beyond hope of recovery". In May 1904, "Mr James Mason: we wish to report that he is still confined to bed". But then, mirabile dictu, in a report on the City of London Chess Club Tournament in the September issue of the same magazine we read the following: "Eight players of master rank took part: Messrs Blackburne, Gunsberg, Mason(!), Mortimer, Lee, Teichmann, Van Vliet and Napier", with the subsequent comment: "James Mason, hardly yet recovered from his dangerous illness proved unequal to the sturm und drang of the contest and was manifestly out of form".

But Mason's participation was no more than a final act of desperation forced on him by straitened circumstances notwithstanding the generosity of the people throughout the length of England who had contributed to the fund to help him, for a few months later we read, in the December issue of the British Chess Magazine, "The Rev. Talfourd Major, Rector of Thundersley, Essex, informs us that Mr James Mason is lying dangerously ill in Rochford infirmary, and it is feared will never be well enough to leave it alive". The end in fact was not far off. On the 15th of January 1905 James Mason was no more. Mourned by chessplayers everywhere, he was interred in the little churchyard in Thundersley.

True Name

James Mason never revealed his real name save to confide it to his friend Robert J.Buckley, chess columnist of the Birmingham Weekly Mercury, with the comment that it was "Infernally Milesian" ([3, 4]). The only record of him returning to his land of birth was to take part in a quadrangular tournament in Belfast in 1892 against Bird, Blackburne and Lee, in which he tied with Blackburne for first place. But if James Mason left Ireland, he could never succeed in getting Ireland or his Irishness to leave him. In his inclinations, dispositions, his Celtic contrariness and irascibilities, he had the mark of the Gael stamped all over him. Buckley wrote of him: "Mason was a Kelt of the Kelts, a really Irish Irishman, and not in the smallest fragment of his being, one of the Scots Irish or the Anglo Irish who dominate Ulster". Buckley goes on to say in his column: "One thing I wish to place on record, in money matters; in straightness; in all things where money was a factor, I ever found James Mason to be the very soul of integrity and in this respect as well as intellectually, immeasurably superior to some of the men who smiled upon him patronisingly".

Another commentator at the time wrote: "Training in any form seems altogether foreign to his nature. He has splendid conversational powers. He is a first rate companion with a lively vivacious manner and is generous to a fault. He is a good writer using particularly fine English". It would be fitting perhaps that the final word on James Mason should be left to a quote from the Fortnightly Review, December 1886: "He is a jolly good fellow first and a chess player afterwards".

Would that that could be said of more of us.


[1] I am grateful to Ken Whyld for his contributions to the accuracy of the foregoing article and to David Hooper for providing me with the results of his investigations to date into James Mason's true name. I am also grateful to the various clergy of the Diocese, and in particular to Fr. Muldowney of St John's parish in the City of Kilkenny, for providing me with access to the relevant baptismal records. I would also like to thank Maurice Buckley of the Kilkenny Chess Club for his assistance.

It was customary in the Ireland of the day for baptisms to be performed as soon as possible after the birth. In practice this meant that a child born on the 19th would be baptised on the 20th or at latest 21st. Any later than this would be most unusual. On that basis, having been emphatically assured by all clergy consulted on this point, I have not considered any children baptised on the 22nd November or later. Within a six day period this consists of the names, Michael Neary, Joseph Brennan, Lawrence Barron, Michael Shallow, Pat Fitzpatrick, and John Byrne. I have also eliminated John Hughes, of Abbeyleix, as this is outside the County of Kilkenny.

Bearing in mind James Mason's statement [2] to Buckley that his name was "Infernally Milesian" and "neither James nor Mason" the records reveal three candidate names fitting the required parameters, with the balance of probability being that Patrick Dwyer, son of John Dwyer with mother's maiden name given as Mary Dwyer, both of Barrack Street, Kilkenny, who was baptised on the 20th of November, 1849, in St John's parish in the city of Kilkenny, was to become the future James Mason. I have based this conclusion on the following:

[2] What Buckley actually wrote was: "James Mason's true name was neither James nor Mason. His real name was confided to me years ago, as it were sub sigilla confessionis. Later Mason wrote to me: `My father adopted the name of Mason on landing in New Orleans when I was eleven. Don't split till I'm dead, and even then I would rather you didn't give the name, it's so infernally Milesian, and they'd say that all of the faults of the race went with it, particularly love of drink and laziness. I have them both myself.'".

The following extract from the authoritative McLysaght's Irish Names helps to further explain the circumstances which prompted the Masons to adopt a new name. "Dwyer (O'Dwyer) in Irish O'Duibhir, descendant of Duibhir, were an important sept in Co.Tipperary. The Dwyers were always noted for their staunch resistance to England and many are recorded in this connection in mediaeval and modern times." The entry goes on to quote a number of examples in this regard and I am quite sure that Mason's father would have considered the name to be a burden if he was trying to disguise his Irish origins.

[3] At the commencement of the American Civil War in early April 1861 the southern ports were blockaded, and although the blockade was not completely effective until 1864, I see no reason why the Masons would take unnecessary risks and would accordingly be of the opinion that they would have landed in New Orleans under their original name, prior to the commencement of hostilities in the months January, February or March of 1861. I am not au fait with the stringency, completeness or otherwise of US immigration regulations at that time, but it seems reasonable to assume that there may be records extant of people immigrating through New Orleans at the time, or of the ships that unloaded there with their ports of origin recorded. Such ships would almost certainly have had a passenger manifest against which candidates' names could be checked. It should be borne in mind that while there were records of immigrants into America from Ireland, they were far from complete and that there were absolutely no records of immigrants into England from Ireland in transit to America. Where such were registered on arrival in America they would most probably have been recorded as being of British origin unless they declared themselves otherwise, which in fact most did.

This is as far as the investigation into James Mason's real name can be currently taken. In spite of the overwhelming evidence in favour of him being Patrick Dwyer, unless and until such records as outlined in the foregoing paragraph are established as being available and are checked, we are still short of absolute final proof.

[4] The Milesians were a legendary, prehistoric, Celtic people said to be the first to inhabit Ireland.

Created 2000-06-01 ◦ Last updated 2014-07-23 ◦ Editor MO

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