Envoy, the literary magazine that sought to put Irish culture on the map
The short-lived but influential magazine aimed to define a national cultural identity, whose enemy was perceived as native conservatism and isolationism rather than British imperialism
John Ryan, the founding editor of Envoy, was a distinguished painter and devoted significant space to Irish artists as well as writers
Valentin Iremonger, the poet and diplomat who founded Envoy along with John Ryan
A photo taken on Sandymount Strand on Bloomsday, June 16th, 1954, depicts a number of the contributors of Envoy, John Ryan, Anthony Cronin, Brian Nolan, Patrick Kavanagh and Joyce’s cousin, Tom Joyce, gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the date on which Joyce’s Ulysses is set
First published in December 1949, Envoy was the brainchild of writer and artist John Ryan, and the poet and diplomat Valentin Iremonger. The impetus behind the magazine was an attempt to fill what they perceived as a literary gap in Irish culture. The foreword to the first issue announced that “Envoy, by its arrival, brings to a close a two year period during which the reading public of this island have had no monthly magazine wholly devoted to literature and the arts”. Determined to put literature first, Envoy was less concerned with issues of Irish nationalism or cultural politics, and instead, cast itself in a self-consciously European mode, mixing local appeal and a dash of international contributions. Envoy commenced with a detailed editorial plan which Ryan and his assistant editors (Iremonger and JK Hillman), outlined in their introduction to the first issue: the periodical would come to the aid of Irish culture “by serving abroad as envoy of Irish writing and at home as envoy of the best of international writing”. An ambitious aesthetic platform was spelled out in the second issue, which, despite the editors’ avowed inclination towards European literature, curiously confined itself to Irish authors. Broadly speaking, there were three specific areas that the magazine hoped to focus on:
1. A series of critical assessments on the main Irish literary figures of the first 50 years of the twentieth century, which would be “written by writers who are young enough not to remember personally the authors they are dealing with”. In the editors’ opinion, the Irish literary landscape lacked any objective critics, other than “John Eglinton, the only critic of any stature which the Revival produced”, and in their view, this series was an attempt to “belatedly” fill the gap.
2. A series called The Irish Contribution, which would include essays on “Swift, Goldsmith, Congreve, Farquhar, Wilde, Moore, Yeats, Shaw, Joyce, O’Casey and Synge”.
3. A critical review of the poets and writers of modern Gaelic literature, “from the time of Geoffrey Keating onwards”. This latter series was necessitated, in the editors’ opinion, because no sound assessment of their work had been undertaken, and by virtue of the fact “the exigencies of the movement for the revival of the Gaelic language have tended to acclaim all Gaelic writers as major figures, and to describe everything written in Gaelic as literature”. Distancing themselves from the early Revivalist aesthetic, they continued, “this is obvious nonsense, and we hope that the articles in Envoy will do much towards giving us a more realistic approach to the wealth of material that is available in the language”.
Each issue included at least one story from a distinguished array of Irish writers including Brendan Behan, Brian O’Nolan, Padraic Colum, Benedict Kiely, Mary Lavin, Séan Ó Faoláin and Francis Stuart. Samuel Beckett also had a short-lived relationship with the magazine, as the second issue featured an extract from his novel Watt. In keeping with the emphasis on including commentary on European and international literature, essays ranged from German Prose fiction of To-Day to The Novels of Albert Camus and The significance of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Demonstrating an admirable lack of political chauvinism or regional bias, poetry editor Valentin Iremonger was instrumental in publishing a wide variety of contemporary young Irish poets from both Northern and Southern Ireland. The roster including Anthony Cronin, John Hewitt, Roy McFadden, Pearse Hutchinson, Patrick Kavanagh, John Montague and Richard Murphy. Iremonger also looked beyond the borders of Irish poetry to include essays on international poetry. Thus, we find Pearse Hutchinson writing on modern American poetry with a focus on Walt Whitman, another essay on Spanish poetry and an appraisal of Gertrude Stein.
Envoy’s distinctive focus on art was directly attributable to Ryan, who was first and foremost a painter. Subtitled, A Review of Literature and Art, the periodical was, in the assessment of Terence Brown, “the first of the essentially literary publications to attempt an assessment of the visual arts in the post-independence period”. Over half of the issues contained lengthy critical appraisals of a diverse range of Irish painters such as Daniel O’Neill, George Campbell, Louis le Brocquy, Colin Middleton, Nano Reed, Turloe Connolly, Patrick Swift and the sculptor Hilary Heron. These appreciations were usually accompanied by several black & white reproductions of the artist’s work, which many of Envoy’s readers would not otherwise have seen. Other aspects of art addressed in the periodical were modern German painting, modern British painting and the religious art of medieval Ireland.
Another important facet of the magazine was the inclusion of a regular column or “Diary” written by Patrick Kavanagh. Although Kavanagh’s Diary column initially captured the essence of Envoy’s cultural outlook, it became, with the passage of time, a vehicle for Kavanagh to pick fights and settle old scores. In several issues he uses his column to vent his scorn on other contemporary poets, most notably, Austin Clarke, John Hewitt and Louis McNeice, all of whose work Kavanagh considered inferior to his own. Other moving targets included the Abbey Theatre, the Catholic Church’s involvement in the arts, Radio Éireann, the Irish Club in London and the regular clientele of The Pearl Bar. Less measured opinion pieces than frequently very funny belligerent rants, Kavanagh displayed his not inconsiderable gifts as an acerbic satirist in these columns, which paved the way for his own publication, Kavanagh’s Weekly. He also was responsible for most of the letters to the editor that the magazine received.
Kavanagh also published some of his own poetry in Envoy, and these poems acquire an added layer of significance when read in the context of one of his Diary articles as opposed to encountering the poems within the context of Kavanagh’s Collected Poems. Kavanagh’s biographer, Antoinette Quinn, considers the poet’s Envoy years to be a time of rebirth for the troubled poet, arguing that “in less than two years of its existence his poetics underwent the crucial reorientation that made all his later poetry possible.” Quinn attributes this change in direction in part to the support of the young artistic and intellectual circle of friends he made at Envoy, who “nerved him to renew the verse hostilities begun in ‘The Paddiad’ against the proponents of Celtic verse and to attack his circle’s other common enemy, Dublin’s philistine bourgeoisie.” As Quinn points out, much of Kavanagh’s satiric verse from this period was first published in Envoy, which provided the poet with a public forum that helped facilitate his change in direction from rural realism to contemporary urban poetry.
The April 1951 issue (no. 17) was a special issue devoted to James Joyce, with interesting critical articles by Brian O’ Nolan, Denis Johnston, Andrew Cass, Naill Montgomery, Joseph Hone and WB Stanford. Kavanagh’s Diary piece, an appreciation of Joyce, is one of his more measured. He begins by admitting that he “read Ulysses for the first time seven years ago”, and in typical Kavanagh fashion, proceeds to give Joyce a backhand compliment by noting that “since then it has become my second-favourite bedside book”. However, in this instance, Kavanagh was more interested in satirising the burgeoning Joyce industry in academia rather than the novelist. Two additional items of interest in this issue are a number of unpublished letters of Joyce to various people, including his aunt Josephine in Dublin and Harriet Weaver, Joyce’s early patron and editor of The Egoist, which serialised Ulysses. These letters, which reveal some of Joyce’s thoughts on the draft chapters of Ulysses, also reveal an artist financially strapped and plagued by recurring eye problems. The final item of interest is a group of photographs of Joyce taken in the 1930s.
Browne points out that “Envoy was the first Irish periodical to attempt a full-scale critical response to Joyce’s work since the Irish Statesman ceased publication.” It may have been due to space considerations, but one wonders why the editors did not include the marvellous series of black &white photographs of Dublin that were published in November 1950 (issue 12), under the title Joyce’s Dublin. These photographs, which were reproduced by permission of the Irish Tourist Board, show six of the geographic locations weaved into the fabric of Ulysses, namely: St. Stephen’s Green; the quays looking toward the Four Courts; The Irish House; Sandymount Strand; Eccles Street; and St Patrick’s Cathedral. Notwithstanding Nolan’s satirical portrait of Joyce in this issue, most writers of the time (including Nolan), who railed against the claustrophobia of the culture, looked to Joyce as their exemplar. This is evident in their actions as well as their writing. A photo taken on Sandymount Strand on Bloomsday, June 16t, 1954, depicts a number of the contributors of Envoy gathered to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the date on which Joyce’s Ulysses is set. The photograph shows John Ryan, Anthony Cronin, Brian Nolan, Patrick Kavanagh, and Joyce’s cousin, Tom Joyce. In what is now considered the first attempt to celebrate Bloomsday in Ireland, the group’s intention was to visit as many of the Ulysses sites as possible, starting with the Martello Tower in Sandycove, and proceeding by pony and trap into the city centre and its various pubs.
Envoy lasted for just over a year and a half, publishing its final issue, number 20, in July 1951. Part of the reason for the short-lived nature of the periodical was the existence of a trade embargo by the British board of trade that banned the importation of Irish books and periodicals into the United Kingdom. In his first editorial Ryan drew attention to the fact that Envoy’s best oversees market was closed to the periodical; however, by issue 5 (April 1950), the board of trade’s embargo on Irish periodicals entering Britain had been revoked. As Frank Shovlin notes, “throughout its run, Envoy is conscious of the strains and complexities of Ireland’s new relationship with Britain, a consciousness no doubt aided by the presence of a senior Irish civil servant, Valentin Iremonger, on its editorial board”. At the time of his involvement with Envoy, Iremonger was private secretary to Seán McBride, the minister for the Department of External Affairs. The journal also exhibits a certain pride in the transition of the 26 counties into a Republic in 1949, something its youthful contributors viewed as a sign of Ireland becoming more aligned with the rest of Europe and the world.
In contrast to the earlier generation of Revivalists, the writers at Envoy were not opposed to London-based or metropolitan modernism. Rather, as Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker point out, in the battle to define a national cultural identity, the enemy was often perceived as residing within the island, rather than in imperialist Britain:
The Irish “little magazines” and other publications friendly to literary innovation and the making of a new national culture set themselves less against British domination than against a repressive hegemonic culture and morality in Ireland. The battle here is more an internal one, between an avant-gardist impulse or the more moderate call for a more liberal artistic and cultural regime, which could claim WB Yeats, James Joyce, and Beckett as its own, and an isolationist and conservative national ideology opposed to the modern or new on essentially moralising grounds.
Less politically minded than its long running contemporary, The Bell, Envoy was, in the opinion of Brian Fallon, “less ‘public-spirited’ but probably better adjusted to the tone and mentality of the Dublin literary cliques of the day”. Both the entrenched conservative values of Irish society and the belligerent literary cliques that gathered in various Dublin bars during the 1950s are aptly described by Anthony Cronin in his essay on the decade of the 1950s for Magnum Ireland:
“John Ryan founded a literary magazine, Envoy, whose headquarters were McDaid’s ‘Lounge Bar’ in Henry Street, already a pub where confluences, bohemian, anarchist and déclassé met. Writers were gathered there, including Patrick Kavanagh, Myles na Gopaleen, Brendan Behan, myself. Here, with the aid of alcohol, irreverence and irony, pieties and conformism, including literary conformism, could be kept at bay. Though a fashion has grown up of speaking as if Ireland in the 1950s had fallen under the twin tyrannies of De Valera and the Church, neither Catholicism nor patriotism, some of us felt, were particularly the enemy. The enemy, thought those of us who dissented, was the Irish people, who had somehow brought this down, this suffocating conformity and stasis, sometimes even masquerading as liberalism and progress, upon themselves.”
Tom Clyde believes that the magazine “would have had much greater impact had it been quarterly and so needed less ‘padding’; the economics would also have been much easier, as is acknowledged in the closing editorial.” Shovlin captures the impact of this little magazine when he summed up his review of Envoy thus: “despite the journal’s undoubted self-pity and aggression, in its greater European outlook, its commitment to the visual arts, and its invigoration of the post-war Irish cultural scene as a stagnant time, it remains a brave and memorial project.”
Brooker, Peter and Thacker, Andrew, editors. The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines: Volume 1, Britain and Ireland 1880-1955. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Brown, Terence. Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922 to the Present. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985.
Clyde, Tom. Irish Literary Magazines: An Online History and Descriptive Bibliography. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2003.
Lardinois, Brigitte, and Val Williams, editors. Magnum Ireland. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006.
Quinn, Antoinette. Patrick Kavanagh. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2003.
Shovlin, Frank. The Irish Literary Periodical 1923-1958. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Adrienne Leavy is the editor of Reading Ireland: The Little Magazine, a digital magazine dedicated to promoting Irish literature and contemporary Irish writing. For subscriptions visit www.readingireland.net or e-mail email@example.com