A man of many parts - Ray Burke on Edward Martyn

The playwright and landowner died this month 100 years ago but his legacy lives on in a veritable treasure house of the Celtic Revival in Loughrea’s cathedral

“An uncloistered monk” and “the old melomaniac” are among the unkind but not untrue descriptors that biographers bestowed on Edward Martyn, the Galway landowner, playwright and arts patron who died 100 years ago this month.

These unflattering labels were given to him by, respectively, Denis Gwynn – his first biographer – and the writer George Moore, a cousin and lifelong friend, who was Martyn’s regular companion in Dublin and London, and who accompanied him to annual performances of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Bayreuth, Germany.

An aesthete, never married, and an ardent Catholic who believed, like Dante in The Divine Comedy, that lust was the worst of the cardinal sins, Martyn was easy to mock. Seán O’Casey wrote that he “spent most of his life like a colourless moth, fluttering between the finger and thumb of a friar”... “lurching around in the shadows of his ta ra ra Gothic house, pumping Pallestrina out of a harmonium, trying to clap a friar’s cowl on the head of life”.

These insults – not all of them posthumous – detract from Martyn’s many accomplishments. He was a co-founder of the original Sinn Féin and of the Feis Ceoil, as well as of the Irish Literary Theatre and of the stained glass studio An Túr Gloine. He was also a member of the Executive Committee of the Gaelic League and he was a founder in 1903 and the chief funder of the Palestrina Choir which is based in Dublin’s Catholic Pro-Cathedral (and one of whose members was the tenor John McCormack). His endowment of £10,000 to the choir would be equivalent to more than €900,000 today. He also donated several valuable paintings to the National Gallery of Ireland.


It was at Martyn’s Tulira Castle, near Ardrahan in Co Galway, that in August 1896 WB Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory met for the first time in Ireland (they had met once briefly in London) and from where she invited him to Coole Park, where their artistic collaboration began. Martyn and Lady Gregory also paid most of the cost of the headstone she had erected over the grave of the blind Irish-language poet Anthony Raftery at Killeenan, near Craughwell, in August 1900. And he loaned Lady Gregory what she called “a fine old Irish Bible” when she was trying to learn the vernacular.

But he was idiosyncratic. His best-known plays Maeve and The Heather Field, published in 1899, were staged by the Irish Literary Theatre, which he funded for three years, but he fell out with Yeats and Moore over their rewriting of his next play. He also fought with fellow members of the Kildare Street Club and he sued the club successfully after it expelled him for his outspoken nationalist views. He resigned as a Justice of the Peace and Deputy Lieutenant for Co Galway in a row that followed his refusal to allow God Save the Queen or Rudyard Kipling’s The Absent Minded Beggar to be performed at a concert at Tulira.

He needed police protection during the bitter and protracted rows he had with his tenants in the decades of land reform, but he built them a village hall in Labane, near Tulira. It was burned down by the Black and Tans in 1920.

A more lasting legacy is his series of bequests to St Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea, seat of the east Galway Catholic diocese of Clonfert. This neo-Gothic building, completed in the early decades of the last century, is “a veritable treasure house of the Celtic Revival in sculpture, stained glass woodcarving, metalwork and textiles”, according to local historian Patrick K Egan.

He wrote that Martyn “insured by personal donation and the munificent financial support of [his mother’s] family that the new cathedral would reflect his views”. It contains large stained glass windows by Sarah Purser, Evie Hone, Hubert McGoldrick, Patrick Pye, Michael Healy and AE Child, as well as stone carvings and bronze angels by Michael Shorthall, and banners and vestments in silk, wool and linen by the Yeats sisters, Lily and Elizabeth, of the Dun Emer Guild, on designs created by their brother Jack B. The architect William A Scott designed the entrance gate, side altars and furniture. Stone carvings were done by John Hughes RHA.

Many of the cathedral’s artefacts had not yet been installed when Martyn died on December 5th, 1923, aged 63 years. He was “Fortified by the rites of holy church”, his memorial card said. “I feel a loneliness now he is gone,” Lady Gregory wrote in her diary.