Standish James O’Grady (1846-1928) – ‘father of the Irish Literary Renaissance’ – a new acquisition

Portrait of Standish James O'Grady, 1904, by John Butler Yeats. National Gallery of Ireland

Portrait of Standish James O’Grady, 1904, by John Butler Yeats. National Gallery of Ireland

M&ARL has recently acquired the literary papers of the Irish author, journalist and historian Standish James O’Grady. A former Trinity student, O’Grady is often referred to as the ‘father of the Irish Literary Renaissance’. The papers were donated to the Library earlier this year by Edward Hagan (Distinguished Professor of Writing, Connecticut State University), who received the papers from O’Grady’s grandson, Standish de Courcey O’Grady, during the 1970s. They offer a unique insight into the unconventional mind of one of the leading Celtic Revivalists.

O’Grady was born in 1846 in Castletownbere, Co. Cork, one of eleven children of Thomas O’Grady, Church of Ireland rector, and his wife, Susanna Dowe. He was a cousin of Standish Hayes O’Grady, another noted figure in Celtic literature. Educated at Tipperary Grammar School from 1856, he won a scholarship to TCD in 1864 where he excelled as an athlete and debater. O’Grady married Margaret Fisher, daughter of the rector of Kenmare, and they had three sons. She claimed to have psychic powers and practised palmistry and O’Grady himself was supposedly obsessed with telepathy.

Although a qualified barrister, he earned much of his living by writing for Irish newspapers including the Daily Express in Dublin and later the Kilkenny Moderator. It was in Kilkenny that he encountered Ellen Cuffe, Countess of Desart, and Captain Otway Cuffe and together they engaged in the revival of the local woollen and woodworking industries. In 1900 he founded the All-Ireland Review, and returned to Dublin to manage it until it ceased publication in 1908. He also contributed to James Larkin’s The Irish Worker.

O’Grady was influenced by Sylvester O’Halloran’s History of Ireland and played a formative role in the Celtic Revival, publishing the tales of Irish mythology as his own History of Ireland: Heroic Period (1878-81). After an initial, lukewarm response to his writing, he set about recasting Irish legends in literary form, producing historical novels including Finn and his Companions (1891), The Coming of Cuculain (1894), The Chain of Gold (1895), Ulrick the Ready (1896), The Flight of the Eagle (1897) and The Departure of Dermot (1913). They had a profound influence on the Irish writers of the next several decades; Yeats hailed O’Grady the ‘father of the Irish literary revival’. O’Grady was a paradox of his time, being as proud of his family’s Unionism and Protestantism as of his Gaelic Irish ancestry – he was described by Lady Gregory as a ‘fenian unionist’.

The small collection of papers in M&ARL date from the latter part of O’Grady’s literary career and consist mostly of drafts of scholarly essays, a small number of which are unpublished. The remainder were published by Edward O’Hagan with UCD Press: To the Leaders of Our Working People (2002) and Sun and Wind (2004).

O’Grady’s practice was to paste newspaper columns to pages torn from a ledger book. He then edited the columns. According to the donor, the pages were torn from the subscribers’ account book for the All Ireland Review (of which O’Grady was the editor) so we have some record of who was reading the review. O’Grady’s Review was read by many prominent people, for example, ‘Leadbetter’ is listed. Charles Webster Leadbeater was a prominent English psychic, associated with Annie Besant. Some have claimed that O’Grady’s wife ran séances. Leadbeater’s name on the subscription list suggests at least some contact. Other notable subscribers were W.E.H. Lecky, Lady Gregory and Douglas Hyde.

The papers (TCD MS 11534) are available for consultation in the M&ARL reading room and an online catalogue on MARLOC is also now available.

Caoimhe Ní Ghormáin