Michael O'Sullivan reviews The Life And Times Of Edward Martyn: an aristocratic bohemian by Madeline Humphreys, Irish Academic Press, ISBN 978 0 7165 2923 1, £30/€45 hbk
EDWARD MARTYN (1859-1924) was a prominent figure in almost every key aspect of the late-nineteenth century Irish renaissance.
A great patron of the arts and at one time a close friend and associate of Yeats and Lady Gregory he was the founder with them and his cousin George Moore of the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899, which went on to become the Abbey Theatre Company.
He was later to break from mainstream Irish 'peasant' drama and develop his own sophisticated brand of experimental theatre in Dublin.
A man of considerable artistic abilities and very varied interests, a devout Catholic, Oxford educated and a member of the south Galway landed gentry, he was in turn a playwright, novelist, journalist, a founder of the Feis Cheoil and the first president of Sinn Fein.
In the early 1900s his passion for the polyphonic music of Palestrina led him to establish and endow a liturgical choir at Dublin's pro-Cathedral, discovering the young John McCormack among his choristers.
An admirer of Ibsen, his own plays tended towards a brand of continental realism that brought him into serious artistic, and at times personal, conflict with Yeats and Gregory with their vision of a heroic nationalistic theatre for Ireland.
In 1914, along with Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Plunkett, he founded the short-lived but daringly innovative Irish Theatre in Hardwicke Street.
Yet Martyn's valuable contribution to modern Irish art and literature is not widely felt or appreciated. His eventual exclusion from Lady Gregory's charmed circle of Celtic romanticism is the probable cause of this, though Moore's somewhat mean-spirited lampooning of him in his autobiography
Hail and Farewell didn't help his reputation.
Madeline Humphreys's new biography of Martyn is therefore well overdue and should go a long way towards restoring him to his rightful place. A diligent researcher, she has uncovered a good deal of new information on Martyn his family and associates, and the result is a satisfyingly balanced portrait of this interesting and complex character.
The concentration is very much on the public man, especially his relations with Moore, Yeats and Gregory and there is constructive critical comment on the plays, in particular his best efforts The Heather Field and Maeve.
Produced and bound to Irish Academic Press's usual high standards this is the most complete account so far of the life and times of the man referred to by Maud Gonne as "a most peculiar kind of Irishman".
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2008 Michael O'Sullivan