The Shattered Worlds of Standish O’Grady: An Irish Life in Writing, by Christopher Boettcher, Four Courts Press, 208 pp., €55, ISBN: 978-1846827853
Two quotations have clung to Standish James O’Grady (1846-1928). The first is from the Yeats poem “Beautiful Lofty Things”: “Standish O’Grady supporting himself between the tables / Speaking to a drunken audience high nonsensical words”; the second is Lady Gregory’s description of him as a “Fenian unionist”. However easily the latter may be etched on the mind, the “Fenian” ascription has little basis in fact: while O’Grady embraced numerous plans and ideologies during a restless life, violent Irish separatism as advocated by the Fenians was not a project he was ever likely to endorse. Instead his concern was for the fate of the Irish landed elite and, for much of his life his dominant beliefs derived from a Tory conservatism that sought to rationalise the land system.
His early writing had the major landlords ‑ the gentry and aristocracy ‑ as its intended audience and it demanded from that class a public leadership that would justify its august social position. This was a role the landed establishment was not prepared to fulfil and after his discovery in 1874 of Sylvester O’Halloran’s A General History of Ireland (1778), O’Grady began to draw on the earliest strands of Irish history and mythology for precedents that might encourage the aristocracy to offer a leadership that would guarantee it a future in Ireland. For O’Grady, the stories of Táin Bó Cuailnge and Cú Chulainn (or “Cuculain” as he spelled it) were historically true and “Cuculain’s” defence of Ulster was a blueprint for contemporary battles against the forces of popular democracy. Thus Gaelic literature of the medieval period became a safe space where the natural rulers of Ireland, as O’Grady saw it, could develop roots, meaning and justification for themselves in a country where, ironically, their background was synonymous with the destruction of Gaelic culture.
Although a barrister, O’Grady derived most of his income from books and journalism and following a period writing for the Daily Express he became owner and editor of the unionist Kilkenny Moderator in 1898. In Christopher Boettcher’s description, O’Grady took control of the Moderator “as his own private messenger. Here, finally, was an organ he could use to influence public opinion on all matters of politics and social life.” Successive editorials denounced the failure of the Marquess of Ormonde and the Kilkenny gentry to emulate “Cuculain” along the lines brought to life in O’Grady’s History of Ireland II: Cuculain and his Contemporaries (1880) or, if a more recent model was needed, Red Hugh O’Donnell (1572-1602), hero of his 1897 “tale”, The Flight of the Eagle. Alas, his editorship came to a crashing end after only two years and while this was the result of a celebrated libel case involving the Protestant bishop of Ossory among others, his editorship was always likely to be too capricious for a narrowly focused provincial newspaper.
That editorship had been arranged by Otway Cuffe (1853-1912), youngest son of the Earl of Desart. He and O’Grady shared a common belief in social and cultural activism under Gaelic inspiration and O’Grady’s time in Kilkenny expanded that connection. Social deference ran deep in Kilkenny and Cuffe was chosen as president of the Kilkenny Gaelic League in 1904, remaining in that position until he died. Contrary to what is often assumed, this did not make Cuffe a language revivalist ‑ any more than O’Grady: the Gaelic League at the time was heavily involved in the encouragement of native industry and O’Grady and Cuffe shared an enthusiasm for the arts and crafts movement as an antidote to the industrial revolution. The deep pockets of Cuffe’s sister-in-law, Ellen, dowager countess of Desart (1857-1933) allowed their plans to become a reality in the Talbots Inch model village outside Kilkenny, showing how industry could be promoted through patriotic endeavour. However, their suggestion that exemplary landed estates be managed by the Gaelic League led to nothing, although a sock-knitting project run by O’Grady in the sixteenth century Shee Alms House, Kilkenny employed six workers before the realities of competition from cheap industrial mass production caused the inevitable to occur.
A long-term outcome of O’Grady’s editorship of the Moderator was the establishment of the All Ireland Review, originally a Saturday supplement to the Moderator but later a freestanding publication. It included a “Gaelic Lesson”, originally compiled by the Gaelic League activist Patrick Kangley (not referenced here), an accomplished teacher of Irish, whom O’Grady would have met in Kilkenny. However O’Grady soon took over the column and while candidly proclaiming his ignorance of the subject was prepared to advocate that readers “pay less and less respect to contemporary elisions and aspirations”, the grammatical basics.
O’Grady had received an education in the classics at the excellent Erasmus Smith Tipperary Grammar School, where, according to his son Hugh’s 1929 memoir (Standish O’Grady: The Man and the Writer), he received “a training in minute and accurate scholarship”. He subsequently studied classics at Trinity College and would doubtlessly have required such a background of any writer on Greek or Latin literature; conversely, no such diligence was demanded where medieval Gaelic literature was concerned: this became a blank canvas onto which a variety of obsessions could be projected without regard to the rigorous scholarly methodologies that had been developed by John O’Donovan (1806-61) and his contemporaries.
O’Grady was born in Bearhaven in west Cork and his mother owned an estate on Mizen Head (where he had collected rents) but, unlike Douglas Hyde, he made no attempt to learn Irish from his neighbours; his belief that peasants lived in a state of “disability” makes it unlikely that the idea occurred to him. Thus his writings furthered a tradition of class-based writing on Gaelic literature that was oblivious to linguistic knowledge; this had flourished in the eighteenth century in the writings of Charles Vallancey and was to continue in the twentieth in the writings of Hubert Butler (Ten Thousand Saints) among others.
Over time, O’Grady’s restless search for a solution to the land question led him to wander far from Tory conservatism to become an advocate for the influential views on socialised land ownership proclaimed by Henry George, notwithstanding his previous denunciation of all that George represented. Later still, he embraced anarchism and syndicalism, the latter enthusiasm being publicised, improbably, in the pages of Jim Larkin’s Irish Worker, established in 1911. What all of these commitments had in common was a resistance to the emergence of an Irish democracy with peasant-proprietorship at its core.
WJ McCormack, in Ascendancy and Tradition (1985), says of O’Grady that “[a]s a scholar he is frankly incompetent; as a novelist, he is concerned only with rudimentary aspects of the form; as a political writer, he is intermittently loud and silent.” It would be difficult not to endorse this assessment and it is regrettable that McCormack’s evaluation of O’Grady’s thought is neither discussed nor referenced in the book under review. Nonetheless The Shattered Worlds of Standish O’Grady is tightly written, well-researched and generally aware of secondary sources. A more comprehensive index would have been welcome and the book is somewhat marred by typographical errors; Irish words are regularly misspelled, a feature it shares with the book’s subject.
Dr Proinsias Ó Drisceoil has written widely on the history of the Gaelic literature of Ireland and Scotland. He is the author of Ar Scaradh Gabhail : An Fhéiniúlacht in Cin Lae Amhlaoibh Uí Shúilleabháin (Dublin 2000) and Seán Ó Dálaigh: Éigse agus Iomarbhá (Cork 2007). He is a former editor of the Tipperary Historical Journal.