Hugh O’Grady, Standish James O’Grady (Talbot Press 1929)

[ Source: Tom Patterson’s Roots website; accessed 28.08.2011.]

He only is a great man who can neglect the applause of the
.’   - Steele.

STANDISH JAMES O’GRADY, the central figure of this memoir, was born in the year 1846, the year before the great famine, a disaster destined to change all the social and economic conditions of Ireland.

He grew up therefore under the old feudal regime, passed through the great agrarian revolution, and finally lived to see Southern Ireland a Free State, ruled by a democracy.

He came of a family of country squires, who for centuries had lived placid lives, which may be gathered from the fact that when his father, Thomas O’Grady, became a student of Trinity College, Dublin, specialised in Old Testament studies, and entered the Church, he was regarded by the clan, not only as eccentric, but a ‘little wild.’

It may be mentioned, however, that The Book of the Four Masters speaks of an O’Grady as ‘famed in poetry and learning,’ but it is more probable that the intellectual strain came to him specially from the distaff side of his ancestors.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, this very peaceful family began to bestir itself. James, the grandfather of James Standish, was elected chairman of the Waterford Grand Jury, a much coveted post in those days. His brother Standish became Attorney-General and subsequently Lord Chief Baron, leaving a reputation for kindliness, wit, and brilliancy which still survives.

Standish, the Standish of Jack Hinton, acquired enduring military fame at the Battle of Waterloo. His brother, Admiral Hayes O’Grady was one of Nelson’s captains, and it was the son of the latter, Standish Hayes, who was the first O’Grady to turn to Celtic Literature. He had not the vivid imagination, nor gift of expression, which distinguished his cousin, but he was one of the greatest of Celtic scholars.

Accordingly, the clan which had withstood the shocks of Irish history in the Barony of Brough for eight centuries, not by driving force or pugnacity, but by a kind of good-humoured placidity, began to assert itself, and in the words of James Standish himself, ‘the hive swarmed’.

To follow then the fortunes of the Reverend Thomas O’Grady, brother of the General and the Admiral, and the father of James Standish, he migrated to the County of Cork, and became the Rector of Castletown Berehaven. There he met and wedded Susan Doe, one of a planter family, which had intermarried with one of the great Clan Carty, and from whom was inherited the property of Three Castle Head, which in this way became a family possession.

These facts are necessary for the understanding of Standish O’Grady’s writings. His father is the charming old scholar who appears in ‘Lost on Du Corrig’ and The Chain of Gold, and his mother is also depicted in both of these tales, and again in Ulrick the Ready and Mr. Goodenough. But even greater than the impress laid upon him by his family characteristics, was that of Nature’s surroundings with all its marvellous beauty and colour of earth, sky, and sea, which so profoundly affected his outlook on life.

The grandeur of the headland at both Three Castles Head and Berehaven, the ocean storms, the flitting lights and shades, the unbroken silences of a land little trod by humanity, which even today is twenty miles from a railway station, laid its spell upon a highly-strung and sensitive nature. There is scarcely one of his works which is not coloured by this atmosphere. It is the background of Ulrick the Ready. It makes Pacata Hibernia something more than a historical treatise. The wonderful storm scenes in The Chain of Gold came direct from Dunmanus, and it is from these wild and rugged headlands, beaten by waves, covered by gorse, and furrowed by a thousand streams, that he derived that gift, never acquired, but inherited as one of Nature’s heirlooms, of scattering through every work he wrote, were it only an ephemeral letter, those little pen pictures, those faithful miniatures of scenery, which glitter like gems in his rushing, passionate prose.

Here also he first met his future wife, Margaret, the nine years old daughter of the Rev. William Alan Fisher, Rector of the neighbouring parish of Kilmore, which comprised the Three Castles Head and Crookhaven. She was a perfect playmate for James Standish, only four years her senior. It was therefore, surrounded by Nature in all its nobleness, that the unfettered early years of the two children flew past. Roaming at large in all directions, drinking in beauty in every form, believing in those Veiled Forms that are always present to all sensitive souls among the hills and vales of Southern Ireland, the time came at last when lighter works, were two members of this boisterous household which was ever in the open air. In fact he himself never lost the mentality of an athletic schoolboy, and he liked the younger generation to be active and full of physical prowess.

But the Rectory was by no means a household of rude barbarians. The atmosphere of an Irish rectory was ever marked by evangelical piety and classical culture; and those who know Trinity College, Dublin, can always recall fine and distinguished characters who emerged from these remote rectories.

When Standish was a child the evangelical movement was at its zenith, Cork was its stronghold, and between his father and the famous Bishop Gregg there was a deep friendship. Accordingly he was brought up in a religious atmosphere, whose only parallel today can be found in the Society of Friends. ‘To my father and mother,’ he once wrote, ‘the world was filled with spirits good and bad, ministers of God or of His enemy. Neither of them would have been greatly surprised had they seen angels, or if the arch-enemy himself had taken shape before them.’

Imbued with this spirit O’Grady grew to manhood with two possessions, a deep religious feeling, and a minute knowledge of the Bible.

The religious feeling, which he never expressed in conversation, came out in his writings on social questions. To him the devil was very much alive in our great civilization, and evils, which others viewed with equanimity, or as mere themes for politics or academic discussions, he treated as ‘sheer downright wickedness’. Since the days of Berkeley, no man brought greater moral fervour to the discussion of our Irish horrors, and his burning indignation reminded one of the awe-inspiring tones of the Prophet Isaiah. It was his acute study of the Bible that was responsible for his attitude of an evangelist and prophet which at times he could assume, So steeped was he in the Hebrew prophets that he had unconsciously assimilated their style. Apart, however, from this, he’ brought to the discussion of Biblical problems a freshness of outlook in which some of the professional divines are at times lacking. Occasionally, it must be owned, he startled his readers. There was, for instance, a pained silence in Ireland When he insisted on applying the Sermon on the Mount to such subjects as ruined women or our starving children.

One of a set of intellectual brothers and sisters, and with a father who was a fine scholar, as well as a devoted parish priest, O’Grady was saved from the fate that awaits the clever boy of the family, so there was no room for conceit or self-complacency on his part, and he maintained to the end a singular modesty. He was never heard to praise himself, nor to depreciate the literary merits of his contemporaries. When Yeats, Synge, and George Russell outdistanced him in popular favour and applause, he was, if anything, pleased that merit should have got its due, and Irish writers their meed of praise.

This freedom from too much self-esteem had an effect on his literary career. Because of it he was never satisfied, never content to rest on his laurels. He turned from romance to history, from history to fiction, from fiction to social propaganda, and when he had given his message he turned his hand to some new venture. But his deep devotion to his ideals made him indifferent to applause and, even when it came atlast, ite gave him no pleasure. ‘I am too old’ he wrote, ‘to enjoy fame.’ Therewith he sat down to write his last words, writing, rewriting and polishing, as if he were a tyro with his reputation to make, instead of a voice waking many into action .

To return to his early life. At the age of ten, years he went from the parish school to Tipperary Grammar School, then under Dr. Ryder, remarkable for its training in minute and accurate scholarship. At that date, the schools erected by Irish Protestants were more particularly noted for their Spartan discipline.

Games were at a discount; the hours of preparations were long; there were none of the minor comforts of existence and the food was distinctly poor. Coming from a home such as he had been used to, where his mother’s affectionate sympathy and understanding made life beautiful, was a somewhat rude awakening for a lad of a peculiarly sensitive nature. He felt the change acutely, and his first year of school was by no means a happy one. It may be of interest, however, to know that the Duke of Wellington was educated at one of such schools, and not at Eton with its playing fields on which the field of Waterloo was said by hum to have been won.

Standish, O’Grady, however, owed much of, his historical accuracy and literary style to the somewhat drastic training he received at Tipperary. In after life this accurate scholarship made his writings stand out among those of other Irish historians. His MSS are a mass of erasures. He wrote nearly every sentence three times. He read for three years before he published The Flight of the Eagle, and none of his critics, and they have beenmany and at times bitter, has ever found an error of fact in his Elizabethan writings. Fewhowever have detected the trained scholar behind the passionate writer, but for those who have done so it adds a literary charm rare inmodem literature. His style is simplicity itself, beautiful in its lucidity. A child can understand even the loftiest soarings of his imagination. What is more, his early training, that constant study of the great masters of literary reform, was based on the severity of the classics. His beloved Virgil echoes and re-echoes throughout his writings. But it was Homer who gave to his Irish heroes and Elizabethan chieftains a unique personality.

To return, his career was brilliant at Trinity. He won the classical scholarship, the University Silver Medal in Ethics and Psychology, and the Philosophical Society’s silver medal in oratory and gold medal in essay writing. These he spoke of as the happiest days of his life owing to congenial companions, devoted, like himself, to literature and athletics and as yet unspoiled by the world. His generation was remarkable. It included such scholars as Tyrrell, Palmer, Ridgeway, and Panton; lawyers like the two Gibsons, Wright, David Plunket, Carson, and Beauclaire Uppington; also men of letters such as John Todhumter, Lecky, A. P. Graves, Dowden, and the two Armstrongs. T. W. Rolleston was junior to him, and Sir John Mahaffy was his senior. Synge arrived later, and yet they called Trinity ‘the silent sister.’

So it came about that it was in this stimulating circle that he won his academical honours, and laid the foundation of friendships that time never withered.

There was yet another aspect of this many-sided personality, for despite the strenuous intellectual activity of his younger days he found time to be an athlete of the first class. He was in the University hockey eleven, a beautiful jumper, a fine oar, and later a successful billiard, racquet, tennis, and golf player. I remember when he was over fifty, he returned a savage serve at tennis, and I think his handicap at the Foxrock Golf Club was six. But despite his keen appreciation of athletics as manly and healthy exercises, they in no way absorbed his mind or diverted him in any way from the path he had laid out for himself to follow.

In the past his mother had wished him to enter the Church, and for two years he manfully braved the Divinity professors. He found, however, he had to believe and disbelieve too much. He was not of a temper to indulge in evasions, or silences, to keep one thing on his tongue and another in his heart. His outlook was too broad, too unconventional, for a Church of Ireland clergyman. Yet he possessed many friends and admirers among the three leading Irish denominations. It was not that he was in any way self-opinionated, but when he had decided he was morally right, he had to speak out.

His career at the Bar was supposed to have been a failure, but it was not. He had a small but secure income as a leader writer on the Daily Express, and he only had to wait. Even in West Cork his special pleading and eloquence are still remembered, and he inherited a large share of his relative, Lord Gillamore’s wit and humour. He frequently acted as revising barrister in Belfast and the northern counties, where the revisions were a scene of great combat, and I never heard of an appeal being made against one of his decisions. At one time a very prominent Dublin solicitor invited him to ettter into partnership. As he put it ‘He was to provide the brains, and I was to look after the money.’ But the connection did not answer, for ‘he would have his Gods and his fairies, and both of us were the poorer for his notions.’ The prosperous solicitor spoke too truly. The fact was, his friend’s heart was not in the law, and so ‘he was the poorer and Ireland the richer for his notions.’

He has told the story himself of how a casual discovery of a volume of Celtic literature - a glimpse of the forgotten world of beauty and loveliness, turned him from all mundane pursuits to the task of working this hidden ‘vein of Celtic lore. From that happy accident sprang the great Celtic revival, and the great literary movement that is still with us.

Few however knew what an uphill battle he had to fight against his fellow countrymen. No publisher would take his first work. Accordingly he had to print it at his own expense. He brought it to a newspaper editor, a friend for whose opinion he had a great respect, and was met with the reply: ‘Pah! the theme is vulgar, and look at the names in your book - they are repulsive.’ Few Irish newspapers noticed it, but he did get enthusiastic reviews, written by notable scholars, Professor Tyrrell of Trinity College, Dublin, and Professor York Powell, and others. On the other side of the water, however, his literary merits struck home. He had a leading article of import in the Times,; and the then famous Spectator gave him a notice which, though brief, was laudatory.

His own friends, it is true, rallied round him, and bought what they were pleased to call ‘poor Standish’s latest’. They treated it as a huge joke until Lord Morris protested against these attacks on ‘my unfortunate friend, who is doing very well considering the fact that all the materials in his history were lost in the Flood.’ O’Grady, however, himself, took all this philosophically. ‘At any rate,’ he said, ‘it showed they were reading the book, which is more than the rest of my fellow-countrymen were doing.’

The discovery of Petrie’s Round Towers in the Library of the University Club, uncut, opened his eyes to the mistake he had made. The public were not attracted by a sober treatise. Fiction and romance were their intellectual delicacies. Accordingly, he adopted the tactics of the famous Macpherson. He re-wrote the Celtic legends in the guise of a novel. The great trilogy ‘The Coming of Cuculain,’ The Gates of the North, and The Fall of Cuculain, followed by that charming little children’s book, Finn and His Companions, were the result

The tales mentioned above are only fragments of the original legends, delved out of musty manuscripts, moulded and rewritten by O’Grady - I quote his own words - ‘Under the influence of the bards, and guided by their inspirations.’ The fact was he was a man who could transport himself quite as easily into the heroic period as he subsequently did into the age of Elizabeth.

This time success of a kind followed his venture; but what was more important, he cast a spell over men of culture who unhesitatingly proclaimed his merit and his discovery. Amongst these were: T. W. Rolleston, who had no little influence in literary circles; Sir John Ross and W. B. Yeats; and finally the well-known George Russell, A.E., who became O’Grady’s most enthusiastic admirer. Moreover, it had begun to dawn on the uneducated classes that a great writer of prose had arisen to initiate a new literature, and for the first time O’Grady came into his own. Gradually the great Cuculain cycle began to penetrate into unexpected quarters. Reviews mentioned him favourably, publishers became civil, his disciples increased, imitations arose, and he aroused an eager, widespread attention.

It had taken fifteen years for O’Grady’s success to come, but success came not as he had dreamed. The Heroic Ireland that he imagined was something like the Troy of Homer, where men of flesh and blood, fiery of soul and ardent of passion, battled in Titanic wrath for what was great and good and noble - idealized impersonations of the young Ireland of his heart; pure, innocent, and passionate; living and breathing in the loveliness an<l beauty of the Celtic glamour, and the virgin purity of the Creek epic.

But, unfortunately, for some inscrutable reason, the Irish literary movement at this period became turgid with the literary views of the Latin Quarter. What is loosely called ‘realism’ took possession of it, and materialized, and his heroes were dwarfed and stunted beyond recognition in other hands, and Standish O’Grady withdrew himself more and more from the literary circles.

He had, as Archbishop Croke at one time said, ‘put up the shutters’. Such was the close of that part of his life which dealt more immediately with the Celtic revival.

He turned then to Elizabethan history, throwing, as was his wont, his whole energy into the subject. His trained intellect easily discovered what is now a truism, that the Irish nation then rallied round the Tudors and made them kings of Ireland, and drove them and used them to overthrow the landlords of the day, the great Irish chieftains, who had, become intensely unpopular for the sole reason that they were landlords, and that all Elizabethan wars were but ‘of the crown plus the majority of the nation, versus the great lords’.

On the strength of this historical discovery O’Grady wrote and edited the Pacata Hibernia, a volume vital to the understanding of Irish history. He also brought out that fascinating novel Ulrick the Ready and finally, by far his best work, The Flight of the Eagle. Of this last a famous Dutch historian remarked, ‘My heavens, what research!’

In it all his powers are at their zenith. It is a mine of information, and it is the only historical work I ever encountered which not only baffles criticism, but is the last word on its thesis. The characters live before the eyes of the reader. The prose at times is unsurpassed, and there is one purpuveus pormus, the invocation to Slieve Gullion, which dazzles the mind of the reader, and silences even praise as impertinent; and running through the whole story is a thread of delicious humour, sometimes restrained, sometimes rollicking, and even on occasions grim, very grim. Yet this work is the delight of small boys. In fact, Standish O’Grady shares with Swift, Bunyan, and Defoe the distinction of writing for men of the world, and yet touching the imagination of children.

In Ireland, however, the unexpected always happens. In other lands a book of such honesty of research would have been hailed with acclamation, but he had touched the national pride, ever ready to take offence, and when he followed his publication with The Story of Ireland, and among other things disclosed the good that had accrued to his native land from the period of Cromwellian rule, the language in the patriotic Press became actually menacing, and his friends took the matter very much to heart. But, nothing daunted, he entered upon another historical incursion. It was entitled The Departure of Dermot, and related how that unfortunate king sailed forth to seek alliance with Henry II, at that time King of England. This O’Grady himself always regarded as his best bit of prose.

Only twice did he enter politics. The first time he did so was to induce the rich landlords to compel the Conservatives to buy them out, and thus preserve their material resources. He advocated this policy in a pamphlet entitled Toryism and Tory Democracy, and in it he frankly recognised that the landlords were doomed. The scathing invective, which he here hurls forth, reminds one forcibly of Swift. Those who wish to realise what depths of scorn and heights of enthusiasm can be expressed by language should study its pages.

The direct result of that publication was its undoubted effect in touching the hearts and assuaging the bitterness of certain of the land-lords, and a series of great efforts on the part of distinguished landowners - such as Lord Dunraven, Lord Castlemaine, the Marquis of Sligo, Talbot Crosbie, Sir Jocelyn Gore-Booth, Sir Algernon Coote, and most notably Lady Desart and her brother-in-law, Captain the Hon. Otway Cuffe. It was they who were the leaders in the movement to revive Irish industry, and their estates gave employment to hundreds who would have otherwise wasted away among the unemployed. It was the first impulse of hope and activity that sprang from the workers themselves.

The second occasion of O’Grady’s political activity was on the publication of the Childers Commission Report, which divulged the fact, already suspected by many, that the terms of the Act of Union had been flagrantly evaded, and Ireland overtaxed to the effect of £250,000,000. Into the agitation that resulted, Standish O’Grady flung himself with great vigour, not so much on the financial grounds, but because he saw a chance, the first since the days of Grattan, of uniting the nation in one common policy for one common end. This movement also expired in its infancy, and all that remains to chronicle it is O’Grady’s Screed of Woe, The Great Enchantment, a lament on the ruin of a great hope.

One passage in this pamphlet, The Veiled Figure, created a great sensation, and I have frequently heard it referred to as the high water mark of political prose.

His first political tract, Toryism and Tory Democracy was, as already stated, not so much political as social, and its fundamental aim was an attack on the question of unemployment. At the present time this problem has become a poignant one for all political writers, but in his day it was treated as an unpleasant but unavoidable state of things. Since the days of the famous Bishop Berkeley, he was the first Irish writer ever to refer to it, and in England he was preceded only by Carlyle and Ruskin. Despite all he ever wrote - and he wrote on the theme with passionate sincerity - no Irish newspaper ever referred to this most crying scandal till about 1912, a quarter of a century after he had first raised the question. His fate as usual had been to speak before the time.

In Toryism and Tory Democracy he appealed to the landlords to attack the question. Later on, in the All-Ireland Review, and the Peasant, he called on the ill paid and half-starved clerks of Dublin, a much bullied and helpless race, to pool their resources, buy a farm, till it themselves, be independent of their employers, and lead healthy lives. Again, in the New Age, he wrote a series of articles on the revival of the old guilds which protected and preserved the workingmen.

This was the great question that was ever in his heart. The plight of his unfortunate fellow-countrymen was the subject of one of his first works. It was the theme of his last, and when he went out for his last stroll that fatal summer morning it was to meditate in the open air over the revision of this his final message to the people whom he loved so well.

About the year 1898 O’Grady found that journalism in Dublin was not a profitable undertaking. Ever since Parnell’s death, interest in Irish affairs had declined, and O’Grady’s income declined at a corresponding rate. On his books, of course, he made very little, except on two, ‘The Chain of Gold ‘and ‘Lost on Du Corrig,’ the latter of which first appeared in ‘Chums,’ then edited by the youthful Max Pemberton. In addition to this the ‘Daily Express’ was waning before the rising star of the Irish Times.

He made up his mind therefore to leave Dublin for a time, and went down with his family to Kilkenny, having arranged before- hand to take up the editorship of the ‘Kilkenny Moderator,’ and also to give himself up more especially to the work that lay so near his heart, the extension of the Irish industries. In the town of Kilkenny itself he found a woollen trade already existed, to a small extent; also other industries. Later on, moved by his burning desire to drive his fellow countrymen into active endeavour, Captain the Hon. Otway-Cuffe and and his sister-in-law, Lady Desart, threw themselves wholeheartedly into his schemes, and Lady Desart made it financially possible that they should be crowned with success. These united efforts resulted in the growth of the Kilkenny Woollen Industry, and the starting of the Woodworkers’ Company, both of which became centres of profitable industry. Thus three years flew by, at the end of which time O’Grady retired from the editorship of the Kilkenny Moderator, and gave himself almost entirely to editing the All-Ireland Review, a weekly paper he had floated a short time previously. In the following year he once more returned to Dublin, editing and publishing his journal in that city.

The All-Ireland Review was a somewhat remarkable paper. It was really ‘a one-man show,’ and it scintillated with freshness and humour. William O’Brien at one time said that it was the only paper in the three kingdoms that did not irritate him. This is perhaps the best description of it. Its variety, good humour, and simplicity were such that, no matter what a man’s view was, he found in it something that appealed to him. It had the most varied collection of subscribers that ever a paper had. At one end were Lord Ashbourne, Lord Dutferin, and Lord Castlemaine, and at the other John O’Leary, Maud Gonne, and Arthur Griffith. I have seen a copy in which on one page Archbishop O’Donnell held forth on ploughing, and on another page the Moderator of the Presbyterian Assembly waxed eloquent on the subject of bees. Voices long drowned in the roar of politics became very vocal, and the more eccentric they were the more were they welcome - a revelation of the literary ability latent in Ireland which this paper evoked. Ever so many people in remote parts of the country sent in short articles and verses of considerable merit, which could never get a hearing in our press. But, alas, when the paper died all their voices were silent, and have not been again heard. The editor’s personality, however, gave to the paper its great charm. At the end of every outside contribution was his comment, laudatory or the reverse. Who will ever forget his summing-up of an Anglo-Catholic effusion: ‘I am a plain man, and cannot quite grapple with these religious gymnastics.’ There were also his articles on current topics, and an excellent historical work, The Spaniards in Ireland. Added to these were personal notes accepting invitations or describing visits, poems, such as The Gift of a Duck to the Editor, announcements that the paper would be temporarily suspended because the editor was going for a holiday, and an excellent rule that the cost was threepence to the rich, and only one penny for those who could not afford more. Is it any wonder that such a paper was a success?

The strain, however, was terrific. I think this was the hardest time of his life. He had to manage the business side of his journal, balance its accounts, canvass for advertisements in person - a horrible task - read the proofs and write the greater part of the paper. No wonder that after all this he had a bad breakdown.

Fortunately things began to improve. The sale of his books slowly increased, the award of a Civil List Pension made things a little easier. By 1908 his family had gone out into the world, and his needs Were not thus so great. In that year he stopped the All-Ireland Review, and retired. Save for an occasional letter to the Press he disappeared from the public ken.

A few words in conclusion. It was in the year 1918 that, his health having entirely given way under a long-continued physical strain, he was strongly advised to travel for a time and seek a warmer climate. So he finally left Dublin at that date. He first spent some time on the northern coast of France, enjoying the change of scene and people. From France he and his wife crossed to the south of England, where they wandered for a time and finally went to a Northamptonshire vicarage where their eldest son was vicar. Here they resided for some years until he obtained preferment to a London centre. Then they moved to the Isle of Wight, which greatly attracted O’Grady owing to its wide and beautiful coast scenery.

The fortunes of his family had always been a source of interest and happiness to him, and when a small Standish and then a little daughter were born to his second son, the writer of this memoir, his grandchildren became an added source of pleasure to him.

So in the Isle of Wight, surrounded by the sea and bathed in sunshine, the last few months of his life flowed happily by, his time employed in writing his last message to his people. With his thoughts full of that message he walked out into the open air, for the last time - and there death overtook him.

HUGH O’GRADY, Litt. Doc.,
Professor of the Transvaal University College, Pretoria.

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