seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Assassination of Sir Richard Sykes, British Ambassador to the Netherlands

Sir Richard Adam Sykes, KCMG, MC, the British Ambassador to the Netherlands, is assassinated by two members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) outside his residence in The Hague on March 22, 1979.

Sykes is born on May 8, 1920 to Brigadier A. C. Sykes. For his schooling he attends Wellington College before going up to the University of Oxford, where he attends Christ Church.

During World War II, Sykes serves in the British Army with the Royal Signals from 1940 to 1946. During his service he attains the rank of major. In 1945 he is awarded the Military Cross as well as the Croix de Guerre by France.

Sykes joined HM Foreign Service in 1947 and serves at the Foreign Office from 1947 to 1948. He then serves in Nanjing (1948–50), Peking (1950–52) and returns to the UK to serve at the Foreign Office (1952–56). His next overseas postings take him to Brussels (1956–59), Santiago (1959–62) and Athens (1963–66), before returning to the Foreign Office (1967–69).

Sykes’ first posting as an ambassador comes with a posting to Havana (1970–72) before moving to be a Minister at the British Embassy in Washington D.C. (1972–1975). From there he returns to the Foreign Office as Department Under-Secretary between 1975 and 1977. He is then appointed as Ambassador to the Netherlands in 1977.

Sykes is leaving his residence in The Hague at 9:00 a.m. on March 22, 1979, and is getting into his silver Rolls-Royce limousine when he is shot. He is sitting next to Alyson Bailes. The car door is held by Karel Straub, a 19-year-old Dutch national who works at the embassy. Straub is also shot in the attack. The chauffeur, Jack Wilson, is uninjured and drives Sykes to Westeinde Hospital, where he dies two hours later. Straub is transported by ambulance to the same hospital, where he also dies.

Police report that the shots came from around 10 yards away by two assailants wearing business suits, who escaped on foot following the attack. Suspects for the assassination are Palestinians or Iraqis, although no evidence is ever put forward. It is ultimately confirmed that the IRA had carried out the killings.

The IRA claims responsibility for the assassination in February 1980. In a statement they say of Sykes, “[he was] not just a Brit propagandist, as are all British ambassadors, but because he had been engaged in intelligence operations against our organisation.”

The ‘intelligence operations’ mentioned in the statement relate to a government report written by Sykes following the assassination of Christopher Ewart-Biggs. Ewart-Biggs was the British Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland and was killed by the IRA in 1976. Sykes produces diplomatic security guidelines as part of his report.

Sykes’ position as Ambassador to the Netherlands had been strained due to certain Dutch groups, which were sympathetic to the IRA, and consequent arms smuggling activities.

There is a memorial plaque to Sykes in St. Michael’s Church, Wilsford, Wiltshire.

(Pictured: “Sir Richard Sykes” by Bassano Ltd., half-plate film negative, 20 January 1966, National Portrait Gallery, London)


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Birth of Sir William Basil Goulding, Art Collector, Businessman & Cricketer

Sir William Basil Goulding, Irish cricketer, squash player, art collector and prominent businessman, is born in Dublin on November 4, 1909. He is an important art collector of contemporary art in Ireland and is renowned for his extensive collection which is dispersed posthumously. He is an adept businessman and sits on the boards of many companies.

Goulding is educated at Winchester College and Christ Church, Oxford. He inherits the family business W & HM Goulding Ltd. and succeeds his father as Chairperson in 1935. Goulding Ltd. is a well-established fertiliser manufacturer based in Dublin and Cork. The factory closes and is demolished in the mid-20th century and very little of it remains today. The land is donated to the people of Cork by Goulding in the late 1960s and is subsequently developed as an amenity park.

In 1939 Goulding marries Valerie Hamilton Monckton, daughter of Sir Walter Monckton, a lawyer, the UK Attorney General during the Edward VIII abdication crisis, and later a Member of Parliament (MP) for Bristol West. She is an Irish campaigner for disabled people, founder of the Central Remedial Clinic and senator. Together, they have three sons, Hamilton, Timothy and Lingard. The family lives in Enniskerry, County Wicklow, where he has the significant ‘Goulding Summer House’ built by Scott Tallon Walker architects.

During World War II, Goulding is commissioned as a pilot officer in the Royal Air Force. By the end of 1942 he has reached the rank of wing commander.

The Arts Act of 1951 establishes the Arts Council in response to the Bodkin Report which outlines the sad condition of the arts in Ireland. Goulding is a co-opted member of the Council from its formative years and is instrumental in acting on many of its policies.

Goulding is the founding Chairperson of the Contemporary Irish Art Society in 1962, along with Gordon Lambert, Cecil King, Stanley Mosse, James White and Michael Scott. The enthusiasm and vision of these founding members of the society is the catalyst which leads to the development of many important art collections in Ireland. The purpose of the society is to encourage a greater level of patronage of living Irish artists which, at the time, is extremely low. This is mainly achieved by raising funds to purchase artworks by living artists, which are then donated to public collections. The first purchase in 1962 is an important painting by Patrick Scott, donated to the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art (now the Hugh Lane Gallery). Over the following 12 years the society purchases 37 works for the gallery, until in 1974, Dublin Corporation starts to provide an annual purchasing fund for the gallery.

Following completion of the report ‘Design in Ireland,’ the Kilkenny Design Workshops (KDW) is set up in 1963. It endeavours to nurture native Irish crafts particularly textiles, metalwork, ceramics, glass and furniture to have a modern yet distinctly Irish sensibility. The KDW is the first State sponsored design agency in the world and is held as a model of governmental intervention in design. Goulding sits on the board of the KDW from its origination and occupies the role of Chairperson from 1977 until 1981.

A right-handed batsman and wicket-keeper, Goulding plays twice for the Ireland cricket team against the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) in 1934, the year in which his father is president of the Irish Cricket Union. He makes his debut in July in a two-day match, scoring seven runs in the Ireland second innings and taking one catch in the MCC first innings. The following month, he plays his only first-class match, not scoring in either inning. In addition to playing cricket, he also represents Ireland at squash, and captains Oxford University at football.

(Photo: Basil Goulding from Tim Goulding’s website, http://www.timgoulding.com)


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Birth of Nicholas Brady, Clergyman & Poet

Nicholas Brady, Anglican clergyman and poet, is born in Bandon, County Cork, on October 28, 1659.

Brady is the second son of Major Nicholas Brady and his wife Martha Gernon, daughter of the English-born judge and author Luke Gernon. His great-grandfather is Hugh Brady, the first Protestant Bishop of Meath. He receives his education at Westminster School and at Christ Church, Oxford. He earns degrees from Trinity College, Dublin (BA 1685, MA 1686, BD & DD 1699).

Brady is a zealous promoter of the Glorious Revolution and suffers for his beliefs in consequence. When the Williamite War in Ireland breaks out in 1690, he, by his influence, thrice prevented the burning of the town of Bandon, after James II gives orders for its destruction following the Capture of Bandon. The same year he is employed by the people of Bandon to lay their grievances before the Parliament of England. He soon afterward settles in London, where he obtains various preferments. At the time of his death, he holds the livings of Clapham and Richmond.

Brady’s best-known work, written with his collaborator Nahum Tate, is New Version of the Psalms of David, a metrical version of the Psalms. It is licensed in 1696, and largely ousts the old Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter. His ode Hail! Bright Cecilia, based on a similar ode by John Dryden, is written in 1692 in honour of the feast day of Saint Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. It is set to music by Henry Purcell in 1697. Like Dryden, he also translates Virgil‘s Aeneid, and writes several smaller poems and dramas, as well as sermons.

Brady marries Letitia Synge and has four sons and four daughters. He dies on May 20, 1726, and is buried in the church at Richmond, London. Notable descendants of Brady include Maziere Brady, Lord Chancellor of Ireland.

(Pictured: “Portrait of Nicholas Brady (1659-1726),” oil on canvas by Hugh Howard (1675-1737), circa 1715, National Gallery of Ireland)


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Birth of John Boland, Politician & Olympic Medalist

John Mary Pius Boland, Irish Nationalist politician, is born at 135 Capel Street, Dublin, on September 16, 1870. He serves as a Member of Parliament (MP) in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and as a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party for South Kerry (1900–1918). He is also noteworthy as a gold medalist tennis player at the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896.

Boland is born to Patrick Boland (1840–1877), businessman, and Mary Donnelly. Following the death of his mother in 1882, he is placed with his six siblings under the guardianship of his uncle Nicholas Donnelly, auxiliary bishop of Dublin.

Boland is educated at two private Catholic schools, one Irish, the second English, and both of whose existence and evolution are influenced by John Henry Newman – the Catholic University School, Dublin, and The Oratory School, Birmingham. His secondary education at the two schools helps give him the foundation and understanding to play an influential role in the politics of Great Britain and Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century, when he is a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party which pursues constitutional Home Rule.

In 1892 Boland graduates with a BA from London University. He studies for a semester in Bonn, Germany, where he is a member of Bavaria Bonn, a student fraternity that is member of the Cartellverband. He studies law at Christ Church, Oxford, graduating with a BA in 1896 and MA in 1901. Although called to the Bar in 1897, he never practises.

Boland is the first Olympic champion in tennis for Great Britain and Ireland at the first modern Olympics, which takes place in Athens in 1896. He visits his friend Thrasyvoulos Manos in Athens during the Olympics, and Manos, a member of the organising committee, enters Boland in the tennis tournament. Boland promptly wins the singles tournament, defeating Friedrich Traun of Germany in the first round, Evangelos Rallis of Greece in the second, Konstantinos Paspatis of Greece in the semifinals, and Dionysios Kasdaglis of Greece in the final.

Boland then enters the doubles event with Traun, the German runner whom he had defeated in the first round of the singles. Together, they win the doubles event. They defeat Aristidis and Konstantinos Akratopoulos of Greece in the first round, have a bye in the semifinals, and defeat Demetrios Petrokokkinos of Greece and Dimitrios Kasdaglis in the final. When the Union Flag and the German flag are run up the flagpole to honour Boland and Traun’s victory, Boland points out to the man hoisting the flags that he is Irish, adding “It’s a gold harp on a green ground, we hope.” The officials agree to have an Irish flag prepared.

Following a visit to Kerry, Boland becomes concerned about the lack of literacy among the native population, as he also has a keen interest in the Irish language.

In 1908, Boland is appointed a member of the commission for the foundation of the National University of Ireland (NUI). From 1926 to 1947, he is General Secretary of the Catholic Truth Society. He receives a papal knighthood, becoming a Knight of St. Gregory in recognition for his work in education, and in 1950 he is awarded an honorary doctorate of Laws by the NUI.

Boland marries Eileen Moloney (1876–1937), daughter of an Australian Dr. Patrick Moloney, at SS Peter and Edward, Palace-street, Westminster, on October 22, 1902. They have one son and five daughters. His daughter Honor Crowley (née Boland) succeeds her husband, Frederick Crowley, upon his death sitting as Fianna Fáil TD for South Kerry from 1945 until her death in 1966. His daughter Bridget Boland is a playwright who writes The Prisoner.

Boland dies at the age of 87 at his home in London on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1958.


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Birth of Lord John Beresford, Archbishop of Armagh

Lord John George de la Poer Beresford, Anglican Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland, is born at Tyrone House, Dublin on November 22, 1773.

Beresford is the second surviving son of George de La Poer Beresford, 1st Marquess of Waterford, and his wife Elizabeth, only daughter of Henry Monck and maternal granddaughter of Henry Bentinck, 1st Duke of Portland. He attends Eton College and Christ Church, Oxford, where he graduates with a Bachelor of Arts in 1793 and a Master of Arts three years later.

Beresford is ordained a priest in 1797 and begins his ecclesiastical career with incumbencies at Clonegal and Newtownlennan. In 1799 he becomes Dean of Clogher and is raised to the episcopate as Bishop of Cork and Ross in 1805. He is translated becoming Bishop of Raphoe two years later and is appointed 90th Bishop of Clogher in 1819. He is again translated to become Archbishop of Dublin the following year and is sworn of the Privy Council of Ireland. In 1822, he goes on to be the 106th Archbishop of Armagh and therefore also Primate of All Ireland. He becomes Prelate of the Order of St. Patrick and Lord Almoner of Ireland. Having been vice-chancellor from 1829, he is appointed the 15th Chancellor of the University of Dublin in 1851, a post he holds until his death in 1862.

Beresford employs Lewis Nockalls Cottingham, one of the most skilled architects at that time, to restore St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh. Cottingham removes the old stunted spire and shores up the belfry stages while he rebuilds the piers and arches under it. The arcade walls which had fallen away as much as 21 inches from the perpendicular on the south side and 7 inches on the north side, are straightened by means of heated irons, and the clerestory windows which had long been concealed, are opened out and filled with tracery.

Beresford is unsympathetically represented by Charles Forbes René de Montalembert with whom he has breakfast at Castle Gurteen de la Poer during his tour of Ireland.

Beresford dies on July 18, 1862 at Woburn, Bedfordshire, England, the home of his niece, in the parish of Donaghadee and is buried in the cathedral. There is a memorial to him in the south aisle at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh.


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Birth of Frederick Temple Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, Lord Dufferin

Created with GIMPFrederick Temple Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, British diplomat who is a distinguished Governor General of Canada and Viceroy and Governor-General of India and holder of Clandeboye Estate in Bangor, County Down, is born in Florence, Grand Duchy of Tuscany, Italy on June 21, 1826.

The son of Price Blackwood, 4th Baron Dufferin and Claneboye, Blackwood is educated at Eton College and Christ Church, Oxford. In his youth he is a popular figure in the court of Queen Victoria, and becomes well known to the public after publishing a best-selling account of his travels in the North Atlantic.

Lord Dufferin’s long career in public service begins as a commissioner to Syria in 1860, where his skillful diplomacy maintains British interests while preventing France from instituting a client state in Lebanon. After his success in Syria, he serves in the Government of the United Kingdom as William Ewart Gladstone’s Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Under-Secretary of State for War. He is created Earl of Dufferin in 1871.

In 1872 Lord Dufferin becomes the third Governor General of Canada, bolstering imperial ties in the early years of the Dominion. After leaving Ottawa in 1878 at the end of his term, he returns to Great Britain to continue his diplomatic career. He serves as British ambassador to Imperial Russia from 1879 to 1881. In 1881 he becomes ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and deals with the problems raised by the British occupation of the Ottoman dependency of Egypt. In 1884 he reaches the pinnacle of his diplomatic career when he succeeds George Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon as Viceroy and Governor-General of India and placates the British community there, which had been antagonized by Ripon’s reforms.

By the annexation of Burma (Myanmar) in 1886, Lord Dufferin consolidates British territories. For his services he is made Marquess of Dufferin and Ava when, in 1888, he retires from India. He then spends three years (1889–91) as Britain’s ambassador to Italy and four years (1892–96) as ambassador to France. He retires in 1896.

Following his retirement from the diplomatic service, Lord Dufferin’s final years are marred by personal tragedy and a misguided attempt to secure his family’s financial position. In 1897, worried about the family financial situation, he is persuaded to become chairman of the London and Globe Finance Corporation, a mining promotion and holding company controlled by Whitaker Wright. It subsequently transpires that Wright is a consummate fraudster and the firm goes bankrupt, although Lord Dufferin is not guilty of any deception and his moral standing remains unaffected. Soon after the misfortune, his eldest son, Lord Ava, is killed in the Second Boer War and another son is badly wounded.

Following the death of his son and in poor health, Lord Dufferin returns to his country house at Clandeboye, near Bangor, County Down, and dies there on February 12, 1902.

Lord Dufferin’s biographer Richard Davenport-Hines says he was “imaginative, sympathetic, warm-hearted, and gloriously versatile.” He was an effective leader in Lebanon, Canada and India, averted war with Russia, and annexed Burma. He was careless with money but charming in high society on three continents.


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Birth of Anthony Malone, Lawyer & Politician

anthony-maloneAnthony Malone, Irish lawyer and politician, is born on December 5, 1700, the eldest son of Richard Malone of Baronston, County Westmeath, and Marcella, daughter of Redmond Molady. Edmund Malone is his nephew, and a younger brother, Richard Malone (1706–1759), is MP for Fore from 1741.

Malone is educated at Mr. Young’s school in Abbey Street, Dublin, and on April 6, 1720 is admitted a gentleman-commoner of Christ Church, Oxford. After two years at university he enters the Middle Temple and is called to the Irish bar in May 1726. In 1737 he is created LL.D. of Trinity College, Dublin.

In 1733, Malone marries Rose, daughter of Sir Ralph Gore, 4th Baronet, speaker of the Irish House of Commons. The marriage results in no children.

Malone makes a successful career as a lawyer. From 1727 to 1760, and again from 1769 to 1776, he represents the county of Westmeath, and from 1761 to 1768 the borough of Castlemartyr, in the Irish parliament. In 1740 he is appointed Serjeant-at-law, but is dismissed from office in 1754 for opposing the claim of the crown to dispose of unappropriated revenue. In 1757 he is made Chancellor of the Exchequer of Ireland, but his attitude in council in regard to the Money Bill of 1761 leads to his again being removed from office. His treatment is regarded as too severe by William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, and Malone, who draws a distinction between advice offered in council and his conduct in parliament, introduces the measure as chairman of the committee of supply. He is shortly afterwards granted a patent of precedence at the bar, but is charged with having sold his political principles for money.

Malone supports John Monck Mason‘s bill for enabling Roman Catholics to invest money in mortgages on land. In 1762 he is appointed, with Sir Richard Aston, to try the Whiteboys of Munster. They agree in ascribing the rural violence to local and individual grievances.

Malone dies at the age of 75 on May 8, 1776. At one time, a marble bust of him adorned Baronston House. By his will, made in July 1774, he leaves all his estates in the counties of Westmeath, Roscommon, Longford, Cavan, and Dublin to his nephew, Richard Malone, 1st Baron Sunderlin as he became, eldest son of his brother Edmund. On his death in 1816 the right of succession is disputed.


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Death of Anglo-Irish Statesman Henry Flood

henry-floodHenry Flood, Anglo-Irish statesman and founder of the Patriot movement that in 1782 wins legislative independence for Ireland, dies on December 2, 1791.

Flood is born in Dublin in 1732, the illegitimate son of Warden Flood, Lord Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench in Ireland. He is educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and afterwards at Christ Church, Oxford, where he becomes proficient in the classics.

Flood enters the Irish Parliament in 1759 as member for Kilkenny County. Irish Protestants are becoming impatient with the British Parliament’s right to legislate for Ireland over the wishes of the Irish Parliament. Moreover, the British government controls a majority in Ireland’s House of Commons through the distribution of crown patronage by the owners of parliamentary boroughs.

Flood’s outstanding oratorical powers soon enable him to create a small but effective opposition inside the Irish Parliament that agitates for political reforms. They demand provisions for new Irish parliamentary elections every eight years, instead of merely at the start of a new British king’s reign. Their long-range goal is legislative independence. In 1768 his Patriots engineer passage of a bill limiting the duration of Parliament to eight years, and in 1769 and 1771 they defeat measures to grant funds for the British administration in Ireland.

Although Flood had become the first independent Irish statesman, he sacrifices this position in 1775 by accepting the office of vice treasurer under the British viceroy, Lord Simon Harcourt, 1st Earl Harcourt. Henry Grattan, an even greater orator than Flood and who describes Flood as a man “with a metaphor in his mouth and a bribe in his pocket,” replaces him as leader of the Patriots.

Flood, however, leaves the Patriot cause at the wrong time. The movement grows rapidly as more and more Irish people are influenced by the North American colonists who are rebelling against the British in the American Revolution. In 1779 he rejoins his old party, and two years later he is officially dismissed from his government post. Although he has lost his following, he helps Grattan force the British government to renounce its restrictions on Irish trade (1779) and grant legislative independence to Ireland (1782).

Flood then decides to challenge Grattan’s leadership. Charging that Grattan has not gone far enough in his reforms, he obtains passage of a measure requiring the British Parliament to renounce all claims to control of Irish legislation. Nevertheless, his newly acquired popularity is destroyed upon the defeat of his attempt to reform the Irish Parliament in 1784.

Flood is a member of both the British and Irish parliaments from 1783 until he loses his seat in both parliaments in 1790, although in England he fails to achieve the kind of political successes that characterize his Irish parliamentary career.

Following the loss of his seats in parliament, Flood retires to Farmley, his residence in County Kilkenny, where he remains until his death on December 2, 1791. He and his wife Lady Frances Beresford, daughter of Marcus Beresford, 1st Earl of Tyrone, who survives until 1815, have no children, and his property passes to a cousin, John Flood. A large bequest to Trinity College Dublin is declared invalid.

(Pictured: Portrait of Henry Flood (1732 – 1791) by Bartholomew Stoker (1763-1788). John Comerford later makes a sketch of the portrait, from which James Heath makes an engraving.)


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Death of Sir Richard Steele, Writer, Playwright & Politician

richard-steeleSir Richard Steele, writer, playwright, and politician, remembered as co-founder, with his friend Joseph Addison, of the magazine Tatler, dies in Carmarthen, Wales on September 1, 1729.

Steele is born in Dublin on March 12, 1672 to Richard Steele, an attorney, and Elinor Symes (née Sheyles). He is largely raised by his uncle and aunt, Henry Gascoigne and Lady Katherine Mildmay. A member of the Protestant gentry, he is educated at Charterhouse School, where he first meets Addison. After starting at Christ Church, Oxford, he goes on to Merton College, Oxford, then joins the Life Guards of the Household Cavalry in order to support King William‘s wars against France. He is commissioned in 1697, and rises to the rank of captain within two years. He leaves the army in 1705, perhaps due to the death of the 34th Foot’s commanding officer, Robert Lucas, 3rd Baron Lucas, which limits his opportunities of promotion.

Steele is a member of the Kit-Kat Club. Both Steele and Addison become closely associated with Child’s Coffee-house in St. Paul’s Churchyard.

Steele’s first published work, The Christian Hero (1701), attempts to point out the differences between perceived and actual masculinity. Written while he is serving in the army, it expresses his idea of a pamphlet of moral instruction.

Steele writes a comedy that same year titled The Funeral. This play meets with wide success and is performed at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, bringing him to the attention of the King and the Whig party. Next, he writes The Lying Lover, one of the first sentimental comedies, but a failure on stage. In 1705, he writes The Tender Husband with contributions from Addison, and later that year writes the prologue to The Mistake, by John Vanbrugh, also an important member of the Whig Kit-Kat Club with Addison and Steele.

In 1706 Steele is appointed to a position in the household of Prince George of Denmark, consort of Anne, Queen of Great Britain. He also gains the favour of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer.

The Tatler, Steele’s first journal, first appears on April 12, 1709, and appears three times a week. He writes this periodical under the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff and gives Bickerstaff an entire, fully developed personality. The Tatler is closed down to avoid the complications of running a Whig publication that had come under Tory attack.

Steele becomes a Whig Member of Parliament in 1713, for Stockbridge. He is soon expelled for issuing a pamphlet in favor of the Hanoverian succession. When George I of Great Britain comes to the throne in the following year, Steele is knighted and given responsibility for the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London. He returns to parliament in 1715, for Boroughbridge.

While at Drury Lane, Steele writes and directs the sentimental comedy The Conscious Lovers, which is an immediate hit. However, he falls out with Addison and with the administration over the Peerage Bill (1719), and in 1724 he retires to his second wife’s homeland of Wales. He remains in Carmarthen after his wife’s death, dying there on September 1, 1729. He is buried there at St. Peter’s Church. During restoration of the church in 2000, his skull is discovered in a lead casket, having previously been accidentally disinterred during the 1870s.

(Pictured: Portrait of Sir Richard Steele by Jonathan Richardson)


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Birth of Edward Martyn, Playwright & Activist

edward-martynEdward Martyn, Irish playwright and early republican political and cultural activist, is born in County Galway on January 30, 1859. He serves as the first president of Sinn Féin from 1905 to 1908.

Martyn is the elder son of John Martyn of Tullira Castle, Ardrahan and Annie Mary Josephine (née Smyth) of Masonbrook, Loughrea, both of County Galway. He is educated at Belvedere College, Dublin, and Wimbledon College, London, both Jesuit schools, after which he enters Christ Church, Oxford in 1877, but leaves without taking a degree in 1879. His only sibling, John, dies in 1883.

Martyn begins writing fiction and plays in the 1880s. While his own output is undistinguished, he acquires a well-earned reputation as a noted connoisseur of music, both European classical and Irish traditional. He is a fine musician in his own right, giving memorable performances for guests on an organ he has installed at Tullira. He uses his wealth to benefit Irish culture.

Martyn is reportedly pivotal in introducing William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory to each other in 1896. The three found the Irish Literary Theatre, for whom Martyn writes his best and most popular plays, The Heather Field and A Tale of a Town. He covers the costs of the company’s first three seasons, which proves crucial to establishing the company and the future of the Abbey Theatre. He later parts ways with Yeats and Gregory, something he later regrets, but remains on warm terms with Lady Gregory until the end of his life.

Martyn is a cousin and friend to George Moore (1852–1933). The two make frequent trips all over Europe, where Moore influences Martyn’s views on modern art, which result in the latter purchasing several works by Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Kitagawa Utamaro, all later donated to the National Gallery of Ireland. Moore does not share Martyn’s fenian ideas nor espousal of violent means to achieve national sovereignty. Their different political opinions eventually drive their friendship apart.

Martyn is descended from Richard Óge Martyn, a leading Irish Confederate, and Oliver Óge Martyn, a Jacobite who fights in the Williamite War in Ireland. Yet by his lifetime, the family are unionists. Martyn’s outlook begins to change in the 1880s after studying Irish history, as well as living through the events of the Irish Land War. He comes out as an Irish republican when he famously refuses to allow “God Save The Queen” to be sung after a dinner party at Tullira. By this stage he is involved with the political work of Maude Gonne and Arthur Griffith, and is a vocal opponent of the visit of Queen Victoria to Ireland in 1897. He also protests the visit by Edward VII in 1903, this time as chairman of the People’s Protection Committee. He is the first president of Sinn Féin from 1905 to 1908. In 1908 he resigns from the party and politics in general to concentrate on writing and his other activities.

He is on close personal terms with Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Mary Plunkett and Patrick Pearse, and deeply mourns their executions in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. A parish hall and church that he founded at Labane, near Tullira, are burned by the Black and Tans. He supports the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

Martyn dies at Tullira on December 5, 1923 after years of ill health. Friends and family are shocked at a provision in his will that directs that his body be donated for the use of medical science and, after dissection, be buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. The Palestrina Choir sings at his graveside. He bequeaths his papers to the Carmelites of Clarendon Street in Dublin, who subsequently misplace and lose them. Portraits of Martyn exist by, among others, John Butler Yeats and Sarah Purser. On his death the senior line of the Martyn family dies out. His property is inherited by his cousins, the Smyths of Masonbrook and Lord Hemphill. Tullira is sold by the latter forty years later changing ownership several times since.