Thomas MacGreevy, a pivotal figure in the history of Irish literary modernism, is born on October 26, 1893, in Tarbert, County Kerry. A poet, he is also director of the National Gallery of Ireland from 1950 to 1963 and serves on the first Irish Arts Council (An Chomhairle Ealaíon).
MacGreevy is the son of a policeman and a primary school teacher. At age 16, he joins the British Civil Service as a boy clerk.
At the outbreak of World War I, MacGreevy is promoted to an intelligence post with the Admiralty. He enlists in 1916, and sees active service at the Ypres Salient and the Somme, being wounded twice. After the war, he studies at Trinity College, Dublin, in whose library his papers are now held. He then becomes involved in various library organisations, begins publishing articles in Irish periodicals, and writes his first poems.
In 1924, MacGreevy is first introduced to James Joyce in Paris. The following year he moves to London, where he meets T. S. Eliot and begins writing for The Criterion and other magazines. He also begins publishing his poetry.
In 1927, MacGreevy moves to Paris to teach English at the École normale supérieure. Here he meets Samuel Beckett and resumes his friendship with Joyce. His essay The Catholic Element in Work In Progress is published in 1929 in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work In Progress, a book intended to help promote Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Along with Beckett, he is one of those who signs the Poetry is Vertical manifesto which appears in issue 21 of transition. In 1931, he produces critical studies of both Eliot and Richard Aldington.
In 1934, Poems is published in London and New York City. The work shows that MacGreevy has absorbed the lessons of Imagism and of The Waste Land, but also demonstrates that he has brought something of his own to these influences. The book is admired by Wallace Stevens and the two poets become regular correspondents.
Unfortunately, although MacGreevy continues to write poetry, this is the only collection published in his lifetime. Since his death there have been two Collected Poems issued, one in 1971 and an edited edition collecting his published and unpublished poetry published twenty years later.
In 1929 MacGreevy begins working at Formes, a journal of the fine arts. He also publishes a translation of Paul Valéry‘s Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci as Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci. In the mid-1930s, he moves back to London and earns his living lecturing at the National Gallery there.
From 1938 to 1940 MacGreevy is the chief art critic for The Studio. He publishes several books on art and artists, including Jack B. Yeats: An Appreciation and an Interpretation and Pictures in the Irish National Gallery (both 1945), and Nicolas Poussin (1960).
MacGreevy is a lifelong Roman Catholic. His faith informs both his poetry and his professional life. On returning to Dublin during World War II, he writes for both the Father Mathew Record and the Capuchin Annual and joins the editorial board of the latter.
MacGreevy is director of the National Gallery of Ireland from 1950–63. Although to many he seems a surprising choice, his latent talents as an administrator are brought to the fore. He is instrumental in bringing to the gallery such ideas as a lecture series and in-house restoration, which are commonplace abroad. It is through his persistent requests to the government that an extension to the gallery is approved. Unfortunately, the demands of the position take its toll. He has two heart attacks in 1956 and 1957 and ill health forces him to retire in 1963.
During his last years MacGreevy begins writing poetry again. He also begins his memoirs, which he never completes. He is admitted to the Portobello Nursing Home in Dublin for what is to be a minor operation in March 1967. He dies from heart failure on Saint Patrick’s Day eve, March 16, 1967.