Edward Martyn: An Irish Catholic Eccentric

A Machine-Readable Version

Thomas MacGreevy

Original Source: The Father Mathew Record. Dublin. April 1943. p.2.

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Edward Martyn
An Irish Catholic Eccentric

By Thomas MacGreevy

He was "contrairy" in everything. So orthodox a Catholic that he had to have written permission from Rome to read books which were on the Index, he yet spent years of his life putting over on an Irish public which remained good-naturedly indifferent, the dramatic works of Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian Lutheran who used the technique of the Parisian well-made play to state the dubiously interesting problems of one group after another of unbelievably solemn small-town egotists.

A convert to Home Rule and Sinn Féin, he insisted on remaining a member and habitué of the Kildare Street Club, and for all his nationalism, he had so little sense of history that he could only see the Civil War as a manifestation of a native instinct for producing subversive minorities which he, who was not of them, thought he perceived in the Irish people.

The most lovable of men, he tended, sooner or later, to part company with those who were originally associated with him in the various enterprises, political and cultural, in which from patriotic motives he interested himself — and like an old-time patron usually helped to finance.

The explanation of this last characteristic would seem to be that he was more interested in his own preconceived idea of the Irish nation than in the nation itself. It was therefore inevitable that he should sometimes find himself at odds with other enthusiasts whose theory or practice did not fit in with his. In other words, he was a nineteenth century idealist. He was of his time, not in front of it, a man of ideas rather than understanding, of talent rather the genius. But unquestionably of sufficient talent to make a mark on the history of his country. Most of the men who figure in public life make no mark at all on history. A Pádraig Pearse or a James Connolly, drawing inspiration from a whole nation, consciously incarnating its perhaps only half-conscious sense of direction at a moment of crisis, marks a turning-point in a country's destinies. A greater number affirm their influence sufficiently strongly for it to remain memorable though not epoch-making. These are the men of talent. Edward Martyn was one of them. And if at a given moment he failed to reconcile the lesser misunderstandings that existed between the mass of his countrymen and himself, they, at least, never failed to recognise that on the larger issues he was according to his lights, a man of outstanding rectitude and goodwill.

And what were his lights? Secularly they were those of the small group of more liberal landlords who accepted the sociological ideas of the nineteenth century. But unlike the majority of these, Edward Martyn was brought up in the religion of the mass of the people, the Catholic religion. And he took his Catholicism seriously. Indeed he was more than a little of a saint. But if it be correct to say that a man's life in relation to the community is fulfilled only in so far as he helps to realise the needs of the community — and history suggests that it is correct — then it would seem that in secular matters, where the point of departure was that of a man not of the people, Edward Martyn's influence must almost inevitably tend to be ephemeral, whereas the enterprises he undertook in connection with religion, where he was at one with the people. might be of more lasting value. And so it has turned out.

To-day we associate Edward Martyn's name, not to much with the beginnings of the Abbey Theatre, or with Sinn Féin or the Gaelic League or the Feis Ceóil or the Irish Literary Theatre — all of which he encouraged and materially helped — as with, first and foremost, the Palestrina Choir at the Pro-Cathedral and then with the modern Irish stained glass revival. An ever-increasing number of people are aware that it was he who initiated the movement for the establishment of the Irish stained glass industry which was to take definite shape as An Tur Gloine, The Tower of Glass. Out of that was to come the whole series of greater and lesser masterpieces by Michael Healy, over fifty of which remain in Ireland. And from that fine start came the broader development that was to include the stained glass work of Wilhelmina Geddes, Harry Clarke, Hubert MacGoldrick, Evie Hone, Richard King and others who, it is not an exaggeration to claim, have placed Ireland amongst the very first countries of the contemporary world in the production of stained glass art. Without attempting to minimise the extremely valuable part, artistic and financial, played by Miss Sarah Purser in the early days of that venture, it is still true to say that had it not been for Edward Martyn who initiated the idea it would never have been undertaken at all.

Even more important to Edward Martyn, however, was the Palestrina Choir at the Pro-Cathedral. Liturgical music was, he said, himself, the chief interest of his life. And it is thanks to him and to that great Irishman, Archbishop Walsh of Dublin, who with infinite understanding and patience saw Martyn's scheme through from conception to realisation, that, for forty years now, the Palestrina Choir has provided such opportunity as was never before available to the Irish laity of hearing all the music of the Liturgy worthily sung by a trained body of singers. Sunday after Sunday and feast after feast; above all, perhaps, Easter after Easter, the wonderful music of the Liturgy is rendered by the Choir (of "at least eight men and twenty boys" as the foundation agreement laid down — though usually a good many more), under the still admirable direction of Dr. Vincent O'Brien, whom Martyn and Dr. Walsh first appointed. There we hear the sublimest compositions in all music, the anonymous ancient chants that were already old and consecrate in the days of Gregory the Great, nearly fourteen centuries ago, and the later settings of the inspired words by known masters like Pierre de la Rue, Pier Luigi Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso and Vittoria.

From the establishment of the Choir on, Martyn was the most faithful attendant at High Mass in the Pro-Cathedral. Half-crippled with arthritis, one would see him making his way slowly up the aisle. And how pleased he was if, afterwards, one ventured to make an appreciative remark about the music or the rendering of it. He really loved his choir, as many less musically learned Irishmen than he have come to love it since. Even in matters of the rendering of church music, however, he had very decided views. I do not know whether he ever argued with Dr. O'Brien on the subject, but I do remember how, in his helpless and lovable way, he fulminated to me against the Vatican Choir for what he considered its excessively "operatic" methods, as we happened on each other coming out from the first of the concerts of sacred music it gave in Dublin about twenty years ago. I did not know whether he was right or wrong, but I dared to say that a setting of some stark passage from the Liturgy — I think it was the Dies Irae — by Vittoria was the most awe-inspiring piece of music I had ever heard. But no! As rendered by the Vatican Choir Edward Martyn would have none of it. And he pottered off grumbling.

He was the same in everything. He knew how things ought to be done, and if they were not done his way they were wrong. But he was as modest in his behaviour as he was tenacious of his principles. And he seldom quarrelled. He declared his views and if he failed to win agreement for them he busied himself with something else. For everything he ever took up he made sacrifices. He always gave money. But he gave more than money. He gave time, thought, energy, advice. He wrote articles, he attended committee meetings. For the Irish Literary Theatre he wrote plays. He was ready to talk till all hours of the night with anyone who came to see him in his little flat beside the Club. Young people interested in any political or cultural scheme susceptible of national application were always encouraged. I remember the plain room with its bare furniture and the solitary thing in the way of a picture, an unframed colour-print of the Madonna of the Eucharist by Ingres, propped up on the chimney-piece. There the great men of the great generation, that of the first quarter of this century, had all, at one time or another, gone to talk over some aspect of the nation's life with the generous, saintly, patriotic old crank.

Like most of them, but in his own way, he gave in death as he had given in life. Though he was only moderately rich, his generosity had been proverbial. In his will he left money to the Gaelic League as well as to many charities. The Palestrina Choir had lived mainly on his original endowment. At his death he made provision for entertainments to be given to his singers twice a year. There was a small gift for every tenant who had bought his holding from him under the Land Purchase Acts. His bequest to the St. Vincent de Paul Society carried a clause to the effect that the charitable purposes on which it was spent must be Irish ones. The few fine pictures he owned — they included a Degas and a Monet — went to Ireland's National Gallery. The idea of pompes funèbres did not interest him and he directed that instead of being buried in the family vault his body was to be taken to the Cecilia Street Hospital, for dissection by the medical students, among the other corpses that are provided from the workhouse infirmaries. So it was done. That was the end of the earthly life of the "contrairy" Christian and patriot. But his goodness in all things remains an inspiration. For all his vagaries, of few men is it as plainly evident that he lived and died, as the simple phrase has it, to God and Ireland true.