About Thomas MacGreevy

Who Was MacGreevy?

Many critics consider Thomas MacGreevy (1893-1967) one of Ireland's first modernist poets. Although his poetic output is slight (only one volume of poetry was published during his lifetime), his strikingly original verse paved the way for younger poets such as Samuel Beckett, Brian Coffey and Denis Devlin to see a way around that proverbial shadow cast by W.B. Yeats. During his lifetime he wrote hundreds of articles on art, literature, dance, and religion, a novel (still unpublished), as well as plays (several were written in the 1940s in collaboration with Geraldine Cummins). His books include monographs on contemporary writers and artists, catalogues of the National Gallery of Ireland's collections, and thousands upon thousands of letters, many of which are still preserved in archival and private collections throughout the world.

Biographical Essay on Thomas MacGreevy

Thomas MacGreevy (1893-1967), poet, art and literary critic, Director of the National Gallery of Ireland (1950-63), was a man of letters in the old sense of the word. He has been hailed as Ireland's first modernist poet, yet is one of its most neglected. Although many consider his poetic output slight (one volume of poetry published during his lifetime, Poems), his strikingly original poetry paved the way for younger poets such as Samuel Beckett, Brian Coffey and Denis Devlin to see a way around that proverbial shadow cast by W.B. Yeats.

Although MacGreevy's poetic output might not have been prodigious, he was far from silent. During his lifetime he wrote hundreds of articles in art, literary and social journals, short stories, a novel, plays (many in the 1940s in collaboration with Geraldine Cummins), monographs on contemporary writers and artists, catalogues of the National Gallery of Ireland's collections, and thousands upon thousands of letters, many of which are still preserved in archival collections.

Thomas MacGreevy was born on 26 October 1893 in Tarbert, Co. Kerry, the seventh of eight children (and only surviving son). He sat the Boy Clerk examination for the British Civil Service in 1909, moving to Dublin in February 1910 to take up a post with the Irish Land Commission. Dublin was a world of contradictions: in July 1911 MacGreevy watched as King George and Queen Mary drove by in an open car; three months later he was there when John Redmond unveiled the Parnell monument on Sackville Street.

Eventually MacGreevy was transferred to London, where he worked first for the Charity Commissioners of England and Wales, and then the Intelligence Division of the Admiralty. He was working for the Admiralty during the Easter Rising, and was on duty the weekend Roger Casement was captured. Casement's arrest and trial filled the London papers during the Spring and Autumn of 1916, and it spurred MacGreevy into writing his first piece of fiction: a dialogue between the gaoled Casement and a British politician.

MacGreevy served in the Great War as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery. His training lasted nearly twenty months: by Christmas 1917 he was on line in the Somme. In Poems the two first poems are specifically about MacGreevy's experiences in the war. But the war had a profound effect on him, and coming to terms with the experience filled his poetry and critical writing for the next decade and a half.

After the war MacGreevy was afforded an opportunity he could only dream about in pre-war times: a scholarship to Trinity College Dublin. He read History and Political Science and began to participate in Dublin's intellectual, social and cultural life.

In March 1925 MacGreevy moved to London. It was from London that he began writing poetry, drawing upon his life in Tarbert, Dublin and the Great War as inspiration. Most of his poetry concerned events he witnessed or trips he made. He also wrote art and literature reviews for The Times Literary Supplement and The Nation and Athenaeum. He began his career as an art critic while assistant editor for The Connoisseur.

In London he met T.S. Eliot, editor of The Criterion, who took him on as a reviewer. It was possibly Eliot's poetry that had the most profound effect on MacGreevy's own style. Certainly MacGreevy's long 'cab' poem (as it is commonly referred to) 'Crón Tráth na nDéithe' is greatly indebted to 'The Waste Land'. MacGreevy was an extraordinarily visual poet: he painted words on the page, sometimes like an impressionist, but more often like a cubist, juxtaposing the real and surreal in disturbing and unfamiliar ways.

In January 1927 an opportunity came to work in Paris as lecteur in English Literature at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. He jumped at the opportunity. Within a matter of weeks MacGreevy was part of Joyce's circle, assisting the master with Work in Progress, and helping to defend him from his literary detractors in articles justifying and explicating Joyce's method.

In November 1928 MacGreevy's replacement at the Ecole arrived: Samuel Beckett. The two men hit it off immediately and MacGreevy introduced Beckett to his wide circle of friends, including Joyce. The rest is history. In Paris MacGreevy met another writer who was to change the course of his life: Richard Aldington. Although only a year older, Aldington became MacGreevy's mentor. Aldington was instrumental in MacGreevy's finding a publisher for his translation of Valéry's Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci, and in having two of his monographs on contemporary writers published: T.S. Eliot, and Richard Aldington: An Englishman.

Although MacGreevy's life in Paris was rich in art, literature and friendship, he found it difficult to make ends meet. In 1933 he returned to London. There he joined the staff of The Studio, becoming their chief art critic. He also began lecturing for the National Gallery. By this time he had, by and large, stopped writing poetry. It was in London, however, that Poems was finally published by Heinemann, and reprinted by The Viking Press in New York. Reviews were mixed and, not surprisingly, the most critical reviews came from Irish reviewers writing in Dublin and London. Ireland was not yet ready for modernist poetry.

MacGreevy might have remained in London were it not for the Blitz. His reviewing and lecturing work dried up, and he returned to Dublin. It was a difficult time: living conditions were particularly hard and work was scarce. Yet, by 1941 MacGreevy was art critic for The Irish Times, and was a regular contributor to The Father Mathew Record and The Capuchin Annual. His creative energies were being poured into art criticism in order to make ends meet.

In 1950 MacGreevy was appointed Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, and he came into his own. Although to many he seemed a surprising choice, his latent talents as an administrator were brought to the fore. He was instrumental in bringing to the Gallery ideas such as a lecture series and in-house restoration, which were commonplace abroad. Unfortunately, the demands of the position (MacGreevy was 57 when he was appointed) took its toll: MacGreevy's two heart attacks finally forced him to retire in 1963.

During his last years, MacGreevy began writing poetry again. He also began his Memoirs, which he never completed. He was admitted to the Portobello Nursing Home for what should have been a minor operation in March 1967, but died from heart failure afterwards, on St Patrick's eve.

— Susan Schreibman (Originally published online in Local Ireland, July 1, 1998)


1893 - 1910
Thomas MacGreevy born the fifth of seven children in Tarbert, Co. Kerry, 26 October. His father, Thomas MacGreevy, was a policeman, and his mother, Margaret née Enright, a primary school teacher. He attended national school until the age of sixteen, then studied privately for the civil service.
1910 - 1914
Passed the Boy Clerk examination for the British civil service and moved to Dublin to begin work with the Irish Land Commission. In April 1912 was transferred to London to work with the Wales. At the outbreak of the Great War was Charity Commissioner for England and promoted to second division clerk working with the Intelligence Department of the Admiralty.
1917 - 1918
In March 1917 joined the British Army as a gunner. Was promoted in November to second lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery. Served in the front lines of the Ypres Salient and the Somme where he was wounded twice.
1919 - 1920
Demobilized. Attended Trinity College, Dublin, on a scholarship for ex-officers of the Great War, taking an honours degree in political science and history (concentrating on the French Revolution). While at Trinity was a member of the Dublin Arts Club and the Dublin Drama League.
1920 - 1925
Continued to reside in Dublin. Was appointed assistant secretary to the Irish advisory committee of the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust. And co-founded the Irish Central Library for Students with Christina Keogh and Lennox Robinson. Placed articles in The Leader, The Irish Statesman, and The Gael. In May 1924 first trip to France as a civilian (where he is first introduced to James Joyce), and to Spain. The next summer, first trip to Switzerland. Both trips provided the inspiration for half-a-dozen poems. Probably in May 1925 moved to London.
1925 - 1926
Began writing criticism (book, ballet and opera) for The Criterion, The Nation, The Connoisseur, The Times Literary Supplement, and the New Statesman. Appointed assistant editor of The Connoisseur, a journal of the arts. Occasionally acted as deputy lecturer at the National Gallery, London. In 1926 began to translate Paul Valéry's Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci. In May 1926, published first poem, 'Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill'. Continued to have poetry published regularly in journals until 1932. In November/December wrote the theme for the ballet Pomona composed by Constant Lambert and choreographed by Nijinska (first performed on 9 September 1927 at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires). Meets T.S. Eliot.
In January 1927 took up temporary post at the École Normale Supérieure (Paris) as lecteur d'anglais, which, in October 1928, was renewed for two more years.
In February began submitting poems to publishers. In March essay on George Moore published in Scrutinies. In November met Samuel Beckett. MacGreevy's essay 'The Catholic Element in Work In Progress' was first published in transition (Fall 1928), and later reprinted by Shakespeare & Co. in Our Exagmination round His Factification for Incamination of Work In Progress (May 1929). In June meets Richard Aldington at James Joyce's apartment.
In January made assistant secretary of the English edition of Formes, a journal of the fine arts. Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci published by John Rodker.
In January appointed secretary of the English edition of Formes (resigned 1931). Father died in April. In July resigned post at the École Normale.
1931 - 1932
Continued to live in Paris. Chatto & Windus published MacGreevy's monographs: T.S. Eliot: A Study (January) and Richard Aldington: An Englishman (September). In July returns to live in Tarbert.
In March leaves Dublin, first stopping in Paris, before returning to London. Began writing Jack B. Yeats: An Appreciation and an Interpretation.
In May Poems published by William Heinemann in London, and in November reprinted by The Viking Press in New York.
1935 - 1937
Main source of income derived from lecturing at the National Gallery in London and from literary translation, including Henry de Montherlant's Pity for Women and Lament for the Death of an Upper Class. Mother died in February 1936.
Chief art critic for The Studio (until December 1940).
When The National Gallery of London suspended its lecture series during the Blitz, MacGreevy helped remove pictures from London for safekeeping, and then returned to Dublin. Began writing for the Father Mathew Record and The Capuchin Annual. In November became art critic for The Irish Times (until December 1944).
Joined the editorial staff of The Capuchin Annual.
Jack B. Yeats: An Appreciation and an Interpretation published by Victor Waddington and Pictures in the Irish National Gallery by the Mercier Press.
Moved to 24 Fitzwilliam Place with his recently widowed sister Nora Phelan and her three daughters.
Made Chevalier de l'ordre de la Légion d'honneur by the French Government for his services to the Arts. Began a correspondence with the American poet Wallace Stevens, which was to last until Stevens's death in 1955.
Appointed Director of the National Gallery of Ireland (a post he held until 1963).
Appointed to the first Arts Council (An Chomhairle Eala¡on).
In January made first and only trip to the United States as Irish delegate to the Congress in Art History and Museology at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. During the trip he met Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore at a luncheon at the home of Barbara Church.
Received the Ufficiale al Merito della Repubblica Italiana from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Began writing memoirs.
Had first heart attack.
Awarded honorary Doctorate of Letters from the National University of Ireland. Had second heart attack. Began writing Nicolas Poussin.
Nicolas Poussin published by The Dolmen Press.
Made Officier de la Légion d'honneur. Organized the exhibition of Jack B. Yeats's work for the Irish section of the Venice Bienniale.
Retired from the National Gallery because of failing health. Received the Silver Cultural Medal of the Direzione Generale delle Relazioni Culturali from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Died 16 March 1967, the eve of St. Patrick's Day, in Dublin.