O'Malley photograph of MacGreevy and O'Malley The Correspondence of Thomas MacGreevy and Ernie O'Malley Introduction Browse Letters MacGreevy Home Search


Ernie O'Malley (1897-1957) and Thomas MacGreevy (1893-1967)

On 21st November 1920, Ernie O'Malley, a senior Irish Republican Army officer in the War of Independence, and Thomas MacGreevy, formerly Second Lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery of the British Army and then a student of history at Trinity College, met for the first time in the flat that MacGreevy shared with Lennox Robinson at 1 Clare Street, Dublin. O'Malley and the young Seán MacBride had taken refuge there for the night at a particularly tense time. A curfew had been imposed on Dublin from midnight to 5 a.m. and British soldiers were raiding the city after the killing of thirteen British intelligence officers and the retaliatory killing of twelve civilians in Croke Park. Earlier that afternoon, a female friend approached Robinson asking him if he would 'give refuge to two men for the night, she swore they had nothing to do with the shooting of the officers but they were "on the run" and their lives were in danger.' One of the men Robinson knew: 'I wasn't even told the name of the other nor did I ask it' (Robinson 125). Although neither Robinson or MacGreevy were combatants during the War of Independence (Robinson was the Secretary to the Irish Advisory Committee of the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust and MacGreevy served as the Country Organiser and Assistant Secretary), they were both Irish nationalists. Thus Robinson acquiesced, although the discovery of the two men by the British could prove dangerous for their hosts.

One could be forgiven for thinking that there might not be much sympathy between O'Malley, the I.R.A. officer and MacGreevy the ex-British officer, but clearly the tense vigil impressed the young soldier as many years later O'Malley evocatively recounted it in his memoirs, On Another Man's Wound. Sometime after 7 pm MacBride and O'Malley arrived at the flat (Robinson 129). As O'Malley recalled:

We were welcomed....Robinson played Beethoven on a pianola; McGreevy took his turn to press on the wide wooden pedals. The instrument coughed and wheezed when the movement of the feet was irregular, or the music came in pauses. Robinson pedalled furiously, his long body bent itself as the notes jerked out. 'Should I tell him we'll fight,' I whispered.

'No, better not,' said Seán, 'there's not much chance of a raid anyhow....'

Our attempts to talk had been short meaningless sentences. McGreevy clicked the switch. 'It's better to put it out; nearly all the other houses are without light.' Robinson closed the pianola. We sat in front of the fire. McGreevy talked. He had been a gunner officer in France. He had a sensitive face; he must have suffered in the hell of the World War. I ate hazel nuts out of a red bowl. The others said 'Good-night,' and went into the other room. We, watching the twisting yellow of the flames, sat on floor....

From the next room came low voices whenever a loud burst of shooting woke us up. The others could not sleep. 'Do you think we have their beds? ' I asked. (2002 238-239)

Yet, the political distance between MacGreevy and O'Malley was not as wide as one might think. MacGreevy had become disillusioned with the British forces in Ireland, publicly accusing them in a letter to the editor of The Irish Stateman on April 24 1920 of provoking recent hunger strikes in Mountjoy Jail in order to, all the more ruthlessly, suppress any opposition. And on 30 October MacGreevy, along with 10 fellow ex-British officer students at Trinity had unsuccessfully petitioned the Provost of Trinity College to intervene with the authorities on behalf of the University College Dublin medical student Kevin Barry. Barry was condemned to be hanged on 1st November 1920 for his participation in the ambushing of a lorry which resulted in the death of three British soldiers. Many years later, the incident inspired MacGreevy's poem 'Homage to Hieronymus Bosch' (Schreibman 1991 104).

MacGreevy, by his own accounts, was apolitical until 1916. Schreibman (1995) traces his political awareness of Irish affairs back to the capture and hanging of Roger Casement in 1916. And many years later, after his return to live permanently in Dublin in 1941, MacGreevy marked his growing nationalism by inserting the Gaelic prefix before his anglicised surname – MacGreevy from McGreevy, as O'Malley did earlier from Malley. O'Malley had intended to join his two brothers in the British Army but instead joined the Irish Volunteers in 1917. Perhaps, it was not only their common background as soldiers that brought them together, but their common interest in art and literature. Impressed as he was by the slightly older man's wartime experiences, O'Malley would also have respected MacGreevy' knowledge of art, drama, music and literature as he had developed a love of literature and art as a medical student at University College Dublin. We know from his prison letter to Mrs Erskine Childers that he carried copies of Dürer's etchings and woodcuts along with his warfare notes while on the run after 1918. (English and O'Malley. 1991 51, 87) When imprisoned in Dublin Castle, after capture in Kilkenny in December 1920, he reconstructed in his mind the work of painters he admired in order to allay thoughts of his impending interrogation (O'Malley 2002 267).

MacGreevy also carried art into war. During his time on the Western Front he pinned up postcards of paintings by Giorgione, Duccio and Domenichino around his stretcher when his battery was in line, or around his bed when resting (Memoirs 367). Although MacGreevy had an interest in the arts from childhood, it was not until his return from the Western Front to Dublin that he began to pursue a career as an art and literary critic. Almost immediately upon his return, MacGreevy developed a keen interest in the arts in Ireland as is evident from one of his earliest published pieces, a letter to The Irish Statesman (August 1919 201) redefining the state of criticism in Ireland. A letter the following year while still a student at Trinity to TCD: A College Miscellany (May 1920 135) confirms his role in the formation of The Irish Music League whose aim was to support Irish classical musicians and composers and to provide a concert hall for a national orchestra and visiting performers. Through his Carnegie Trust work he co-founded the Irish Central Library for Students along with Robinson and Christina Keogh. He was also a member of the Dublin Arts Club and the Dublin Drama League, and had published many articles, theatre and book reviews on Irish themes (Coolihan 65).

In 1920, MacGreevy was introduced to Jack and Cottie Yeats (TCD MS 7999/5). Two years later, MacGreevy made special mention of the painter's work in The Gael: [H]is Croke Park picture recently exhibited in St. Stephen' Green has not only an exquisite feeling for atmospheric effect but has also the simplicity and dignity that is to be found only in the work of the greatest artists (February 1922, 19). This painting, whose full title is 'Singing "My Dark Rosaleen" Croke Park', finished in 1921, cannot be viewed without reference to the killing of spectators in Croke Park on 21st November 1920, the day MacGreevy and O'Malley met for the first time. Yeats, MacGreevy, and O'Malley shared a vision for Ireland, as not only politically independent, but just as importantly, culturally independent. In one of the few statements we have on Yeats's aesthetic was given at the Irish Race Congress in Paris in January 1922 and published in Ireland later that year. He asserted: 'When painting takes its rightful place it will be in a free nation, for though pictures speak all languages the roots of every art must be in the country of the artist, and no man can have two countries' (4). Yeats's work, his vision of Irish art, and his friendship, was to be a unifying factor in the friendship that developed in the 1930s between O'Malley and MacGreevy. They both worked to support and advocate Yeats's art, and his work was to become a central pillar of their future writings on Ireland and Irish culture.

It is likely that O'Malley and MacGreevy had little opportunity for contact until the late 1930s. After escaping from Kilmainham Gaol in February 1921, O'Malley was briefly on the run in Dublin. In April he was moved south to a martial law area to command the Second Southern Division. O'Malley opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921, and led resistance, including the occupation of the Four Courts, until his arrest by pro-Treaty forces in November 1922.

It is likely that during O'Malley's imprisonment from 1922 to 1924 he read a great deal of MacGreevy's work which was frequently printed in the Irish papers. He could not easily read books because his eyesight, already damaged by previous torture, was further weakened by the 1923 forty-one-day hunger strike for unconditional release. He, however, could read literary and artistic reviews sent to him by Mrs Erskine Childers and the artist Estella Solomons (English and O'Malley 1991 99, 105) and these no doubt included many of MacGreevy's writings. By 1922 MacGreevy had begun to promote the idea of a national school of painting in Ireland as a distinct art with its own characteristics (February 1922 19), an idea O'Malley was later to take up and develop with enthusiasm (O'Malley 1947).

O'Malley was released from jail in 1924 and left to recover his health in Southern Europe and to further his art education in the galleries and museums there. After briefly resuming his medical studies at University College Dublin, he went on a fund raising tour in America in 1928 to help start a newly formed independent nationalist newspaper, The Irish Press. He stayed on in America for seven years during which time he wrote the initial first draft of his autobiographical account of the revolutionary period in Ireland up to the truce of 1921, first published under the title On Another Man's Wound (1936).note

Although O'Malley's and MacGreevy's paths diverged from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, their experiences abroad, O'Malley's in the United States, and MacGreevy's, first in London, and then in Paris, provided them with an internationalist perspective from which to view Irish art. In America O'Malley met modernist painters, musicians, theatre directors, and photographers and witnessed debates between national and international tendencies in the American art community. MacGreevy, who as early as 1923 had criticized the Irish art system (1923-24 23-27), was later to gain first hand experience in Paris of James Joyce's battle for publication and in England of the vociferous reaction to Post-Impressionism. Both men were thus prepared for similar debates upon their return to Ireland.

In 1935 O'Malley moved back to Ireland. By this time, MacGreevy was living in London, earning a living as a reviewer for the arts magazine The Connoisseur, and as a lecturer at the National Gallery of Art. O'Malley may have re-established his friendship with MacGreevy while he was in London in September 1935 for his marriage to the American artist Helen Hooker, or the re-acquaintance may have happened later. Despite only a handful of letters surviving between MacGreevy and O'Malley dating from March 1939 to February 1940 and a postcard from 1947, it is clear that their friendship was a strong one. From documentary evidence, it is most likely that they re-established their friendship in 1938 when O'Malley moved to County Mayo, and that MacGreevy had by this time met O'Malley' wife. These letters confirm O'Malley's and MacGreevy's common interest in art. Writing from Burrishoole Lodge outside Newport, O'Malley told MacGreevy how in the remote 'Kingdom of Connaught' he missed the art world. This quote from a letter dated 6 March 1939 was not atypical:

I read that there was a good Pissaro show recently. I dream of pictures down here and read of them: seeing them is another matter.

In MacGreevy, O'Malley found a thoughtful correspondent, willing to discuss, not only the fine arts, but literature, philosophy, and the looming threat of another world war.

From a letter dated 5 April 1939, it is clear that O'Malley had met Yeats. Most likely they were introduced at the home of Con Curran in August 1937. O'Malley, who had some of his own poetry published in America, wrote to MacGreevy that he had spoken with Yeats about MacGreevy and 'poetry and paint, that which there is no better combination.' As he does in almost every letter, he urges MacGreevy to visit him and his wife in Mayo. 'Come on over and you'll write a few poems afterwards'. O'Malley' long chatty letter of 1 May 1939, with its description of sailing around the islands in Clew Bay and exploring the local river in fine weather, holds up an idyllic contrast to MacGreevy's life in London in which MacGreevy participated in the evacuation of paintings from London's National Gallery for safekeeping in Wales during war (Schreibman 2005 98). O'Malley was painfully aware that the separation between them was more than a matter of miles:

The mountains soft with a line one finds in Greek or in Japanese prints. Now it is late, the mountains have deepened and the birds are lazily singing for bed; it is another world to the cockpit of Europe.

In that same letter he writes MacGreevy of a recently completed painting he saw at Yeats's studio: 'I saw Jack Yeats, fell clear in love with a picture and felt I must have it.' O'Malley could ill afford the painting, Death For Only One (1937), which is numbered as one of Yeats's most famous. It was the first of many Yeats purchases made by O'Malley and his wife. Like many of Yeats's paintings from this time, it depicts a slightly out of focus figure standing respectfully above a corpse-like body in an intense moment of dramatic communication sited in a dispassionate landscape.

It was while O'Malley was living in Dublin that his memoirs, On Another Man's Wound (1936) was published to acclaim, earning him a place in the Irish Academy of Letters. His success as an author made him a generous friend, and he offered MacGreevy support and advice in finding a publisher for his work on Jack Yeats, ultimately published as Jack B Yeats: An Appreciation and Interpretation

I hope you hear some favourable news about your Yeats monograph. It could do you a great deal of good to have it definitely accepted. Could you please give me an idea of its length as I am writing to Houghton Mifflin in Boston and they, if not interested, may be able to suggest a publisher. (O'Malley to MacGreevy, 1 May 1939). note

In another long chatty letter of 27 June 1939, O'Malley asks about the Cézanne exhibition in London and gives news about family and friends and his latest writing project. He asks for advice on protecting his art collection from the damp climate, and offers to put MacGreevy's name forward as an art reviewer in a new paper. This letter seems designed to encourage MacGreevy' return to Ireland. He closes it with the bluntly stated: 'So you had best come over before the deluge'. MacGreevy replied with information on preservation of pictures. Due to his change of address, communication between the two stopped until 31 January 1940 when O'Malley got MacGreevy' address from Lennox Robinson. Throughout the correspondence, O'Malley's letters are wide ranging and impressionistic, knowing he would find in MacGreevy a thoughtful correspondent as conversant in contemporary visual art and French literature, as in the increasingly dark situation in Europe. When he wrote to MacGreevy on 31 January 1940 comparing Balzac to Holbein and Dufy:

I suppose Balzac was more like Holbein who had the ultimate conception in finish back in his brain unlike Dufy who has no sense of continuous finish but conceives quickly and rapidly on a primary impression.

MacGreevy responded in a letter of 9 February:

I don't think I ever really loved any book or any character in a book by Balzac, whereas nearly everything and everybody in Diderot seems to me to be lovable. You are made to realize that circumstances of character and environment are as much to blame as anything else for human unhappiness, and that lack of intelligence is the greatest of all misfortunes since it leads to greater or lesser inability to get a grip on the essentials of goodness, the source of all real happiness.

MacGreevy's comments on Diderot's writing seem to gently correct O'Malley's chauvinistic comments his letter of 31 January.

One of the unintentional outcomes of the war in Europe was the creation of a flourishing contemporary art scene in Dublin. Irish artists, as well as British and European artists who had taken refuge in Ireland, exhibited frequently. In a reversal of his earlier letters, O'Malley described the flourishing Dublin art scene to MacGreevy, who in 1940 was still resident in London. O'Malley and his wife began to buy modern paintings by European artists in 1936 in Paris, and by 1938 owned works by Maurice de Vlaminck, Jean Lurçat (a friend of MacGreevy's), Möise Kisling and Andre Marchand, three of whom, O'Malley reported to MacGreevy, had works on exhibition in Dublin. He sent news also of exhibitions of Irish artists flourishing due to Ireland's neutrality in World War II, such as Norah McGuinness, Mainie Jellett, Nano Reid and Jack Yeats. (31 January 1940).

After MacGreevy's return to Ireland in 1941, it was in the support and advocacy of Yeats that O'Malley and MacGreevy found a common cause. In 1942, O'Malley lent some of his growing collection of Yeats paintings to the Nicholson and Yeats exhibition held at the National Gallery in London. The resulting one-man exhibition at the Tate and consequent public interest in the paintings of Yeats resulted in the Yeats National Loan Exhibition in 1945 in Dublin. O'Malley lent six Yeats paintings to the exhibition and his wife four. He also wrote the introduction to the catalogue (O'Malley 1945), while MacGreevy's long-delayed monograph on Yeats, entitled Jack B. Yeats: An Appreciation and Interpretation was brought out in conjunction with the exhibition (MacGreevy 1945).

In 1946, O'Malley favourably reviewed MacGreevy's book for The Bell, while castigating the National Gallery of Ireland for their refusal to buy Yeats' paintings. It was the policy of the National Gallery not to purchase the work of a living painter.note Even when MacGreevy was appointed Director of the National Gallery of Ireland in 1950, he could not prevail upon the Board to purchase a Yeats painting. It was not until after Yeats's death in 1957 that one of his paintings entered the Gallery's collection through a purchase (Schreibman 2005 99).

The letters between O'Malley and MacGreevy, although few in numbers, reveal a glimpse into an unlikely friendship at the heart of post civil war Ireland. Their early experiences during wartime only served to strengthen their later friendship, as O'Malley wrote in On Another Man's Wound, '[i]t was easier to talk to men who had fought; they were usually more dispassionate' (59). And when MacGreevy wrote to O'Malley as a friend who understood Yeats (17 February 1947), he confirms their previous exchanges about love being a more important motive than revenge (9 February 1940).

The correspondence between MacGreevy and O'Malley ends in 1941, the year MacGreevy returns permanently to Dublin. After MacGreevy's return, it is probable that O'Malley would have met him at art exhibitions as O'Malley, though living in Mayo, would visit Dublin on a regular basis to attend exhibits and concerts. When O'Malley returned to live in Dublin in late 1944 such encounters could have been more frequent. It was most likely this personal relationship which continued until 1957, the year of O'Malley's death. Six years later, at an exhibition of Yeats' work in Sligo lent by Cormac O'Malley and others in 1963, Thomas MacGreevy, in the opening address, spoke affectionately of Ernie O'Malley and Yeats who had died within days of each other in March 1957. He acclaimed both as heroes whose work, with its sympathy for Irish people, linked them to the struggle in all countries for better conditions.

Works Cited
Coolihan, John. Thomas MacGreevy: The Man and His Work. The Listowel Literary Phenomenon, Connemara: Clólar-Chonnachta, 1994: 60-82.
Cronin, Anthony. Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist. London: HarperCollins, 1996.
English, Richard and Cormac O'Malley eds. Prisoners: The Civil War Letters of Ernie O'Malley. Dublin: Poolbeg, 1991.
MacGreevy, Thomas. Letter to the Editor The Irish Statesman. 24 April 1920: 405-06.
MacGreevy, Thomas. Letter to the Editor T.C.D. A College Miscellany. 27 May 1920: 135-136.
MacGreevy, Thomas. Painting in Modern Ireland: The Rise of the National School. The Gael. 27 Feb. 1922: 19.
MacGreevy, Thomas. Picasso, Mamie Jellet and Dublin Art Criticism. The Klaxon. Dublin, Winter 1923-24: 23-27.
MacGreevy, Thomas. Jack B. Yeats: An Appreciation and Interpretation. Dublin: Victor Waddington Publications, 1945.
MacGreevy, Thomas. Unpublished Memoirs. Private Collection.
MacGreevy, Thomas. Yeats and O'Malley. Jack B. Yeats 1871-1957. Sligo: Sligo County Library and Museum, 1966.
MacGreevy, Thomas. "Criticism in Ireland." The Irish Statesman, 16 August 1919: 201-202.
MacGreevy, Thomas. "Plain Speaking." The Irish Statesman, 24 April 1924: 405-06.
McHugh, Roger. ed. Jack B. Yeats. A Centenary Gathering. Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1971. 64-70.
Monroe, Harriet. ed. Poetry Jan 1935 and March 1936.
O'Malley, Ernie. On Another Man's Wound. Dublin, Anvil Books, 2002.
O'Malley, Ernie. introduction. Catalogue of National Loan Exhibition in N.C.A.D., June-July 1945. Reprinted in Jack B. Yeats 1871-1957. Sligo: Sligo County Library, August 1963.
O'Malley, Ernie. "A Painter of His People." The Bell, 11.4 (January 1946): 914-916.
O'Malley, Ernie. "Introduction to Series on Ireland." Architectural Design, July 1947: 174.
Robinson, Lennox. Curtain Up. London: Michael Joseph, 1942.
Schreibman, Susan. Collected Poems of Thomas MacGreevy: An Annotated Edition. Dublin: Anna Livia Press; Washington, D.C: The Catholic University of America Press, 1991.
Schreibman, Susan. 'When we come back from first death'. Thomas MacGreevy and the Great War .Stand To. 42 (January 1995): 15-18.
Schreibmann, Susan. "MacGreevy and Yeats." Irish Arts Review. Spring 2005: 96-99.
Yeats, Jack B. Modern Art. Dublin: Cumann Léigheacht an Phobail, 1922.