Edward Martyn – an appreciation by Cliona Maughan
The Irish literary movement, also known as the Irish literary renaissance or Celtic Revival, was a cultural and artistic movement that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It aimed to revive and celebrate Ireland’s cultural heritage, particularly through literature and language. Edward Martyn played a vital role in this movement by actively supporting and promoting Irish writers, artists, and performers.
Born in 1859 to a wealthy, landowning, Roman Catholic family (somewhat of a rarity in those times), Edward Martyn received his early education in Belvedere College, Dublin, where it is said he fell under the influence of the beautiful architecture in the buildings. He continued his education in England, attended Beaumont College Windsor and Christ Church, Oxford.
Edward Martyn grew to be an influential figure in the Irish literary movement and played a significant role in protecting and promoting Irish culture and arts. He was deeply passionate about Irish culture, language, and traditions.
Martyn himself was a playwright and contributed greatly to the development of Irish drama. He co-founded the Irish Literary Theatre (later known as the Abbey Theatre) along with W.B. Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory. The theatre became a platform for showcasing plays that reflected Irish themes, traditions, and folklore. Martyn’s own plays explored various aspects of Irish society and history, often challenging prevailing norms.
Beyond his work as a playwright, Edward Martyn was involved in numerous initiatives aimed at promoting Irish culture. He rescued the now a thriving, highly acclaimed musical competition, The Feis Ceoil from certain oblivion.
Edward Martyn also believed that preserving the Irish language was crucial to preserving Irish identity and culture. He actively supported the Gaelic League, an organisation dedicated to reviving the Irish language.
Having toured extensively throughout Europe, he dreamed of bringing the same quality and excellence in Church Music to Ireland. While he was deeply passionate about preserving and promoting Irish culture, language, and traditions, his efforts extended beyond literature to encompass various artistic forms, most notably music.
One of Martyn’s notable contributions to Irish cultural revival was his involvement in the Palestrina Choir. The choir aimed to revive and promote sacred music, particularly Gregorian chant and polyphony.
As a founder of the Palestrina Choir, Edward Martyn actively promoted their performances. He contributed over £10,000 (€1,000,000) as an endowment to the choir. He came with strict instruction that Dr O’Brien be appointed choirmaster, with this the choir became constituted to the Pro Cathedral and installed on the 1st of January 1903. He recognized the importance of music in Irish culture and saw the choir as a means to revive and celebrate Ireland’s rich musical heritage. Martyn’s involvement helped raise awareness of the choir’s work both within Ireland and internationally.
Throughout his lifetime, Edward Martyn worked tirelessly to promote culture, the arts and education. One could say he became the embodiment of his family motto “Sic Idra Ad astra” (reach for the stars)
He made countless contributions to the arts, including bequeathing a Degas and Monet to the National Gallery of Ireland. He was, truly, the epitome of philanthropy.
On the 6th of December, 1923, at the age of 64, Edward Martyn, the last of a family dating back to Norman times, died at his home, Tulira Castle. Co Galway. Rather than being buried in the family vault, he donated his body to the dissecting rooms of Cecilia St. Hospital; a final act of selflessness.
Following a simple ceremony, which was attended by his beloved Palestrina Choir, he was laid to rest in a pauper’s grave in Glasnevin cemetery, where he lies to this day.
In the words of Thomas MacGreevy “…. 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”.