The strange exile of a disillusioned ‘Buck Mulligan’

Week III

Honeymoon at Renvyle: WB Yeats with his wife
George, who enjoyed a successful life together.

Honeymoon at Renvyle: WB Yeats with his wife George, who enjoyed a successful life together.

Following his narrow escape from Republican forces, who were intent on killing him by the banks of the Liffey that cold night in January 1923, Oliver St John Gogarty wisely took himself off to London. He immediately became the toast of polite society there who delighted in his stories and witty conversation.

Every week he returned to Dublin for senate meetings; and judging that the murderous climate of the Civil War had abated somewhat in February 1924, returned to Dublin full-time, and resumed his busy life.

He continued his work as a senator, built up a large medical practice, wrote books and poems, became an aviator, and, on the surface at last, enjoyed being a husband and father. He presented himself as a man of inexhaustible energy, who embraced adventures, good company and conversation. While on the surface he appeared to have been blessed with a golden life, it all ended in disappointment, and an 18 year selfimposed exile.

Probably the biggest hurt done to him was the burning by Republicans of his beloved Renvyle House in Connemara, just one month after they attempted to murder him.*

Gogarty had instantly fallen in love with Renvyle which he came across as he explored Connemara with his wife Martha Duane, who lived nearby at Moyard. Renvyle is stunningly located on the very edge of Europe, surrounded by mountains and jagged islands on a clean, green Atlantic.

The house was to become one of Gogarty’s greatest pleasures. He filled it with paintings, and books, carried out extensive improvements. He regaled invited guests with his stories and conversation. Famous people, including the artist Augustus John, Lady Gregory, and even, Winston Churchill, came and thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

Patrick Maume (Dictionary of Irish  Biography ) observes that Gogarty’s greatest art was probably his conversation. ‘Here, as elsewhere, he was kinder than he seemed. He stood his ground but was not a bullying monopolist, and took trouble to draw out shy individuals when he thought they had something interesting to say.’

At every opportunity he and Martha set out from Dublin in his yellow Rolls Royce, and headed to Connemara with speed.

Gogarty and Yeats

Gogarty and the poet WB Yeats were firm friends for many years. He removed Yeats’s tonsils in 1920, and they were regularly seen in each other’s company.

The poet spent his honeymoon at Renvyle. Yeats married late. His life-long love and muse, Maude Gonne, turned him down three times, and her daughter Iseult, also, gently, rejected him.

But at 51 years of age, and advised that this was the perfect astrological time for him to marry, he proposed to the very attractive 25 -year-old Georgie (George ) Hyde-Lees, whom he had met at his Magic Circle meetings in London. Despite their age difference the marriage was a success.

Gogarty’s literary standing was recognised in 1932, when he became a council member of the Irish Academy of Letters. But his poetry had lost some of its edge with the modern Ireland beginning to assert itself among a new generation of writers and poets. When Yeats was invited to select poems for the 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse, he generously included no fewer than 17 poems by Gogarty, which most critics considered was completely over the top.

Poor Gogarty probably did not deserve such lionisation from such a prestigious publisher. The criticisms stung him.

Exile in America

The 1930s was a bad time for Gogarty.

He was a fierce supporter of the Cosgrave government, and when from 1932 Fianna Fáil won a series of election victories, he was frankly disgusted. His friend Arthur Griffith was dead, Collins was shot.** His beloved Renvyle was burned, but he and Martha reopened it as a hotel, and he continued with his hospitable lifestyle. Perhaps there were too many invited guests. The hotel, in Gogarty’s time, rarely made money.***

The compulsory purchase of half the Renvyle demesne by the Land Commission for redistribution among small farmers (who cut down an ash wood of which Gogarty was particularly fond ), further contributed to his annoyance with the new State.

Gogarty practised medicine less and less to concentrate on his writing.

He hoped that As I was going down Sackville Street, a brilliant witty book of reminiscences of earlier happy days, would earn him a significant sum. Instead the opposite happened. A well known Jewish antique dealer, Henry Sinclair, objected to Gogarty’s verses ridiculing him and his brother. Gogarty’s counsel foolishly attacked the testimony of the Sinclairs’ cousin Samuel Beckett, noting that Beckett had written a banned book, and belonged to ‘ coterie of bawds and blasphemers’. Sinclair won £900 damages; but the case cost Gogarty £2,000.

In 1939 Gogarty went on, what he hoped would be, the lucrative lecture circuit in New York. Initially his lectures were enjoyed by audiences who loved his stories, poems and amusing delivery.

It was the life he craved. Comfortable hotels, appreciative audiences, wonderful dinner parties which allowed him to dazzle his hosts with his innovative humour and comments.

Except for brief visits home he remained in New York until he died there on Septenber 22 1957.

It is tempting to think that he found a new partner and settled into a comfortable home life, while poor Martha shivered in Renvyle, during the depression of World War II. But apparently not. In fact Patrick Maume (Dictionary of Irish Biography ) contends that Gogarty’s American career was anticlimactic. ‘He outlived his friends, grew less responsive to new developments, and mixed with antimodernist curmudgeons.’

His many admirers, however, believe that his art is undervalued; and whether he would like it or not, Gogarty is today best remembered as the model for the irrepressible Buck Mulligan in Joyce’s Ulysses.

Gogarty and Martha are buried together near Renvyle, at Cartron church, Moyard.

NOTES: *His home was one of 37 homes of senators burnt around this time. He had bought it from the Blakes in 1917.

**Griffith, who died on August 12, 1922, founded Sinn Féin, and had led the Irish delegation which agreed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

Gen Collins, who was killed at Béal na Bláth in west Cork on August 22, 1922, was commander-in- chief of the Free State Army.

*** Renvyle Hotel thrives today as one of Ireland’s leading family hotels.

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