The man from New York

Week II

John Quinn, saw WB Yeats as ‘a man of absolute genius’.

John Quinn, saw WB Yeats as ‘a man of absolute genius’.

The first time Lady Gregory met John Quinn was on Sunday August 31 1902 at a Feis Ceol she had partly organised in the memory of Ó Raifteirí the poet. The occasion also marked Lady Gregory’s first steps into the Celtic revival movement which would absorb her energies throughout her long life, and define her reputation for ever.

Through her friendship with Douglas Hyde, she shared his passion for collecting traditional songs and folklore. She became interested in Antoine Ó Raifteirí, a blind poet in the old bardic tradition, who had frequented the villages and laneways along part of the old Coole estate, in south Galway. Some years previously Hyde was given some of Ó Raifteirí’s songs, the most memorable being ‘Mary Hynes of Ballylee’ with whom the poet had fallen in love. W B Yeats was intrigued by the poem, and the association with Ballylee. He later bought the old Norman tower there which gave him sanctuary and inspiration in his middle years.

Ó Raifteirí died in Darby Cloonan’s house, near Craughwell, on Christmas Eve 1835,* and Lady Gregory set out to find where he was buried. The poet’s unmarked grave was pointed out to her by an old man who, as a boy, remembered the burial, at the old church at Killeeneen.*

She had a stone cut to mark the grave, and the occasion was celebrated on that August day, with traditional dancing, music and story-telling.

Afterwards she hosted a small reception at Coole Park, attended by Yeats and his artist brother Jack, Douglas Hyde, John Quinn, and others.

I imagine they were all intrigued by Quinn. He was not an artist but he was a tall, commanding, Irish American, intrigued by the emerging literary renaissance, and by the charisma of Yeats. He would become their great ally and friend, who lavishly bought paintings and manuscripts, defended their ambitions in court and on the lecture platform, and proudly referred to WB Yeats as ‘a man of absolute genius, whom I have known personally and well.’ To Lady Gregory, however, he would later become more than a friend.

Burst out laughing

John Quinn was also a breath of fresh air. He hailed from a comfortable home in Ohio where his father James, who had emigrated from Co Limerick, had opened a successful bakery. His mother Mary was from Co Cork. Quinn began collecting first edition books while still at school. After Harvard he moved to New York emerging within years as one of the city’s leading financial lawyers.**

He sought out quality among the leading literary and artistic figures of the early 20th century, and was one of the pioneering collectors and promotors of modern art.

He immediately sorted out Yeats’ copyright difficulties with Macmillian in New York, and arranged lucrative lecture tours for both Yeats and Hyde in America. He bought numerous paintings from Jack Yeats, George Russell and Nathaniel Hone.

He was the driving force behind the short-lived New York branch of the Irish Literary Society, which foundered when New York’s Catholic archbishop refused to serve as an honorary vice president alongside Yeats, whom, the Archbishop remarked, ‘was a Protestant and an author of heretical works’.***

This only made Quinn burst out laughing. He blamed the ‘medieval’ influence of Irish Catholicism for having disastrously distorted the national character; he had no time for Tammany Hall and the worst of some of Irish American societies, whom he dismissed as ‘pathriots’. He was exactly the right man to ride shotgun alongside the Abbey Theatre’s six month tour of American cities beginning in the autumn 1911.

‘Savage’ Irish people

By that year, seven years after it opened, the Abbey Theatre was known and admired throughout the English speaking world. The row over Synge’s Playboy had long since calmed, indeed the play was becoming something of a national treasure. In the interim new playwrights had come forward including Edward Martyn, George Moore, Padraic Colum, William Boyle, Lennox Robinson and Lady Gregory who would write 40 plays in total.

New stage designs and lighting techniques were explored, notably the work of Gordon Craig; and an Abbey-style of acting, developed by Frank Fay, which allowed actors to speak in normal tones, rather than proclaiming their part as was the tradition up to then.

A major development came when the American theatre agents Liebler and Co, invited the Abbey for an extensive tour playing in Boston, New York, Washington, Chicago and Philadelphia, with other performances in between. The terms were generous. Liebler asked specifically that the Playboy be included in its repertoire.

Knowing that large sections of Irish America had long resented J M Synge’s portrayal of the Irish peasant, and would be delighted at the opportunity to show their feelings, the Abbey devised a plan of campaign.

Yeats would go over first with the players, and while they were getting acclimatised and rehearsing, he would lecture on the development and aims of the Irish National theatre. Lady Gregory would follow to take charge of the tour.

‘The ship berthed at Boston and the gangways became thronged with photographers and reporters…we were herded together on the quayside facing a battery of cameras almost before we knew we had stepped on American soil’.

Despite their rapturous welcome, and excitement as old friends and acquaintances called at their hotels eager for news of home, and delighted to invite them to their new apartments, their arrival and their plays were greeted with contempt by many, including a Dr T J Gallagher, who observed: ‘Nothing but hell inspired ingenuity and a satanic hatred of the Irish people and their religion could suggest and construct and influence the production of such plays ..they are not alone anti natural, anti Catholic, they are anti Christian!… Through every play one purpose runs, and that is to show that the Irish people are too savage, too crude and unreliable to be trusted with Home Rule; in fact unfit for anything but fettered slavery.’ And much, much more.

In his lectures Yeats drew himself up to his most magisterial. He compared Synge to Jonathon Swift, and proclaimed that Synge ‘was not photographing life; he was representing it as an artist.’

The debate continued in the various Irish American newspapers, and after dinner speeches. In general Yeats, highly respected as a poet and already regarded as a great Irishman, kept his cool. But in New York, on the eve of his departure for Ireland, he hit out at Irish America accusing it of being 30 years behind what was really happening in Ireland. ‘It is far more honour to Ireland to have produced a dramatist like Synge than to fill every theatre in the world with a thousand green-coated clog-dancers.’

With that he went home, leaving Lady Gregory to continue the struggle.

Next week: Riot in New York’s Maxine Elliott’s theatre, and arrest in Philadelphia.

NOTES: * From ‘Kiltartan - Many Leaves One Root’, a history of the parish of Kiltartan, by Sr Mary de Lourdes Fahy RSM, published 2004.

** Quinn’s law practice was located in the National Bank of Commerce (America’s second largest ), from which he received a handsome annual retainer. He sorted out accommodation and expenses for Yeats’ father John, who emigrated to New York at 75 years of age. He arranged for the Yeats’ sisters, Lily and Elizabeth, to exhibit their Dún Emer Society crafts in New York 1905.

*** Much of the protest against the controversial Abbey Theatre plays, in both Dublin and America, such as The Playboy were prompted by the fact that the main directors, Lady Gregory, Yeats and Synge, were Protestants, and were using Catholic imagery in their plays.

I am trying to follow the thread of the story using several sources including WB Yeats - A Life by Roy Foster, The Splendid Years by Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh, The Man from New York by BL Reid, Lady Gregory by Elizabeth Coxhead, Lawrence W White, DIB, and Our Irish Theatre by Lady Gregory.


Page generated in 0.2804 seconds.