Brinsley MacNamara

1890-1963 [John Weldon; pseud. & stage-name Brinsley MacNamara; also pseuds. Oliver Blyth; A. E. Weldon]; b. 6 Sept., Ballinacor, Hiskinstown, Delvin, Co. Westmeath; one of seven children of James Weldon, Delvin schoolmaster; staged and played lead in Henry C. Mangan’s Robert Emmet, 1908; moved to Dublin to study for career in the Excise Office, 1909; joined Abbey Players, 1909-1912 [var. 1910-12], adopting the stage-name of Brinsley MacNamara; debuted as Denis Barton in R. J. Ray’s The Casting Out of Martin Whelan, 29 Sept. 1910; played ‘A Young Slave’ in Dunsany’s King Argimenes (Jan. 1911); toured America 1911, staying on as a freelance actor until 1913; his play The Clerk of the Union rejected by the Abbey;
returned to Ireland and issued essay “The Abbey Theatre: Is It on the Decline?” (Irish Independent); settled in Devlin; published poetry and stories in Dublin newspapers until 1918, when he returned to Dublin; issued, under pseud. ‘Oliver Blyth’, The Valley of the Squinting Windows (1918), a novel about the clerical student John Brennan enmeshed in a web of local jealousy who kills another young man (Ulick), populated with obvious caricatures of local personages and Delvin (‘Garradrimna’) resulting in the author’s father’s being ostracised and forced leave the town, while the book was publicly burned; accredited Valley with the characteristic he sought to instil in all his works, ‘the long, low chuckle of the mind’ resettled in Quin, Co. Clare and Dublin;
9 of his plays were produced at the Abbey 1919-45, including The Rebellion in Ballycullion (1919), The Land for the People (1920), The Glorious Uncertainty (1923), Look at the Heffernans! (1926), a freq. revived comedy, also highly regarded Margaret Gillan (1933); married Ellen Degidon of Quin, 1920, though continuing to work in Dublin; s. Oliver Weldon, born May 1921; novel The Clanking of the Chains (1920), in which Michael Dempsey organises an anti-conscription campaign and is driven out when the local bourgeoisie take it over for their own purposes; series of twenty-three articles for The Gael (1920-21); succeeded James Stephens as registrar to National Gallery in 1925, a position made permanent in 1926;
issued The Mirror in the Dusk (1928), a novel tracing a series of loveless marriages; also The Various Lives of Marcus Igoe (1929), considered his finest novel; coll. short stories issued as The Smiling Faces (1929); founding member Irish Academy of Letters, 1932; appt. to Abbey Board of Directors, 1935, but resigned same year over production details of The Silver Tassie; his term as drama critic for Irish Times ended in picqued resignation after a letter of complaint from MacLiammoir and Edwards concerning a man whose ‘reviews clearly disclosed a man who did not consider drama a serious form of art’ (q.source); wrote Marks and Mabel (1945), a play; retired from distinguished career at National Gallery, 1960; his “Growing up in the Midlands” posthumously published in Capuchin Annual (1964). NCBE IF DIB DIW DIH DIL FDA OCIL

[ top ]

Published plays
  • Look at the Heffernans! (Dublin & Cork: Talbot [1926]).
  • Margaret Gillan (London: George Allen & Unwin 1934).
  • Marks and Mabel (Dublin: Duffy 1945).
  • The Glorious Uncertainty (Dublin: P. J. Bourke 1957).

See also Abbey Plays 1899-1948 (3 Candles, 1949).

Fiction (novels)
  • The Valley of the Squinting Windows (Dublin; London: Maunsel & Co.; London: Sampson Low, Marston 1918); Do., with Prefatory Note (New York: Brentano’s 1919); and Do., with Afterword by Peadar O’Donnell (Tralee: Anvil 1964).
  • The Clanking of Chains: A Story of Sinn Fein (New York: Brentano’s 1919), The Clanking of Chains (Dublin; London: Maunsel 1920), Do. (Tralee: Anvil 1965), 214pp.
  • [as Oliver Blyth], The Irishman: A Novel (London: Eveleigh Nash 1920), rep. as In Clay and In Bronze: A Study in Personality (Dublin: T. Kiersey; New York: Brentano’s 1920).
  • The Mirror in the Dusk (Dublin & London: Maunsel & Roberts 1921).
  • The Various Lives of Marcus Igoe (London: Sampson Low, Marston 1929), Do., rep., with Afterword by Michael McDonnell (Chester Springs: Dufour [?1995]), 320pp.
  • Return to Ebontheever (London: Cape 1930), and Do., reiss. as Othello’s Daughter (London: Cape 1942).
  • Michael Caravan (Dublin: Talbot 1946).
  • The Whole Story of the X.Y.Z. (Belfast: H. R. Carter 1951) [novella].
Fiction (stories),
  • The Smiling Faces and Other Stories (London: Mandrake 1929).
  • Some Curious People (Dublin: Talbot 1945).
  • ‘‘The Master’s Holiday’’, The Bell (Aug. 1947), [q.p.].
  • ‘‘Mullally’s Reverie’’, The Bell (1954), [q.p.].
  • ‘‘On Seeing Swift in Laracor’’, Oxford Book of Verse, eds., Donagh MacDonagh & Lennox Robinson (Oxford: Clarendon [1958]).
  • “Books and Their Writers”, [series of twenty-three articles], in The Gael (1920-21), [q.pp.].
  • ed., Abbey Plays 1899-1948, including the Productions of the Irish Literary Theatre, with a commentary by Brinsley MacNamara and an Index of Playwrights (Dublin: Three Candles [1949]), 84pp.
  • ‘The World and Garrett Reilly’, in Irish Writing (Jan. 1950), [q.p.].
  • ‘Growing up in the Midlands’, Capuchin Annual (1964), pp.149-70 [autobiog.].

See also “Growing Up in the Midlands” (1964) [cited in DIL without bibl. details].

[ top ]

  • Ernest Boyd, Ireland’s Literary Renaissance (NY: Barnes & Noble 1922), [q.p.].
  • Andrew E. Malone, ‘Brinsley MacNamara: An Appreciation’, Dublin Magazine (July 1929), [q.p.].
  • T. C. Murray, ‘George Sheils, Brinsley MacNamara, etc.’, in Lennox Robinson, ed., The Irish Theatre, Lectures Delivered During the Abbey Festival Held in Dublin in August 1918 (Macmillan 1939; rep. NY: Haskell 1971), [q.p.].
  • Donnchadh A. Meehan, ‘Of Four Fantasies’, The Bookman (Dec. 1948) [q.p.].
  • Benedict Kiely, Modern Irish Fiction (Dublin: Eagle 1950), [q.p.].
  • Peadar O’Donnell, ‘Afterword’, The Valley of the Squinting Windows (Tralee: Anvil 1964) [see infra].
  • Thomas Flanagan, ‘The Night the Book was Burned’, Irish Evening Press (18 July 1964), [q.p.].
  • Robert Hogan, After the Irish Renaissance (1967), [q.p.].
  • Seán McMahon, ‘A Reappraisal: The Valley of the Squinting Windows’, Éire-Ireland (Spring 1968), pp.106-17 [see infra]; Maureen Keaney, Westmeath Authors (Mullingar 1969), p.97f.
  • Michael McDonnell, ‘Brinsley MacNamara: A Checklist’, Journal of Irish Literature, 4, 2 (May 1975), pp.79-88.
  • Peter Costello, The Heart Grown Brutal (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1977).
  • Richard Fallis, After the Irish Renaissance (NY: Syracuse UP 1977), [q.p.].
  • Ruth Fleischmann, ‘Brinsley MacNamara’s Penny Dreadful’, Éire-Ireland (Summer 1983), pp.53-74.
  • Seamus Deane, A Short History of Irish Literature (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame 1986), [q.p.].
  • John Wilson Foster, Fictions of the Irish Literary Revival (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1987), pp.186-97; 190-96, et passim.
  • Alexander G. Gonzalez, ‘The Novels of Brinsley MacNamara’s Later Period’, in Irish University Review 19, 2 (Autumn 1989), pp.272-86.
  • Michael McDonnell, ‘Stereotypes and Caricatures of the Abbey Theatre (1910) in The Irishman by ‘‘Brinsley MacNamara’’’, in Éire-Ireland (Fall 1989), pp.53-64.
  • Padraic O’Farrell, The Burning of Brinsley MacNamara (Dublin: Lilliput 1990).
  • John Cronin, ‘Brinsley MacNamara, The Various Lives of Marcus Igoe’, in The Anglo-Irish Novel: 1900-1940 [Vol. II] (Belfast: Appletree Press 1990), [chap.] pp.107-13.
  • Gonzalez, ‘Brinsley MacNamara’, St. James Press’s Reference Guide to Literature in English (1991).
  • James H. Murphy, Catholic Fiction and Social Reality in Ireland, 1873-1922 (Conn: Greenwood 1997), pp.97ff. [see infra]; Dawn Duncan, ‘Brinsley MacNamara’ in Bernice Schrank & William Demastes, ed., Irish Playwrights, 1880-1995: A Research and Production Sourcebook (CT: Greenwood Press 1997), pp.182-93.

See also remarks in Benedict Kiely, Drink to the Bird (London: Methuen 1991), p.71 [friendship with; habit of saying ‘It is a curious thing ...’ and hence Some Curious People; unfinished autobiography, The Long Vexation, after lines of Goldsmith: ‘I still had hopes, the long vexation passed,/Here to return and die at home at last.’; see further, infra.]

[ top ]

Peadar O’Donnell: ‘A novel that involves itself in its village, as this one does, will always create community excitement. Interestingly enough, Brinsley MacNamara did not choose to go into conflict with his own village. He did, however, set out to challenge the idealised view of themselves from which the Irish people seemed to him to suffer; or, more accurately, to challenge with a sharper sense of reality the great body of current writing at that period. He felt those were days when people might behave better if cut down to size.’ (Afterword to The Valley of the Squinting Windows, 1964 Edn.; cited in Peter Costello, The Heart Grown Brutal, 1977, p.161.)

Sean McMahon, ‘A Reappraisal: The Valley of the Squinting Windows’, Éire-Ireland (Spring 1968), writes that ‘The topographical details of the novel placed it fimly in Delvin and district, though MacNamara insisted that the valley could be anywhere in Ireland. (”I used certain descriptions of characters and events because they were typical, were easily identified with local people and happenings. But people in Clare and Limerick have been able to do exactly the same in the case of their own villages. So could people in any county in Ireland.”) The close parallels with people and places of MacNamara’s own county were one of the causes of the trouble later. // The novel itself has faint affinities with classical tragedy in that three “innocent” young people are destroyed because of the sins of their elders, committed in the past.’ (p.107.)

Edward MacLysaght, Changing Times: Ireland Since 1898 (Colin Smythe 1978): ‘Last week [March 1959] returning from one of those journeys I went astray and found myself in a village which turned out to be Delvin. Not knowing where I was I went into a shop and asked the young man behind the counter the name of the place. “This,” said he, “is The Valley of the Squinting Windows.” “Well,” I replied to his surprise, “it wouldn’t be called that only for me.” / The explanation of these apparently obscure remarks is this. Away back in 1917 I was not only chairman of Maunsels, the publishers, but also their general utility man which included reader. One of the manuscripts I had to read was entitled “The Valley of the Squinting Windows” by a then entirely unknown author who used the pen-name Brinsley MacNamara. I saw at once that we had found a new writer of real promise, though I realized that his was the sort of book which might well cause a storm (as it did). Anyway we published it and so launched Brinsley MacNamara, alias John Weldon, on his literary career.’ (q.p.; supplied by Ronan Crowley, NDU.)

[ top ]

Benedict Kiely, Drink to the Bird (London: Methuen 1991): ‘Brinsley could be a rancorous man and was much involved in controversy around the theatre and elsewhere but, since we were of different generations, we had nothing to quarrel about and had also, I flatter myself, a natural compatibility: and there wil be much to say about him in the future. For the moment I salute his noble, most impressive Shade, and borrow a phrase.’ (p.71; note however that no more is said of MacNamara in this volume.)

Benedict Kiely, “Irritable Vowels”, Village [journal] (13 Nov 2004), narrates in A Letter to Peachtree that MacNamara used to preface remarks with ‘curious thing’, and gives an instance in which he reflects on how the ‘landscape, buildings, environment, physical surroundings, can affect the character of people’, giving the examples of a Dublin workingman who drinks ten pints and goes home to a tenement to sleep it off, compared with a workingman in the ‘soft midlands of Meath and Westmeath’ who drinks his ten pints and cycles home six miles to Delvin and ‘murders his maiden aunt with a hatchet. / Curious thing, environment. Curious thing.’ (Sere .)

James H. Murphy, Catholic Fiction and Social Reality in Ireland, 1873-1922 (Conn: Greenwood 1997), account Valley of the Squinting Windows, as follows [paraphrase]: Nan Brennan, who was deserted by the father of her child out of wedlock, seeks to make a priest of her later son, John; she becomes embroiled in wilful hostilities with the brother of the unfaithful lover, and manages to injure his marriage prospects by interfering with his correspondence with the connivance of the postmistress; he in turn encourages his worthless nephew Eugene to befriend her son and when John kill Eugene it turns out that the dead boy is none other than Nan’s first child; Eugene, a follower of the literary revival, seduces Rebecca Kerr and makes her pregnant; ‘Fr. O’Keeffe’ is in cahoots with the gombeenmen. (p.104.)

[ top ]

The Valley of the Squinting Windows (1918): the publican’s wife: ‘the hardest woman in Garradrimna. Her childlessness made her so. She was beginning to grow stale and withered, and anything in the nature of love and marriage, with their possible results, was to her a constant source of affliction and annoyance.’ (Quoted in P. J. Kavanagh, Voices in Ireland, 1994, p.59.)

The Clanking of the Chains (1920): ‘Those who sold themselves as [criton?] informers, although sufficiently formidable in numbers, were, after all, conmparatively few, but what of the greater traitorous element in the heart of Ireland itself, the murderous apathy which had crushed more powerfully, more subtly than the ostentatious tyranny of Britannia, because it had so successfully remained unseen?’ ( p.81).

Further, ‘The general round-up which was going on now was driving even the most degraded shoneens to make some sort of show.’ (Ibid., p.177; both cited in Noël Debeer, ‘The Irish Novel Looks Backward’, in Patrick Rafroidi & Maurice Harmon, eds., The Irish Novel in Our Time, Université de Lille 1975-76, pp.106-23; p.115.)

[ top ]

Desmond Clarke, Ireland in Fiction [Pt II] (Cork: Royal Carbery 1985), lists The Valley of the Squinting Windows (1918); The Clanking of the Chains (1919); In Clay and Bronze (1920); The Whole Story of the X.Y.Z. [1951], novella; The Mirror in the Dusk (1928); The Various Lives of Marcus Igoe (1930); Return to Ebontheever (1942 [recte 1930, reiss. as Othello’s Daughter, 1942]); Michael Caravan (1946); Some Curious People (1945), stories & sketches, and The Smiling Faces and Other Stories (1929). SEE also under Oliver Blyth (pseud. Brinsley MacNamara), In Clay and Bronze [n.d.]; also The Irish Man, A Novel (London: Eveleigh [sic] Nash 1920), 302pp.

Robert Hogan, ed., Dictionary of Irish Literature (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1979), entry by Michael McDonnell (MacNamara’s bibliographer) outlines a clear line development in MacNamara’s career as a novelist, as follows [summary], I) He set out to expose the myth of Holy Ireland in the light of his own social and literary idealism, producing The Valley &c in 1918. 2) Next, he extended his critique from religio-social matters to politico-social matters in The Clanking of the Chains in 1920, and 3) Then he recorded the development of his own idealism and its satirical counterpart - ‘the long, low chuckle of the mind’ - in The Irishman (or In Clay and Bronze), also 1920. 4) After that, he retired from novel writing, though he later published Marcus Igoe (1929) and Return to Ebontheever (1930), both largely written in the earlier period. Of these, Marcus Igoe is the most intensely self-evaluative of his writings. 5) Finally, and much later, Michael Caravan (1946) - following the sketches of Smiling Faces and Curious People - is ‘lighter, forgiving’, while XYZ (1951) deals with ‘life-giving fantasies’.

Further: he wrote 23 well-informed articles under the title ‘Books and their Writers’ for The Gael. As drama critic for the Irish Times, he did not consider drama a serious form of literature. And note [in text], The Grand Opera House, performed Abbey [1936], and The Three Thimbles, do. [1941].

D. E. S. Maxwell, Modern Irish Drama (Cambridge UP 1984), lists Look at the Heffernans! (Dublin: Talbot 1929); The Glorious Uncertainty (Dublin: P. J. Bourke 1957). James Cahalan, Great Hatred, Little Room, The Irish Historical Novel, 1983, p.110, Brinsley MacNamara, The Clanking of the Chains (1920) not a novel at all but a series of nationalist episodes or historical sketches from Robert Emmet to Sinn Fein. Irish Book Lover 14 for account of the court action by J. J. Weldon, father of Brinsley MacNamara, against PP and others for conspiring and boycotting .., IBL, Vol. XIV (Feb. 1924), p. 25.; also Vol. X on MacNamara leaving his native town (June-July 1919).

Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 2, extract from The Valley of the Squinting Windows [1127-31], and BIOG. [1220]. b. John Weldon, son of James Weldon, Delvin schoolmaster; Abbey Players, 1910; first Abbey American tour, 1911; freelance, America, 1911-13; lived in Devlin, 1913-18; unprecedented odium greeted his Valley of the Squinting Windows, and his father was forced to leave the region, the book being burned; MacNamara settled in Quin, Co. Clare and Dublin; nine Abbey plays, Margaret Gillan (1933) uncompromisingly realistic, and Look at the Hiffernans (1926) a most popular comedy; succeeded James Stephen’s as Registrar of the National Gallery, 1924; MIAL, 1935; Abbey director, also 1935; resigned in protest at production of O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie.

Bibl., The Valley of the Squinting Windows (Sampson, Low, Marston 1918); The Clanking of the Chains (Maunsel 1920); The Mirror in the Dusk (Maunsel & Roberts 1921); Look at the Hiffernans (Dublin: Talbot 1926); The Various Lives of Marcus Igoe (Sampson &c. 1919); Margaret Gillan (Allen & Unwin 1934), play; Some Curious People (Dublin: Talbot 1945), short stories; Michael Caravan (Dublin: Talbot 1951); The Whole Story of XYZ (Belfast 1951); The Glorious Uncertainty (Dublin: PJ Bourke n.d.). [Criticism as supra.]

Donagh MacDonagh, ed. Oxford Irish Verse, selects ‘‘On Seeing Swift in Laracor’’, which deals with Swift and his servant Patrick Brell, who ‘sold him for a show.’

Belfast Central Public Library holds Abbey Plays 1899-1948; The Clanking of the Chains; Drangle, Sis, and Co. (n.d.); Glorious Uncertainty (1910); Look at the Heffernans (n.d.); Michael Caravan (1946); The Mirror in the Dusk (1928); Return to Ebontheever (1930); The Smiling Faces (1929); Some Curious People (1945); The Valley of the Squinting Windows (1918); The Various Lives of Marcus Igoe (1929).

[ top ]