Byrne, Donn (1889–1928), writer, was born Brian Oswald Donn-Byrne 20 November 1889 in New York, the son of Thomas Fearghaill Donn-Byrne, an architect, and Jane D'Arcy (McParlane). Shortly after his birth, his parents returned to their home in Forkhill, Co. Armagh, where Donn and his younger sister Rosalys spent their childhood. Thomas Donn-Byrne died when his son was five years old, and the family subsequently suffered some financial difficulties. Byrne developed a passion for the folklore and tradition of the north of Ireland, acquiring an extensive knowledge of this culture. A fluent Irish speaker, he was known locally as Brian O'Beirne. He studied romance languages and Irish literature at UCD winning various prizes and scholarships in this field, and favourably impressing one of his teachers, Douglas Hyde (qv). He published verse in The National Student, and enjoyed sports, becoming lightweight boxing champion UCD. Later he studied at the Sorbonne and the University of Leipzig (where, reputedly, he declined his Ph.D.). In 1911 he moved to New York, where on 2 December he married Dorothea Cadogan, of Waterford; the couple settled in Brooklyn and had two daughters and two sons.
Determined to become a writer, Byrne initially supported himself in New York by working on the New catholic encyclopedia, the New standard dictionary, and, from 1912, the Century dictionary. In the course of this work he met and formed a lasting friendship with the American journalist and poet Joyce Kilmer. Byrne was evidently a popular figure on the New York literary scene, socialising with many future American writers of note, such as Don Marquis, Richardson Wright, Robert Cortes Holliday, and Samuel Raphaelson. Having completed the dictionary work, Byrne looked for other literary means of employment; he wrote reviews and made a brief, unsuccessful foray into journalism, working for short stints on three New York papers. He began to publish his verse in journals, attracting some attention with his Yeatsian lyric ‘The piper’, which appeared in Harpers (Feb. 1912). Prompted by Kilmer, who had had a short story lucratively accepted by a New York journal, Byrne began writing short fiction, with immediate success. His first story, ‘Battle’, was published in The Smart Set in 1914, and he subsequently became a prolific contributor of stories to magazines such as The Red Book, Scribner's, and McBride's International. His early stories, usually war narratives, were collected in his first published book, Stories without women (1915). Byrne's first two novels, The stranger's banquet (1919) and The foolish matrons (1920), were moderately popular, and the rights were sold to film producers. Dorothea, meanwhile, was herself achieving notable literary success; she co-authored a play entitled Enter madame with the American actress and writer Gilda Varesi, which ran for 350 performances at the Garrick theatre, New York (1920–22). With their newfound prosperity, they bought a house in Riverside, Connecticut, where Byrne wrote Messer Marco Polo (1922), a historical romance that was critically commended and established his reputation as a popular novelist.
Though commercially successful, Byrne lived beyond his means, and in 1922 he was forced to sell his property. The Byrnes left America, and briefly visited Ireland and England before travelling extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East. Byrne produced a prolific number of short stories and novels throughout the 1920s, which were published on both sides of the Atlantic to increasing acclaim. Many of his novels were Irish in subject matter, notably The wind bloweth (1922), Blind Raftery (1924), O'Malley of Shanganagh (1925), and Hangman's house (1925). Others drew on his experiences abroad, as in Brother Saul (1927), a semi-fictionalised account of the life of St Paul. In all, he published eleven novels, three collections of short stories, and a travel book, Ireland: the rock whence I was hewn (1929). The Byrnes's nomadic lifestyle finally ended when they settled in Coolmain Castle, Co. Cork, where Byrne could pursue his interests in golf, racing, and hunting. He died in a car accident near Timoleague, Co. Cork, 18 June 1928, only three days after arriving to live in Coolmain, and was buried in Rathclarin, Co. Cork. His final novel, Field of honour, was published in 1929, and Dorothea edited a collection of his verse, Poems by Donn Byrne (1934).