Byrne, William (Aloysius) (1872–1933), poet (‘William Dara ’) and professor of English, was born 30 January 1872 in Rathangan, Co. Kildare. His father, Joseph, who became the principal teacher in the local national school, married Marcella Murray (October 1870) and William was the eldest among their nine sons and three daughters. His brother John became a Jesuit priest, another, Peter, taught classics in St Kieran's College, Kilkenny, and another joined the Indian Civil Service. William studied at Carlow Lay College, which was then at St Patrick's College, Carlow (it moved to Knockbeg in 1892), and entered Maynooth in 1891, remaining there until 1898. He had planned to become a priest but abandoned the idea. He matriculated for the RUI in 1897 and took its first arts examination in 1899. Apparently, so successful was his performance that his examiner, Prof. W. F. Trench (qv), remembered Byrne as being the ‘only candidate to whom he had ever awarded full honours marks’ (‘Kay Don’, 15). In 1899, and again in 1902, he won the Royal University gold medal for English verse composition. However, Byrne never completed his degree.
After Maynooth, from 1898 until 1900, Byrne taught at St Kieran's College, Kilkenny. But about the year 1900 his health, never robust, broke down. In 1904 he moved to Knockbeg College where he taught until 1915, except for the years 1908–10, when he was absent through illness. He spent six months in Davos, Switzerland, in 1909 to recuperate, successfully, from a persistent illness that had culminated in a haemorrhage of the lungs the previous year. In order to compete for a junior fellowship in the Royal University of Ireland, he claimed to have entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where his tutor in English was A. J. Wyatt. But he never studied at Emmanuel College, nor had Wyatt any connection with it. Byrne had studied with the Cambridge branch of the University Correspondence College, where his tutor was Wyatt. Having registered in 1906, he took an external BA degree (1914) from the University of London (with which Carlow College was linked since 1840), with first-class honours in English and French. In 1922 the NUI awarded him an ‘official’ MA degree. He claimed to have been offered professorships at the University of Freiburg and St Xavier's College, Bombay, but he pursued postgraduate studies at University College, London (where he attended the lectures of the distinguished medievalist W. P. Ker, later to become professor of poetry at Oxford) on the methods of the German philologists, as a final preparation for the promised chair at Freiburg. However, because of the war, this post was not filled. Prior to beginning his postgraduate work he taught for a short time at the Grocers' Company School, Hackney Downs, London. On the execution of his friend Thomas MacDonagh (qv) for his part in the 1916 rising, Byrne was unanimously appointed to the vacant assistant lectureship in English at UCD. The following year he was appointed professor of English in Galway, a post he was to retain until his death.
According to various sources, Byrne was writing poetry from a very young age and one of his first publications was the ‘Centenary ode’, composed in 1895 to celebrate the centenary of Maynooth College, where he was then a student (St Patrick's College Maynooth, 62–4; Healy, 111–13). He also wrote the ‘Centenary chorus’ for the occasion and translated the ‘Grail song’ from Wagner's ‘Lohengrin’ (St Patrick's College Maynooth, 55–6). However, poems of his had appeared in the Weekly Freeman as early as 1891. In 1901 he published, under the pseudonym ‘William Dara’ (doubtless in honour of his native place), his only book, a volume of poetry entitled A light on the broom. The publishers were Sealy, Bryers, & Walker. A second edition, under his own name, was published in 1904 by M. H. Gill and by Benziger Bros in New York. This edition was arranged differently and included some new poems while omitting some previously published pieces. ‘The purple heather’, Byrne's best-known poem, which was frequently reproduced in anthologies and school readers, was singled out for praise when his volume appeared. In general, reviewers saw Byrne as a nature poet who combined religious orthodoxy and patriotism. T. P. O'Connor (qv) spoke of his ‘general purity of tone and . . . intense human and national sympathy’ (Donnellan, 18). Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (qv) claimed that the appearance of the book ‘at once placed Dara in the front rank among the young poets of the day’. W. B. Yeats (qv) was, it seems, not unappreciative and he wrote to Byrne: ‘Lady Gregory [qv] has just read to me your charming lines on bringing back the old Gaelic music heard in a dream’ (Donnellan, 18). Incidentally, the two men met only once (in Galway) and Byrne found Yeats ‘very talkative and very absent-minded’ (Meehan, 35). In her autobiographical Life and the dream, Mary Colum (qv), describing the authors Irish people were reading in the early years of the twentieth century, wrote that, among others, ‘there was William Dara, whose verses the students read, and probably other people, though I never met them’. She then added: ‘Long afterwards, in the 1930s, James Joyce [qv], who had been a student some years before me, recalled so much of William Dara, as did I, that, sitting in a Paris café, we were able to repeat his verses line by alternative line’ (Colum, 100). Indeed Joyce, if we are to believe him, intended to write about ‘Dara’. In a letter to his brother Stanislaus on 13 November 1906, Joyce wrote: ‘You remember the book I spoke to you of one day in the Park into which I was going to put William Dara and Lady Belvedere’ (Ellmann, ii, 193).
Apart from a few poems in the U.C.G. Annual (see Foley and Bateman, 404), Byrne published no poetry after A light on the broom. He published a number of critical pieces in the Carlovian: ‘Modern Irish poetry’ (1911), 30–37; ‘A handful of rue’ (1912), 24–38; ‘D. G. Rossetti as poet’ (1914), 54–67; and, possibly, ‘Where ignorance is folly’ (1913), 59–63. His ‘Recollections of Father O'Growney’ appeared in the U.C.G. Annual, v, no. 5 (1929–30), 35–8. Byrne, who was unmarried, died from a heart attack at the Eglinton Hotel, Galway, on 21 May 1933, and was buried in the New Cemetery, Bohermore, two days later. Portraits are reproduced in Flynn, 219 and 226; M[ichael] P[ower], 102; and Foley and Bateman, 403.