Donaghy, John Lyle (1902–49), poet, was born near Larne, Co. Antrim, on 28 July 1902, the eldest son of Revd John Lyle Donaghy, a minister of First Larne Presbyterian Church, and Jessie Meikle Donaghy (née Gardner-Smith). Educated at Larne grammar school and TCD (BA, 1929), he worked as a school teacher in Ireland and England for many years. His literary inclination was apparent from boyhood. As a young man he occasionally acted at the Abbey theatre, where he once produced and performed in Marlowe's ‘Dr Faustus’, bringing him to the attention of W. B. Yeats (qv) and George Russell (qv); he declined the latter's offer to write a preface to one of his volumes of poetry. Among his friends and admirers was Samuel Beckett (qv), whose biographers refer briefly to some of the elusive details of Donaghy's personal life. It is known from these sources that he was living with his wife Lilian in London in 1930 when they were visited there by Beckett, but that by 1937 they had separated, and Lilian, together with their children, was living in Co. Wicklow with republican activist Charles Gilmore (brother of George Gilmore (qv)).
Much of Donaghy's early poetry was published from 1924 in the Dublin Magazine; later he featured regularly in the Irish Times, among other publications. He also read some of his own work on Radio 2RN (latterly Radio Éireann), and contributed reviews and articles to Irish and English periodicals. His first collection of poetry, At dawn above Aherlow (1926), was published by the Yeats family's Cuala Press. Subsequent collections included: Primordia caeca (1927); Ad perennis vitae fontem (1928); The flute over the valley: Antrim song (1931); The blackbird: songs of Innisfail (1933); Into the light, and other poems (1934); Selected poems (1939); and Wilderness sings (1942). His poetry, which he claimed to be greatly if not wholly autobiographical, demonstrated a predilection for nature themes and echoed the northern landscape of his youth. He portrayed the Ulster peasantry without the sentimentalisation often associated with representations of the rural poor during this period. Critics such as Terence Brown have likened his approach to that of the gaelic poets.
It is generally agreed that his best poetry was that written during his early and middle career. The faithfulness to traditional metres in his early poetry was gradually superseded by the free verse which became his signature style. In later life his overly elaborate use of language and increasingly ambitious attempts at technical sophistication often failed to arouse the enthusiasm of his contemporaries. His failure to make a more significant impact on audiences of his own or later days can be attributed in part to the limited circulation of his publications, which invariably were printed in small private editions. Although he was rarely represented in contemporary anthologies, and was excluded from Contemporary Irish poetry (1949) (ed. by Robert Greacen and Valentin Iremonger (qv)), extracts from his Selected poems appeared in New Irish poets, published by the Devin-Adair company of New York in 1948.
It is thought that ill health motivated his return to Ireland, and the last years of his life were spent in relative seclusion near Glendalough, Co. Wicklow. Despite declining health, he continued to write copious amounts of poetry and prose, published regularly in the Dublin Magazine. ‘Pipistrelle: a poem’ appeared in the April–June 1949 issue just before his death at the age of 46 from pulmonary tuberculosis in Hume St. hospital, Dublin, on 4 May 1949. His review of The scented isle by Joseph Chiari was published posthumously in the Dublin Magazine (July–Sept. 1949).