Gwynn, Stephen Lucius (1864–1950), man of letters, politician, and soldier, was born 13 February 1864 at St Columba's College, Rathfarnham, Dublin, eldest child of John Gwynn (qv), warden of St Columba's and later professor of divinity at TCD, and his wife, Lucy Josephine, the daughter of William Smith O'Brien (qv).
Family and youth Ten children survived to adulthood, but two died as young adults, so that some reference works describe Gwynn as one of six brothers and two sisters. Financial as well as educational considerations drove the siblings to the pursuit of success in scholarship examinations; three of Gwynn's brothers became fellows of Trinity, of whom Edward John Gwynn (qv) was later provost and Robert Malcolm Gwynn senior dean. Two other brothers entered the Indian civil service (recruited by examination); another joined the army and rose to become head of the staff college (Gwynn recalled that this brother was the least skilful at examinations and the most financially successful of all the family). A sister, Mary, became the stepmother of Elizabeth Bowen (qv).
Gwynn's early life was marked by extensive contact with the O'Briens, notably his uncle Lucius, who became curate to Rev. John Gwynn, and Charlotte Grace O'Brien (qv), later the subject of a short biographical memoir by Gwynn. Gwynn also started work on a biography of William Smith O'Brien; the unfinished manuscript is in the NLI.
Gwynn spent his first years in Co. Donegal while his father was rector of Tullyaughnish (near Ramelton) and dean of Raphoe. All the children were educated privately by their parents; Gwynn later described his mother as the best teacher he had ever encountered. His imagination was permanently shaped by the landscape of north Donegal, by contact with the local peasantry, by the experience of landed society in its last years of confidence before the Land War, and by meeting older Church of Ireland clergymen whose attitudes had been shaped before disestablishment. He remembered seeing Lord George Hill (qv), whom he described as revered and worthy of reverence, and Lord Leitrim (qv); while he thought that the latter possessed some good qualities, he recorded that no observer could fail to recognise how much better off his tenants became within a few years of his assassination.
Gwynn's upbringing among landed society in a peripheral district shared significant features with that of Violet Martin (qv) in Connemara and Edith Somerville (qv) in west Cork. He published comments on most of the works of ‘Somerville and Ross’ (defending them against charges of mere stage Irishness) and corresponded with them, making sporadic attempts to convert them to nationalism.
Conversion to nationalism When Gwynn returned to Dublin in 1876 to attend St Columba's he was a firm unionist, like most of his school contemporaries (with the exception of the future home rule MP Vesey Knox (1865–1921)). Having in 1882 obtained a scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford, he graduated four years later with a first in classics and litterae humaniores; however, the experience of being looked on as an outsider in England and being a misfit among a generally affluent undergraduate population had given him a leaning towards Irish nationalism. This was reinforced by vacation contacts with the circle of protestant nationalist intellectuals around T. W. Rolleston (qv) in Dublin and by meetings with John O'Leary (qv) and Douglas Hyde (qv); Gwynn's conversion to nationalism was finalised in spring 1883, when he visited Charlotte Grace O'Brien's Cobh boarding-house for emigrants and decided that no government would send out its subjects in such poverty if it really looked on them as equal fellow citizens.
Although Gwynn lost the religious faith of his parents and sided with the political opponents of the landed class, he always insisted that most of those whom he knew had sincerely loved Ireland and sought to do their duty as they saw it. Their tragedy, in his opinion, was that they considered the deference which had often been extended to them as being theirs by right, and treated its withdrawal as a personal betrayal; but Gwynn also held that one of the great weaknesses of catholic and nationalist Ireland was its habit of regarding its opponents as mere self-seeking mercenaries without recognising that the best of them possessed ideals of their own, and he consistently believed that Ireland could still benefit from the distinctive culture and abilities of the old governing classes after an equitable constitutional settlement had come about.
His conversion did not involve public commitment to political activism; the Rolleston circle of protestant home rulers spoke and campaigned in favour of home rule but did not subject themselves to what they regarded as the dictatorial discipline of Parnell's party. For some years Gwynn subscribed to the Parnellite weekly United Ireland and in 1888 turned down a secretarial job which would have required him to help his employer to compose unionist speeches; but after the Parnell split he lost interest in Irish affairs for a time.
Early career and marriage On graduation Gwynn realised that he did not know what to do with his life, except that, while retaining respect for the vocations of scholar and clergyman, he was unwilling to follow his father in either. He liked a good sermon and acquired many clerical acquaintances (some of whom – both catholic and protestant – are memorialised in Saints and scholars (1929)). His attitude to all forms of religion was the same as his attitude to music: he saw that it profoundly influenced many people's lives, he could appreciate some of its external qualities, but he could never quite ‘get’ the thing itself. Although he applied unsuccessfully for a number of university posts between 1888 and 1893, he decided in retrospect that pure scholarship required an obsessive commitment which was not in his nature. He worked for a time as a tutor in France (developing a lifelong Francophilia) before becoming a secondary teacher successively at Bradfield College, Berkshire (1888), at Firth College, Sheffield (1889), at a ‘crammer’ in Clifton run by a Mr Cole (1890–5), and finally at St Columba's (1895–6).
In December 1889 Gwynn married his cousin Mary Louisa Gwynn; they had four sons (two of whom died in their late teens; the survivors were Denis R. Gwynn (qv), research professor of modern Irish history at UCC, and the Jesuit Aubrey Gwynn (qv), professor of medieval history at UCD) and two daughters. In 1903 Mary Louisa converted to catholicism; Gwynn discussed the possibility of following her example but after some conversations with priests decided he could not think of any particular reason not to stay as he was. However, he agreed that the children should follow their mother, since she had strong religious convictions while he was basically indifferent. (Gwynn combined respect for the fervour of Irish catholic devotion, the genuine concern of many priests for their people, and the self-sacrifice of the teaching orders with a protestant distrust of priestly authoritarianism and an awareness that this self-sacrifice was partly inspired by desire for social control; his reviews of the novels of Canon Sheehan (qv), in Ireland to-day and to-morrow, show a fascinated mixture of respect, interest in an alien worldview, and occasional dismay. He emphasised, however, that most of the catholics with whom he mixed had a sense of personal honour as keen as he had found in any protestant, and he thought that the Jesuit education which his elder sons experienced had advantages as well as disadvantages when compared with English public schools.) Gwynn subsequently acquiesced in the decision of a son and a daughter to enter religious orders; however, in later life he expressed regret that their decision had deprived him of grandchildren. (He may have been thinking specifically of male-line grandchildren, as Denis remained unmarried; he did have four grandchildren by his elder daughter, who married the Dublin physician T. G. Moorhead (qv).) The Gwynn marriage was troubled, and from the 1920s the couple lived separately; Gwynn had affairs with several women, including the painter Grace Henry (qv).
London, 1896–1904 Having dabbled in journalism and literature since his student days, Gwynn moved to London in 1896 with the intention of making his living through writing. He soon became a prominent figure in literary and journalistic circles; through his military brother's involvement in West Africa he became a close friend of Mary Kingsley, whose biography he later wrote, and this interest in African affairs may have contributed to his later respect for Roger Casement (qv). (As a Redmondite, Gwynn deplored Casement's wartime activities, but described the use of the Black Diaries to dampen down appeals for a reprieve as ‘the meanest thing I have known to be done by tools of a Government’ (Gwynn, 261). Gwynn's principal success was as a critic and reviewer; although he published some fiction and declared in 1926 that he valued his poetry more than everything else he had written (his Collected poems was published in 1923, and the late volumes of verse, Salute to valour (1941) and Aftermath (1946), pay tribute to Irish participants in both world wars.)
Gwynn found his way back into contact with Ireland through an interest in the work of Horace Plunkett (qv) and other constructive unionists; he wrote a guidebook to the Donegal–Antrim area and reported on the efforts of the congested districts board to develop the fishing industry (he retained a lifelong fondness for Irish salmon fishing). Through the London Gaelic League, which provided another new perspective on Donegal, he began collecting stories from local seanachies and writing descriptions of their sophisticated oral culture. His nationalism was fully reawakened by the Boer War: although he was initially prepared to support the British cause as the lesser of two evils, the widespread jingoism which accompanied it and the harsh repression practised in the guerrilla campaigns of its last stages reawakened his sense of not being English and loosened his relations with Conservative journalists. In 1903 he became secretary of the London Literary Society.
Redmondite MP and Gaelic Leaguer In 1904 the Gwynns returned to Ireland and settled at Raheny, Co. Dublin. This move was made possible when Mrs Gwynn received an inheritance; it was inspired by her desire that, as catholics, her children should be brought up in Ireland, by Gwynn's desire that they should have a country upbringing like his own (he maintained that the smallholding attached to the Raheny house taught him much about agriculture), and by his increasing involvement in nationalist politics. Gwynn aligned himself with the Redmondite majority party. William O'Brien (qv), leader of the ‘conciliationist’ nationalist splinter group which advocated cooperation with moderate unionist proponents of limited devolution, later accused Gwynn of allowing himself to be used as a token protestant by the Redmondites; Gwynn replied that O'Brien exaggerated the extent of his early contacts with O'Brien's devolutionist allies. In 1906 he won a by-election in Galway City, defeating John Shawe-Taylor (qv), who stood as a devolutionist. Gwynn held this seat until 1918.
Gwynn's position as a protestant intellectual involved in the cultural revival movements, yet prepared to submit to the discipline of the home rule party (a position comparable in some ways to that of T. M. Kettle (qv) in relation to the younger generation of catholic-nationalist intellectuals), made him valuable as a propagandist. He often wrote articles supporting the cause of home rule and frequently replied to articles in London journals attacking it, and later became head of the Irish parliamentary party's revived Irish Press Agency (which issued pro-home rule material to the press and to speakers). The case for home rule (1911) is an extension of this work.
Gwynn served on the Gaelic League executive (despite protests from Arthur Griffith (qv), who denounced him as a Redmondite infiltrator). His youngest son, Denis, became a star pupil at P. H. Pearse's (qv) school, St Enda's. (Even after 1916 Gwynn spoke of Pearse with respect; The Irish situation (1921) praises his idealism, while erroneously describing Pearse as a native speaker from Connemara. Denis's less enthusiastic view of his old master was expressed in an article in the Dublin Review in 1923.) In 1909, however, Gwynn severed his connection with the league because he opposed the imposition of Irish as a compulsory subject for matriculation in the NUI; he maintained that this was unnecessarily divisive and that the league would do better to rely on persuasion. This view placed him at odds with the majority of the Irish parliamentary party, as did his strong support for women's suffrage. After the first world war he maintained that the Gaelic League's view of Irish nationality as essentially Gaelic and incompatible with Britishness had been decisive in providing the basis of popular support for Sinn Féin. While he recognised the force behind this view, he complained that it implicitly justified the Ulster unionists in demanding partition and excluded from the nation all those who saw any value in the Anglo-Irish tradition or favoured reconciliation between Britain and Ireland; he predicted that it would ultimately prove unsustainable in a world drawn together by new means of transport and communications and by the quest for a stable world order built on law (preface to Irish books and Irish people (1919)).
War and politics At the outbreak of the first world war, Gwynn supported the proposal of John Redmond (qv) that Irishmen should enlist in the British forces, both as a means of securing home rule and because of the perceived justice of the Allied cause. At the age of fifty-one he enlisted as a private in the Leinster Regiment (January 1915), and was later commissioned lieutenant in the 6th battalion, Connacht Rangers, attached to the 16th (Irish) division. Promoted captain in July 1915, Gwynn served with his battalion at the battles of Ginchy and Guillemont during the Somme offensive (1916) and also at Messines (1917). In July 1917 he was made a chevalier of the Legion d'honneur; he also received a 1914–15 star. Although he left the front line for a mixture of health and political reasons, he took great pride in his war service and seems to have thought that through it he had proved himself in a deeper manner than heretofore.
After returning to Ireland in 1917 Gwynn attended the Irish Convention, where he sided with the Redmond faction in attempting to reach a compromise with southern unionists over the opposition of the more nationalistic faction led by Joseph Devlin (qv). Following Redmond's death he distanced himself from the Irish party under Dillon's leadership by supporting a voluntary recruiting campaign organised by the government after the (supposedly temporary) abandonment of its conscription proposals.
In 1918 Gwynn abandoned his Galway seat without a contest, standing unsuccessfully in the TCD constituency as an independent nationalist. He founded a short-lived Irish Centre Party, which merged with Sir Horace Plunkett's Irish Dominion League in 1919. John Redmond's last years (1919), which expounds Gwynn's views, is an astute defence of Redmondism which in some respects displays superior penetration to that displayed by Gwynn's son Denis in his 1932 biography of Redmond. In appraising its value, however, it should be borne in mind that Gwynn writes as an intellectual articulating in retrospect views which its subject (primarily a practical politician) might not have fully expressed or even fully shared and that, though a parliamentary colleague on friendly terms with W. H. K. Redmond (qv) and writing with access to the dead leader's papers, he was not a member of Redmond's small inner circle of confidants.
Gwynn's subsequent break with the Irish Dominion League (itself a collection of notables whose primary purpose was to influence elite opinion in Britain and America rather than to act as a political party) over his view that Ulster unionist opposition could not simply be disregarded, and that it might be necessary to accept partition temporarily, marked the end of his political career. Through his political and journalistic contacts (notably his long-standing friendship with the businessman and publicist F. S. Oliver and his contacts with Lloyd George's adviser Philip Kerr, later Lord Lothian) Gwynn had some influence on the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. His views on a settlement are laid out in The Irish situation (1921), published just before the truce and denouncing both the atrocities of the crown forces and the violence of the IRA; the book sees Éamon de Valera (qv) as a moderate and suggests that his advocacy of an Irish settlement based on the position of Cuba in relation to the USA implies willingness to accept what Gwynn describes as the much more favourable position enjoyed by New Zealand in relation to Britain. In 1917–18 Gwynn was a regular contributor to The Times (which favoured a partition–dominion settlement) and during the war of independence, and for much of the 1920s he was Irish correspondent of the Observer. His Dublin house was blown up by republicans during the civil war.
Man of letters Gwynn spent the remainder of his life as a man of letters; in all he published over sixty books, including The history of Ireland (1923) and numerous guidebooks. In 1926 he published Experiences of a literary man, a memoir of his early life which concludes with his election to parliament. His principal literary achievements were as an essayist and biographer, and insights both into his character and experiences and into the lives of those with whom he came in contact are scattered throughout his writings. His biographies are generally best described as haute vulgarisation, rendering down and reflecting on published sources without providing detailed references, though some, such as his commissioned lives of Sir Charles Dilke (1917; with Gertrude Tuckwell) and Robert Falcon Scott and his edition of Sir Cecil Spring-Rice's correspondence (1929), draw on privileged access to personal papers. He provides implicit justification for this approach in his life of Oliver Goldsmith (qv), where he comments that, in order to produce work of lasting value, the man of letters must always remain aware of the distinction between hackwork and more significant projects and must over time show ‘an accumulation of thought’. Subliminal references to Gwynn's own experiences may be found in many of these works. For example, his comments on the naturally tense relationship between Church of Ireland dean and bishop (in Dean Swift: his life and friendships (1935)) reflects his father's experiences as a dean, while his comment that only those who know what a relief it is for a man engaged in incessant brainwork to experience the company and conversation of clever women is offered as an excuse for Swift's involvement with Vanessa (Esther Van Homrigh (qv)) and betrayal of Stella's devotion, but also reflects Gwynn's own treatment of his wife. Henry Grattan and his times (1939) (which draws on contemporary press coverage as well as earlier works) draws on Gwynn's experiences as a parliamentary orator, while its account of the anticlimax of the later career of Henry Grattan (qv) reflects Gwynn's regrets over the defeat of Redmondism and the form taken by the two post-partition Irish statelets.
Like W. B. Yeats (qv), Gwynn moved from enthusiastic discovery of the peasantry and the remnants of Gaeldom, in reaction against his background, to increased appreciation of the protestant/Anglo-Irish tradition as he grew older. This earned him much vituperation from Fr Timothy Corcoran (qv) in the Catholic Bulletin (although Gwynn continued to praise such recoveries/reinvention of Gaelic/catholic identity as Hidden Ireland, by Daniel Corkery (qv) (1878–1964)). Gwynn also displays a fondness for the sceptical eighteenth-century sensibility in reaction against the late Victorian enthusiasms of his upbringing and early life, and displays increasing confidence and contentment as a connoisseur of wine, talk, art, and life. His eighteenth-century biographies are considerably more frank about their subjects’ sexual peccadilloes than would have been the case before Lytton Strachey wrote (though he overlooks Horace Walpole's homosexuality). His literary tastes were generally Edwardian: he admired the metrical skill of Tennyson, and maintained a lifelong devotion to the Waverley novels, though he believed that, as with Charles Lever (qv) – another favourite – full appreciation depended on the reader's mastery of the art of skipping; he wrote a reverential biography of Sir Walter Scott (1930), whom he clearly regarded as a much better man than himself. However, he praised Yeats's assertion of the necessary freedom of the artist against popular pressure as perhaps the poet's greatest contribution to his country, and Dublin old and new (1938) refers to the Ulysses of James Joyce (qv) as a modern classic.
Other significant works by Gwynn on Irish topics include a study of Thomas Moore (qv) (1904) and Robert Emmet (1910), a semi-fictionalised account which argues on the basis of research in the state papers that Emmet (qv) was a better strategist and came closer to success than was generally believed. There is a large collection of Gwynn's papers in the NLI and material relating to him can be found in the papers of numerous other contemporary politicians. His war record and other official documentation may be accessed at the National Archives, Kew. Aubrey Gwynn's papers in the Irish Jesuit Archive, Dublin, include a history of the Gwynn family and an unpublished autobiography containing numerous references to his father.
Towards the end of his life Gwynn received honorary doctorates from the NUI (1940) and TCD (1942). In April 1950 he was awarded the Gregory medal of the Irish Academy of Letters. He continued to write almost to the end of his life, commenting in the essay collection Memories of enjoyment on the difference between the impoverished north Donegal of his youth and its present-day tourist facilities and mass production of Irish-speaking trainee teachers and paying tribute to Long John O'Connor (qv) as a fine example of the rank and file of the old Irish parliamentary party. He died 11 June 1950 at his Dublin home, 23 Palmerston Road. His funeral at St Maelruain's (Church of Ireland), Tallaght, Co. Dublin, drew a large crowd, including the president Seán T. O'Kelly (qv) and taoiseach John A. Costello (qv). He was buried at Tallaght cemetery.
The fact that Gwynn was primarily a commentator rather than a creator, together with his championship of defeated causes, tended to obscure his posthumous reputation. It is arguable, however, that the vast range and extent of his minor achievements and his efforts to make himself a bridge between the different Irish traditions make this quintessential Anglo-Irishman (as he was described by AE (qv)) a more significant witness to the Ireland of his day than has yet been realised.