MacLysaght, Edward Anthony Edgeworth (1887–1986), farmer, horticulturist, poet, novelist, senator, historian, and genealogist, was born 6 November 1887 at Flax Bourton, Somerset, the elder of the two sons of Sidney Royse Lysaght, novelist, poet, and businessman, and his wife, Kathrine, daughter of Joseph Clarke of Waddington, Lincolnshire. His name was registered as Edgeworth Lysaght, in honour of his father's friend the economist Francis Ysidro Edgeworth. The name Edward was added when he was baptised six weeks later in the Church of England. He was always called Ned.
Ned lost the use of an eye in an accident in the first few years of life. His parents were abroad frequently during his childhood because his father, a principal in the family steel firm, John Lysaght, of Bristol, Newport, and Sydney, had to make frequent visits on business with his wife to South America, South Africa, and Australia. Either of these factors may have contributed to the child's unhappiness at Rugby School, where he went in 1901 from a preparatory school called Nash House, near Bristol. At Rugby, of which he retained little recollection in later life except that he refused to be confirmed, he was a contemporary of the English poet Rupert Brooke; Brooke's father was his housemaster.
On the advice of Francis Edgeworth, Lysaght went up to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in January 1907, eighteen months after leaving Rugby. On his own account he had a wild time as part of the smart set; anticipating rustication for a drunken escapade, he departed after three terms and apprenticed himself as a farm pupil in Somerset under a false name. He then took a caravan near Liscannor in West Clare, not far from Lahinch, where he had spent several holidays with his golf-playing father and had been on friendly terms with some local people. Noting his son's enthusiasm for Ireland and his interest in farming, Sidney Lysaght, who had long cherished ambitions to establish himself as a country gentleman in Ireland, where he had spent much of his early boyhood, decided to buy Raheen Manor and some 600 acres near Tuamgraney in East Clare, close to the place where his Lysaght ancestors had lived.
To assuage his father's disappointment about his failure at Oxford, Lysaght was determined to prove himself a hard worker in his new life. More English than Anglo-Irish in upbringing, he grew to despise the local gentry as layabout rentiers and sought friendship among employees and neighbours. He toned down his English accent and tried to acquire a Clare one. Under the influence of an employee and a local priest, he involved himself in the Gaelic League. Having described himself in the census of 1911 as having no religion, he converted to the Roman obedience in 1913, adding the name Anthony on confirmation.
During a spell in hospital in Dublin, Lysaght formed an attachment to the matron, Mabel Pattison (called Maureen), who was five years older than himself. While she had been born and brought up in South Africa, where her father was a civil servant, she had Irish relatives, one of whom, an aunt, was postmistress of Scarriff. To prevent what they considered an unsuitable marriage, Lysaght's parents sent him on a world tour, taking in Ceylon and Japan, with his troubled brother Patrick (1889–1914). However, the marriage went ahead at the Brompton Oratory in London on 4 September 1913.
Maureen introduced Lysaght to her friends in the Arts Club at 44 St Stephen's Green, and he became part of Dublin literary society. His obvious efforts to give himself a new, more Irish identity were somewhat overdone, leading one acquaintance to remark that he was a butterfly who wished to become a caterpillar. His enthusiasm for Irish was encouraged by Stephen MacKenna (qv) and an interest in the co-operative movement drew him to George Russell (qv) (AE), who became a regular visitor at Raheen, where he liked to paint local scenes; he also painted portraits of Lysaght and his father. Lysaght had a book of his own poems, called Irish eclogues, published by Maunsell, a firm devoted to patriotic literature, whose board he joined when his father invested £300 in the company.
The events of Easter week 1916 and their aftermath of executions and internment radicalised Lysaght's political convictions. (In his own words, at this time his heart was with the rebels even if his head was against them.) By 1917 he was prepared to support their reprieved leader, Éamon de Valera (qv), when he stood successfully at a by-election in Clare. Although Lysaght did not join Sinn Féin, he was nominated to the Irish Convention of 1917 as an individual whose views mirrored those of a significant element in Sinn Féin. He resigned from the convention early in 1918 when he was unable to win support for immediate dominion home rule.
Early in 1919 Lysaght published a largely autobiographical novel entitled The Gael. It traced the evolution of his thoughts from being a politically minded farmer, disenchanted with politicians, into being a follower of the executed leaders of 1916. The next year he joined with several other Lysaghts in changing his name to MacLysaght, so as to emphasise its Gaelic origin.
Although openly sympathetic to Sinn Féin, MacLysaght took no part in the armed hostilities between 1919 and 1921. But many of the estate's employees were active in the East Clare brigade of the Irish Republican Army, and Raheen was raided by the crown forces more than twenty times. The murder in Dublin Castle by the crown forces in November 1920 of his close friend Conor Clune, a clerk in the estate office and a Gaelic Leaguer but not a member of the IRA, led MacLysaght to make representations in London to Sir John Simon, Oswald Mosley, and Herbert Asquith. Subsequently he was warned that this had caused him to be blacklisted as a possible target by the rampaging crown forces, but he escaped harm, largely by staying away from Raheen until the truce of July 1921.
MacLysaght followed Michael Brennan (qv), the local East Clare IRA leader, in backing the treaty negotiated with the British government in December 1921. Yet he yielded to persuasion from de Valera that he should withdraw his nomination to stand in Clare for the dáil as an independent at the general election of June 1922. Later that same year he was elected to the senate of the new Irish Free State by the members of the dáil; at the minimum age of thirty-five he was the youngest senator. He sat on a senate committee that recommended nationalisation of the railways and was quite an active if idiosyncratic member of the senate itself, acting as a watchdog for the Irish language and often speaking it to an uncomprehending assembly. He was, however defeated in the 1925 election.
As far as MacLysaght was concerned, the main advantage of political independence was the opportunity it gave to revive the Irish language, and he himself financed and edited a journal called An Sguab (The broom). He employed Irish-speaking carers to ensure that his two young children, Fergus and Máire, were brought up with Irish as their first language, and he made a vain effort to create an Irish-speaking community in Raheen by employing native speakers. In 1927 he wrote an acclaimed novel in Irish called Cursaí Thomáis, later translated into English under the title The little fields of Carrig, and a less successful one, called Toil Dé, set during the War of Independence.
The dislocation caused by the war of independence and the postwar depression had led to losses on the Raheen estate. MacLysaght's father, who had, meanwhile, bought from a cousin the old Lysaght home, Hazlewood, near Mallow, insisted on massive retrenchment. The house at Raheen was sold to be used as a hospital, and half the land was leased to the Forestry Commission. The nursery business continued, but effectively became a branch of a similar business at Hazlewood. MacLysaght managed it and, from 1928 onwards, was mainly resident at Hazlewood. For all his achievements, he was still living very much in his father's shadow, displaying in ways a lack of maturity that went hand in hand with his unusual youthfulness. He registered himself as a student at University College, Cork, under Professor James Hogan (qv) and proceeded straight to a first-class master's degree, awarded to him in 1935 for a study of his own family, published under the title A short study of a transplanted family in the seventeenth century. This encouraged him to consider a new career as a professional historian, and he began work on a study of everyday life in Ireland in the second half of the seventeenth century.
Meanwhile, MacLysaght's family life had fallen apart. His incompatibility with his wife was early manifest and was accentuated when she began to suffer from depression. In 1920 he fell in love with Bríd Ní Raogáin, a native Irish speaker from the Gaeltacht in Ring, Co. Waterford, who was looking after his daughter Máire and who helped him with An Sguab. Their attachment, which lasted for about five years, came to an end only because, as committed catholics, neither could contemplate marriage; Bríd Ní Raogáin suffered a breakdown and emigrated to South Africa. This blighted MacLysaght's happiness for many years, and he confessed in his diary that he had become a gloomy soul unlike his old cheery self. His wife lived at Hazlewood with her parents-in-law and the two children, while he had separate quarters. Sidney effectively took over Fergus's education and shipped him off to Downside and St Catherine's College, Cambridge; in 1941 Sidney left the Hazlewood estate directly to Fergus. By this time Fergus was serving in the Royal Artillery and had ceased to use the prefix ‘Mac’; on his marriage to an Ulster protestant he severed his ties, which had once been strong, with the catholic church. All this distressed MacLysaght deeply and created a distance in their relationship, but they still spoke only Irish at their occasional meetings. Máire MacLysaght also left the catholic church on marriage, having been refused a dispensation to marry an English protestant by the local bishop.
Meanwhile MacLysaght had married the 25-year-old Mary Frances (Mamie) Cuneen, whose father, a committed republican, was the head gardener at Hazlewood. For this purpose they had moved to South Africa, where his first wife obtained a divorce on grounds of desertion, so enabling him to re-marry. He found work as a journalist in Capetown. His initial sympathy for the Afrikaners evaporated in face of their hostility to catholicism. He was rescued from permanent exile by James Hogan who, in 1938, offered him a post as inspector with the Irish Manuscripts Commission, working in the British Museum on Irish documents under Robin Flower (qv). In the following year his Irish life in the seventeenth century was published. A description of everyday life in a period of major transition in Irish life, it was the work on which he staked his reputation, and for which he was awarded a D.Litt. by the NUI.
In 1939 MacLysaght returned to Dublin and worked at finding historic documents in private collections for the Irish Manuscripts Commission, editing the Calendar of the Orrery papers and The Kenmare manuscripts. In 1943 the taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, appointed him to head the Genealogical Office, established to take over from the British government the Office of Arms at Dublin Castle, which had been managed by the deputy Ulster king at arms, Thomas Sadleir (qv). During the transition, displaying a hostility he reserved for those of an upper-class English or Anglo-Irish background, MacLysaght fell out with Sadleir, whom he accused of leaving the office in a mess. MacLysaght paid an assistant out of his own pocket to deal with the arrears so that they could show that they ran the office better than the British. The functions of the Office of Arms, certifying pedigrees and granting arms, were continued. To counteract imposters, MacLysaght obtained the approval of de Valera to accord courtesy recognition as chiefs to those who were descended on the eldest male line from the last inaugurated Gaelic chieftains of the name. More controversial with purists was the notion of sept arms, said to appertain to all persons of a Gaelic name in a particular area, and not just to the verified descendants of the person granted arms; the Heraldic Museum attached to the Genealogical Office did a good trade selling illustrations of such arms.
In 1949, while retaining his title of chief herald, MacLysaght left his deputy, Gerard Slevin (qv), in charge of the Genealogical Office and moved to the NLI as keeper of manuscripts. The Ormond deeds and catholic baptismal records were among his most valuable acquisitions for the library. Unassuming, affable, and approachable, although impatient of inefficiency, he was popular with his colleagues, who called him ‘Mac’.
On his retirement in 1954 at the age of sixty-seven – he seems to have knocked two years off his age on recruitment – MacLysaght returned to heraldry and genealogy when he was commissioned to write a book on family names entitled Irish families, containing sept arms of Gaelic families and informative notes on each name. The book became a bestseller, but MacLysaght, ever a poor businessman, made a poor bargain by selling his copyright to the publisher for £750. However, this book, its companion More Irish families, and a more basic volume, Irish surnames, made his a household name. He was assiduous in collecting materials for further editions into the 1980s and in corresponding with those who sought his assistance on the subject.
MacLysaght's initial retirement plan was to return to live in Raheen. But, following the drowning in nearby Lough Derg in 1956 of his second son, Pat, he handed the place over to William, the eldest son of his second marriage. He went back to live in Blackrock, where he had also established a nursery that later provided a career for his youngest son, Brian. In 1956 he was appointed chairman of the Irish Manuscripts Commission, a part-time post he retained until 1973. In 1974, shortly after his retirement, he received an honorary LLD from the NUI conferred, to his joy, by its chancellor, Éamon de Valera.
In 1978 MacLysaght's memoirs, long in gestation, were published under the title Changing times – a view of his times rather than a full autobiography. The book is full of humour and good stories and bears the mark of a man who loved to keep his audience entertained. It contains extracts from diaries he had kept throughout his long life. Some of his diaries had been kept in Gaelic, and he published a selection of these about the same time in Leathanaigh ó mo dhialann. He still did not admit to an English birth; his entry in Who's who recorded that he had been born at sea and educated abroad and at UCC. In all other respects he was a scrupulously honest man.
A smallish, athletic, wiry man who drank little and smoked a pipe, MacLysaght gardened regularly and walked long distances at a good pace well into old age. Having had an artificial hip fitted in an operation when he was ninety-two, he survived in reasonably good health with his faculties intact until 4 March 1986, when he died suddenly from a heart attack at his home in Blackrock. He was survived by his second wife, his two children from his first marriage, and two of his three sons from his second marriage. He was buried in Tuamgraney beside his deceased son Pat. There is a portrait and sketch by George Russell (AE), two portraits by Thomas Ryan PRHA; a sketch by his artist grand-daughter Damaris Lysaght, and a photograph by Peter Tynan O’Mahony (1930–2000). All, apart from the portrait by AE, which is lost, and the portrait by Thomas Ryan in the Genealogical Office, are in the possession of his family.