Martyn, Edward (1859–1923), dramatist, patron of the arts, and nationalist, was born 31 January 1859 at his mother's family home at Masonbrook, Loughrea, Co. Galway, elder of two sons of Anne Martyn (neé Smith; d. 1898) and John Martyn (d. 1860), a philanderer by repute, of Tulira Castle, Ardrahan, Co. Galway. He was educated at Belvedere College, Dublin, and Beaumont College, Windsor. In May 1877 he matriculated at Christ Church College, Oxford, but left Oxford (1879) without a degree and always described himself as largely self-educated. He was unhappy there, but was influenced by the fashion for the writing of Walter Pater, encouraging his appreciation for catholic ritual and ancient Greek culture (including its reverence for the male form).
He returned to Galway where he began – against the advice of friends – to re-build much of Tulira Castle in neo-gothic style, employing the architect George Ashlin (qv). For most of his life he left the Gothic sections of the castle unoccupied and lived an ascetic existence in a tower. He did install an organ in the main hall, on which he regularly played Palestrina. His mother was intent on finding him a suitable wife. This was an impossible task as he was a misogynist, resisting all attempts to ‘turn his philosophical abode into a temple of Hymen’ (Gwynn, 51). Both George Moore (qv) and W. B. Yeats (qv) have suggested that he was a celibate homosexual. In a novel and several short stories Moore created a series of repressed homosexuals who were thinly disguised versions of Martyn.
Moore and Martyn were related through marriage and knew each other from childhood. Frequently, in the 1880s and 1890s, they travelled together to France and Germany. Moore fostered Martyn's interests in modern art: Martyn returned to Tulira with paintings by Degas, Monet, Corot, and Utamaro that he later donated to the NGI along with work by William Leech (qv) and Jack B. Yeats (qv). In return Martyn introduced Moore to Wagner (many of their trips were to the festival at Bayreuth). Martyn also developed a devotion to Palestrina music. He donated £10,000 and much energy to the foundation of a Palestrina choir at the pro-cathedral, Dublin. This became the Schola Cantorum of the archdiocese (1903) and produced John McCormack (qv). Among the conditions attached to his donation – to which disparaging reference is made in ‘The dead’ by James Joyce (qv) – was the stipulation that no woman should sing in the choir.
He left Oxford with ambitions to write. His first attempt was a lengthy poem with a classical theme, on which he worked until 1885, when he suddenly decided that it should be destroyed. He was an extremely devout catholic and it is thought that a crisis of conscience over the poem's content provoked its burning. Finally, and under a pseudonym, he published a satire on modern life, Morgante the lesser (1890). He then turned to drama and by 1894 had completed his first and finest play, ‘The heather field’. Initially he could neither get it staged nor published. Moore took an interest and arranged for the publication of The heather field and Maeve (1899), contributing a hyperbolic introduction. In 1896 Yeats paid his first visit to Tulira. Yeats regarded Martyn with some condescension because he was catholic, his mother was from peasant stock, and his talent was limited. Martyn, however, was essential to the fruition of Yeats's plan for a national theatre. He underwrote the cost of the Irish Literary Theatre Society's first three seasons. In 1899 they opened with Yeats's ‘The Countess Cathleen’ and ‘The heather field’. Martyn's play proved popular, although at the last minute the project nearly collapsed when he again had a crisis of conscience and threatened to withdraw his support. Yeats and Lady Gregory (qv) had to obtain priestly reassurances for Martyn when ‘The Countess Cathleen’ was criticised as heretical. Moore was somewhat disappointed that Martyn did not take flight, as he had hoped to use such an opportunity to publish a satirical essay entitled ‘Edward Martyn and his soul’.
Differences soon opened between Martyn and his collaborators. In 1900 the society staged his ‘Maeve’ and a play entitled ‘The bending of the bough’, which was credited to Moore. The latter was a radical rewrite of a play called ‘The tale of a town’, submitted by Martyn, but which neither Yeats nor Moore felt was of sufficient quality. They rewrote it to such an extent that Martyn refused to have his name attached. He was further insulted when Moore began to claim retrospective credit for ‘The heather field’, insinuating that he had written much of it. In addition to these incidents there was disagreement about the genre of drama to be staged. Martyn was a disciple of Ibsen and European realistic drama who deplored Yeats's fetish for ‘peasant plays’, while Yeats regarded drama modelled on Ibsen as neither poetic nor heroic. Martyn departed, founding a players' club at the Queen's Theatre, then the Theatre of Ireland (1906) and the Irish Theatre (1914) at Hardwicke St. with Thomas MacDonagh (qv) and Joseph Plunkett (qv). Again, he was the main source of funding. The programmes of the Theatre of Ireland were as enigmatic as Martyn's personality. They staged most of his unimpressive oeuvre, including ‘The dream physician’, ‘Romulus and Remus’, ‘Grangecolman’, and ‘Privilege of place’. They also produced new Irish talent in the form of Patrick Pearse (qv) and Eimar O'Duffy (qv) and European masters such as Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg. The company struggled on until 1918 but was badly depleted by the 1916 rising.
So too were Na hAisteoirí, an Irish-language drama group founded in 1912 and attached to the Gaelic League. Martyn was president of this group. He was a member of the executive of the Gaelic League for some time, publishing Ireland's battle for her language (1900). He was an enthusiast for the Féis Ceoil movement, acting as vice-president and taking an active part. He regularly contributed to various journals, including The Leader and The Irish Review, on the subjects of art, literature and music, using his influence to further the careers of many visual artists associated with the revival. The principal monument to this enthusiasm is St Brendan's Cathedral, Loughrea, Co. Galway, where, at his suggestion, the sculptors John Hughes (qv) and Oliver Sheppard (qv) and the stained glass artists Michael Healy (qv) and Sarah Purser (qv) were employed to beautiful effect. He encouraged the foundation of the Irish stained glass company, Túr Gloine, while Loughrea hosts an annual Edward Martyn weekend.
He was a political nationalist too. Initially he was typical of his class, being a JP and DL for Co. Galway. Arguments that Ireland was being excessively taxed (1896–7) and his reading of W. E. H. Lecky (qv) were influences in his conversion to moderate nationalism. He revealed himself as a nationalist when he refused to allow the singing of ‘God save the queen’ after a dinner party at Tulira and resigned his positions in the county in 1900. In the same year he suggested the establishment of a ‘national’ landlord party. In 1903 he was chairman of the People's Protection Committee, which protested against the visit of Edward VII to Dublin. In 1904 he funded the publication of The resurrection of Hungary by Arthur Griffith (qv). He was an ineffective president of what is retrospectively called Sinn Féin (1905–8) (the party did not take ‘Sinn Féin’ as its official title until 1908). In 1906 he successfully sued the Kildare Street Club when they expelled him for expressing nationalist views. He ceased staying in their rooms, but he continued to dine at the club, insisting that they served the best caviar in Dublin. As Sinn Féin became an active political party, Martyn was marginalised and resigned his position in 1908, returning his concentration to the field of culture. While he was not unsympathetic to Sinn Féin, as it became radicalised after the 1916 rising his own views remained moderate. He supported the establishment of the Irish Convention in 1917. As a landowner, he had an unwaveringly negative attitude to land agitation, whether during the 1880s or in 1919–21. He supported the Anglo–Irish treaty (1921), but by then he was hardly ever seen in public as a progressively worsening rheumatic disorder took its toll.
He died at Tulira on 5 December 1923. His will provided that his body be given to medical students for dissection and be buried in an unmarked pauper's grave. The Palestrina choir sang at the graveside. Mischievously he left the rights to The heather field and The tale of a town to Moore, with whom relations had remained tempestuous. By far the funniest and most insightful portrait of Martyn is in Moore's Hail and farewell (1911–14); it is also somewhat cruel. Martyn responded with a caricature of Moore in The dream physician and under the topic ‘recreations’ in Who's Who he listed ‘Mr George Augustus Moore’. He left Tulira to a cousin, Robert Smith.
Portraits of Martyn by John Butler Yeats (qv) and Norman French McLachlan (1895–1978) are in the NGI, and Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane holds a portrait by Sarah Purser. He bequeathed his papers to the Carmelites, Clarendon Street, Dublin, but they have been missing for many years.