Plunkett, Edward John Moreton Drax (1878–1957), 18th Baron Dunsany , author of fantasy fiction, was born 24 July 1878 at 15 Park Square, Regent's Park, London, elder son of John William Plunkett (1853–99), conservative MP and subsequently, as 17th Baron Dunsany, Irish representative peer, and his wife, the heiress Ernle Elizabeth Louisa Maria Grosvenor (née Burton; d. 1916), a relative of the explorer Richard Burton. He spent his childhood at his mother's home, Dunstall Priory in Kent, where he acquired an abiding love for rural England. His parents were estranged, his mother unstable and his father a brusque military man; Plunkett had a lonely childhood which gave him a lasting insecurity and a need for reassurance and praise. His father died in 1899; in later life Dunsany quarrelled irreconcilably with his mother and his brother, Reginald, who became an admiral in the Royal Navy.
Plunkett was educated at Cheam preparatory school (1890–91), Eton College (1891–4), and various crammers, before entering the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. At school his dreamy nature made him unpopular, while he unreflectively acquired conservative social attitudes. In 1899 he became a lieutenant in the Coldstream guards and fought in the Boer war. He left the army in 1901, having inherited the title and estates on his father's death in 1899, and settled at the family seat in Dunsany, Co. Meath. He took little interest in business or farming; his property (which included Durham coal mines) was managed by his uncle Horace Plunkett (qv). Dunsany resented his uncle's dictatorial manner and became more independent after his marriage in 1904, but they remained on friendly terms until the 1920s, and it was Plunkett who introduced his nephew to literary circles.
Dunsany became a conspicuous figure in London society; he stood six feet four and dressed untidily. He never gambled, rarely smoked or drank alcohol, and appears to have lived an asexual life. He disliked smutty stories, though his lifelong friendship with Oliver St John Gogarty (qv) led him to tolerate the surgeon's anecdotes. Fond of practical jokes and parlour games, he always retained an adolescent streak. He hunted and shot, and was a keen observer of animals; he was a fierce opponent of cruelty to animals and campaigned against the docking of dogs’ tails. On 15 September 1904 Dunsany married Beatrice Child-Villiers (1880–1970), daughter of Victor Villiers, 7th earl of Jersey; they had one son. Their relationship was fond though slightly formal; Beatrice admired, encouraged, and shared his literary interests and was proud of ‘Pony’ (who called her ‘Mink’). Her sister married Lord Longford; the Dunsanys were very close to their young nephews Edward (qv) and Frank Pakenham (qv).
Dunsany was conservative candidate for West Wiltshire in the 1906 general election but thereafter abandoned politics for literature (remaining a diehard conservative and unionist – he smuggled twenty rifles for the UVF). From 1905 he published short tales, set in fantastic oriental locations, about capricious deities and their dealings with humanity. These were inspired by youthful immersion in Grimm and Andersen (his mother forbade him to read newspapers until the age of seven because they contained divorce court reports), schoolboy acquaintance with the rhythms of the Authorised Version of the Bible, the pantheism of George Russell (qv) (AE), and nostalgia for the Greek gods acquired with the ancient tongue. Dunsany himself was an atheist, though increasingly attentive to anglican observances in later life. His writings show a respect for sincere Christians but imply that Christianity is excessively narrow and limited. He was fascinated by Islam and Eastern religions (an interest fed by extensive travels in north Africa and India on hunting expeditions). A recurring theme is a hopeless desire to escape from the law-bound universe of Christianity and ‘the fields we know’ to the deathless fantasy world of Elfland or ‘the Country Beyond Moon's Rising’. His fellow men (1952) is a Voltairian depiction of an Ulster protestant who, seeking universal tolerance, adopts an Eastern religion (combining Druze and Baha'i) that advocates respect for and participation in all creeds and causes as manifestations of the divine. He is universally shunned and detested until his catholic lady love makes it a condition of their marriage that he revert to protestant bigotry.
Dunsany's stories are plot-driven and show little interest in character, but are saved from being insufferable by a tough-minded awareness of mortality. Dunsany successively built up a series of private worlds; as these were explored they converged with the quotidian and each was abandoned in turn for a new fantasy. He saw the artist as a creator of other-worldly beauty, even if it is as unreal as the tall stories of his most famous character, the clubland barfly and Munchausen figure Joseph Jorkens. (Dunsany belonged to five London clubs and the Kildare Street club: he favoured clubland settings.) Many of his works were dictated to Beatrice – he believed this gave them oratorical rhythm; he himself wrote with a swan's quill on parchment. He never revised, but worked out ideas in his head before writing as if he were playing parlour games; he was a hunter, a storyteller, a chess player, and a maker of puzzles – all activities requiring the ability to anticipate and manipulate the opponent's response. Dunsany acquired a love of chess at school, and at times found it so intense that he feared it would absorb his life. He was president of the Kent Chess Association and won the chess tournament at the 1924 Tailteann games.
After the death of J. M. Synge (qv), W. B. Yeats (qv) briefly adopted Dunsany as a literary protégé, encouraging him to undertake the writing of his first play, ‘The glittering gate’, and to donate £300 to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Dunsany went on to compose numerous other plays, which met with great acclaim in Britain and (especially) America. The two men fell out after Dunsany accused Lady Gregory (qv) of plagiarising his ‘King Argimenes and the unknown warrior’ (1911) in her own play ‘The lost leader’. Dunsany subsequently claimed that Yeats blocked him from receiving a literary prize at the 1924 Tailteann games, and added insult to injury by soliciting a financial contribution towards a special prize for Francis Stuart (qv); Yeats said that Dunsany was one of only two men in Dublin whom he hated because of his insulting behaviour towards George Yeats (qv), and remarked: ‘It is a great misfortune to be in the peerage, life is too pleasant to him. Fifty pounds a year and a drunken mistress would be the making of him’ (Foster, Apprentice mage, 403).
Dunsany acquired a literary protégé, Francis Ledwidge (qv), whose talents he admired and whom he treated in a loving but slightly patronising manner. Dunsany was later accused of inspiring Ledwidge's enlistment in the British army, and though he denied this he felt guilt at not having intervened to get Ledwidge away from the front line after his service in Salonika; Ledwidge was killed in action at Ypres in 1917. Dunsany briefly joined the National Volunteers after John Redmond (qv) declared support for the British war effort; when he discovered that they would not subordinate themselves to the War Office he joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers as a captain, and was disappointed not to be sent to Gallipoli. On 25 April 1916, after hearing of the Easter rising, Dunsany went to Dublin to report for duty; he ran into a rebel barricade, was shot in the face, and spent the week in Jervis Street hospital. He was posted to France and the 16th Irish division in January 1917. In January 1918 he was transferred to MI7B, where he wrote war propaganda, later collected in Tales of war (1918) and Unhappy far-off things (1919). He returned to Ireland on demobilisation in 1919.
During the war of independence Dunsany retained his hunting guns and continued to shoot for sport, despite the danger of IRA arms raids and the possibility of being shot by crown forces; he was prosecuted in January 1921 for arms possession and fined £25. His house in Co. Meath was not burnt because Dunsany was regarded as a good landlord and employer, and the long-serving estate steward (whom he regarded with mixed fondness and contempt) was a member of Sinn Féin. Although Dunsany was the most intransigent unionist among the writers of the Irish revival period, F. P. Crozier (qv) later told him that he had come under suspicion from army officers, who assumed that his fantasies were nationalist allegories. Dunsany always resented the Anglo-Irish treaty (which he refused to call a treaty) as a betrayal. His mood was not improved by the discovery that Horace Plunkett had failed to anticipate the post-war decline in coal prices, which permanently reduced the estate's income; drastic retrenchments were necessary. Dunsany went on lecture tours to America, where he was more widely admired than in Britain, and supplemented his short stories with novels, which were more profitable. He solaced himself by taking up portrait painting and casting grotesque figurines in clay (with some success). In the 1930s he wrote radio plays for the BBC and made occasional appearances on the fledgling television service.
Dunsany brooded over his financial setbacks for the rest of his life; in old age he routinely called his uncle an embezzler. My Ireland (1937) accuses Plunkett of fettering AE with agricultural economics when he should have been writing poetry; he is caricatured in The curse of the wise woman (1935) as a reckless trustee and a Pecksniff. In The story of Mona Sheehy (1939) the relationship between the kindly but gullible Lord Gurtdrim, his glamorous, promiscuous wife, and her selfish lover and reckless man of business Charlie Peever is a savage caricature of Plunkett's relationship with Lord and Lady Fingall. Plunkett may also have inspired the arrogant philanthropist in one Jorkens story, who expects an exalted reincarnation but is reborn as a snail.
Dunsany's diehard imperialism extended to India; he compared British promises of Indian self-government to promising a loaded revolver to a four-year-old child, and predicted that Indian independence would produce a bloodbath dwarfing the first world war. He shared the casual anti-Semitism of his milieu (though in the 1930s he published poems denouncing Nazi persecution of the Jews). His publicly expressed belief that new wars were inevitable and pacifism a fantasy was widely denounced. If I were dictator (1934) is presented as evidence of authoritarian sympathies by critics who have not read it; the title was commissioned by a publisher, and after airing his crotchets Dunsany announces his ‘abdication’, since Britons never will nor should accept dictators.
In 1931 Yeats offered Dunsany associate membership of the newly formed Irish Academy of Letters, on the grounds that he was ineligible for full membership because he did not write about Ireland. Dunsany refused, complaining that this criterion would exclude Dante from being called an Italian poet; he promptly wrote four novels set in Ireland, which won him full membership of the academy. (Gogarty joked that the academy had been founded to keep out Dunsany and should have been dissolved on his admission.) The most highly regarded – for its lyrical descriptions of the Meath boglands – is The curse of the wise woman (1935), based loosely on the land war and troubles; an amiable assassin who ends up as president of the League of Nations was allegedly inspired by Éamon de Valera (qv). Up in the hills (1935) satirises the war of independence and civil war (which poses an interesting contrast to his celebration of Balkan resistance fighters in Guerrilla (1944)); it features a Free State general (possibly modelled on Michael Collins (qv)) who is eaten by a visiting African. Rory and Bran (1936) describes the adventures of a dim-witted peasant boy and his intelligent companion Bran (whom several reviewers failed to identify as a dog). The travel book My Ireland (1937), though ostentatiously inconsequential, combines lyrical descriptions of Meath, score-settling, and scathing comments on de Valera's economic policy; it also contains a chillingly incisive description of the vague criteria on which people were shot as spies by the IRA. Dunsany's Ireland was essentially that of a tourist, primarily focused on landscape, wild-fowling, and the servants and ghillies who accompanied him.
Dunsany hated Irish wartime neutrality; even as TCD awarded him an honorary Litt.D. in 1940 he felt he was living in a land of dreams. In that year, after the fall of France, Dunsany decided that duty called him to Britain; he made his way to Kent as the battle of Britain raged overhead, and prepared for guerrilla warfare. In September 1940 the British Council appointed him visiting professor of English literature at the University of Athens. The Dunsanys arrived in January 1941 after a journey round Africa and Asia Minor; they left on 17 April on a refugee ship as the Wehrmacht approached the city. Despite air attacks they returned safely to Ireland. Dunsany was a friend of David Gray (qv), the wartime American minister in Dublin renowned for his hatred of de Valera; Dunsany's contempt for Irish neutrality is expressed in The year (1946), a stiff Spenserian verse journal of 1945–6.
All his life Dunsany detested a civilisation based on machines; initially perplexed when interlocutors pointed out that machines supported greatly increased populations, he decided after 1918 that the first world war presaged ever greater machine-made catastrophes, which would reduce populations to pre-industrial levels. Alternatively, he suggested, intelligent machines might displace humanity; his novel The last revolution (1951) revealingly compares humanity's relationship to the machine with that of French aristocrats to their peasants on the eve of the French revolution. In 1946 he made over Dunsany to his son Randal and moved to Kent, returning to Meath for shooting holidays.
Dunsany's was a Georgian sensibility. He despised Victorian fustiness and Edwardian pastiche, but commissioned furniture and decorations from living craftsmen; he loved art deco but saw international-style modernism as evidence that machines were displacing humanity. He crusaded against processed foods and white bread; he carried around rock crystal salt rather than ‘poison’ himself with the commercial variety, declaring that Hitler's only good deed was the bombing of a salt factory. In later years he was a splenetic opponent of literary modernism; he entertained an obsessive hatred of T. S. Eliot, and declared that claiming to understand Dylan Thomas was proof of insanity. He encouraged younger writers, notably Mary Lavin (qv) and the Ulster novelist Anne Crone (qv).
He composed three memoirs, Patches of sunlight (1938), While the sirens slept (1944), and The sirens wake (1945). He died 25 October 1957 in a Dublin nursing home at 97 Lower Leeson Street of appendicitis, and was buried at Shoreham in Kent, wishing to face the next life among his neighbours, as they had faced Hitler together in 1940. The Dublin wit William Dawson (1877–1934) ridiculed him as the morbid ‘Lord Insaney’ in The Leader, and he is satirised as Lord Winton de Winton in the play ‘Metempsychosis’ (1912) by Thomas MacDonagh (qv).
Dunsany was a limited but genuinely gifted writer with a biting wit and a keen sense of style. The strange journey of Colonel Polders (1950), in which a clubman is forced by a Brahman to relive past incarnations, combines a hackneyed setting with a keen evocation of the lives and deaths of animals, as if Dunsany played with the thought that he might ride the air as a greylag goose and experience hunting and shooting from a different perspective.