Lord Dunsany - Friend of the native Irish

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett – the 18th and most celebrated Lord Dunsany

Irish author/playwright/poet (and man of other specialities) Lord Dunsany is cited by editors, academics, critics and fellow writers as one of the most popular and critically acclaimed writers of the early 20th century. A vital figure in modern fantasy and fantastic fiction, he is credited as a major influence on the likes of Tolkien, Le Guin and Lovecraft to name but a few. By Gerald Robinson.
Lord Dunsany was a prolific, creative and extremely versatile writer. Over a 50-year period, he produced work that was laden with meaning and of the highest quality, covering every literary mode – novels, short stories, prose, reviews, autobiography, poetry, plays and essays.

Baron Dunsany was blessed with an understanding of the symbolic strengths of fantasy and he used fantasy, horror and the supernatural world as metaphors for his own deeply-held convictions. Thus, according to experts who have studied this enigmatic writer in detail, the need for human reunification with the natural world was the overriding theme that permeated all his works.

Lord Dunsany (1878-1957) was a British peer, whose real name was Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett. As the 18th Baron Dunsany, with his family seat in County Meath, he was heir to a great family tradition with a keen sense of heritage and duty – responsibilities he assumed as a matter of course.

As well as being an important contributor to literature, Lord Dunsany was also a complex and intriguing character. Standing tall at 6’4”, he fought in the Boer War, was injured in WWI and was also an exceptional chess player (he was Irish champion, reportedly held the Grand Master Capablanca to a draw, penned one of the greatest chess stories ever in ‘Three Sailors’ Gambit’, wrote chess puzzles for the Times and even invented his own variant form of the game). He was also skilled in shooting, art, cricket, tennis and hunting.

The eccentric 18th Lord Dunsany once ran for public office and was a devoted family man.
Along with George MacDonald, Rider Haggard, Edgar Allen Poe and William Morris, he is regarded as one of the forerunners of the modern fantasy genre.

The term Dunsanian refers to a style and atmosphere that has been much-copied but, many would contend, never equalled or bettered.

A large number of Lord Dunsany’s 70 books were handwritten with personally-cut quill pens (made from feathers discarded by local ducks), while others were dictated to his lifelong wife, Lady Beatrice (of the Jersey family, sister of Lady Longford). He produced his first book – ‘The Gods of Pegana’ – in 1905 and went on to write a lifetime’s worth of magical stories that, though packed with horrors of their own, provided readers with escapism from the banality and oftentimes terror of everyday life of the time.

It would be no exaggeration to suggest that Dunsany was held in the very highest regard by many of the most acclaimed writers who came after him. HP Lovecraft, acknowledged as the grand master of darkness and weird fantasy, was an avid admirer of Dunsany’s work and once said: “His rich language, his cosmic point of view, his remote dream-worlds, and his exquisite sense of the fantastic, all appeal to me more than anything else in modern literature.”

In his capacity as the 18th Baron Dunsany, Lord Dunsany had plentiful property in his care. This included Dunsany Castle, which is Ireland’s oldest remaining family home, dating back to around 1180. The castle and its estate were considered by the family to be a crucial part of the national heritage and they fought to ensure that it was maintained despite the difficulties that led to many other similar buildings being abandoned in Ireland during Lord Dunsany’s tenure.

Dunsany Castle was originally built as a towered fortification of the Norman Pale. Construction began in 1180/81 under the command of Norman warlord Hugh de Lacy. The first part of the site to be erected was a motte-type fortification for the fortress (Dun), after which the townland of Dunsany is named. Of course, additional work was carried out, notably in the 18th and 19th centuries, as the castle grew to three times its original size. Much of the original building still stands, including the large foundation and four main towers.

Today, Dunsany Castle is still headed by the Plunkett family, namely the 20th Lord Dunsany Edward Plunkett and his wife Maria Alice de Marsillac. It is the longest occupied home and one of the oldest continuously inhabited buildings in Ireland. The castle can be visited and still houses the writing table at which Lord Dunsany conceived his fantastic ideas.

Other properties in Lord Dunsany’s care were Trim Castle (Ireland’s largest castle) and Dunstall Priory and Ivy Cottage in Shoreham, Kent.

As genres didn’t really exist at the time, Lord Dunsany was respected for his overall ability as a writer. In all, he published hundreds of items – an amazing achievement bearing in mind that writing only accounted for a small percentage of his very busy schedule.

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett (the Plunkett name is unique to Ireland) was born in London on July 24 1878. His family’s roots in Ireland are believed to go back to before the Norman invasion. His father John William was a scholar, engineer and politician, while his mother Ernie Grosvenor was descended from James Drax of Barbados.

Known as Eddie in his immediate circle, Edward grew up between the family properties in Kent and Dunsany. He schooled at Cheam and Eton and entered Sandhurst in 1896. He returned to Dunsany in 1901, upon finishing his duty as an officer in the Coldstream Guards during the Boer War, having inherited the title of Baron Dunsany upon his father’s death in 1899.

He met Beatrice Child-Villiers in 1903 and married her the following year. He would remain devoted to his wife for the rest of his life and the couple worked very closely together in recording Edward’s many works (though he preferred to work in solitude, often in a small room at the top of Dunsany Castle).
Edward’s first book was published in 1905: ‘The Gods of Pegana’ was a unique work or artificial mythology contained in a series of short stories. Though his first recorded published work was a poem, ‘Rhymes From a Suburb’, in The Pall Mall Magazine in September 1897, the would-be Baron hadn’t inherited his title then and was known as the Honourable Edward Plunkett.

On August 25 1906 his only child was born (Randal would become the 19th Lord Dunsany). Through his uncle, Horace Plunkett – who pioneered the co-op movement and was a prominent figure in Irish society – Edward met a number of key Irish personalities, and regular visitors to Dunsany Castle and Dunstall included Yeats, Kipling, James Stephens, Lady Gregory, ‘AE’ and Oliver St John Gogarty.

At the suggestion of WB Yeats, Lord Dunsany penned the play ‘The Glittering Gate’, which opened to critical and public acclaim at the Abbey Theatre in 1909. He was a natural playwright and once had five works running simultaneously in Broadway. Another time, he was on stage at four major European capital cities as well as New York.

A true master of the English language who awoke a sense of wonder in his reader, Dunsany opened his library to another famous Meath writer, poet Francis Ledwidge, whom he supported greatly. He arranged publication of his works, including two posthumous collections (Ledwidge was killed in action in WWI). Though in his mid-30s, Lord Dunsany fought in the trenches himself.

After returning from duty, Dunsany continued to write, to growing acclaim. His fiction entered a new phase and he became more creative again as a poet. His best-know character, Mr. Joseph Jorkens, was born in the 1920s and would go on to feature in a sextet of short story collections.

Serving in the Home Guard and the Local Defence Force during World War Two, Lord Dunsany made radio broadcasts and a number of television appearances after the war, and gave lecturing tours of the USA while also continuing to write.

The 18th Lord Dunsany died in Dublin on October 25 1957. He had suffered an appendicitis episode at Dunsany Castle and never recovered consciousness after the ensuing operation. He was buried in Shoreham and a memorial service was held in Kilmessan.