The Lion, the Letters and a Kavanagh

In 1960 the New York Public Library sued Peter Kavanagh, for reproducing the letters of John Quinn which they held in their care. The letters were transferred to the library in 1924. Under an agreement between the library and Quinn’s estate they were not to be published until 1988. Peter Kavanagh decided to ignore this and publish excerpts producing a pamphlet entitled The John Quinn letters: A Pandect? using his own hand press printer in 1960. This rare pamphlet is part of the Kavanagh archive in UCD Special Collections.

John Quinn was a wealthy Irish American lawyer and patron of the arts who knew everyone who was anyone in Irish literature (and politics) as well as international literary figures such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. He was also an art collector and had been instrumental in organising the Armoury show, which brought modernist art to America in 1913. He defended Joyce’s Ulysses, serialised in the US in The Little Review, following its banning and subsequent seizure in 1920.

Peter Kavanagh, younger brother of the poet Patrick Kavanagh, was an academic who had published several books on the history of Irish theatre. In the 1950s he created, from scrap metal, his own hand press which he used to publish some of Patrick’s poetry and other works.

On gaining access to the archive of Quinn in the New York Public Library, Kavanagh would read correspondence in the reading room, memorise this correspondence and then step outside to write down excerpts in a notebook. He then collated all of these into a pamphlet which he printed and then published. This contravened a signed agreement with the NYPL. In 1960 the library sued Kavanagh.

The excerpts chosen by Kavanagh to include in his publication reveal the relationship between important figures of the Irish Literary revival and Quinn but also, and perhaps more interestingly, with each other. Some are intriguing, many are comical and all provide an insight into the milieu of the Irish literary revival. Above all, they show the regard in which John Quinn was held and the influence he had over these towering Irish literary and cultural figures.

A selection of the excerpts from Kavanagh’s pamphlet are transcribed below:

W.B Yeats to John Quinn

‘The women were not so offended by “The Playboy” as were the men who were mainly Arthur Griffith patriots and a minority of the Gaelic League. A doctor told Synge that had medical ethics permitted he would have loved to stand before the protesting mob and identify each vociferous objector he had treated for venereal disease.

‘Joyce is a remarkable man. His story in the “Little Review” looks like being the best he has produced so far. It is entirely original. He writes not what the eye sees or the ear hears but what the rambling mind thinks and imagines from moment to moment. It is most certain that he surpasses in intensity all the novelists of our time.’

John Quinn to W.B Yeats

‘When Hyde came to America it was I who made him a success. Without me he would have been tied to the small Irish societies.  I went above their heads, introduced him to the President and had a story about him circulated by the Associated Press.’

AE (George William Russell) to John Quinn

‘I hear Yeats has got a wife who will work for him, care for him, read for him, communicate with the dead for him, and make an ideal wife in every way.’

Dunsany has a large splash of genius. Had he a heart he would be as good a writer as any. His £10,000 a year income prevents the urge of poverty.’

‘I know Synge only slightly; he is a friend of Yeats. He is the best dramatist Ireland has produced so far. I don’t like his plays very much although I have a shuddering admiration for them.’

Casement is a picturesque and romantic figure with no weighty mentality to embarrass him. A thousand years earlier he would have been Knight Errant hunting for the Holy Grail or spiking some dragon on his spear.’

Lily Yeats (sister of W.B and Jack B.) to John Quinn

Lady Gregory and Maud Gone seem pleased with Willie’s marriage. After all, Maud had a large whack of him at her own choosing. Lady Gregory wanted a hand in that choosing but Willie would have none of it. Willie’s father thought the wife was too young for him and worried about it.’

Douglas Hyde to John Quinn 

‘Myself and Eoin MacNeill have just been elected professors to the National University. Every single cleric, especially the Jesuits, voted against us; fortunately our qualifications were so far ahead of all competitors that their attack was blunted. Besides, we had the support of the lay faculty.’

‘A thousand thanks for your article on Joyce. You’ll hardly believe this, but I never heard of him. I must look him up at once.’

Lady Gregory to John Quinn

‘I keep telling Yeats that he must devote the morning to his writing and only the afternoon to the management of the theatre. The writing comes first. The same is true for myself though I do not compare my writing with that of Yeats. But we must continue to push the theatre now so that in a year or so it will be sufficiently successful that we may be able to run it with only a manager.’

We in Ireland love to fight among ourselves. Hugh Lane who was treated worse than any of us, intends to take a small job as Director of a Gallery in Dublin, leaving London where he could make money and friends.’

‘For seven years I fought to get the Lane pictures to Dublin. Had Collins live another month I would have succeeded. Some of my friends failed me, others died. I have persevered alone.’

Edward Martyn said the reason de Valera rejected the Treaty was because he was jealous of Arthur Griffith.’

Yeats sent me a telegram last night that he had received the Nobel award…. Yes, it is arranged that he invest the money after spending some of it to buy carpets for their house.’

Maud Gonne to John Quinn 

Larkin is a painful necessity, but a necessity….Larkin has a magnetic effect on a crowd but I feel that he is too vain, too jealous and too untruthful to make a great leader.’

‘My husband (John MacBride) died an heroic death and his son will bear an honoured name. It is the way he wished to die. This makes up for all.’

James Joyce to John Quinn

“Dubliners” was rejected by forty publishers, set three times and burned once. It cost me 3,000 Francs in postage fees, train and boat expenses before it was published in 1914 – written in 1905.’

‘Last week the husband of my typist (he works at the British Embassy) read some of my Ms on her desk and burned it.’ 

Thanks for the cheque… I understand your decision to sell the Ms of Ulysses and it is nice that you should offer to share the price you get for it with me.’

James Joyce

James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (1882-1941)

  • This post was researched and written by Evelyn Flanagan, Head of Special Collections, UCD Special Collections.

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