Cleveland Comhrá: Lord Dunsany

By Bob Carney

“Logic, like whiskey, loses its beneficial effect when taken in too large quantities.”

A simple observation from a man who spent a lifetime crafting tales of fantasy and horror for his readers. Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, was born on July 24,1878 in London to John William Plunkett, the 17th Baron of Dunsany, and his wife Ernle, a distinguished family that could trace their roots to the 12th century.

I became aware of the works of Lord Dunsany after I read the Lord of the Rings in high school, and became a fan of his darker stories more than his fantasies.”He seemed still for a whole minute. And nothing speaking about him but that expression. Like a man that’s seen a ghost, one is tempted to write.

But it wasn’t really at all. I’ll tell you what he looked like. Like a man that’s seen something that no one has ever looked at before, something he thought couldn’t be.” From the short story, The Two Bottles of Relish. Many of them are similar to the old Twilight Zone stories, just enough truth to make you believe them as long as you don’t apply too large a quantity of logic.

Oliver Plunkett, the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, who was executed in England in 1681, was an ancestor (He was hung, drawn and quartered for treason and promoting the Roman faith. He was beatified in 1920 and canonized in 1975 becoming the first new Irish saint in almost seven-hundred years).

Edward was educated at Eton and entered the Coldstream Guards in 1899. He fought in the Boer War as an officer before returning to Ireland and taking up residence at Dunsany Castle in Co. Meath. Edward became the 18th Baron of Dunsany that same year, with his father’s passing. The family had occupied the castle since 1190. He was confirmed as an elector for the Representative Peers for Ireland in the House of Lords.

Shaw, Wells and Kipling
In 1904, he married Lady Beatrice Child Villiers, the youngest daughter of the 7th Earl of Jersey. They had one son, born two years later. Lady Beatrice supported her husband in his writing, typing his manuscripts and helping him select works for his collections. They were socially active and travelled between their homes in Meath, London and Kent, and counted the writers George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling in their large circle of friends.

Plinkett was a hunter and a sportsman, and at one time was both the chess champion and the pistol champion of Ireland. He was a British aristocrat, always loyal to the Crown. Not a common trait among  writers of the Irish Literary Renaissance. Lord Dunsany knew the main figures of the movement, but associated with other British aristocrats.

The Gods of Pegana
In 1905, Lord Dunsany published his first collection of stories, The Gods of Pegana. Another book of stories followed the next year, titled, Time and the Gods, and in 1908, The Sword of Welleran. This story was included in an anthology of twelve stories by Irish authors, Irish Ghost Stories, published in 2022 by Flame Tree Publishing.

Many of Dunsany’s early stories were fantasies, and became a large influence on the writer J.R.R. Tolkien, horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, and later, George R.R. Martin, creator of The Game of Thrones. Lovecraft was influenced after hearing Lord Dunsany on a lecture tour of the United States;  his writing style is evident in his early work. Mythological places and characters with strange sounding names caught on with readers and Lord Dunsany published many other collections of stories throughout his lifetime.

W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory
Dunsany met W.B. Yeats and wrote a play, The Glittering Gate, in 1909 for the Abbey Theatre. In 1911, King Argimenes and the Unkown Warrior was also produced there. That relationship soured when Dunsany thought that Lady Gregory had plagiarised his work, and others felt that Yeats was envious of Lord Dunsany’s title and station. Many of his short plays were very popular in America, especially the ones inspired by the drawings of S.H. Sime, who had been the illustrator of his early books.

War Service
With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he became a captain in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, but he was seriously wounded two years later when he was in Ireland on leave. He had offered his services to Dublin during The Rising and was shot, with the bullet lodging in his skull. After his recovery, he returned to active duty as a trainer at first, but then ended up in the trenches. He finished up the war writing propaganda materials for the War Office.

During the Irish War for Independence he was charged with violating the Restoration of Order in Ireland Regulations when Crown Forces searched Dunsany Castle and found weapons and ammunition there. He was tried by court-martial and convicted and ordered to pay a fine.

In 1921 another play, If, an Eastern fantasy, became a big success in London. Then he turned his attention to writing novels, along with five collections of stories that included his fictional character, Joseph Jorgens, inspired by his trips and hunting excursions in Africa.

During World War II, he volunteered for the Irish Army Reserve and the British Home Guard. He was active in Shoreham, Kent, which had the distinction of being the most bombed village during the Battle of Britain.

In 1947, Lord Dunsany retired and transferred the Meath estate to his son Randall. He settled in Shoreham, close to his friend Rudyard Kipling. He and Lady Beatrice spent most of their time there and in London, visiting Ireland occasionally. They also travelled to the United States.

In 1957, the couple was dining with the Earl and Countess of Fingall at Dunsany Castle when he suffered an attack of appendicitis. He died at a hospital in Dublin at the age of seventy-nine. Lady Beatrice oversaw his extensive literary legacy until her death in 1970. Randall succeded him to the barony and was succeded by his grandson, the artist, Edward Plunkett.

Dunsany Castle
Dunsany Castle is the oldest castle owned by a single family for the longest period of time. It is opened for tours on certain days throughout the year and there are limited tours of the surrounding nature preserve. The wedding scene from the movie Braveheart was filmed there.

*Bob Carney is a student of Irish language and history and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday at PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Rían, Aisling and Draoi and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be reached at [email protected]

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