William Morris in Ireland

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 3 (Autumn 2000), Letters, Letters, Volume 8

Sir,—PatrickMaume highlights an interesting account of the 1886 visit to Ireland byWilliam Morris (‘letters’, HI Summer 2000) in response to my article inthe previous issue (HI Spring 2000). I suspect he is right to be ratherdubious of Stephen Gwynn’s reminiscence which was written fully fortyyears after the episode he so vividly recounts.
Gwynn, who seemsto have been among the group of literati and intellectuals thatinitially invited Morris, probably conflated two of the meetings thatthe English artist and socialist addressed while in Dublin. The firstmeeting at which Morris spoke was that organised by Gwynn and hisfriends and it took place at the Molesworth Hall on Friday 9 April. Hisremit was the ‘Aims of Art’ and this possibly suggested anon-controversial evening to many in his decidedly middle classaudience. In fact, Morris vehemently argued for socialism during thecourse of his talk, hence causing a walkout by those he laterderisively referred to as the ‘respectables’. Without question hisideas were poorly received and Gwynn’s highly coloured remarks almostcertainly relate to this event.
The Saturday Club meeting, whichwas held on 10 April was also a lively affair but for entirelydifferent reasons. Morris spoke directly on socialism (and not art) andhe felt that the response was reasonably sympathetic. However,Gladstone’s 1886 home rule bill had been introduced to the House ofCommons just two days before and the 600 people at Morris’s lecturewere clearly profoundly affected by this development. Nationalistballads were sung and the evening was marked by high spirits. Theoccasion ended in confusion because, quite simply, many of those inattendance wanted to convert the gathering into an impromptunationalist rally. Nonetheless, Morris was not especially displeased bythis turn of events. After all, despite his criticisms of Gladstone’sbill he was still a dedicated supporter of the Irish demand for homerule.
Stephen Gwynn was hardly a socialist and his memoirsobviously reflect his own thoughts on the place of left-wing ideas inthe Ireland of his mind’s eye. Moreover, in terms of the specifics ofMorris’s visit, it is clear that the passage of time interfered withhis recollection and caused him to conflate several events and,perhaps, forget others.

—Yours etc.,

FINTAN LANE
Cork

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