William Morris in Ireland

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 2 (Summer 2000), Letters, Letters, Volume 8

With reference to Fintan Lane’s article (‘William Morris and Ireland’,HI Spring 2000) your readers may be interested to know that there isanother account of Morris’s visit to Dublin in 1887. In his account ofhis own early life, Experiences of a Literary Man (London 1926,pp.42-4) the litterateur and Irish Party MP Stephen Gwynn states thatas an undergraduate at Brasenose College ‘I assisted…at Morris’sfirst and only attempt to spread his propaganda in Dublin, and it wasexceedingly funny and instructive’. He describes a visit to theSaturday Club as mentioned in Lane’s article, stating that ‘theytalked, or were said to talk, not disapprovingly of dynamite’ yet

You never saw an audience more respectful, or less responsive. What inthe world did Irish working men care about art? They wanted to be toldabout a parliament in College Green or the iniquities of England. Asfor the socialism, they were quite clear about that.
According to Gwynn, when Morris finished, a local artisan who ‘began todeclaim the most commonplace theories of militant socialism’ was hooteddown despite attempts by Morris and the chairman to intervene in hisfavour:

Another working man rose up. They were all courageous politicians, hesaid; they were not afraid of anyone. But socialism meant atheism, andatheism meant blasphemy, and if English people took up socialism, somuch the worse for them; but he wished to God Mr Morris, whom they allrespected as a famous man, would keep these revolutionary ideas for hisown side of the channel and not come here to disturb a decent, quietcountry with them. Morris’s face was a study. The socialist artisan gotup again to reply; but the meeting howled at him.

A one-legged beggarman called Toomey tried to make a speech while thesocialist was speaking; some of Morris’s retinue, including Gwynnhimself, forcibly restrained Toomey, and a free-for-all fight was aboutto break out when someone dispersed the meeting by turning off the gasand plunging the hall into darkness. We who went back with Morris tohis hotel, consoled ourselves with whiskey and water, and heard hisexpressions. Never, he said, in his life had he been in an assemblageof such God-forsaken reactionary Tories. It was a new class of epithetsfor that particular congregation.

Morris then (according to Gwynn) went round to the Contemporary Club,where he was worsted in debate by ‘three or four clever young politicalbarristers’ who overpowered him with statistics.

Three or four of us who cared more about other things than land billssucceeded in drawing him into a corner, where he discoursed upon sagasto Yeats and upon stained glass to Walter Osborne, whose names, thenunknown, are now sufficiently familiar. It must have been close uponfour when we turned out, Osborne and I, whose homeward way lay withhis, accompanying Morris. I remember how sharp the air was as we walkedalong Grafton Street in its nightly solitude; but the poet, rollingslowly along, despising greatcoats, never seemed to feel it.
Gwynn’s Maudlingesque description of Morris’s visit, written almostforty years after the events it describes, is clearly less reliablethan the contemporaneous letters and newspaper reports quoted by Lane(even allowing that these may have wished to put the best face onmatters); it understates the number of meetings Morris addressed,ignores the presence of a Socialist League branch in Dublin, and showssigns of the contemporary tendency to present Morris’s politicalcommitment as a personal eccentricity irrelevant to his artistic life.Nonetheless, it would be interesting to make a more exact comparison ofGwynn’s description with the accounts cited by Lane.

—Yours etc.,
PATRICK MAUME
Queen’s University
Belfast

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