Jeanne Rathbone

Mary Devenport O’Neill Poet and Galway Woman

Posted in Mary Devonport O'Neill Poet, Playwright and Notable Galway Woman by sheelanagigcomedienne on July 28, 2016
Mary Devonport O’Neill was a poet born in Loughrea Galway. She wrote a poem GALWAY and I had a handwritten copy of it pinned to the wall of any bedsit/flat when I first came to London. It was alongside the Louis Mac Niece Galway poem.
Mary devenport o neill

GALWAY by Mary Devenport O’Neill

I know a town tormented by the sea,
And there time goes slow
That the people see it flow
And watch it drowsily,
And growing older hour by hour they say,
‘Please God, to-morrow!
Then we will work and play,’
And their tall houses crumble away.
This town is eaten through with memory
Of pride and thick red Spanish wine and gold
And a great come and go;
But the sea is cold,
And the spare, black trees
Crouch in the withering breeze
That blows from the sea,
And the land stands bare and alone,
For its warmth is turned away
And its strength held in hard cold grey-blue
And the people are heard to say,
Through the raving of the jealous sea,
‘Please God, to-morrow!
Then we will work and play.’

I sent a letter to to the Galway Advertiser about the poem suggesting that the first verse – only seven lines – be included in the Galway Poetry Trail which was initiated by Tom Kenny of  Kenny Books. I have known Tom since schooldays.   I also added that I thought she has been unfairly neglected.

Galway Poetry-Trail-smA series of commemorative plaques featuring the writing of well known Irish and International poets  have been installed around the City of Galway.

Mary Devonport O’Neill was a poet born in Loughrea Galway. She wrote a poem GALWAY and I had a handwritten copy of it pinned to the wall of any bedsit/flat when I first came to London. It was alongside the Louis Mac Niece poem.

Often with a Galway twist, this series has become known as the Galway Poetry Trail and has so far included James Joyce, Mairtín Ó’Direáin, Seamus Heaney, Pádraic Ó’Conaire, Walter Macken, Louis MacNeice, Kevin Faller, Moya Cannon, Patricia Burke Brogan, W.B.Yeats, Gerald Dawe, Rita Ann Higgins, Gerard Hanberry, George Moore, and this year Máire Holmes and Arthur Colahan have been added.

Tom replied:

Thanks for your note. Mary Davenport O’Neill has been on our list from the beginning,but we can only do so much with our limited budget. The poem is fine but it is a bit long so we have to think carefully about where to place it.

The project is ongoing, we are now up to seventeen plaques, and it will always be a balance between living and deceased writers. We are also hoping that poets will start to write specifically for the trail.

I hope you are well. Things are good in sunny Galway and we are all anxiously waiting for The decision of the European Capital of Culture 2020 judges. We will know tomorrow.

Beatha agus Sláinte


(Galway’s bid was successful. Yea.)

The successful bid is for the City of Culture 2020. Rita Anne Higgins Galway’s own Laureate was commissioned to write a poem about it. It was not what they expected as it was a very funny, scurrilous and critical poem about the reality of life in Galway. Rita Anne is one of my featured Notable Women of Galway.

I don’t accept Tom’s excuse as women are so unrepresented in the Poetry Trail. And I think Galway- a town tormented by the sea is a punchy tagline for Galway. We’ll see!

And here is MacNiece’s which was written in Galway when he was told about the outbreak of war when Poland was invaded. He was on Nimmo’s Pier at the time where the plaque is.
.Mac Niece Galay Poem
Galway by Louis MacNiece.
O the crossbones of Galway
The hollow grey houses,
The rubbish and sewage,
The grass-grown pier,
And the dredger grumbling
All night in the harbour:
The war came down on us here.Salmon in the Corrib
Gently swaying
And the water combed out
Over the weir
And a hundred swans
Dreaming on the harbour:
The war came down on us here.The night was gay
with the moon’s music
But Mars was angry
On the hills of Clare
And September dawned
Upon Willows and ruins
The war came down upon us here
They lived at 2 Kenilworth Square, Rathgar Dublin

Mary Devenport O’Neill was born in Loughrea in 1879. She attended the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art for teacher training and boarded at The Dominican Convent, Eccles Street, Dublin and her address is recorded as Sea Road Galway.

She moved to Dublin with her mother and sister. Her father was marked as deceased in the college records. He had been a Royal Irish Constabulary sub-constable in Loughrea, County Galway, where Mary was born in 1879. The school record gives her address as the Dominican Convent, Eccles Street, Dublin with a secondary address of Sea Road, Galway. The DMSA waived Mary’s fee because her family did not earn in excess of 200 pounds a year. She trained there as an art teacher for four years and also completed a summer course in 1907, the year before she married.  During her time at the school, her widowed mother Delia and sister Annie moved from Galway to Ranelagh, Dublin[

She married Joseph O’Neill in 1908. He was also from Galway and was an author and Permanent Secretary of the Department of Education.The  O’Neills’ salon was attended over a period of years by all of the major literary figures of the time including Æ, Jack B. and W.B. Yeats, Sibyl le Brocquy, Lennox Robinson and Austin Clarke.

The website is very comprehensive. Please, please do check it out and read about another neglected talented woman  – an Irish poet a worthy and interesting Galway woman whose work has been sidelined and almost forgotten but she, at least, should be celebrated in Galway.

A Galway convent girl alone in 1890s Dublin, Mary Devenport O’Neill went on to establish herself as a writer and one of the literati of the Irish Free State. During the 1920s she would often take afternoon tea with W.B. Yeats, and many of her evenings were spent swooning in near-asphyxiation from the fumes of Æ’s pipe. In the ‘30s she would hop onto a tram from Rathgar into town for a chat with Sybil le Brocquy and spend days in her Kenilworth Square drawing room plotting movement directions for Ninette de Valois amidst snatches of Debussy’s “Prelude à l’apres midi d’un faune.” She was a salon hostess, artist, poet, playwright and novelist’s wife, who glitters and yet remains half-seen.Quick-witted, intellectual and in tune with Irish modernism as well as the Celtic revival, many of her ideas incorporated both new Western understandings of the human psyche and the ancient Eastern doctrine of karma. 

She has been forgotten and neglected in a way that many women writers and achievers have been. The backdrop to this was the prevailing puritan streak in Church and State, the same smothering conservatism that had driven the nation’s greatest cultural figures to take refuge abroad (Joyce, Wilde, Beckett, Yeats) or, for the men, to escape to the relative freedom of the bars of Dublin frequented by the likes of Behan, Kavanagh and O’Brien.

The vision of the new Irish State, as promulgated by the narrow-minded, sexist Catholic Church patriarchal imbued President DeValera,  which was broadcast over the radio to the nation on St Patrick’s Day 1943 sticks in the craw of so many Irish women. And it partly explains what has happened to women and their contribution to public life in Ireland in the years since the establishment of the state after partitioning.

A land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens, whose firesides for the wisdom of serene old age.

The O’Neills moved to Nice in 1949 selling their house in Kenilworth Square and all of their possessions. Joseph revealed his reasons for the move in a letter to R.I. Best: “I’d give my eyes to be back in Dublin but the doctors all warned me that another winter in Dublin would be the death of me and when you’re dead you’ve lost everything.” However, the move was a disaster. He smashed his kneecap. He wrote: ‘ At times I wish I was dead, but, if I go, my pension goes with me and my wife will be on the rocks, for we never saved a penny and I’m not insured. Today for the first time I realised that I’ll never walk again, a most horrible thought.

Mary and husband

Although none of Mary’s letters from this period have yet been uncovered, a letter from her husband to a friend conveys her continuing literary ambitions at that time, when he writes: “My wife says she intends going on with her work of writing till she’s a hundred. If she does notch the hundred and I die en route she’ll be in a bad way, for I never insured”  Alas, none of her work was published after the move to France. They returned and rented a place in Wicklow. Joseph died in 1953. Mary spent her last days living with relatives in Dublin and died in 1967, aged 88.

Mary Devenport O’Neill was the first Irish author to publish a volume of modernist poetry besides W.B. Yeats. It was entitled Prometheus and Other Poems and published by Jonathan Cape in 1929. Although this was her only poetry collection, The Dublin Magazine faithfully published her poems and verse-plays throughout the 1930s and 1940s. She worked with W.B. Yeats on  A Vision . This short poem is from her one book, the 1929 Prometheus and Other Poems. Her work is all out of print and does not appear in many of the numerous anthologies of Irish verse.


It seems to me
I live perpetually
On the cloudy edge of the sound of a bell
For ever listening.
I cannot tell
If it is memory
Of something that rang beautifully
Or if a bell will ring.

She published three verse plays,Bluebeard (1933), Cain(1945) and Out of The Darkness (1947). Her final play War, The Monster was performed by the Abbey Experimental theatre Company in 1949 but was not published. When she was fifty, she published a collection of poetry Prometheus and other poems (London: Jonathan Cape 1929)- thirty-three lyric poems, four “dream poems”, one long poem, and a verse-play. This was the first collection of poetry published by an Irish poet, besides Yeats, which could be considered modernist

.Mary devenport o neill and husband Joseph

She published regularly in The Dublin Magazine and contributed reviews to The Bell and The Irish Times. Two of her plays were performed by Austin Clarke’s  Lyric Theatre Company. She engaged in lengthy correspondence with Clarke from 1929-48 concerning the production of her work and combining choreography with verse for these productions. Bluebeard, a ballet based on her play, was choreographed by Dame Ninette De Valois  as one of the final productions of the Abbey School of Ballet.

Mary's work in The Dublin magazine

Some of Mary’s work

There is an interesting article about her poem entitled  A Crooked Slice of Bread

A Crooked Slice of Bread

A convent parlour with a floor

Of shining boards and a glass garden door,

A wide ring of slippery chairs,

Saints on the wall – a young saint with a skull,

An old saint thin with prayers –

Sea-shells upon mats of coloured wool;

An oval table set with bread

And wine the colour of foxglove

And little vases,

Such as children dress their altars with in May;

In these I poured the wine,

But why did he who got the first vase shove

His vase away?

I stopped pouring the wine;

And then as if a rain-cloud spoke he said,

‘You’ve given me a crooked slice of bread.’

I turned and found a loaf so stale and dried

‘Twas hard as sandstone, and a knife

As thin and waving as a blade of grass;

And then while centuries seemed to pass

All things had faded but the task I tried.

Do I in some less palpable life

That slides along one side of this

(Using the force and strength I miss

In this life here) work hard instead

To cut that straight smooth even slice of bread?

Here is a list of some of her poems.

“A Mood’s Extremity”
“An Old Waterford Woman”
“A Strong Wind”
“Dead Women”
“Early Spring”
“Impressions while Listening to a Piece of Music by Richard Strauss”
“King Lear’s Daughters”
“October Afternoon in Bad Kreuth in Bavaria”
“October Afternoon in Dublin”
“Something Whinges to Me”
“Stray Thoughts”
“Summer 1924”
“The Aspen Tree”
“The Bell”
“The Blackbird”
“The Last Few Leaves”
“The Midlands”
“The Queen’s Song”
“The River Field”
“The Shortest Day”
“The Tramp’s Song”
“Undisturbed by Leaves”
“Yellow Leaves”
I am sure that you will enjoy reading these and wonder why you hadn’t heard of her or her poems in school or later and if you live in Galway perhaps you could do something about it.

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