Donn Byrne (born Brian Oswald Patrick Donn-Byrne) (20 November, 1889 – 18 June 1928) was an Irish novelist. He was born in New York City where his Irish parents were on a business trip at the time, and soon after returned with them to Ireland. He grew up being equally fluent in Irish and English, growing up in an area where Gaelic was still spoken.
In 1906, when he was 14, Donn-Byrne went to an Irish Volunteer Movement meeting with Bulmer Hobson and Robert Lynd of the London Daily News, where Lynd noticed him, a fair-haired boy, and wrote of his singing. It was through Hobson that Byrne acquired his taste for Irish history and nationalism. He attended the University of Dublin, beginning in 1907, where he studied Romance languages and saw his own writing published in The National Student, the student magazine. After graduation he continued his studies in Europe, hoping to join the British Foreign Office. It is related that he “turned down his PhD” when he learned that he would have to wear evening clothes to his early morning examinations, which he apparently felt that no true Irish gentleman would ever do.
He returned to New York in 1911, where he began working first for the publishers of the Catholic Encyclopedia, the New Standard Dictionary, and then the Century Dictionary. In February 1912 his poem “The Piper” appeared in Harper’s magazine. His first short story, “Battle,” sold soon after to Smart Set magazine for $50, appearing in the February 1914 issue. He sold more stories; some of these were anthologized in his first book, Stories Without Women, 1915. He then began working on his first novel, The Stranger’s Banquet (1919). He was a prolific novelist and short story writer from that point on. His novel Field of Honor was published posthumously in 1929. His poems were collected into an anthology and published as Poems (1934).
Despite both his wife’s success as a playwright, and his own increasing popularity as an author, Byrne’s financial straits forced his family to sell their house in Riverside, Connecticut, and return to Ireland. They later purchased Coolmain Castle, near Bandon in County Cork, where Byrne lived until his death in a car accident due to defective steering, in June 1928. A Kilbrittain man Cornelius O’Sullivan who witnessed the incident pulled him from the water and tried to revive him, but to no avail. He is buried in Rathclarin churchyard, near Coolmain Castle. His headstone reads, in Irish and English: “I am in my sleeping and don’t waken me.”
Some of the works were published in the United Kingdom under different titles. These are also noted after the American title.
Blind Raftery and His Wife Hilaria (1924)
Brother Saul (1928)
Field of Honor (1929), or The Power of the Dog
The Foolish Matrons (1920)
Hangman’s House (1926)
Messr. Marco Polo (1921)
O’Malley of Shanganagh (1925), or An Untitled Story
A Party of Bacarat (1930), or The Golden Goat
The Stranger’s Banquet (1919)
The Wind Bloweth (1922)
Short story collections:
Doherty, 1997, provides a complete index of the short stories.
An Alley of Flashing Spears, and Other Stories (1934)
Changeling, and Other Stories (1923)
A Daughter of the Medici, and Other Stories (1935)
Destiny Bay (1928)
The Hound of Ireland, and Other Stories (1935)
The Island of Youth, and Other Stories (1933)
Rivers of Damascus, and Other Stories (1931)
Stories Without Women (And A Few With Women) (1915)
A Woman of the Shee, and Other Stories (1932), or Saragasso Sea, and Other Stories
Poetry and Travelogue:
Ireland, The Rock Whence I Was Hewn (1929)
The early novels can be said to be quite mediocre, noted as “potboilers” by Thurston Macauley, Byrne’s earliest biographer. Polo tells the story of the Italian adventurer as told by an Irishman, and Wind is a romantic novel of the sea. Both show some highly lyrical passages intermixed with the plain language of real life. With Raftery, however, the author seems to reinvent the saga style, the prose breaking off into musical verse now and then as it tells the story of a blind poet wandering Ireland and avenging his wife’s dishonor.
His later novels invited comparison with Irish novelist George Moore, especially in their romance and historical themes. It was with Hangman’s, though, that he began to identify himself with the traditional Irish storytellers, noting in his preface (“A Foreword to Foreigner’s”) that: “I have written a book of Ireland for Irishmen. Some phrase, some name in it may conjure up the world they knew as children.” It is also in this novel that Byrne returns to his Irish nationalist ideas by alluding to the ongoing strife of the Irish Civil War and fight for Independence.
Byrne was firmly of the neo-Romantic view of the mythical and pastoral beauty of Irish history. His writing hauntingly evokes these images, sometimes seeming want to preserve them. “It seemed to me,” he says in Wind, “that I was capturing for an instant a beauty that was dying slowly, imperceptibly, but would soon be gone.” his simple narrative style is rarely found today, and has the atmosphere of ancient oral epics such as Taine Bo Cualinge and the Epic of Gilgamesh.