by Dr Nora Moroney, IRC Postdoctoral Fellow TCD, Marsh’s Library, Farmleigh House.
The Benjamin Iveagh Library, in its beautiful wood-panelled room at Farmleigh, contains over five
thousand books. Of these, only a handful are written by women. This is not altogether surprising –
women have traditionally been underrepresented in literary history, especially the canon of Irish
literature. They are also less likely to have been published in expensive intricate bindings, the kind
collected by Benjamin Guinness, third Earl of Iveagh (1937-92).
The women writers who do feature on these shelves are an interesting group. There are seven
female authors in the library – Lady Jane ‘Speranza’ Wilde, Lady Gregory, Sydney Owenson (Lady
Morgan), the Countess of Blessington, Maria Edgeworth and OE Somerville and Violet Florence
Martin (more generally known as Somerville and Ross). Their elite status in Ireland’s literary culture
is mirrored by their aristocratic titles, most of them belonging to an Anglo-Irish milieu so familiar to
the inhabitants of Farmleigh.
The most recognisable names are perhaps Wilde and Gregory. Jane Wilde is today best known as the
mother of Oscar Wilde, but was a respected writer, translator and literary hostess in her own right.
Her books here reflect her interest in Irish mythology and folklore. Ancient cures, charms and usages
of Ireland (1890) appears in first edition, alongside Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions
of Ireland (1887). Her works tap in to the growing awareness of local and cultural histories from the
mid-nineteenth century, seen also in her husband William Wilde’s 1867 guide book to Lough Corrib
(the library’s copy is inscribed to Benjamin Lee Guinness, and contains a letter from the author).
Lady Augusta Gregory, the owner of Coole Park in Galway, was a central figure of the Irish literary
revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Iveagh collection boasts sixteen
works by Gregory and many more letters, collaborations and inscriptions, tracing her influence
across one of the most important eras in Irish literature. Like Wilde, her plays (such as McDonough’s
Wife) also draw on the folklore of rural Ireland, and became core themes of the early days of the Abbey theatre. One of the most valuable Revival-era books in the collection is a first edition of
Yeats’s Where There is Nothing: Plays for an Irish Theatre (1903), dedicated and inscribed to Gregory
from Yeats and bearing her bookplate. The copy also contains five original drawings, four of them in
pencil – probably by Gregory herself – representing characters in the play, and an ink portrait on the
title page by Jack Yeats.
Lady Morgan and the Countess of Blessington, meanwhile, were two of the nineteenth century’s
most celebrated female writers. Morgan’s The Wild Irish Girl (1806) is widely seen as the original
‘National Tale’ – packaging Ireland and its culture for an English audience. Blessington, too, used her
Irish charm to build a successful and well-travelled career, mixing with figures like Charles Dickens
and publishing Conversations with Lord Byron in 1834. Both women were successful in the growing
genre of travel literature at the time. The library holds first editions of Morgan’s books Italy (1821)
and France in 1829-30 (1830), as well as Blessington’s similar The Idler in France (1841). Perhaps
most interesting is a manuscript copy of ‘Railroads and Steamboats’ by Lady Blessington, describing
a journey by train and boat taken in 1841, a little over a year after the completion of the London-
Southampton Line. The narrative conveys the excitement of the new experience of rail travel, where
the train ‘flew along, like some unearthly and demoniacal carriage, impelled by evil spirits on its mad
Bookending this group are Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) and Somerville and Ross. Edgeworth was
one of the earliest Irish women writers to find widespread fame, with books such as Castle Rackrent
and Belinda. The Iveagh copy of Castle Rackrent is notable, as first edition copies such as this don’t
have her name on title page. After its instant success, her name appeared from second edition
onwards. Indeed her books, almost all of which are collected in the library, were instrumental in the development of the nineteenth century novel in Britain and Ireland. Original Edgeworth material is
today extremely valuable, and one of the jewels of this collection is a beautiful handwritten
manuscript of her work The Most Unfortunate Day of My Life (1819).
Front cover and first page of Edgeworth’s manuscript of The Most Unfortunate Day of My Life
Over a century later, Somerville and Ross had a similarly long and successful career. The two women
were cousins from somewhat faded aristocratic families, who witnessed the turmoil of the
revolutionary years and its impact on the big house life. Following on from their early success The
Real Charlotte (1894), they published over fifteen novels and memoirs about Irish life. Their entire
collected works are shelved together in the library, many of them bearing inscriptions to family
members and friends. Alongside these are an important collection of manuscripts and letters
detailing their literary lives and travels.
Finally, women also occur in rather unexpected places in this collection – the bindings. Iveagh
collected many editions from the Dun Emer and Cuala Press: early twentieth-century publishing
houses set up by the Yeats sisters and run almost entirely by women. They were celebrated for their
ornate, hand-printed publications and often signed their names inside the covers. A fine example of
this is a red and gold embossed edition of The French under the Merovingians (1850) held in the
As these works show, women’s voices do emerge from this collection. By paying attention to the
margins – literally – we can trace their influence across Ireland’s literary history, from the early
Romantic era to the height of the Celtic Revival.