Dear Maggy, many thanks for your letter. No. I’m afraid the Abbey people would not do it just now, they are trying to produce paying plays . . .’
The budding playwright to whom that letter is addressed in 1910 was Miss Margaret Emmeline Dobbs of Cushendall.
Unlike the writer of the letter John Mansfield, who was to become Englands longest serving Poet Laureate, Margaret Dobbs was to have little impact outside her chosen ground, the Glens of Antrim.
Her fate was to outlive her generation and like her plays to end up almost forgotten. In the end did any of her dreams come true or had she grown too old to dream?
She was born on the 19th of November, 1871. Her father Conway Edward Dobbs was a J.P., for County Antrim, High Sheriff for Carrickfergus (an Assize town) in 1875 and High Sheriff for County Louth in 1882. The Carrickfergus appointment was due to a long family association with the town. In 1690, an ancestor as Mayor had welcomed William, Prince of Orange to the town on his way to victory at the Boyne. The Louth post could be traced to his marriage to Sarah Mullholland, one of the six daughters of St. Clair Kelburn Mulholland,himself a High Sheriff for Louth. The Mulhollands from County Down are the family from which Lord Dunleath is sprung.
Margaret’s grandfather, also Conway Edward, had married his own cousin Maria Sophia only daughter of Francis Dobbs, Member of Grattan’s Parliament. Before looking further at Margaret’s life a peep at Francis might prove of interest.
He was called to the Irish Bar in 1773 and in the following year wrote a play ‘The Patriot King of the Irish Chief’ which was never performed. A leading member of the Irish Volunteers he was their Northern representative at the Dungannon Convention of 1782, a close friend of Lord Charlemont and a fanatical opponent of legislative union with England. He published a volume of poetry of high quality in 1788 but his pungent political pamphlets attracted a wider readership.He is best remembered for a speech delivered against the Union of the 7th June 1800 not so much for political content as for his argument that the Union was forbidden by Scripture. In support he quoted from Daniel and Revelations and when on his feet took the opportunity to foretell the second coming of the Messiah! It had all the ingredients of, and was, a best seller . . . 30,000 copies. In spite of Francis Dobbs and Daniel, the Act of the Union, for better or worse, was passed in 1801 and Francis faded into obscurity to die 10 years later in financial distress.
Was Margaret influenced by this flamboyant eccentric? I think so. He was the only other green branch on the family tree, a staunch Protestant who kept faith with his country and church. Margaret was wont to refer to him as ‘Francis the incorruptible’ for unlike many of his creed and class he could not be bought in the chicanery leading up to the Act of the Union. And of course he had written a play.
Margaret’s family lived in Dublin then the undisputed capital of an undivided Ireland but she was soon to learn that it was an English city. In 1866, she expressed the desire to learn the Irish language. Her parents did not object. Indeed in later life she was to comment that her feelings for things Irish might have stemmed from the Mulholland in her. I think however that the twelve year old was encouraged by her governess, a Scot with a Gaelic background. In those far off days a governess had almost unlimited control in matters educational. Anyhow Margaret and her governess searched Dublin in vain for an Irish teacher.
Remarkably a young man from Glenarm, Eoin MacNeill, in 1887 placed an advert in a Dublin paper for a tutor of the Irish language and got only one reply – from a man who knew only the pronunciation of Irish place names. Mac Neill went west to Innis Maan in the Aaran Islands but age and background debarred Margaret from taking such a step, so her young dream went unfulfilled.
Her parents had fallen in romantic love with Glenarriffe and they built Glenariffe Lodge at the head of the Glen where the family spent their summer holidays. When Conway Dobbs died in 1898 Sarah and the children moved permanently to Glenariffe. Margaret was twenty-seven. The family name had long been linked with the Glen. Almost a century before Sarah moved there, the Rev. Richard Stewart Dobbs lived at the foot of the Glen in Bay Lodge where he wrote his ‘Statistical Account of the parishes of Ardclinis and Layd.’
And an even earlier Richard Dobbs had taken a close look at Glenariffe in 1683 when surveying the County of Antrim for William Molyneaux’s Irish atlas. No strangers they.
Margaret found in the quiet of the Glens what had been drowned out in the bustle of Dublin, spoken Irish. More importantly she found others of her faith who shared her love of the language and scholars like Hugh Flatley the Mayo Schoolmaster who were prepared to teach it.
And things were happening. Miss Higginson from down Cushendun way had instant success with her ‘Songs of the Glens of Antrim’ published in 1900; our seeker after an Irish tutor, Eoin MacNeill became vice-president of the Gaelic League and Constance Crumlin from up Layd shore married an English poet named John Masefield. Oh indeed things were happening.
If Dublin remembered 1904 as the year in which the Abbey Theatre was founded, the Glens remembered it as the year of the ‘Big Feis’. Look at our society’s book ‘Oh, Maybe it was Yesterday’ and you’ll see a photograph of the great Feis procession and up front Miss Margaret Emmeline Dobbs for whom life was only beginning. A member of the Feis committee from the start and later a tireless literary secretary, her Dobbs scholarship to a Gaeltacht College was the most coveted award in the literary section for many years.
Folk memories of the Big Feis abound in the the Glens. John Hewitt in his poem ‘Fame’ tells us how Roger Casement brought the Raghery men over for the day. Casement acted as umpire at the hurley match on Red Bay strand for the ‘Shield of the Heroes’.
But for me it is the folk memory of Roger Casement shirt-sleeved, sickling the rushes to clear the Feis field, for it links Casement with Margaret; the British Consul and the daughter of the Big House promoting the cause of Gaelic Ireland.
It was said that Casement could not master the Irish Language. He was less determined in this one respect than Margaret who went off to the Irish College at Cloughaneely in the Donegal Gaeltacht. Often she would recall the hardships encountered by teachers and students in those primitive days. She became treasurer of the summer school and brought back to the Glens of Antrim the message from the Gaeltacht: know your own language.
There is an unfortunate inclination to link the language with Catholics only but when Margaret Dobbs was spreading her gospel in the Glens she gathered around her a group of ladies from well-known Protestant families, names like, Young, Hutton, McNaughten, Richardson, who shared her zeal for the spread of the Language.
One of them Rose Young is worth more than a passing reference such as this. Ostracised by her family because of her pro-Irish views she came to live with Margaret Dobbs at Portnagolan, Cushendall and died there in 1947. She compiled an anthology of Irish verse with the help of Douglas Hyde, the first president of the Gaelic league and the first President of the Republic of Ireland. Rose Young is buried in the Presbyterian churchyard at Ahoghill, Co. Antrim. Mrs Hutton devoted ten years to her translation of the Irish epic ‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’. Protestant pride in our past.
I turned up at a Feis programme of 1930 to find Margaret Dobbs and Ada MacNeill on the committee and Rose Young with one J. Humbert Craig judging the arts and crafts exhibition. In passing it was worth noting that the winner of the senior section for Celtic design was a young man named Charles McAuley, while in classes for knowledge of Irish History Glendun folk swept the boards.
In 1946, the Feis committee decided to honour Margaret Dobbs for her devotion to the Feis and the language by presenting her with an illuminated address. It can be seen today at Portnagolan House with its stained glass windows commemorative of a great Irishwoman. Returning thanks for the praise lavished upon her on that presentation day she recalled that it was exactly sixty years before that she and her governess searched in vain for an Irish teacher in Dublin and how she achieved her ambition only when she became a member of Feis na nGleann. She went on to say:
‘Ireland is a closed book to those who do not know her language. No one can know Ireland properly until one knows the language. Her treasures are hidden as a book unopened. Open the book and learn to love your language’.
Let’s turn to her plays. Playwriting occupied a decade or more of her life prior to 1921. In all she wrote seven plays, three of which were publicly performed though one only was produced outside the Glens – ‘The Doctor and Mrs McAuley’ which won the Warden trophy for one-act plays at Belfast festival in 1913. Her plays were published by Dundalgan Press in 1920.
In the Glens they were performed in what she described as a hayloft turned into a hall at the rear of the Glens of Antrim Hotel in Cushendall. One player appeared in all three plays. Dan McMullan the tailor of whom Lynn Doyle wrote in the December 1931 issue of ‘The Glensman’. ‘There was a great comic actor lost to the world in Dan, to all the world that is but Cushendall’. Nicolas Crommelin brother of the afore-mentioned Constance appeared in two plays. Interesting to note the Crommelin connection with both the Dobbs and Mulholland families. In 1776 Maria Dobbs married Samuel De Lacherois Crommelin.
Meanwhile back on cue. By far the most interesting play was never performed – shades of Francis the Incorruptible. It was entitled ‘A man and a brother’. Described as of three acts it ran to only 36 pages and must have been the fastest three act play in theatrical history. Miss Dobbs gave as her reason for its non-performance ‘fear of political misunderstanding’. When she sent the draft to Masefield he described it as the best constructed of her plays but added a prophetic note – the letter was dated 3rd January 1921:
‘I hope that we may see it acted, but I think the Irish world will change so soon and so much that it will be old-fashioned before we come over. However you would not mind that I’m sure’.
Masefield knew her mind better than most, for the change that was to come was what she and others had dreamed of for years – Casement’s dream, Hyde’s dream and the dream of that fierce Republican Ada MacNeill of whom Pat McCormick, was to say, ‘Miss Ada’s alright, alright all the way’. But Margaret was not so politically outspoken as Miss Ada and she was probably satisfied to see the play in print.
Though she worked hard for ten years at her craft she failed as a playwright. Her friend and mentor Masefield foresaw this and in his letters he was kindly critical. In that letter with which I opened this article he discounted the Abbey’s interest in the kindliest possible way, made a brief reference to the Belfast Literary Theatre’s possible interest but said firmly and frankly:
‘It would pay you to stage it yourself at the garage, rehearse your own company, and play it yourself; amply pay you’.
I think that says it all. Harking back to that letter and the Abbey producing paying plays, it’s ironic to think that from the pen of a playwright in Carnlough a few miles down the shore would come plays that would keep the Abbey open-namely: George Shiels! Remember Yeats’ riposte when Ernie Blythe said it was time to give Shiels a rest;
‘A rest? And close the place!’
For Margaret such a dream never came true. But her plays were only a part of a very interesting life. In a letter to a friend of nine years later, setting out her interests she made no mention whatever of plays and after 1920 she never wrote another line for theatre.
In the end Masefield quietly got his way. Her main interest was research work in historical and archaeological matters. She had articles published in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, in a German magazine for Celtic studies, in the French ‘Revue Cletique’ and in the Irish magazine ‘Eriu’. It is impossible to deal with all she has written and I will content myself and hope you will be content with three references to articles in the Ulster Journal.
One in 1939 was a lengthy look at the Ui Dercu Cein a section of the Cruitne, the Picts of Dalriada and traced their development from about 500 AD till around 1030 Ad. Rather too heavy for me, but then it was written for those who read and understood, it has 38 footnote references from such tomes as the Book of Leinster, the Annals of Ulster and the Book of Rights.
In 1950 she was writing about the name Dalriada linking the name with a race of horse breakers and riders claiming descent from Conall Cearnach of Táin fame of whom it was said…so she noted
‘He was the third who rode a single horse first in Eire’.
And if that is not an Irishism what is?
An article in Vol. 19 in 1956 looks at Lough Neagh and the traditions concerning it and shows careful research of genealogical tracts in Laud 610 (Bodelian Library) and to make easier reading of a transcript quoted she gives the English translation of a number of Gaelic names of people and places. Oh she would have pleased “The Glynns”.
There was a hint of romance between herself and Casement and that he was certainly more than an acquaintance was evident in an interview she gave some years before her death. Speaking of Casement she said:
“Roger was my friend. He used to stay here weekends after his return, almost broken in health, from Putamayo.”
(It was Casement’s exposure of the conditions under which the natives worked in this Belgian Colony, which earned him his Knighthood.) The interviewer, mindful of renewed interest in the notorious Casement Diaries, asked Miss Dobbs for her views on the scandal. Her reply is interesting.
‘ I have always had the highest admiration for Roger. He was a gentleman, humanitarian, poet and Patriot. Not only was he my friend but also he was a friend of all Irish people. But I have not the same admiration for his judgements’.
Sadly the Journalist did not press her to explain and we therefore have to make conjecture. Her admiration for his virtues certainly ruled out any acceptance by her of the behaviour attributed to him by the alleged Diaries. Was she then alleging to his political judgement? Possibly. She considered herself to be a friend of all the Irish people but was it an Ireland within the British Empire? Remember Home Rule was the cry in Casement’s day. Talk of a republic was still behind hand. In Ulster, people were arming to defy if necessary the will of the Parliament while in the South they were arming to support the rule of Parliament.
Where stood the Dobbs’ of Cushendall? I can tell you. Motor car number three on that night in Larne brought from the S.S. Clydevalley four bundles of German Mausers to the home of Mr. Dobbs of Cushendall. I took that to be Henry Dobbs, Margaret’s brother. But others’ German guns changed all that. Instead of fighting on Bannside the UVF were soon fighting in France.
And of course there were Dobbs’ in the line. A colonel Margaret’s brother Nithsdale, her nephew the Brigadier, her cousins Chaplain Rev. Conway Ed and Lieutenant Conway Ed. For the Dobbs the war was on. Hard to believe that the handsome Knight who sat at the table in Portnagolan would be plotting with the Germans to bring guns into Ireland and not in support of Parliament but to destroy its power over Ireland. What side was Margaret on?
When she disagreed with Casement’s judgement was it because when men like her brother and other relatives were fighting a sworn enemy Casement was seen to be stabbing them in the back? She may well have agreed with the rising but disagreed with seeking German help. But because she kept her politics to herself we can only guess. Yet when Casement was arrested and charged with treason this lady from a more than loyal home did not disown him. When asked if it was true that she had contributed to his defence costs she replied without hestitaion:
“Of course its true. Roger was my friend’.
Which side was Margaret Dobbs on? Casement’s I say. For we were to find out in a totally unexpected way the feeling which she kept to herself. For years and years she came down to the village for Feis committee meetings until she felt unable to make the journey and asked the committee to meet at Portnagolan. At their first such meeting, and all others thereafter, she opened by playing A Soldiers Song on a gramophone and required all present to stand to attention to the anthem.
When she died, a bonfire was made of her many personal belongings but a local man whose job it was to stoke the flames recognised the value of some of the things he was to burn. He saved the sealed appointments of Casement to his consular posts, some private letters including a copy of one to Lord Landsdowne, and a Holy Picture said to have been in Casement’s possession the night before his execution. Casement had many friends who rallied round him but it was in the keeping of Margaret Dobbs that we find these very personal and important Keepsakes. Does this not show something more than a friendship?
I said in the opening that Margaret Dobbs outlived her generation. That is true but it did not mean that she stopped living. Apart from her work with the Feis which went on almost till the end she had other interests. Music and her Church. She played organ in the Parish Church in Cushendall while it lay within her power. Love of music and opera took her south and she was a regular at the far-away Wexford Festival. She read and researched. Like many other ladies she was in the Women’s Institute. For a time she was in the Braid Valley Hospital, Ballymena. No one who cared wanted Margaret Dobbs to die outside of the Glens so she was brought home and tended by a number of women, one of whom, Mrs. McElhinney was to die in the Claudy blast. And then with almost ninety years run Miss Margaret Emmeline Dobbs crossed over and was gone.
The papers said ‘house and funeral private’ but that was never the way in the Glens. What are friends for if they can’t see you along the last bit of the way. So on the day of the funeral some two hundred people gathered at the entrance to Portnagolan. Private became public as they walked down Layd and through the village to her parish church because Margaret Dobbs belonged to them and they were proud of her. Her wish that her last resting place be marked with a Celtic Cross has never been granted, while Murlough still waits for the bones of the man she called ‘my friend Roger.’
This article originally appeared in Volume 11 (1983) of ‘The Glynns’.