Lord Dunsany (1878-1957), Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett

Through the mists of time... an early photo of Lord Dunsany

And little he knew of the things that ink may do, how it can mark a dead man's thoughts for the wonder of later years, and tell of happenings that are gone clean away, and be a voice for us out of the dark of time, and save many a fragile thing from the pounding of heavy ages; or carry to us, over the rolling centuries, even a song from lips long dead on forgotten hills."  Lord Dunsany

A complex and fascinating character, and an important contributor to literature, Lord Dunsany was a versatile and creative writer, with works in forms and genres including fantasy, drama, poetry, science fiction, prose, autobiography ... though he lived in a period when genres, at least, were not the silos they occasionally become nowadays. Dunsany was familiar with many other key Irish literary figures (in a most unusual move, W.B. Yeats even edited and issued a "Selection from the Writings of Lord Dunsany") and was also, among other things, a champion at chess (Irish national champion, holding Capablanca to a draw and inventing his own variety of the game) and shooting with both pistol and rifle, an artist (of drawings and clay figurines) and a keen hunter. He once ran for public office, and was thought by some of his peers to be a bit eccentric but he was a devoted family man and heir to a great old family tradition with a keen sense of heritage and duty.
Property in his care included Dunsany Castle (Ireland's oldest remaining family home, begun c. 1180 and cared for by the family as part of the national heritage, to be maintained despite the many challenges which saw so many fine old buildings abandoned across Ireland and the U.K. in Lord Dunsany's lifetime), and its Estate, Dunstall Priory and Ivy Cottage in Shoreham, Kent, and Trim Castle, Ireland's largest castle (now in the care of the State and open to visit).

The Book of the Phoenix, one of Lord Dunsany's beautifully crafted manuscript books for personally hand-written copies of his work.

The Writer Lord

Lord Dunsany is cited as a major influence by many writers and artists, including some of the most popular figures in contemporary speculative fiction, and as an important figure in the development of fantastic literature by editors, academics and critics. His work formed part of the foundation of fantasy, along with that of Poe, Morris and Rider Haggard, and fed into later work such as that of Tolkien, Lewis and Lovecraft. The reference Dunsanian evokes a particular style and atmosphere which has, in the words of more than one commentator, been much imitated but never duplicated. Current editions of his work quote many well-known authors recognising his inspiration.

In addition to his originality and ability with language, the Writer Lord was also very productive, although writing occupied a modest share of his busy life. He published many hundreds of items in his lifetime, and dozens of books, and at various times was seen as something new and special and as someone familiar and popular. He was never confined to any category - "genres" such as fantasy, science fiction and so on did not really exist then - but was respected for his overall ability, being invited to lecture on many occasions. He was even appointed as a Professor of English in Athens at one point, and did so well that he was promoted to a larger role in Istanbul, though war prevented him taking up that post.

The most common questions relate to Lord Dunsany in his role as a writer, so here is a list of some of his works and an image of his first published work, before he inherited the title. We will issue more details over time; for a longer listing, try the excellent "Lord Dunsany : A Bibliography" by S.T. Joshi and Darrell Schweitzer, in many libraries or by order through your local bookstore or from your preferred online supplier.

Another common question relates to Lord Dunsany's signature and script. The 18th Lord had a very distinctive and bold hand, often writing with personally-cut quill pens, made from the feathers discarded by local ducks. Samples are presented : Lord Dunsany's hand.

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A Brief Look

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, was born in London on the 24th of July 1878 to a family whose roots in Ireland probably go back to before the Norman invasion. The Plunkett name is unique to Ireland, though its holders now span the globe, and Plunketts have held a wide range of roles in Ireland across the centuries from the 11th to today.

His father, John William (1853-1899) was a scholar and keen mechanical engineer (he installed the first Irish telephone system, developed his own x-ray machine, and drove trains), a sportsman, with a range of shooting trophies, and a respected politician (his speeches were generally well-attended). His mother, who married John William in 1877, was a cousin, Ernle Grosvenor, descended from James Drax of Barbados and related to the famous Richard Burton. Edward had a brother, Reginald, who became a renowned Admiral, inherited his mother's estate and changed his name to Drax in later life. The 16th Lord, Edward, also an Admiral, left all of his property, except Dunsany Castle, directly to his namesake grandchild.

Edward (Eddy or Eddie to his immediate circle), grew up at the family property in Shoreham, Kent, Dunstall Priory, and at Dunsany. He went to school at Cheam and Eton and entered Sandhurst in 1896.

Dunsany inherited the title on his father's death in 1899, fought in the Boer War (as an officer in the Coldstream Guards) and returned to Dunsany in 1901. Taking after his mother, who was nearly 6' tall, Edward was a lean 6'4" and considered rather handsome. He was also a keen marksman and a fine player of cricket (Dunsany had its own cricket ground near the village), tennis (there is a court beside the Castle) and chess (he was an amateur champion and drew with Grand Master Capablanca; he also wrote chess puzzles for the Times over many years and invented his own variant form of chess).

In 1903, Lord Dunsany met Beatrice Child-Villiers, daughter of the Earl of Jersey; they were married in 1904 and remained devoted to each other for the rest of their lives. Lady Beatrice worked closely with Lord Dunsany in recording his work, though he liked to be alone to write, often going to a small room at the top of the castle when at Dunsany. Another of the Jersey daughters married into the Pakenham family, Earls of Longford, and there was much contact between the families; Edward used to make items such as decorative seals and elaborate orders of merit for his younger relatives at Tullynally.

A photo of Lord Dunsany in his middle yearsIn 1905, Edward achieved his first book publication with The Gods of Pegana. On the 25th of August 1906, Edward and Beatrice's only child, Randal, who would become the 19th Lord, was born. Edward's uncle, Horace Plunkett, pioneer of the agricultural co-operative movement and a prominent figure in Irish and British politics (and a personal friend of at least one US President), assisted in the management of the estate and through him Edward met many more key Irish personalities; between his own and Horace's circles, regular visitors to Dunsany and Dunstall included Yeats, Kipling, James Stephens, Lady Gregory, "AE" and Oliver St John Gogarty, the latter two being good friends over many years, and Kipling in later life when they lived near each other in Kent.

In 1909 a play written at the suggestion/ request of W.B. Yeats, The Glittering Gate, opened at the Abbey Theatre to critical and public acclaim; many more successful plays followed and at one point, five Dunsany works were running simultaneously in New York; at another, point, Dunsany was on stage in four major capital cities as well as New York.

Dunsany was a patron and supporter to a number of fellow writers, especially the poet Francis Ledwidge, whom he encouraged greatly and to whom he opened his library. Dunsany helped Ledwidge with publication and sadly it fell to him also to arrange posthumously the issue of the two later collections of his work (although Dunsany opposed it strongly, Ledwidge enlisted during World War I and was killed). Although already in his mid-30's, Dunsany himself signed-up and was in active service during the War, spending time in the trenches. His mother died in 1916 and left Dunstall Priory to him.

After World War I, Dunsany continued to write and lecture, with considerable success. His fiction writings entered a new phase, and many had less of the directly fantastic, and he returned to his earliest writing interest, poetry, also. In the 1920's, he also began to write of his best known character, Mr. Joseph Jorkens, who remained at the tip of his pen for the rest of his life. His first grandchild, Edward, the 20th Lord to-be, was born in Dublin in 1939. During World War II, Lord Dunsany served in the Home Guard and the Local Defence Force; he was also briefly Byron Professor of English in Athens but had to evacuate. After the war, he continued writing, as well as making radio broadcasts and a number of television appearances (such as on the popular "Brains Trust" series), and again lectured (including tours in the U.S.A.). His grandson came to live at Dunsany following his parents' divorce. A second grandchild, Beatrice, was born to Randal Plunkett and his new wife at Dublin in 1948.

Lord Dunsany had an attack of appendicitis while dining with Lord and Lady Fingall (of the closely-linked line of Killeen) at Dunsany in October 1957 and never regained consciousness after the subsequent operation. He died in Dublin on the 25th of October. He was writing to the end - completing a number of pieces that month and with material published from the last few months, including the very last Jorkens story written, "A Meeting of Spirits".

He was buried in Shoreham, in memory of the time spent there at the height of Nazi bombardment, and a memorial service was held at Kilmessan. Lady Beatrice missed her husband greatly but carried on, protecting as much of the Dunsany work as possible, authorising publications and keeping in close touch with the grandchildren; she died in 1970 and was also buried at Shoreham, where the shared grave lies in the churchyard.

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Release: A Dunsany story you probably haven't read lately: The Emperor's Crystal.

2003 rel.

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