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Eglinton, John (1868-1961)
by Sullivan, Robert


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John Eglinton 1868-1961

William Kirkpatrick Magee, who chose the pseudonym “John Eglinton” by which he became almost exclusively known, was born in Dublin. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister and attended the same school as W.B.Yeats, with whom he was to have a long-standing debate over the nature of the Irish Literary Revival. In short, he contested what became known as the “cultural nationalism” of his contemporaries and advocated a more universalistic, cosmopolitan subject matter for the Irish Renaissance. The various positions taken up by him, AE, and Yeats, are laid out in Literary Ideals in Ireland (1898). He was co-editor of the short-lived literary journal Dana (May 1904-April 1905) , during which time he turned down Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist, remarking, “I cannot print what I can't understand.” He did publish a poem by Joyce, however, and paid him a guinea for the privilege. Joyce in his turn featured Eglinton in his poem “The Holy Office” and is attributed with the following limerick:

There once was a Celtic librarian
Whose essays were voted Spencerian
His name is Magee
But it seems that to me
He's a flavour that's more Presbyterian.

Joyce also has Magee/Eglinton appear in the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode in Ulysses, a realistic touch since Eglinton was at first sub-, then head-librarian in the National Library. It was to this library that the young Joyce walked on that fateful day in 1904 when he had to leave the Martello Tower he shared with Gogarty. According to Eglinton: “One morning, just as the National Library opened, Joyce was announced; he seemed to wish for somebody to talk to, and related quite ingenuously how in the early hours of the morning he had been thrown out of the tower, and had walked into town from Sandycove.” His admiration for the younger writer is captured in some remarks he made to Gogarty during this period: “There is something sublime in Joyce's standing alone.” Eglinton remained at his position in the library until 1922 when he left for Bournemouth in England, apparently in protest at the inauguration of the Irish Free State. From 1922 until 1929 he published “Dublin Letters” in The Dial. He died in exile at the ripe old age of 93.

It was no doubt Eglinton's contentious nature, particularly in regard to the future of Irish literature, that earned him the sobriquet “contrairy John” by his sometime adversary George Moore, who also described Eglinton as the “Thoreau of the suburbs.” This latter description certainly fits well the subject matter of Eglinton's early publications, Two Essays on the Remnant (1894) and Pebbles from a Brook (1901) , both of which deal with man's place in nature. The “De-Davisisation of Irish Literature,” an essay that appears in Bards and Saints (1906) , is perhaps the most succinct statement on his opposition to a Nationalist literature (“The ancient language of the Celt is no longer the language of Irish nationality. And in fact it never was…”). He also wrote Irish Literary Portraits (1935) which contains essays on the early and later Joyce, and A Memoir of AE (1937) .

Although Eglinton did not contribute a great deal to The New Age, he is mentioned several times in its pages, which can be found by searching his name. There is a piece entitled “The New Age” (13.11), a rumination on humanism, among other matters, and a letter from him (15.04) on an on-going religious debate.

—Robert Sullivan

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