Skrine, Agnes (c. 1865–1955)

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Skrine, Agnes (c. 1865–1955)

Irish poet, novelist and reviewer. Name variations: Agnes Higginson Skrine; Nesta Skrine; (pseudonym) Moira O'Neill. Born Agnes (Nesta) Shakespeare Higginson at Springmount, Cushendun, County Antrim, Ireland, around 1865; died at Ferns, County Wexford, Ireland, on January 22, 1955; daughter of Charles Henry Higginson and Mary Higginson; educated at home; married Walter Clarmont Skrine, on June 5, 1895; children: three sons, two daughters, including Molly Keane (1904–1996).

Selected writings:

An Easter Vacation (Lawrence & Bullen, 1893; E.P. Dutton, 1894); The Elf Errant (Lawrence & Bullen, 1893; E.P. Dutton, 1894); Songs of the Glens of Antrim (Blackwood, 1901); More Songs of the Glens of Antrim (Blackwood, 1921); Collected Poems of Moira O'Neill (Blackwood, 1933).

Agnes Skrine, known in her youth as Nesta Higginson, was born in Springmount, Cushendun, around 1865. She came from a close-knit family (her parents were first cousins) and grew up in the beautiful Glens of Antrim in northeast Ireland. After her marriage, she would spend little time there, but their hold on her imagination would be evident in her preface to her Collected Poems (1933): "These songs of the Glens of Antrim were written by a Glenswoman in the dialect of the Glens and chiefly for the pleasure of other Glens-people." Skrine published two novels while still single. The first, An Easter Vacation, was issued in London in 1893 and then in New York the following year. The Poet Laureate John Masefield would describe it as "a happy and witty book, containing one of the best studies known to me of a high spirited, finely natured boy." Another novel, The Elf Errant, was published in New York in 1894.

In 1895, Agnes married Walter Clarmont Skrine, an Englishman whose family had ranching interests in Canada. They spent some time in Canada and the second section of her Collected Poems, entitled "Songs from North-West Canada," tells of the time she spent there. She and her husband returned to Ireland and bought an estate in County Kildare, not far from Dublin. Their daughter, the novelist Molly Keane , claimed that her parents' marriage was extremely happy: "she gave up everything for my father. She absolutely adored him." In 1901, Skrine published a collection of poems Songs of the Glens of Antrim which had considerable success. Masefield described them as "poignant poems about her homeland, a few miles of the Irish coast, glen, moorland, mountain, and the sea, long-loved and made more intensely precious by exile." Of the Songs, "Corrymeela," "Waters of the Moyle," "Loughareema," and "Gold of Ballytearim" were singled out for special praise, and a number of the poems were set to music by Hamilton Harty and Charles Villiers Stanford. Stanford's musical setting of "Loughareema" achieved great popularity and was a signature piece of the singer Alexander Plunket Greene. Under the pseudonym Moira O'Neill, Skrine wrote regularly for many years for the Edinburgh-based Blackwood's Magazine which was regarded as one of the most prestigious literary journals of the day. One of the most interesting aspects of her work was that although she came from an Anglo-Irish Big House background (which was the mise-en-scène of many of her daughter's novels), she wrote popular dialect poems about country people. Her scholarship, as was noted by The Times after her death, was of the Victorian age: "The inadequacy of the cliché that Victorian scholarship and the intense appreciation of the arts which so often accompanied it were alone made possible by Victorian leisure is well illustrated by her literary career."

Her poem "The Solitary Life" has an auto-biographical tinge, especially when she writes, "Till I forget the world, almost forget myself." Keane confirmed this aspect of her mother's character. She "never really shared her literary and musical interests with us … and was practically a recluse. She was certainly a social recluse: she wasn't at all interested in the social life around her." She also never mixed in the literary world which her daughter thought would have suited her well, particularly since the Irish Literary Revival was at its height when she and her husband returned to Ireland. Skrine devoted her time to her family, writing, music and gardening. She was also religious, and every morning the family assembled for prayers.

During the Irish War of Independence (1919–21), when the family home was burned down, Skrine was much more affected than her husband. The Skrines moved to County Wex-ford in southeast Ireland, where Agnes and Walter were to spend the rest of their lives. Keane's career as a novelist and playwright, which took off in the late 1920s, was viewed with some ambivalence by her mother. "She was so terribly conscientious in her heart and mind that she didn't really approve of what I was doing." Skrine took particular exception when Molly based characters in her writings on members of the family. Walter died in June 1930. Agnes survived him by 25 years and died at the age of 90 in 1955. In his Dictionary of Irish Literature, Robert Hogan described her as "a pallid Irish version of Burns" but acknowledged the quality of some of her poems, especially "Corrymeela" and "Marriage." An obituary written in The Times after her death noted that while her output was not large, the quality was of a high order and possessed "an exquisite sense of the value and music of words."


Hogan, Robert. Dictionary of Irish Literature. Vol. 2. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Quinn, John, ed. "Molly Keane," in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl. London: Methuen. 1986.

The Times (London). January 25, 29, 1955; February 3, 7, 10, 1955.

Deirdre McMahon , lecturer in history at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland