Tynan, Katharine (1861–1931)

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Tynan, Katharine (1861–1931)

Irish poet, novelist and author of five volumes of autobiography, which offer a valuable insight into late 19th and early 20th-century Irish political and literary life. Name variations: Katharine Hinkson; Katharine Tynan-Hinkson. Born Katharine Tynan on January 23, 1861, in Dublin, Ireland; died in London, England, on April 2, 1931; daughter of Andrew Cullen Tynan (a farmer) and Elizabeth (O'Reilly) Tynan; attended Dominican Convent, Drogheda, 1871–74; married Henry Albert Hinkson (a barrister and author), in 1893; children: Theobald Henry Hinkson; Giles Aylmer Hinkson; Pamela Mary Hinkson.

Began to write poetry (1878); published Louise de la Valliere and Other Poems (1885), the first of over 160 books which included novels, poetry and short stories; as a supporter of Parnell and a constitutional nationalist, was a member of the Ladies' Land League (1881–82); was also associated with the Irish literary renaissance (1880s–90s); moved to London on her marriage (1893) and continued writing career; returned to Ireland with family (1912) and lived for a number of years in County Mayo, where Henry Hinkson was a resident magistrate; after her husband's death (1919), traveled widely, living mainly in London, where she died (1931).

Selected writings:

Louise de la Valliere (1885); Shamrocks (1887); Ballads and Lyrics (1891); A Nun, Her Friends and Her Order (1891); The Way of a Maid (1895); A Lover's Breast-knot (1896); Innocencies (1905); Twenty-five Years: Reminiscences (1913); Flower of Youth: Poems in War Time (1915); The Holy War (1916); The Middle Years (1916); Herb O'Grace (1918); The Years of the Shadow (1919); The Wandering Years (1922); Evensong (1922); Memories (1924); Life in the Occupied Area (1925); Twilight Songs (1927); Collected Poems (1930).

Despite her own belief that she had been "born under a kind star" in Dublin in 1861, Katharine Tynan's life contained its fair share of sorrow. Indeed, her childhood, though in some ways idyllic, was marked by a period of sustained trauma, when for two years, as a result of eye disease arising from an attack of measles, she was threatened with total blindness. As she remembered in Twenty-five Years, her first volume of autobiography:

From '67 to '69—approximately—there was darkness … and my only memory of that time is of a child sitting on a stool, her face buried in a chair—to avoid the light doubtless. A long dream of pain and shrinking from light were those days or months or years.

It was her father, impulsive, emotional and energetic, who took the situation in hand.

He carried me from doctor to doctor. My sight was despaired of. He was told it was no use. At last he found the right man…. I remember the double hall doors of the house that opened to receive us. I remember the wire blinds in the windows of the consulting-room, where the doctor's finger and thumb lifted the eyelids that it was a torture to keep open. Nothing more than that; but presently I was reading again and the darkness was a family tradition.

In fact, while Tynan's sight was restored, it remained imperfect, leaving her, in her own word, "purblind" for the rest of her life. The condition brought obvious inconveniences, but it is indicative of her optimistic nature and of her deep religious faith that she came to regard it ultimately as a blessing, as she insisted in her poem "The purblind praises the Lord":

I see the faces that are dear,
The others they may pass,
I thank my God I see not clear,
But dim, as in a glass.

A second probable legacy of this period was the very close bond which developed between Katharine and her father, which was to be central to Tynan's early life and writing career. It is her father who dominates Katharine's memories of childhood and young womanhood, in which neither her mother Elizabeth O'Reilly Tynan nor her siblings, with the exception of her adored older sister, Mary Tynan , feature to any great extent. "My father," she wrote, "was the big beneficent fairy godfather of my very little days. My mother was a large, placid, fair woman, who became an invalid at an early age and influenced my life scarcely at all."

The Tynans belonged to the Catholic middle class, which by the second half of the 19th century was rising in both fortune and influence in Ireland: Andrew Tynan was a "strong" or prosperous farmer, with an interest both in agricultural improvement and in literary and artistic matters. Katharine's early years were spent in Dublin, but in 1868 the family moved to Clondalkin, then a small village some miles outside the city. She fell instantly in love with this new home, with the "small cottage building with little windows under immense overhanging eaves of thatch," with its lawns, orchard and garden, and the surrounding countryside. "Think," she wrote of the first glorious summer there, "of a pack of children who had lived in the town and only had the country by snatches, turned loose a whole summer in this place packed with old-fashioned delights."

At age ten, Tynan was sent as a boarder to the Dominican Convent of St. Catherine of Siena in Drogheda. She loved the serenity and security of life there, although she gained little in the academic sense, but three years later left without regret to return to the family home, removed "wholly and solely, I believe, because my father wanted my society." Mary, who had been his favorite child, had died at the time of Katharine's illness, and now Katharine and her father, as she put it, "discovered each other." Sharing a love of nature, of reading and of the theater, they were continually in one another's company; Andrew Tynan encouraged his daughter's literary ambitions and, as she recalled in Memories, "he made a good many of my opinions during the years when I was pretty constantly his companion."

Another common interest was politics: both father and daughter were romantic nationalists and committed followers of Charles Stewart Parnell, and in 1881 Katharine joined the Ladies' Land League (founded by his sister Anna Parnell ), the female branch of the Land League, which had been established not long before by Parnell and Michael Davitt as a response to economic distress and agrarian unrest. She was present at the first meeting of the new body and became a regular worker in its Dublin office but, by her own admission, "was only one of the rank and file, and a frivolous one"—although her memoirs have since proved an invaluable source of information on the movement. Her loyalty to Parnell survived the suppression in 1882 of the Ladies' Land League, for which, she believed, he was primarily responsible, and later the O'Shea divorce scandal (See O'Shea, Katherine), which deprived him of political power and much of his popular support. When he died suddenly in October 1891, Tynan was one of the many thousands who attended his funeral, and in her poetry and her autobiography described the awe-inspiring moment of his burial, when "as earth touched earth … the most glorious meteor sailed across the clear space of the heavens and fell suddenly. He had omens and portents to the end."

I shall die young though many my years are—For I was born under a kind star.

—Katharine Tynan

Meanwhile, however, Tynan had established her own reputation, not in the world of politics but of literature. She began writing poetry in about 1878, and went on to have pieces published in a number of Dublin newspapers and magazines. In 1885, her first collection of poems appeared, its publication financed by her father. Louise de la Valliere (Louise de La Vallière ) included a number of poems showing a Pre-Raphaelite influence, but others, such as "An answer," had a more distinctive note, displaying, in the words of Ernest Boyd, the first historian of Ireland's literary renaissance, "something of the innocent tenderness, the devotional sensitiveness to external beauty which are associated with her best work." Louise de la Valliere was an immediate critical and financial success, and gave Tynan an acknowledged place in the literary worlds of London and Dublin. She continued to live at home, as she was to do until her marriage, and remained close to her father, but had an extremely active professional and social life. "From about 1884 onwards," she later remarked:

I had really begun to live. I had found out what I could do and being regarded as an exceptional person at home and abroad, I had perfect freedom about my actions. I had as many masculine friends as I liked, and saw as much of them as I wished.

In fact, throughout her life, Tynan had a gift for friendship, with women as well as men. In London, her friends included the poet Alice Meynell and her husband Wilfred, who helped to foster her career, and William and Christina Rossetti . In Dublin, Tynan was one of a group of young intellectuals whose sympathies were broadly nationalist, and who were in the process of forging a literature which would reflect their own understanding of Ireland's past, and their aspirations for its future. They included Douglas Hyde, later to become a noted Gaelic scholar and the first president of an independent Ireland, the authors Dora Sigerson and Anna Johnston (MacManus) , the artist Sarah Purser , George Russell (AE), the writer and advocate of rural revival, and the young W.B Yeats, "at that time of our first meeting twenty years old … tall and lanky … all dreams and all gentleness," and already devoted to his art: Tynan remembered that when staying with the Yeats family, "I used to be awakened in the night by a steady, monotonous sound rising and falling. It was Willie chanting poetry to himself in the watches of the night."

Tynan and Yeats spent a good deal of time together during these years and corresponded regularly when apart; both favored home rule for Ireland and often attended political meetings "of a mild kind" together, at one of which Tynan "saw for the first time Maud Gonne in her incomparable young beauty, easily the most beautiful woman I ever saw." They also commented on one another's work, Yeats sending Tynan a draft of his "Lake Isle of Innisfree" and offering qualified praise of her own poetry: her best work, he believed:

Is always where you express your own affectionate nature, or your religious feeling, either directly or indirectly. Your worst … is where you allow your sense of colour to run away with you, and make you merely a poet of the picturesque.

Inevitably, their nationalism was reflected in their writing: as Yeats wrote to Tynan in about 1888, "I feel more and more that we shall have a school of Irish poetry, founded on Irish myth and history." In fact, this influence was already apparent in Tynan's work: her first collection had included a number of poems on patriotic or national themes, such as "Waiting," which dealt with the legend of the Celtic hero Finn; her second volume of verse, Shamrocks (1887), included poems based on Gaelic legend such as "The pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne" and "The fate of King Feargus," pre-dating Yeats' own The Wanderings of Oisin, which appeared in 1889, and justifying AE's claim that she was "the earliest singer in that awakening of our imagination which has been spoken of as the Irish Renaissance." The central element of this "awakening" was an awareness of Ireland's Celtic inheritance and of the existence of a specifically Celtic perspective, although definitions of what this implied in practice were far from unanimous. Tynan herself, writing in the journal The Irish fireside in 1886, struggled to identify the components of this "Irish note … the charm of which is so much easier to feel than to explain."

Some of the parts which go to make up its whole are a simplicity which is naive—a freshness, an archness, a light touching of the chords as with fairy-finger tips; a shade of underlying melancholy as delicately evanescent as a breath upon glass, which yet gives its undertone and shadow to all; fatalism side by side with bouyant hopefulness; laughter with tears; love with hatred; a rainbow of all colours where none conflict; a gamut of all notes which join to make perfect harmony.

Tynan's third collection of poetry, Ballads and Lyrics, appeared in 1891, and included what was to be her most famous poem.

All in the April evening,
April airs were abroad,
The sheep with their little lambs
Passed me by on the road.

Like all her best work, "Sheep and lambs" combines a feeling for nature with a simple and deeply held religious faith. As Yeats wrote, Tynan "is happiest when she puts emotions that have the innocence of childhood into symbols and metaphors from the green world about her. She has … a devout tenderness like that of St. Francis for weak instinctive things." Boyd, too, noted that her verse "voices that naive faith, that complete surrender to the simpler emotions of wonder and pity which characterises the religious experiences of the plain man," but in his judgment the publication of Ballads and Lyrics marked the end of her development as a poet; she had, in his opinion, simply written too much "for one whose gift is manifestly of slender proportions." A more recent critic and biographer, Ann Connerton Fallon , suggests that by 1905, when Innocencies appeared, Tynan had begun "to narrow her field of endeavour in poetry," increasingly confining her subject matter to her favorite categories of "birds, children, nature, death, faith, and love." If this limited her range, it also allowed her to concentrate on those areas which best utilized her talent; as Fallon remarks, "when her feeling for nature combined itself with her religious sensibility, Tynan produced poems of simple and gentle beauty."

While Katharine continued to write poetry, she had also become a prolific journalist, producing regular pieces for newspapers and magazines in Ireland, England, and the United States. In 1890, she was commissioned by the Loreto Order to write the life of one of its members, Mother Xaveria Fallon . It was a task which should have been congenial, given her own strong Catholic faith and her sympathy for the religious life, but the publication in the following year of her first full-length prose work, Life of a Nun, coincided with the controversy about Parnell's leadership; consequently, according to Tynan, the work was "torn to rags and tatters" by the anti-Parnellite press.

In 1893, Tynan finally left her childhood home, her father, and Ireland, and in May of that year she married Henry Hinkson in London. Unlike Katharine, Hinkson was a Protestant, and at the time of their marriage, was still a student at Dublin's Trinity College; later he became a barrister and an author, although he apparently earned his living chiefly as a private tutor. While he makes only fleeting appearances in her memoirs, Tynan spoke more eloquently of her personal feelings in her poetry, and in "Annus mirabilis" she recorded her happiness at this time:

That year the year was always May,
Our year, in whose sweet close shall come
No winter with a waning sky,
Nor sad leaves fall, nor roses die;
But roses, roses all the way,
And never a nightingale be dumb.

For the next 20 years, the Hinksons were to live in England, although never losing touch with Ireland. Marriage, and later motherhood, as well as an active social life, made no difference to Tynan's own journalistic career. She produced a stream of articles and reviews; as she remarked in her autobiography, "I think at one time or another I must have written for nearly every paper and magazine in London," and in one year, she had 50 poems in the Pall Mall Gazette alone. She also tried her hand at fiction; her first novel, The Way of a Maid, which appeared in 1885, dealt with the difficulties of religiously mixed marriages such as her own. As prolific in prose as she was in verse, she went on to produce more than 80 novels and collections of stories over the next 45 years: in 1911, as she recorded in her autobiography, she wrote A Shameful Inheritance "between the 6th of May and the 2nd of June, and had plenty of leisure for my friends"; on June 13, having corrected the typescript and "done some small literary chores," she began work on another novel, Molly, My Heart's Delight, which she finished on July 20.

In 1905, while on holiday in France, Tynan heard that her father had died. Writing of their parting before her marriage, she mused, "I often wondered afterwards how I could have left him," and their attachment had remained as strong as ever. He had visited her regularly during her early years in London, although in recent years, she wrote, "he had failed rapidly for one of his strong vitality and energy." Nevertheless, it was the memory of him in his prime, "strong, dominant, kind, fearless, true," which remained, and in one of many tributes which she paid to him she expressed her wish to recover the status of the adored and protected child:

Over and over again I dream a dream;
I am coming home to you in the starlit gleam;
Long was the day from you and sweet 'twill seem,
The day is over and I am coming home.

In 1911, to Katharine's joy, the Hinksons were at last able to return to Ireland. In reality, the move apparently proved something of a disappointment, and, like many exiles, she felt that the country and its people had changed for the worse during her absence. Dublin at least offered the possibility of an active social life, but shortly after the outbreak of war in Europe, she and her husband moved to County Mayo, where he had been posted as a resident magistrate. Though Tynan faced this move, like all the others in her life, with "a high heart," she found that she disliked the harsh climate, the insularity and the isolation of the west. However, possibly because of the lack of distractions, her output actually increased over this period: in three and a half years, she recorded, she wrote ten novels, two volumes of memoirs, three volumes of poetry, and two schoolbooks, as well as numerous short stories, articles, and reviews. Some of this work, such as her widely popular poem "Flower of youth," was inspired by her feelings about the Great War. By 1916, both of her sons were in uniform and, though both were to return safely, she was constantly aware of their danger and witnessed the loss of many others whom she knew. Engrossed by news of the war in Europe, and far away from Dublin, she heard only rumors of the Easter Rising there; however, its aftermath, the outbreak of hostilities between England and Ireland, added to the unhappiness of these "years of the shadow."

In 1919, Henry Hinkson died suddenly. "Grief," she wrote, "had come to me at the end of the War as though the immunity of the boys had been bought with their father's life." The event is only obliquely recorded in her autobiography; again, it was in her poetry, in works such as "The first thrush," that she most eloquently and movingly expressed her sense of loss. As always, however, she was supported by her steady and unquestioning religious faith. As AE remarked:

She has … that spiritual bravery which makes beauty out of death or sorrow. A friend passes and he is sped on his journey not with despair but with hope, almost with imaginative gaiety…. It is a great gift this, which on a sudden changes our gloom to glory, and only those have it who are born under a kind star.

Shortly after her husband's death, Tynan and her daughter, Pamela Mary Hinkson , left Mayo for Dublin. By now, however, Ireland was in turmoil, with the War of Independence being succeeded by civil war, and Tynan found herself increasingly out of sympathy with political developments there. As a moderate nationalist with many unionist friends, politically, she wrote, "we were in the unfortunate position of pleasing nobody." She spent more and more time out of Ireland, basing herself largely in London, and with Pamela, herself an author, traveled widely in England, Scotland, France, and Germany. Her husband's death had left her entirely dependent for financial support on her own efforts, and over the remaining decade of her life she maintained her very heavy workload, producing a great deal of journalism on her travels and on a mass of other subjects, as well as novels and poetry. Active almost to the end, she died in London on April 2, 1931, at the age of 70, and was buried there, beside her close friend Alice Meynell.

Writing of her own work, Tynan confessed:

I am not especially proud of this facility of mine. It has produced a good deal of honest work, with of course, a good deal of necessary pot-boiling, and it has made some few people happy besides myself.

This characteristically modest assessment contains some truth. In the course of her writing career, Tynan produced over 160 books, and such a vast output must inevitably be of uneven quality. She had, in any case, a limited expectation of her own talent; as Marilyn Gaddis Rose remarks, "she set out to be a minor writer … [who] set too close a goal for herself" to enable her to equal the achievements of poets such as Christina Rossetti or Elizabeth Barrett Browning . Her devout Catholicism, her love of beauty, and the innocence which she retained into maturity narrowed her vision and made her disinclined to come to grips with aspects of life which she regarded as peripheral or distasteful. As Rose puts it, she "could not in fact see far, and she restricts her spiritual vision analogously." Nevertheless, she was capable of writing directly and effectively on those subjects in which, as her friend AE declared, she was happy—"religion, friendship, children … beauty in gardens, flowers, in sky and clouds," on "normal humanity and its affections." Moreover, as Russell also noted in his foreword to her Collected Poems, "she has something which is rather rarer among poets than most people imagine, a natural gift for song…. What is common to Katharine Tynan's lyrics out of whatever mood she writes is a shapeliness in their architecture." This gift, applied to those topics on which she felt most deeply, marks her best work with a simple dignity, a lyricism and a charm which are distinctively her own.

In a green land without hunger and drouth,
God gave a gift of singing to my mouth,
A little song and quiet that was heard
Through the full choir of many a golden bird;
As a little brook in grasses running sweet,
Full of refreshment for the noontide heat.
Some came and drank of me from near and far—
I was born under a kind star.


Fallon, Ann Connerton. Katharine Tynan. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1979.

Rose, Marilyn Gaddis. Katharine Tynan. London: Associated University Presses, 1974.

Tynan, Katharine. Memories. London: Everleigh Nash, 1924.

——. The Middle Years. London: Constable, 1916.

——. Twenty-five Years: Reminiscences. London: Smith, Elder, 1913.

——. The Wandering Years. London: Constable, 1922.

——. The Years of the Shadow. London: Constable, 1919.

suggested reading:

Coxhead, Elizabeth. Daughters of Erin: Five Women of the Irish Renascence. London: Secker and Warburg, 1965.

Fallis, Richard. The Irish Renaissance: An Introduction to Anglo-Irish Literature. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1977.

Ward, Margaret. "The Ladies' Land League," in Irish History Workshop. Vol. 1, 1981, pp. 27–35.

Yeats, W.B. Letters to Katharine Tynan. Edited by Roger McHugh. Dublin: Clonmore and Reynolds, 1953.

Rosemary Raughter , freelance writer in women's history, Dublin, Ireland