Biography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571

Donn Byrne, who was christened Brian Oswald Donn-Byrne, was born in New York City, where his parents were staying while his father, an Irish engineer, was inspecting an American bridge-building project. Within a few months, the Donn-Byrnes returned to their home in Armagh. His father died several years later, leaving...

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Donn Byrne, who was christened Brian Oswald Donn-Byrne, was born in New York City, where his parents were staying while his father, an Irish engineer, was inspecting an American bridge-building project. Within a few months, the Donn-Byrnes returned to their home in Armagh. His father died several years later, leaving the family in somewhat straitened circumstances. As a boy, Donn Byrne, as he eventually signed himself in his writing, became interested in the Irish national movement. Known in those days as Brian O’Beirne, he appeared frequently at the Glens Feiseanna (Irish festivals) and in spite of his youth formed friendships with a number of organizers of the Sinn Féin. The influences of his boyhood account for the deep interest in Irish life and folkways evident in his books.{$S[A]Donn-Byrne, Brian Oswald[Donn Byrne, Brian Oswald];Byrne, Donn}

Educated at University College, Dublin, where he studied under Douglas Hyde, the famous Gaelic scholar and later the first president of Eire, he also did work at the Sorbonne and in Leipzig, Germany. Apparently, he gave up plans for a diplomatic career quite suddenly and went to Central or South America to become a cowboy poet. From there, he went to New York, where he worked at a variety of jobs, wrote and published a few romantic poems, and in 1911 married Dorothea Cadogan, who soon after became known as the coauthor of the successful play Enter Madame. For a time, Byrne supported his family by work on the staffs of the New Standard and the Century dictionaries. His first short stories appeared in The Smart Set and Century.

Although his first two novels had fair sales and received some critical recognition, his first real success came in 1921 with Messer Marco Polo. This short novel, a retelling of Marco Polo’s adventures in the spirit of an Irish folktale, captured the attention of critics and readers with its imaginative sweep and romantic Gaelic phrasing. The Wind Bloweth achieved equally great success when it appeared one year later. On the proceeds of these two books, Byrne, generous and extravagant by nature, was soon living beyond his means; when he became unable to meet the demands of his creditors, he and his wife decided to return to Ireland. There, after a brief stay in England, he wrote Blind Raftery, O’Malley of Shanganagh, and Hangman’s House. A visit to Palestine and Syria in 1926 gave him the themes and backgrounds for the two novels Brother Saul and Crusade. Field of Honor, his last novel (published in England as The Power of the Dog), showed his growing interest in history, particularly that of the Napoleonic period.

With ten thousand dollars that he won in a single night at the baccarat tables in Cannes, he bought Coolmain Castle, a country estate in County Cork that he had rented in two previous summers. Several days after his arrival at Coolmain, he was killed when defective steering gear caused his car to swerve off the road and plunge into Courtmacsherry Bay.

Byrne’s writing belongs to the tradition of John Millington Synge and other romanticists of the Irish Renaissance. Unfriendly critics have charged that he was a professional Irishman, and it is true that his fiction was often self-consciously poetic and lush in Gaelic atmosphere. Yet only a real love for the land and an understanding of its people could have produced his novels and short stories.

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