LIAM NOLAN remembers the man who founded the Palestrina Choir, co-founded the Irish Literary Theatre (later the Abbey Theatre) and was buried in an unmarked grave.

He was that comparatively rare being in the Ireland of his day — a Catholic member of the landed gentry. Born and brought up in a castle near Ardrahan in County Galway, Edward Martyn was said to have been so orthodox a Catholic that he wrote to the Vatican for permission to read books that were on the Index (list of prohibited books that Catholics were forbidden to read.) Martyn took his Catholicism really seriously.

Among his friends when he became an adult were Lady Gregory (a neighbour), and W.B. Yeats who, for £35, bought a castle of his own (Thoor Ballylee) near Lady Gergory’s home, Coole Park.

Yeats refurbished the crumbling building by the river, lived in it for five or six years with George, his wife, and their two children, and wrote some of his finest poetry there.

Tulira Castle, where Edward Martyn grew up, had as the family motto Sic Idra Ad Astra (Reach for the Stars), and among the pictures that hung on its ancient walls were a Monet and a Degas. Later in his life, portraits of him, painted by John Butler Yeats and Sarah Purser, would take their places, too, on those same walls.

In pursuit of the goal of reaching for the stars, Martyn’s parents sent him to Belvedere College in Dublin and colleges in London, to be educated by the Jesuits. His third level education began in 1877 at Christ Church, Oxford, but ended two years later when he left without a degree.

This large lumbering man was perceived to be something of an idealist, heavily interested in his own preconceived ideas of the Irish nation. Those ideas weren’t always in line with the ideas held by other enthusiasts with whom, as a result, he frequently found himself at odds.

He deeply loved and was recognisably knowledgeable about music — European classical music, church music, and Irish traditional music. He particularly admired and liked the music of Palestrina. So did Pope Pius X, who held that it was a standard to which liturgical music should aspire.

Martyn said several times that liturgical music was the chief interest of his life.

On an organ he had installed at Tulira Castle, he practised extensively and intensively, and became sufficiently accomplished an organist as to give private concerts to friends who visited him at his impressive home.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own