In the late 1920s, the Portland-born artist and writer Ione Robinson set out to see the world. Travelling across Europe and South America, Robinson found herself drifting through circles of artists, refugees, and revolutionaries. While mingling among the exiles supplanted in the French coastal town of Cagnes-sur-Mer, Robinson became acquainted with an Irish literary couple: Liam O’Flaherty and Margaret Barrington. In her memoir, Robinson recorded a disquieting day in October 1928 spent with the pair and their daughter at a racing track in Nice, where Liam grew gradually more inebriated while his wife Margaret spent much of her time in tears.
O’Flaherty, an early member of Ireland’s first Communist Party, and Barrington, a writer whose socialist principles would long outlast her relationship with O’Flaherty, were one of the more scandalous couples to emerge from the mid-1920s Dublin intelligentsia. Although O’Flaherty remains a recurring figure in histories of Irish radicalism, the place occupied by Margaret Barrington in such accounts is often more threadbare. Her historical role sometimes echoes the part given to her in Robinson’s memoir: the beleaguered partner of a better-known writer. Yet Barrington is someone whose life and writing deserves to be remembered. She was a lifelong socialist, a talented author, and an Irish voice from past pages of Tribune.
Barrington was born in May 1896 to a Protestant family living in Malin, a Donegal village close to Ireland’s northernmost point. She spent part of her childhood under the care of her grandfather, a red-bearded miller who nurtured an auto-didactic interest in mathematics and the Irish language. Her father, a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, repeatedly requested transfers to new postings, ensuring that young Margaret had an itinerant childhood. Her education included a convent school in Valencia, Dublin’s Alexandra College, and a year spent in Normandy. Her university education in Trinity College Dublin, where she studied French and German, took place against the tumultuous backdrop of the Irish revolutionary period, as Irish republicans fought against British forces for independence and then fought their own former comrades in a civil war. It was here amid the ruin and rubble of 1920s Dublin that Barrington would find love, her literary voice, and a radical social circle.
Radical Dublin in the twenties had echoes of the subversive and avant-garde culture more commonly-associated with cities like Berlin and Moscow. One Dublin link to this transnational culture of dissent could be found in the Studio Arts Cabaret, a club whose fascinating history has recently been detailed in the work of Elaine Sisson. The cabaret’s impresario, Madame ‘Toto’ Bannard Cogley, was a socialist, Irish republican-supporting French woman who regularly hosted radicals and intellectuals interested in progressive politics and avant-garde art. Barrington settled into this wider radical intelligentsia during her years in Dublin. As an attendee at salons hosted in the home of AE, a major figure of the Irish cooperative movement, Barrington would have crossed paths with the leadings lights of Irish culture. She was also acquainted with eminent Irish republicans. After Barrington’s father arrested Constance Markievicz, the legendary ‘rebel countess’ confided to Barrington that it had been a pleasure to be arrested by Barrington’s respectful RIC father. He escorted Markievicz to the ship transporting her to imprisonment in England and instructed the captain to give her a first class cabin.
In 1922, Barrington married Edmund Curtis, an academic working at Trinity. However, the marriage ended publicly and dramatically in 1924 when she began an affair with Liam O’Flaherty, who was already building an international reputation as a writer and rogue. Barrington proved adept at scandalising the cultural gatekeepers of the newly-established Irish Free State. In addition to her controversial personal life, Barrington contributed a taboo-breaking short story to the publication To-Morrow, one of a series of magazines that combined small print runs with a grand potential to upset the prudish Free State establishment.
To escape the confines of Dublin (and also perhaps the gossip-mongering), O’Flaherty and Barrington travelled extensively. They married in March 1926, a month before the birth of their daughter Pegeen. However, their relationship gradually deteriorated and by the early-1930s Barrington and O’Flaherty were living separate lives. O’Flaherty set off vagabonding once more — first on a jaunt to the USSR then to Hollywood, where John Ford was directing the film adaptation of his bestselling novel The Informer. Barrington, meanwhile, settled in London. Katrina Goldstone has written of the forgotten world of Irish writer-exiles in 1930s London who navigated the capital’s anti-fascist and anti-imperialist currents. Arriving to the city after her separation from O’Flaherty, Barrington found herself a member of this wider network of the radical London-Irish, which featured other leftist Irish writers such as the Jewish Dubliner and communist Leslie Daiken. All of these writers found themselves swept up by the spirit of solidarity and comradeship inspired by the Spanish Civil War.
The late-1930s saw Barrington organising support for the government forces fighting to defend republican Spain, assisting refugees fleeing the rise of fascism and writing her novel My Cousin Justin (published in the US as Turn Ever Northward). Barrington’s daughter Pegeen later recalled that a sanitary officer once visited her mother’s London flat to inspect it for overcrowding. Barrington had sponsored so many refugees who registered her home as their address that the council feared it was heaving with occupants. In these years of heightened left solidarity, Barrington also put her language skills to the service of socialist causes through translation work.
In November 1938, Barrington initiated a women’s column for Tribune, which she would continue writing until the outbreak of the Second World War. Journals of the interwar left often printed women’s sections dedicated to perceived ‘women’s concerns’. Capitalism’s effect upon domestic budgets and resistance to a looming war in which mothers would once more bid farewell to their sons were common themes. Barrington’s women’s column for Tribune was written in a similar vein and even generated fan mail.
With the outbreak of the war, Barrington returned to Ireland. She spent the remaining decades of her life in West Cork, writing and contributing to Irish cultural journals such as The Bell. She died in 1982 as a final collection of her short stories, David’s Daughter, Tamar, was about to be published. Few of her works remain in print, although one of her short stories ‘Village without Men’ was republished in the 2016 collection The Glass Shore: Short Stories from the North of Ireland, edited by Sinéad Gleeson. The story had previously been published in They go, the Irish, a 1944 anthology of Irish writers who supported the Allied war effort against Nazi Germany.
Barrington’s loosely autobiographical novel My Cousin Justin remains one of the best keyholes through which to peer into her world. In one scene in the novel, a small gathering considers the fate of Irish socialism on the eve of the Irish Civil War. One member of the group, Egan, almost certainly a fictionalised O’Flaherty, ‘takes the long view’, the reader is told, and ‘may argue that the victory of Republicanism is the death of Imperialism and consequently of Capitalism’.
Yet for Loulie, another young rebel who appears to voice Barrington’s own beliefs, a failure to promote international class solidarity will ultimately prevent both sides in Ireland’s Civil War divide from supporting the workers. ‘We hoped that out of this struggle the working class would seize power’, Loulie laments; ‘it was a smoke dream.’ In the early 1920s, Barrington inhabited a rebel city where the embers of revolutionary experimentation still burned. In the archival traces and writings of Barrington and her contemporaries we find glimpses of a lost future for revolutionary Ireland — a socialist vision of a workers’ republic — one that was already vanishing into smoke as she navigated the radical and intellectual currents of post-insurrectionary Dublin.