Katharine Tynan was an Irish writer, prolific in a variety of genres, whose life and work spanned the 19th and 20th centuries. Best known as a poet and exponent of the Irish Literary Revival, her vast body of work explored issues of feminism, her Catholic faith, Irish nationalism and the First World War.
Born in 1859 in County Dublin, Katharine was the fifth of twelve children and the daughter of a tenant farmer. She was raised in rural Ireland and educated at St Catherine’s convent school in Drogheda. Her father was a central influence in her life; he encouraged her education and her passion for reading and writing – and it was likely his influence that also fostered her fervour for the nationalist cause. Although a chronic eye condition affected her study, Katharine was a keen scholar and began writing poetry in childhood.
Katharine’s first poem, A Dream, was published in 1878. This was the first piece of what would be an extraordinary amount of work published throughout her life. By 1931, she would write over 100 novels, more than a dozen books of poetry, twelve collections of short stories, several volumes of autobiography and a variety of newspaper articles.
Between 1880 and 1885, she contributed to Hibernia, Irish Monthly and Dublin University Review and her first volume of poetry, Louise de la Vallier and Other Poems, was published in 1886. Already a renowned poet by her mid-20s, Katharine became a central figure in Dublin’s literary circles. She forged a close friendship with W. B. Yeats, with whom she would collaborate on Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland in 1888. Yeats greatly admired Katharine’s work, and his first major poem based on Irish mythology, The Wanderings of Oisin, owes much to her influence.
In 1893 Katharine married an English barrister called Henry Hinkson. The couple moved from Ireland to live in West London and had three children, two boys and a girl. Katharine seemed to relish her life as a mother and homemaker, and domestic harmony is a theme she often explored in her poetry.
The family returned to Ireland in 1912, living in County Mayo where Henry worked as a local magistrate. He did not earn a great deal of money, so the family relied heavily on Katharine’s publications for their livelihood. When Henry died suddenly in 1919, she became the family’s sole provider. This is possibly why she wrote so inexhaustibly.
Her fiction writing was largely comprised of romances and idyllic depictions of rural Ireland. Although these novels were popular and successful, Katharine’s poetry was what won her critical acclaim and artistic respect. Writing the forward to Katharine’s Collected Poems in 1930, George Russell described her as “The earliest singer in that awakening of our imagination which has been spoken of as the Irish Renaissance”.
Her early poetry certainly demonstrates a move away from English literary traditions towards a definite Irish voice and specifically Irish themes. Describing Katharine’s second volume of poetry, Shamrocks, which was published in 1887 and focused solely on Irish subject matter, W.B. Yeats observed that “In finding her nationality, she has also found herself”. She played a prominent role in the Irish Literary Revival and in 1913, she would go on to write Twenty Five Years – her memoirs of the movement.
In addition to her own devout Catholic faith and Irish nationalism, feminism was a consistent theme of Katharine’s work. She wrote extensively about the domestic role of women and its importance. For example, her deeply touching poem Any Woman describes women’s strength and selfless devotion to family. “I am the pillars of the house,” it begins, “The keystone of the arch am I”. Katharine wrote innumerable articles on political issues such as children in poverty and the appalling conditions endured by women working in industry. She also wrote about women’s suffrage and she was an active member of the Irish Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society (ICWSS).
With both of her sons engaged in military service, World War I featured heavily in Katharine’s work during this time and she shows an understanding of the devastating effects of battle. In her poem, A Prayer for Those Who Shall Return, she expresses concern about the psychological damage done to the soldiers returning home. “Let them go unhaunted, Lord,” she wrote, “By the sights that they have seen”.
In her later years, Katharine toured Europe where she worked as a journalist. She continued to write up until her death in 1931. She left a vast literary legacy and will remain one of Ireland’s most prolific and unique voices.