The Ulster History Circle has commemorated Moira O’Neill (the pen name of Agnes Higginson Skrine) 1864-1955, Poet and Novelist, who lived in Cushendun, by unveiling a blue plaque in her memory.
The plaque was revealed at the Old Church Centre by Sally Phipps, granddaughter of Moira O’Neill, on Saturday 19 October 2019.
A popular poet, Moira, born on 13 July 1864 in Mauritius, was inspired by the romantic landscape of the Glens of Antrim.
Her best-known work, Songs of the Glens of Antrim, was first published in 1900. This volume includes 25 ballads and poems and was reprinted on numerous occasions.
The poems were written in the dialect of the Glens, chiefly for the pleasure of local people, although they enjoyed a much wider audience.
Moira married Walter Clarmont Skrine in 1895 and emigrated to Canada where they lived in a ranch in Alberta for around six years. She wrote a poem called ‘The North-West – Canada’, but she was most influenced by the landscape of the Glens and her work celebrates this beautiful area.
Her subjects include lakes and mountains, flora and fauna, townland names, as well as aspects of rural life and themes of exile and return. The Brabla Burn, which tumbled down the hill near Milltown, a cluster of houses behind Cushendun Bay, features in several of her poems. From her residence at Rockport Lodge, she could look across the bay to Cushendun: ‘A house upon the sea sand, a white house ’an low’.
Moira also wrote three novels: An Easter Vocation (1893), a society novel set in England; The Elf-Errant, a story for children, based in Glendun, published in 1894 and which explores the cultural differences between Irish fairies who live there and a visiting English fairy; and From Two Points of View (1924), a novel set in England and Canada.
In 1921 she published a further collection of poems, More Songs of the Glens of Antrim, while her Collected Poems was published in 1933. Apart from her novels and poetry, Moira also contributed essays and reviews to Blackwood’s Magazine on subjects such as the Glens dialect, Shakespeare, Dante, and William Cobbett.
Her work influenced some of the leading names in the musical world. The composer Charles Villiers Stanford selected six of her poems for his song-cycle ‘An Irish Idyll in 6 Miniatures’ (1901). The poems he chose were ‘Corrymeela’, ‘Cuttin’ Rushes’, ‘Johneen’, ‘A Broken Song’, ‘Back to Ireland’, and one of the most famous songs, ‘The Fairy Lough’, about Loughareema, the vanishing lake near Ballycastle. Moira’s poem ‘Sea Wrack’ was also set to music for voice and piano by the composer Hamilton Harty:
‘We laid it on the grey rocks to wither in the sun,/An’ what should call my lad then, to sail from Cushendun? With a low moon, a full tide, a swell upon the deep/Him to sail the old boat, me to fall asleep…’
After their return from Canada, the family settled at Ballyrankin House, Ferns, in Co. Wexford, and Moira died there on 22 January 1955. Her daughter, Mary Nesta Skrine (1904-1996) was the novelist and playwright ‘Molly Keane’, also known as ‘M. J. Farrell’, author of the black comedy Good Behaviour (1981). In 2016 Moira’s granddaughter, Sally Phipps, wrote the biography of her mother, Molly Keane: A Life.
The Chairman of the Ulster History Circle, Chris Spurr, commenting on Moira O’Neill’s achievements said:
‘Moira O’Neill had a special voice which found expression in sensitive poetry that contains many memorable lyrical images, and the Ulster History Circle is delighted to commemorate this distinguished writer with a blue plaque.
“She was highly regarded by other poets, critics and writers, and in his book In Praise of Ulster, Richard Hayward, who filmed Devil’s Rock in Cushendun in 1937, said that: ‘Her Songs of the Glens of Antrim cannot fail to be a permanent contribution to Irish literature’. Although Moira lived in Canada for some six years and later in the south of Ireland, the Glens of Antrim always held a particular place in her heart, and the church she attended remains an important landmark building.
“The Ulster History Circle is grateful to The Honourable The Irish Society for their financial support towards the plaque, to Cushendun Building Preservation Trust for their valued assistance, and to Cushendun Old Church Heritage Centre for permitting the Circle to place the plaque on the building where she worshipped.’