Sunday, 29 April 2012

Dion Fortune and the Hibernian Adept

Having heard a little bit about the mysterious Maiya Tranchell Hayes, I will now move on to Dion Fortune's "Hibernian Adept."

I first learned of Art O’Murnaghan from someone we shall call "Hestia" at a public discussion meeting in Friends Meeting House on St Martin’s Lane, London (pictured below). 

The meeting was one of a series of public meetings advertised in Prediction Magazine and run by members of Charles Fielding’s The London Group in the 1980s. Resident for many years in 3 Queensborough Terrace (pictured below), "Hestia" had been a member of the Fraternity of the Inner Light and had worked closely over many years with Dion Fortune, Charles Seymour, Christine Campbell Thomson, Gladys Lathbury, Margaret Lumley Brown, Arthur Chichester, Rosina Mann and Art O'Murnaghan. 

During one of the breaks in a meeting, having by then worked out my nationality and accompanying passion for all things Celtic, the late "Hestia" made me a perfect cup of Earl Grey tea and proceeded to tell me a little about O’Murnaghan’s influence on Dion Fortune and the Inner Light. Our discussion was temporarily interrupted by her having a minor fit when I had the audacity to add some milk to Earl Grey! Composing and collecting herself, I found out that Charles Fielding’s The Story of Dion Fortune had wrongly described the Hibernian Adept as “Arthur O’Mulligan” in his recently published first edition which was still relatively hot off the press.  Somewhat annoyingly this error was not corrected in the second edition just before Fielding's death. It was not until Gareth Knight's book Dion Fortune and the Inner Light published in the year 2000 that the inaccuracy was remedied.

Art O'Murnaghan's family originally came from the staid and mixed Protestant / Catholic village of Loughbrickland, just outside the market town of Banbridge, in the lush farming lands of County Down, Northern Ireland. However, as the great Ulster Scots writer Sam Hanna Bell would have put it, Art himself was born "across the narrow sea" in the bustling port of Southampton, Hampshire, England in 1872. Art's father, Arthur William Murnaghan, was at the time employed there by the British government’s Ordnance Survey department.

Academically bright, Art succeeed in winning the offer of a Cambridge University scholarship. For reasons unknown to me he was unable to accept the scholarship, remaining instead in Southampton to serve a four-year chemist’s apprenticeship. At the end of this apprenticeship he shifted his career away from chemistry and into employment at the Carnegie Public Library in Southampton. The library had been created from a gift of money from the Scottish-born philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

Shortly after this, in 1898, Art left Southampton to commence his third career as a wallpaper designer with a firm of decorators in Dublin, Ireland. He told his grandson, Peter Figgis, that he had “felt compelled for some time to seek work more suited to his artistic skills”. There was another contributory factor to the Dublin move. This factor being his recent marriage to a woman whose family had both business connections and family roots there. The woman Art married was a niece by marriage of the well known artist Alexander Williams, RHA.

Art found himself in a Dublin which was blossoming from the emerging Celtic Revival. He befriended the likes of Ella Young and became actively engaged in the Irish Republican Movement.  He got to meet and know movers and shakers, artists, writers and actors who have burned a blazing trail in Ireland’s cultural re-emergence. These people included Constance Markievicz, Irish Theatre and American film actress Sara Allgood, as well as Golden Dawn members William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne. Sara Allgood wrote to a friend in September 1932 describing him as “that old darling Art O’Murnaghan.” Art had worked with her as the stage manager and designer at Dublin’s Gate Theatre from 1928. Another observer wrote of Art that, “His extra-curricular activities also included parts in films, historical digging at Newgrange and a visit to Tibet for study of the monks’ way of life.”

During these years he developed a strong intellectual and practical interest in Theosophy. It is thought that it was through his Theosophical Society membership and his Golden Dawn links that Dion Fortune met him.  In Fielding's and others' view it was arguably through her close association with Art that Dion Fortune was able to tap into such deep Elemental and Celtic contacts. These richly productive contacts have continued to be developed down through the ages by many of those who have followed Fortune. 

The Society paid on a number of occasions for O’Murnaghan to attend lodge meetings in Queensborough Terrace. Like Maiya Tranchell Hayes, on these occasions he was invited as an Adept of the Greater Mysteries to sit on the Eastern dias of the temple.  Neither Maiya nor Art were ever formally initiated into the Fraternity of the Inner Light. They didn’t need to be.    

Charles Fielding presents a slightly misleading picture of Art, suggesting that he essentially lived in abject poverty, roaming for weeks around the open countryside sleeping rough. Perhaps the biggest inaccuracy is that he illustrated “fine coffee table books of the Celtic traditions”. Not quite right as the two photographs of his work in this article demonstrate.

While Art certainly faced the usual artist’s hardship and occasional poverty, he had much regular paid employment and many many friends to help. Obsessive with his approach, he spent as much as 27 years completing the 26 pages of the now well-known manuscript Leabhar na hAiseirghe or Book of Resurrection

It is clear that the value and skill of Art’s creativity and illuminations were not widely known and appreciated during his life. For example, when he had completed the Book of Resurrection, the illustrations were left for many years lying almost completely forgotten about in a drawer in the National Museum of Ireland. However, after a number of decades of relative obscurity Art’s work was posthumously recognised with the first public exhibition of his life's work in 2006 at the National Museum in Collins Barracks, Dublin. Nowadays, O'Murnaghan's work as a Celtic illustrator is admired around not just the whole of Ireland but also across the globe. Modern Celtic artists such as Courtney Davis owe a huge debt to the man.

Jeanne Sheedy writing in The Rediscovery of Ireland’s Past: the Celtic Revival 1830-1930, described Art’s handiwork in The Book of Resurrection as: “… exquisitively decorative, fine and intricately designed, and like that of Mia Cranwell is a mixture of Celtic ornament and eastern mysticism. Also like her work, it recalls Irish sources without being a copy. Unfortunately he died before the manuscript (now in the National Museum of Ireland) was completed”. Pondering this, it is truly astounding to think of Art O’Murnaghan as being completely self taught.

Throughout his life, O’Murnaghan wrote regularly for The Dublin Magazine, often under the nom-de-plume of Arthur Kells. Contributions to the magazine exist from the 1920s through to the early 1950s and cover a gamut of topics, from copious book and art reviews to intriguing articles such as Ireland's Mysteries. He also contributed to a range of archaelogical journals of the time and also wrote the forward to The Hidden Language in Irish Art by Charles Leland.  

He also wrote a number of plays under the nom-de-plume of Patrick Kells,  none of which appear to have survived in the public domain, and was widely read and practiced in herbal medicine. From a musical perspective he was a very accomplished keyboard player, indeed for a time he was the pianist at the legendary Volta Cinema in Dublin, with which James Joyce was briefly associated. On occasions he taught at the National College of Art in Dublin. For example, during 1937 and 38 academic year he taught a class on the study of original design of Celtic ornamentation.

As a manager of the Gate Theatre he was afforded ample opportunity to express the artistic impulses he had felt a career in chemistry or library would never have allowed.  In his spare time  he produced as staggering number of works including some fourteen volumes of architectural drawings, writings and diaries.

An interesting story tells that during 1937 a wealthy Irish-American Republican and Philadelphian whiskey maker, Joseph McGarrity, offered Art a vast financial donation for his future artistic endeavours. Art would have none of it, saying that money was a very bad influence on art. It was only when this bequest was put into the hands of a group of trustees that O’Murnaghan returned happily to his art.  As an aside, McGarrity, who had been born in Ulster before emigrating to the United States, had also been hugely instrumental in providing enabling support for the ill-fated Collins / de Valera Pact before the 1922 Irish General Election. Personal letters between the two are still available to view at the National Library of Ireland.

Very importantly, his imagination was captivated and inspired by Celtic mythology, Irish history and the Theosophical writings and ideas of Blavatsky and Mead. 

It is his deep and lasting love of Theosophy which may interest those interested in his connection with Dion Fortune and the Inner Light. In the 1920s and 30s Art was a regular contributor to The Theosophical Path a regular publication by the Theosophical Society. His articles included:
  • Theosophy in Daily Life,
  • Theosophy in Everyday Life,
  • The Mysticism in Irish Folklore Parts 1 and 2,
  • Theosophy and True Art, and, my favourite, 
  • The Sword of Light – An Ancient Irish Tale Retold.
His writing in these articles comes across as informed, poetic, captivating and illuminating. In addition to the written work, Art also contributed some drawings to illustrate another monthly magazine called The Theosophist. These included Wind and Water and The Volcano in 1926.

After Dion Fortune's death, Arthur Chichester, the next Warden of the Society of the Inner Light continued to maintain fraternal relationships with O'Murnaghan. Shamefully, little much else is currently in the public domain.

It is my hope that perhaps others will now start finding and putting together further pieces in the jigsaw of Dion Fortune's and Art O’Murnaghan’s relationship and what impact this had on both the developing work of the Society of the Inner Light but also the Theosophy Society.

I will leave you with a short but illuminating quotation by Art O'Murnaghan from one of his Theosophical articles. For me it gives a perfect insight into the man’s love and compassion for humanity.

"One of the chains laid upon the souls of men in the past was that each one of us is 'born in sin,' incapable of living an upright life without the help of various crutches, called 'means of grace'; that without these means of grace a man is nothing worth, either to himself, or to anybody else, and that in the sight of the Supreme, he is but a worm. To put it familiarly, the prospect for humanity is summed up in the old saying: "Give a dog a bad name and hang him." He has grown up with the ingrained idea that the evil is in himself, that he was born that way, and he gives up further struggle as obviously fighting against Nature, and shuts the door upon his conscience. At least, he thinks he has succeeded in doing so, but it is only a case of the ostrich and his head in the sand - a temporary delusion. This 'worm'-theme would amuse us if we heard it applied in the case of an athlete beginning to train - something like this: "Well now, my boy, never forget that you are actually and in reality a cripple; you could never win anything, it isn't in you. Now, it's not necessary for you to know what muscles you have, and how they work together, but I can tell you that the track is impossible, you will never be really fit. Here is a book of rules; you had better sit down and learn them by heart, or as many as you can manage, and practise them as best you can. I don't really know much about their meaning, and you might not understand if I explained as much as I could tell you. As a matter of fact, you are not supposed to understand them."


Art O'Murnaghan 
 The Hibernian Adept 
1872 to 1953
July 2015 Update

Readers may be interested to know that I have written a total of four blog posts about Art O'Murnaghan:-

Art and Irish Theatre

Art and Irish Mythology

Art and Dion Fortune


  1. I am very taken with what you have said and in particular that of Dion Fortune. During the time that I lived in Glastonbury I met several people who knew her personally and all of who had good reminiscences.
    In particular her book The Sea Priestess lives on continually in my mind.

  2. Interesting article. I'm in the process of building a website for my greatgrandfather (Peter Figgis is my father) so I can send you a link when it's ready to show the world :)

  3. Many thanks for sharing that great news Jonathan. I'm hugely excited about the news of the website for Art. Very much looking forward to seeing it. From what I've been able to find out about Art, he was a fascinating human being. I love his writing as much as his artwork. There are few people around these days with his character, depth and artistic skills!

  4. Art O'Murnaghan was my great grandfather. It's good to see his name popping up a little more frequently. More people should to know about him.

    1. Also, Leabhar na hAiseirghe is 26 pages, not 14

  5. Hello Cormac. Good to hear from you. I hope to post a blog shortly on Art's "The Sword of Light" with the text this side of Christmas. Thanks for flagging up that I can't count too...I will correct the post. I'll blame my old Maths teacher who used to tell me when I got things wrong, "Any fool could do that! Watch the board and I'll go through it!" For someone with a very vivid and literal mind I spent most of my time visualising exactly what he said he was going to do and laughing rather than learning much else....

  6. Thank you! great info.
    H x


The Springtime of Dion Fortune

There she is staring out at you...or maybe that should be "in to you"! Whether writing as Violet Firth, Violet M Steele...