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Charlotte Rolfe, dressmaker – “So fair is the earth, both by night and by day!”

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 14 February 2020

Charlotte Rolfe, or Lottie, was the youngest daughter of Charles Rolfe, a tailor, and his wife Maria Rolfe.  She was born in Bury St. Edmunds on the 2nd of February, 1856.  There is no suggestion on the census returns that she was deaf until the 1901 census, so we may assume she had a form of progressive hearing loss, though it rendered her almost completely deaf.  At earlier stages of life she was a servant, but later worked as a dressmaker.  There were a lot of Rolfes in Suffolk, so they can be confusing, but I am sure of my identification of the right Charlotte Rolfe.

I came across her in the British Deaf Monthly (BDM), where she wrote what might be considered an anti-war poem –

BRIGHT is the moon, and the wind, softly blowing,

Wafts the sweet scent of the newly mown hay :

I feast on the scene till my heart is o’erflowing—

So fair is the earth, both by night and by day!


So peaceful the scene, can it be (ay, too truly !)

That War’s mighty standard’s still reared o’er the world ?

Oh, when will the nations become less unruly,

And the Banner of Peace be for ever unfurled ?


Who can forget how our soldiers are lying

Sick, wounded, distressed, from their friends far away ?

And daily are added more sick and more dying—

For them and their kindred I’ll cease not to pray !


In war a dear brother—I still mourn him—perished,

Who toiled and served nobly his Queen for awhile—

Deep, deep in my heart is his memory yet cherished

While he peacefully sleeps on the bank of the Nile.


‘Tis late, nay, ’tis early ! soon day will be dawning :

I’ll rest for awhile—gather strength for the day,

And in the bright sunshine I’ll spend the glad morning,

Then Zephyrus ! winnow my sorrow away.


I think that is a very good amateur poem.  That she submitted a poem to the editors, suggests that she was familiar with the BDM, and felt herself  a part of the larger deaf community.

I take it her brother had died a few years before, perhaps serving under Kitchener, but I have not identified him – her parents had a lot of children and I have only a limited time to research this.  I then found nothing more, until, that is, I looked in the British Newspaper Archive.  That turned up another sad story, this time concerning Charlotte’s sister.  I think the writer or printer added an incorrect age for her sister, who was I think 47 rather than 57. *

This story appears in the Hackney and Kingsland Gazette, for Wednesday the 9th of September, 1903 –



An inquest was held the Hackney Coroner’s Court Monday morning on the body of Mary Ann Dennison. 57, the wife of John Dennison, a silver finisher, of 31. Church-road. Homerton, who died from the effects of oxalic acid poisoning.

The husband of the deceased said his wife had no trouble of which was aware. When he left home on Friday morning she appeared all right, but returning the evening he found the room in darkness. He struck a light and then saw his wife lying dead on the sofa – dressed, with the exception of boots and stockings. On a chair near was a bottle and beside it a bill in which the bottle had evidently been wrapped by the chemist. Curiously enough, however, the name of the chemist had bean cut out. On the back of the bill the following note had been written to deceased’s sister, Miss Charlotte Rolfe, of Kentish Town : –

“Dear Lottie, – My head has been bad for years, and then I say and do foolish things. Poor old Jack is not to blame; he has been goodness itself to me! I can’t do so — l am best out of the way. God will call for my dearest of children! Don’t let them know I have taken my own life. – Tiny.”  Tiny, explained the witness, was the name by which his wife was familiarly known.

The Coroner: The jury will naturally ask, “Why did she take her life?” What reason can yea give for that ?

Witness; Well, sir, I can only say I have found her come home now and again the worse for drink. And that upset her mind ?- I don’t know, sir, but I have seen her reeling now and again.

How often ? Pretty often, lately, sir.

Once a week ? -Once a day, sir, and been going for years on and off.

During that time she has threatened to take her life several times ? -Yes, sir.

What reason did she give ? -She said she was tired. I always asked her what she meant by it, and I never could get anything out of her.

Charlotte Rolfe, to whom the note was addressed, said she last saw her sister on Friday week, when she made the curious remark that a number of people had committed suicide lately. This witness was so deaf that the Coroner had write down the questions he wished her to answer.

Dr. J. C. Baggs said he found the bottle referred to contained a small quantity of oxalic acid. Deceased’s mouth was burned by some corrosive poison, and death was due to oxalic acid poisoning.

A verdict of Suicide whilst temporally insane was returned.

Mary Ann clearly had a form of depression of long standing, and was unable to articulate it, even to her family.

She was retired at the time of the 1939 register, and living at The Sycamores, Beck Row, Mildenhall.  Her death was registered in Birmingham – perhaps she was visiting family or friends – noted in the Suffolk paper The Bury Free Press,

ROLFE.—On January Ist. 1945, CHARLOTTE ROLFE passed peacefully away, aged 89 years.  Service at St. Marylebone Crematorium. North London, Jan. 22nd.

but she was cremated in London.

If you discover more about Charlotte, please  do contribute in the comments field below.

* NOTE: Thanks as ever to Norma Mcgilp who found her in the 1939 Register, and when she died.

Also, apologies but I somehow lost the ends of two sentences in this version, now corrected.

1861 Census – Class: RG 9; Piece: 1141; Folio: 142; Page: 22; GSU roll: 542762 

1871 Census – Class: RG10; Piece: 14; Folio: 7; Page: 8; GSU roll: 838752

1881 Census – Class: RG11; Piece: 863; Folio: 73; Page: 42; GSU roll: 1341204

1891 Census – Class: RG12; Piece: 1451; Folio: 152; Page: 30; GSU roll: 6096561

1901 Census – Class: RG13; Piece: 204; Folio: 10; Page: 11

1911 Census – Class: RG14; Piece: 9881; Schedule Number: 76

BDM vol: 9, no. 107, September 1900 p.245

Robert Smithdas, American deaf-blind poet -“Blindness takes you away from scenes. But deafness takes you away from people.”

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 7 December 2018

Robert J. Smithdas was the first deaf-blind person to gain a master’s degree when he graduated from New York’s St. John’s University in 1953.  Born in 1925, Smithdas caught cerebro-spinal meningitis aged four and a half, and lost hearing and sight as a result.   He became director of Services for the Deaf-Blind at the “Industrial Home for the Blind,” and at the Helen Keller National Center.

We have a signed copy of his poetry book, City of the Heart (1966).  In the preface he says,

I composed these poems because my heart sang them to me over the years – because poignant moods, or powerful emotions, made me crystallize my thoughts and feelings into verbal expressions.  Sometimes inspiration was so spontaneous that the words came flooding into my consciousness and shaped themselves into song; but far more frequently I found myself searching through the labyrinthine meanings of language to find the most convincing words , and the most plausible rhythms, to serve as crucibles for my themes.  Yet I always knew the intrinsic essence of the thing I wanted to express in a sonnet, or a lyric, or the nobler passion of blank verse.

This is a clip from an interview theat Barbara Walters did with Bob Smithdas.

Barbara Walters: The lives of the deaf-blind have changed remarkably since the era of Helen Keller. She was never able to live by herself without sighted help, never able to be independent.

Bob: And today, it’s a tremendous difference, we can communicate, we can cook, we can go out and it is a wonderful type of progress

Barbara Walters: In spite of the good things Bob, what is the hardest part of be being deaf and blind?  What is the most frustrating?

Bob: At this stage of life, I am very used to being deaf blind, but I will admit that I miss not being able to see my friends’ faces or hearing their voices. Remember deafness takes you away from sound, from music. Blindness takes you away from scenes. But deafness takes you away from people.

Robert Smithdas died in 2014.

His poetry book, Christmas Blessing and Other Poems, (1959) is available on Archive.org

“Gently the snowflakes fall

Fragile and thin and light…”


The photo of him above is the same as that at the back of the poetry book.  Unfortunately, when an external contractor tagged all of our books, the #### people doing the task were so slap-dash that they place the tag neatly over the photograph.

Please note, the chief U.K. deaf-blind charity is Sense.

“I gazed upon her beauteous form, As in death’s clasp it lay” – Poems on the Deaf and Dumb

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 22 April 2016

Poems 2Poems on the Deaf and Dumb was written, or rather compiled by William Robert Roe, and published in 1888.

Jennifer Esmail says that Roe’s book reprints American Deaf poetry without refering to the author’s nationalities, but not all of the poems are American.  Roe must have scoured all the sources he could find, in order to fill his pages.  The sources include poems by Eliza Cook, the Church of England Magazine, and the American Mrs Sigourney.  Usually I stand back from direct comment on works which appear in the blog, and perhaps I am being unfair, but I have no hesitation in calling much (not all) of this collection, mawkish and sentimental!   Judge for yourselves.  The whole book is in the link above, and a few selections are below.


Written at the death of Miss F., a Deaf Mute.

By Miss M.M.F.

I gazed upon her beauteous form,

As in death’s clasp it lay,

The smile still hovered on the lips

With which she passed away.


And n’er before had that sweet face

So lovely seemed to me;

The heavenly calm reflected there

Was beautiful to see.


Her wish at length was realised –

She’d seen the glorious face

Of Him who shed for her His blood,

Who saved her by his grace.


She’s watching for her dear ones now,

With others gone before;

And one who since has crossed the flood

And joined her on that shore.


Her unstopped ear shall catch the strain

That will our advent greet;

Her loosened tongue with ours shall join

In halleljahs sweet.


O, hasten, Lord, that meeting time,

We long to be with Thee;

To leave this world of grief and sin,

And all Thy glory see.(p.22)Mute courtship

pOEMS pARRYOne of our many copies was owned by Edwin Parry, 25 Primrose Terrace, Bower House, Blackburn, dated May 12nd [sic] 1888.  In 1911 there was an Eliza Parry, aged 54, widow, described as deaf from aged 6 (circa 1863), though the 1861 census says she was deaf ‘from birth’.  It seems her maiden name was Eliza Gladstone and that she married Edwin Parry in Blackburn in 1885.  Eliza was born in Hunslet, Yorkshire, daughter to James and Jannet(t) Gladstone, who had moved to England from Roxburgh.  We may question whether she had any formal education at all, other than at home, but it is possible.  The Leeds Deaf Institute only opened in 1876, when she was an adult.

In 1901 Eliza, already widowed, was working as a cotton winder, living with Margaret Walker, aged 67, and Jane Clara, aged 65, both deaf.   I wonder if they used signs at work, or ‘meemawing’, a combination of mouthing and mime employed in noisy Lancashire Mills, which Les Dawson famously used with his characters Cissie and Ada.  I have not been able to find Edwin on a quick look at the census records.  Perhaps he was not deaf, though I suspect he may have been.  It is also possible that, like his wife, he was not born in Lancashire.  Hunslet was a town that had mills which wove flax, and presumably Eliza moved to Lancashire seeking work some time in the 1880s.

I think our Eliza Parry died in 1915.  Do add anything you may discover in the comments below.

new ears

Esmail, Jennifer, Reading Victorian Deafness.  2013

The invalid’s hymn book [compiled by H. Kierman] with preface by H. White

1911 census Class: RG14; Piece: 25107

1901 census Class: RG13; Piece: 3915; Folio: 130; Page: 3

1891 census Class: RG12; Piece: 3416; Folio: 145; Page: 3; GSU roll: 6098526

1861 census Class: RG 9; Piece: 3357; Folio: 79; Page: 10; GSU roll: 543119



Jack Clemo, “prydyth an pry”, deaf-blind poet and novelist (1916-1994)

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 4 March 2016

clemoThe Cornish writer Reginald John Clemo, commonly called Jack, was born on born March 11th, 1916, near St. Austell in Cornwall.  His mother Eveline Polmounter, daughter of a Methodist preacher, was pious, “a dreamy, sensative girl, naive, steeped in worthy religious books and cheap romantic novels, with little interest in the lives of the clay labourers beyond the farm” (Magnusson, p.12).  His father Reginald, belonged to a family that had a bad reputation but were very poor, working as clay labourers (ibid).  He liked to dress up, and he joined the chapel choir as he loved to sing, and there he came to know Eveline.  In 1909 Reggie decided to try his fortune in the Montana copper mines.  He returned after three years, having spent what he had earnt, and they married in 1913 (ibid p.14).  Their first child died as a baby, but then when war broke out Reggie went to work at a Woolwich munitions factory, then Devonport dockyard.  Shortly after Jack was born his father was sent to work in the navy, and he died on the 23rd of December, 1917, when the ship he served on as a Stoker, 2nd Class, H.M.S. Tornado, was mined off Rotterdam (not torpedoed as Magnusson says) (Spinks, see * below).

Cause of Death: Killed or died as a direct result of enemy action
Official Number Port Division: K.38321 (Dev)
Death Date: 23 Dec 1917
Ship or Unit: HMS Tornado
Location of Grave: Not recorded
Name and Address of Cemetery: Body Not Recovered For Burial
Relatives Notified and Address: Widow: Eveline, Gonnanarris Slip, St Stephens, Nr Grampound Rd, Cornwall

At the age of 18 months, Jack was able to recite the Lord’s Prayer, and aged four he was “reading vigorously” (Magnusson, p.16).  When he was five he had his first attack of blindness, diagnosed as iritis, and it took a year to go, but it changed Jack to a withdrawn introspective child (ibid p.17-18).  He started school but hated it, though he excelled at writing, and religious study.  He had a further episode of blindness when he was thirteen, which made him even more inward looking, but at the same time became inspired to write after meeting a girl called Evelyn at a cousin’s wedding.  She took it on herself to look after him, “stroking his hair and whispering softly throughout the meal.  The effect on a boy whose senses and emotions had been so starved was electric.  That day was born an obsession that that was to haunt his imagination for a long time to come.”

He began to write articles for Netherton’s Almanack, and pursued Evelyn until she ignored him, eventually sending back all his letters.  He fell into despair, and as he approached his nineteenth birthday became increasingly deaf (ibid p.38).   Although he had always been spiritual, at around this time he experienced a conversion, though not connected with any traditional religious group.

His first novel, Wilding Craft, was finallly published in 1948.  Here is a short excerpt to give something of his style –

When all was quiet and he knew Irma too must be lying up there in all her lovliness, awaiting sleep, Garth leaned over the sofa and noiselessly drew back the curtain from the window. Moonlight streamed into the room, for the the moon, just past full, was riding up behind Trethosa, the tree-tops cutting upon its silvery shrunken disc like black veins, unmoving, while shadows all over the valley and the clay ridges were becoming magical, the triangular shade of sand-dumps broken upon the folds of the pits, and the shade of drying-sheds and tanks groping out over the Fal and the marshland, over the first war-time instalment of flowers, insects, microscopic eggs and amphibian life.  Hardly a cloud up there among the stars, and no marauding apparition below. (Wilding Graft, p.278-9)

He won an ‘Atlantic Award for Literature’ worth £100 for this novel (Magnusson p.71).  It was a Rockefeller prize that helped young writers whose careers had been disrupted by the war (one winner being P.H.Newby, the first Booker winner).

In 1951 his poetry collection , The Wintry Priesthood, won a £100 Festival of Britain poetry prize.  Magnusson quotes this poem, The Two Beds, which shows his combination of the erotic-mystical and industrial, and if that sounds strange do follow up the links at the bottom of this page –

…you never saw
The clay as I have seen it, high
On the bare hills, the little breasts
So white in the sun, all the veins running white
Down to the broad womb with its scars.
And the scars meant, beyond fertility,
Purgation – symbol of the stained rock,
And the live water searching, cooling
Along the bare sinew; and then the heat,
The brief heat beyond the body; and at last
The cup for the new wine.  (But that is yonder
And this is faith).  So I had the open view,
While you groped in cramped seams, found no heavenly clue.

Clemo’s sight deteriorated iin the 1950s and by 1955 he was blind.

Spinks says of Clemo,

His early poetry is infused with an erotic view of the barren clay landscape of his home and God’s just demand for the surrender of the personal soul.  He praised the industrial invasion of the natural world as God’s grace claiming his own.  Though he derided nature, his verse has a haunting beauty of expression and the challenge of a personal, honest voice.

Having had a correspondance with Ruth Grace Peaty, he finally achieved a long held desire, when he married her in 1968.  In 1970 he was made ‘prydyth an pry’ or ‘Poet of the Clay’ at the Gorsedd – Cornwall’s unofficial national assembly.

He died in 1994 and is buried in Weymouth.  An archive of his manuscripts and papers is held at the University of Exeter – see link below.  In 2005 the cottage he had lived in for much of his life was destroyed by the Goonvean quarry.  Though we might consider this modern vandalism, in the light of his ideas of industry and nature mentioned above, one wonders whether he might have thought this a sort of poetic justice, appropriate for the landscape he knew so well.

WildingMagnusson, Sally, Clemo, a love story. 1986, Tring.



University of Exeter Archives

One of his manuscripts

Destruction of his home

Michael Spinks, ‘Clemo, Reginald John (1916–1994)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/54814, accessed 2 March 2016]



*Marine War graves Roll -TNA Series: ADM 242/7; Scan Number: 0787

A web search will bring up more interesting items.

“And woven loops of silence circle you; Though none may know The secret of your devastating woe” – Deaf Poet Annie Charlotte Dalton O.B.E.

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 12 June 2015

A while ago I came across a book of poetry in our collection, and for a long time wondered why we have it.  It is from a small print run, numbered 220 on nice paper with black and white prints to illustrate it.  annie Dalton 001The author, Annie Dalton O.B.E. (1865-1938) was born Annie Charlotte Armitage in Birkby, Huddersfield.  Annie was brought up by her grandparents.  Her grandfather, James Stoney, was a cloth dresser.  Perhaps the family considered it a stigma that she was deaf – it would not be the first time,  but any rate, it is only in the 1901 census that she was first described as ‘Deaf from childhood’, a decade after she had married Willie Dalton (1891).  This shows that we should use the information on census returns with an element of caution.  In 1903 they emigrated with their daughter Edith Evelyn, to Vancouver.

It seems that Annie was privately educated, and lost her hearing through illness when aged seven, and this was her stimulus to begin writing poetry (Campbell).

Compared with great poets in her lifetime, she has not fared well since, being seemingly forgotten.  Simon Armitage, the modern poet and translator came across her while ‘ego surfing’.  He says “it might fairly be said that she is no undiscovered genius.”  Wanda Campbell writes that, “Though honoured in her own lifetime as a member of the Order of the British Empire, the only woman poet then included, Dalton has not fared well at the hands of critics, in part because they have tended to assess her poetic achievement in the light of her disability.”  She also says “Her work is uneven but she is nonetheless intriguing in her efforts to make science and anthropology acceptable themes in poetry, and in her efforts to voice the challenges faced by the deaf.” (ibid)

The quotation in the title comes from stanza III of The Silent Zone.

Neighing north 001

You can read more of her poetry here and decide for yourself – Canadian Poetry.

There is a photograph of her here – Photograph.

1871 census Class: RG10; Piece: 4371; Folio: 42; Page: 29; GSU roll: 848086

1881 census Class: RG11; Piece: 4385; Folio: 158; Page: 27; GSU roll: 1342047

1891 census Class: RG12; Piece: 3571; Folio: 110; Page: 18; GSU roll: 6098681

1901 census Class: RG13; Piece: 4105; Folio: 161; Page: 4

Annie Charlotte Dalton, by Wanda Campbell  [Accessed 12/6/2014]

Annie Charlotte Dalton, illustrated by J.W. Galloway MacDonald, The Neighing North (1935)

Charlotte O’Brien, a Social Worker, Amateur Botanist and Writer

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 27 July 2012

Charlotte O’Brien was born on 23rd of November 1845 into an Anglo-Irish protestant family that was a branch of the Dromoland O’Brien Baronets. Her father William was an M.P. and Young Ireland nationalist moved by the great famine  to take part in the 1848 rebellion. He was condemned to be hanged drawn and quartered for treason but was however reprieved and allowed to return to Ireland after a period in exile. All of his children had some hearing problems, with his son William being deaf from birth. Charlotte had a form of progressive hearing loss, and as we see from her poem below (dated 1879) by her mid 30s she had become deaf.

Charlotte devoted many years to helping the poor emigrants who were pushed off the land firstly by the famines and then by other social pressures. These people had to endure further privations in lodging houses and then on board ships to America and Australia, and she tried to alleviate their suffering. Her nephew says in his memoir (1909, p.75),

None of her letters tell of the sharp struggle she had to face in Queenstown itself when she actually started. […] when she and her man John went down to the station to meet arrivals they were hustled violently and threatened with worse. She described to me a perfect pandemonium, poor creatures from the wilds of Kerry or Connaught emerging like cattle from the crowded carriages, sick with hunger or fatigue, stupefied with grief ; and then the mob of lodginghouse runners seizing them, dragging them this way and that, with noisy exhortations.
Thus she began her work of love in a turmoil of mean and jealous hatred, bullied and browbeaten.

Charlotte was criticised for helping emigrants who accepted the £5 ‘bribe’ that some English philanthropists paid to every person who would leave. This was seen by nationalists as a form of  social engineering to remove trouble makers. She went to America to promote her cause. Here is her nephew Stephen Gwynn again (ibid. p.86);

when I look on the record of her work in America, as I find it in old newspaper cuttings, it is amazing how little physical disabilities weighed on her. She had never spoken in public; yet she addressed great audiences successfully; she was extremely deaf, yet she went everywhere making acquaintances, making friends, entering into the whole life of the place as very few women could do with every natural advantage.

Continuing to write all her life, she was however never successful at it according to Gwynn, for “She was too busy living to concentrate her powers on the special task of bringing an art to it’s completeness.” Charlotte’s best work is where she was constrained by metre he says. He calls her writings on deafness “vehement Brontësque outpourings: and of such there is a good deal among her unpublished papers, though none else so poignant.” (ibid. p.131-2)

She died in 1909 having converted to Roman Catholicism. Back in Ireland she did a lot of work on the botany of her beloved Limerick.

The important thing about her is “not what she did but what she was” says Stephen Gwynn (ibid.p.133-4), but “a true portraiture would show, I think, two chief excellencies, a nature unstunted by an infirmity which went to the very core of life, and a passionate love of her country with a sense of kinship with its poorest people.”


The woods are silenced for me, and the streams
Ripple no more for me along the leas;
No more for me the birds sing melodies
To greet the morn, or give the sun good dreams;
No more the circling rooks in heavy crowds
Beat homeward cawing, ‘neath the wind-swept clouds.

Where are the sweet sounds gone ? Are they all gone ?
Gone from the meadows deep with swathes of hay:
There the blithe corncrake woke the summer day.
Or startled the still air the whole night long.
Now silent in their beauty they bend low
While the rich-scented breezes o’er them blow.

Oh ! merry voices of the world of life,
From the warm farm, the byre, the hen-roost shed ;
There nesting swallows flashed above my head,
And all about the air with sound was rife;
With din of sparrow hordes, incessant, shrill,
Debating, scolding, loving then so still.

So still, for I had called them ! Breathlessly
I stood awaiting the oncoming burst
And rush of rival voices, all athirst
To fill the air with carols mad with glee
Set with dark globes and crowns, the burnished leaves
Now sway in silence ‘neath the silent eaves.

O earth ! what murmurs sweet beguile thy rest,
Ere yet the thrush his glorious matin rings;
Ere yet the goldfinch on his glittering wings
Brushes the jasmine stars from round his nest;
Ere yet the daisy leaves turned toward the sun,
Bid night ” Good night,” and speak his day begun.

Oh, bitter loss ! all Nature’s voices dumb.
Oh, loss beyond all loss ! about my neck
The children cast their arms; no voices break
Upon my ear; no sounds of laughter come
Child’s laughter, wrought of love, and life, and bliss;
Heedless I leave the rest, had I but this !


For me, her best poem is ‘Glenville’

The shadows flicker on the coltsfoot sheaves :
There ‘neath the bridge and o’er the sparkling  stream,
Often we traced the water’s wavering gleam
Amid long trailing branches and green leaves ;
Often we rested, where the beech tree weaves
A liquid web for every wandering beam
O’er deep dark pools wherein the old trout dream,
And oft a shining foot the water cleaves.
A stream o’ergrown and shadowed all its length,
From the fairy fort and glen, to the old bridge,
Bringing its amber waters from the strength
Of yonder brown, bare, boggy, heathery ridge,
To where the fat land’s heavy-footed kine
In their rich beds of luscious green recline.

The library copy of her book shows it came from a member of her family – her cousin was Professor Stockley.

The library copy of her book shows it came from a member of her family – perhaps a niece?




Gwynn, Stephen, Charlotte Grace O’Brien; selections from her writings and correspondence, with a memoir by Stephen Gwynn. Dublin, 1909