(b Clare, 13 Sep. 1892; d Dublin 19 July 1970).
Philanthropist. Prominent in the GAELIC LEAGUE as a young man (Briggs describes himself in the 1911 census as a ‘scribe for An Claidheamh Soluis,’ the League’s paper), Briggs was well known in the first decades of the Free State as a supporter of various alternative and radical cultural practices.
Notable projects to which Briggs gave financial and curatorial support range across music, theatre, literature and poetry. These included a sound poetic performance of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis at Westland Row and Merrion Square on the 50th anniversary of Wilde’s release from incarceration in 1897; Artist Retreats on Achill inspired in their emphasis on group collaboration and dramatic catharsis by the 1938 Cromlech Tumulus Kirkintilloch theatrical experiment by Irish surrealist Sean Cullinane (see Munro 2014) – these Retreats took place in 1948, 1949 and, following a scandalous bacchanalian group theatrical intervention in a community barn dance, finally in 1950; an all-male silent performance of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes in the foyer of Cork Opera House in 1956; and, most ambitiously, a series of inevitably doomed attempts to put together Ireland’s first gay Brechtian cabaret showband in the 1960s. Briggs’ long-mooted plan to stage a so-called ‘dreaming musical memoir’ of the Ladies of Llangollen remained unrealised at the time of his death.
Chancey Briggs’ philanthropic activities were enabled in the first instance by the profound wealth he inherited from his parents, Edgar and Josephine (Chancey’s grandmother, Elizabeth Musgrove née Aykroyd, was the only surviving child and heir to the 3rd Baron of Birstwith Hall in Somerset – see Appendix 1). This wealth was augmented over the course of Briggs’ life through canny investments in British companies such as Jaguar and Marks and Spencer’s, as well as key backroom lobbying for semi-national Irish organisations such as the Turf Development Board (Bord na Móna) throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
His wealth and the perceived eccentricities of his character allowed Briggs to ascend to a prominent position in Irish social affairs at the time. But despite this prominence as an unusually moneyed and dandified figure on the Irish cultural scene through decades where the country, as described by Tim Pat Coogan, was experienced by many as ‘an emigration-drained land wherein poverty, priest and publican dominated’ (2004: xii), both Briggs himself and his philanthropic activities in particular are less well known today than they might be.
Why this is the case must remain something of a matter of speculation. But certain facts of Briggs life give clear pointers as to his neglect. What historically would have been seen as the artistically and socially outré character of many of Briggs’ undertakings – from the aforementioned Achill scandal to his many unusual artistic ventures to his rumoured key support for Dunne’s Dérives in the 1950s and 1960s to his now obscured personal links with revolutionary figures such as Roger Casement and Pádraig Pearse – surely made his neglect almost inevitable in a country where rigid puritanical values directly contradictory of Briggs’ character and tastes remained very much in place and even enshrined in law throughout his adult life. Nevertheless, as a laudatory 1956 survey of Briggs’ efforts up to that time in The Bell has it, ‘Chancey Briggs has no match on this island for either bravery artistic ambition or the means with which to put this into action.’
Changing social mores, as well as renewed methodological approaches and a widening scope in recent Irish cultural historiography suggests that this kind of view of Briggs – generous, praiseworthy – both as a person and as a key player in the cultural life of marginal forms in Ireland in a time when such things very much struggled to sustain themselves, may yet win out over the current obscurity in which he (and others like him) unfortunately languishes.
Coogan, Tim Pat. 2004. Ireland in the Twentieth Century, London: Arrow Books.
Edwards, Ruth Dudley. 1979. Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure, London: Faber and Faber.
Foster, R.F. 1988. Modern Ireland 1600-1972, London: Penguin.
Graham, Nancy. 1957. ‘Chancey Briggs: A Lone Voice for the Unusual, the Strange and the Brave,’ in The Bell, 29 February.
Monro, Majella. 2014. Sean Cullinane. Historical Documents of the Irish Avant-garde.
Murphy, Brian. 2005. The Catholic Bulletin and Republican Ireland, 1898-1926, Athol Books.
Sawyer, Roger. 1984. Casement the Flawed Hero, London: Routledge.
Various. 1911 Census, available at http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/pages/1911/ [accessed on 1/11/14].