Contributed by Frank Bouchier Hayes
Anyone who encounters a series of carefully thought out cartoons in the Irish Independent in 1924 might be forgiven for thinking that the ‘Mac’ who created them was a sharply observant man. In fact, Isa Macnie was by then a distinguished member of the Dublin United Arts Club with a varied array of sporting, political and cultural associations behind her. Macnie made her first appearance in the pages of the Irish Times as a highly talented croquet player in 1901. Prior to taking up caricatures, she established a reputation as a gifted actress, sketch writer, composer and pianist. At a fundraising concert for Drumcondra Hospital in April 1911, it was reported that an impressive baritone named Wilfrid Douthitt had performed in encore “a very charming new song, ‘Here’s to Jane’ by a young Irish lady, Miss Isabel Macnie” who also provided the piano accompaniment. As a member of the Dublin University Dramatic Society, she took part in a special performance of Lady Windermere’s Fan in May 1912 to raise funds for the relatives of those who had perished in the Titanic disaster. In June 1913, she was involved in the staging of an elaborate pageant of nursing in Dublin to mark the inaugural Nursing Conference for the National Council of Trained Nurses of Great Britain and Ireland. A month earlier, she had presided at a public meeting in the Mansion House where she told the assembled gathering “that they were met there to inaugurate the public lending library in connection with the Irishwomen’s Reform League for the purpose of promulgating literature of a non-militant character”.
During the First World War, Macnie was active in fundraising campaigns for nurses and the Red Cross. Hospitals such as Dr Steeven’s and Mercer’s also benefited from her organisational abilities while the War of Independence raged throughout the country. Shortly before the outbreak of the Irish Civil War, a letter appeared in the Irish Times signed by the two honorary secretaries, Isa M Macnie and M E Duggan, setting out the aims of the Irishwomen’s Association of Citizenship: “Our main objects are to bring together Irishwomen of all politics and all creeds for the study and practice of good citizenship; to promote economical and political knowledge, and to hear and discuss the points of view of others in a friendly and sympathetic spirit…furthering social, political and legislative reforms, chiefly those which concern women and children.” Following her death in April 1958, an article appeared in the Irish Times which suggested that the ‘Mac’ cartoons came about following a conversation with the editor, John Edward Healy, at a dinner party during the 1920s where she informed him that she saw people in geometrical shapes. The explanatory illustration became the first ‘Mac’ cartoon. Although her subjects ranged from political to cultural, one in particular caught the public imagination. “Chin-Angles: or How The Poets Passed Each Other” (pictured) depicted an upward looking Yeats about to pass a downwards looking AE on leaving their respective residences in Merrion Square and was published in the Irish Independent in September 1924. In 1925 her first and only book, The Celebrity Zoo, was published which featured well-known political and cultural figures in animal form. Her Irish Times obituarist rightly suggested that “no future student of our cultural renascence could afford to neglect ‘Mac’s’ exuberant and trenchant commentary in her inimitable chunky black lines”. Perhaps the best way of understanding the impact of her cartoons during her lifetime is via her own reflections in 1938. Speaking to the Dublin Rotary Club, Macnie advised against becoming a caricaturist unless you “are utterly insensible to abuse and slander” and suggested that “there is no better or quicker way of losing friends and making dangerous enemies than by drawing caricatures”.
Frank Bouchier-Hayes is a UCD librarian and freelance writer.