Papers of (William) Denis Johnston

Repository: Trinity College Dublin

Identity Statement

TitlePapers of (William) Denis Johnston
Archive ReferenceIE TCD MS/10066
Web Link to this Entry
Creation Dates1888-1984
Extent Medium97 boxes, 14 volumes, 170 outsize items


Creator(s): Johnston, William Denis, 1901-1984, journalist, dramatist, broadcaster

  • Administrative History ↴

    Denis Johnston was born in Dublin in 1901, son of William Johnston (1868-1940), barrister, MP and Supreme Court judge and Kathleen Johnston (1860-1944), née King. He was educated at St Andrew's College, Dublin (1908-15; 1917-19); Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh (September 1915-December 1916); Christ's College Cambridge, 1919-23; Harvard Law Scool, Cambridge, Massachussetts (1923-24); King's Inns, Dublin (1925). Johnston worked as a barrister in Dublin in the late 1920s and 1930s while taking an active part in the Dublin Drama League, where he met the Abbey actress Shelah Richards, whom he married in 1928. They had two children: the novelist Jennifer Johnston and (William) Micheal Johnston. His first play, The Old Lady says 'No', was rejected by the Abbey Theatre, Dublin in 1928 but was produced at the Gate Theatre, Dublin in 1929 to great acclaim. His other dramatic works for stage, radio and television include The Moon in the Yellow River (1931), A Bride for the the Unicorn (1933), Storm Song (1934), Blind Man's Buff (adaptation, 1935), The Golden Cuckoo (1939), The Dreaming Dust (1940), Lillibulero (1948), A Fourth for Bridge (1948), Strange Occurrence on Ireland's Eye (1956), The Scythe and the Sunset (1958), Nine Rivers from Jordan (libretto, 1968), John Millington Synge: a centenary tribute (1971). He produced and directed the film Guests of the Nation (1935). Johnston joined the BBC in Belfast in 1936, finally bringing his legal career to an end, and then transferred in 1938 to the fledgling television service in BBC London. During the Second World War Johnston worked as a war correspondent, based in Northern Ireland, reporting on his experiences while accredited to the RAF and US Forces in the desert campaign in North Africa (1942), the Italian campaign (1943-44), the Partisans in Yugoslavia (1944), and Buchenwald concentration camp (1945). His War Field Books which he wrote up for the duration of the war became the basis of his war memoir Nine Rivers from Jordan (1953). Johnston's divorce from Shelah Richards was finalised in February 1945 and he married actress Betty Chancellor in March of that year. He and Betty had two childen: Jeremy and Rory. Johnston returned to peacetime television in 1946 as Director of Programmes at the BBC but departed in 1947 to work as a freelance in theatre and television in the United States. By 1950 Denis Johnston had embarked on yet another new career, this time in American academe: he taught in Amherst College, Mount Holyoke College (for ten years), Smith College and, after retirement in 1966 he took up visiting appointments at several other universities until the mid 1970s. He published two further prose works: the biography of Jonathan Swift, In Search of Swift (1959) and the philosophical treatise on the nature of time, The Brazen Horn (1976). The Johnstons retired to Alderney in 1966, returning finally to Dublin in 1970. Denis Johnston died on 8 August 1984 and was buried alongside his wife Betty in St Patrick's Cathedral Close.
  • Archival History ↴

    Collection presented by his daughter and sons in May 1985
  • Immediate Source Acquisition ↴


Content & Structure

  • Scope & Content: Johnston, William Denis, 1901-1984, journalist, dramatist, broadcaster ↴

    The Denis Johnston papers comprehensively document his Dublin childhood, schools and universities, his career as a barrister, playwright, theatre director, BBC war correspondent, pioneer of televison and university teacher.
    The collection includes drafts of dramatic works for stage, radio, television and screenplay treatments; draft prose works; research materials on Dean Jonathan Swift; drafts of articles, lectures, speeches and addresses; radio broadcasts other than plays; recordings of his literary works, wartime radio broadcasts, autobiographical radio talks and interviews.
    Johnston’s complex collection of almost 200 diaries include annual diaries known as the ‘Y’ series (1936-83); miscellaneous diaries (1919-20: 1930-31: 1947: 1962: 1973); annual pocket diaries (1916-27: 1930-31: 1934-37: 1941-61: 1970: 1977: 1979: 1982); miscellaneous notebooks or journals called the ‘Z’ series, each volume is given a title (1921-49: 1955-80); ‘Omnibus’ notebooks, also known as ‘Omnibus X-books’ which provide an autobiographical narrative of Johnston’s life (1901-34: 1945-74); a general index volume for the ‘X’, ‘Y’, and ‘Z’ series; annotated xeroxes of his War Field Books (1942-45).
    Johnston’s collection of notebooks contain notes and drafts of his plays, research materials, legal work, biographical notes, genealogical research, BBC television work, wartime reportage and teaching notes (1918-79).
    The correspondence, amounting to nearly 7000 letters, includes Johnston’s private and business correspondence (1902-84). The collection includes materials relating to the literary papers of novelist and poet Amanda M’Kittrick Ros (1860-1939). There are over 1660 photographs and 6 photograph albums including photographs of family, friends, stage and television productions of plays (1902-83); theatre memorabilia including programmes and posters (1929-82); schools and universities related papers and memorabilia (1908-25), correspondence and papers relating to Johnston’s BBC career and wartime memorabilia (1935-47); academic career in the United States (1950-83).

  • Appraisal Destruction ↴

    Permanent Retention
  • Accruals ↴

    No further accruals are expected
  • Arrangement ↴

    The collection is arranged as follows:
    10066/1-26 Dramatic works: plays for stage, radio, television and screenplay treatments
    27-56 Prose works
    27-38 Books
    39-44 Swiftiana
    45-50 Elgania
    51 Lectures, speeches, addresses
    52 Articles and minor works
    53 Reviews and critiques of books
    54 Works of others collected by Denis Johnston
    55 Interviews with Denis Johnston
    56 Radio broadcasts (other than plays)
    57-246 Diaries and notebooks
    57-105 Annual diaries (‘Y’ series)
    106-113 Miscellaneous diaries
    114-159 Annual pocket diaries
    160 BBC appointment diary
    161-178 Miscellaneous notebooks or commonplaces
    179-185 ‘Omnibus X-books’
    186 General index
    187 Miscellaneous diary
    188-191 War Field Books
    192-198 Diaries of others
    199-246 Notebooks
    247-251 Scrapbooks and albums
    252-286 Tapes and records
    287 Private correspondence: letters to Denis Johnston
    288 Private correspondence: letters from Denis Johnston
    289 Private correspondence: other correspondents
    290 General correspondence
    291 Divorce proceedings
    292 Amanda M’Kittrick Ros
    293-298 Photograph albums
    299 Photographs
    300 Drawings and cartoons
    301 Theatre programmes, handbills, playbills, posters and catalogues
    302 Smith College theatre designs, elevations and ground plans
    303-312 Production copies of plays by other authors directed by Denis Johnston
    313 Musical scores and song books collected by Denis Johnston
    314-319 St Andrew’s College, Dublin
    320-336 Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh
    337-354 Christ’s College Cambridge
    355-357 Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
    358 King’s Inns, Dublin
    359 Juvenalia and school magazines relating to other members of the Johnston family
    360-394 BBC career
    395-450 Academic career
    451-510 Property and legal papers
    511 Financial papers
    512 Diplomas, certificates and citations
    513 Clubs and societies
    514 Newspaper and magazine cuttings
    515-6 Autobiographical and genealogical material
    517-8 Miscellanea and memorabilia

Conditions of Access & Use

Access Conditions Cassette copies of tapes and records in TCD MS 10066/252-286 are available for readers' use.
Conditions Governing ReproductionPermission to publish from Micheal Johnston (dramatic works) and Rory Johnston (prose works and letters written by Denis Johnston).
Creation Dates1888-1984
Extent Medium97 boxes, 14 volumes, 170 outsize items
Material Language ScriptEnglish, German, Italian and Slavic
Finding Aids An item-level list for part of the collection is available to search online Archive Web Link →

Allied Materials

Related MaterialDionysia, an account of Denis Johnston's wartime experiences, typed in 6 numbered notebooks: IE TCD MSS 3208-3213. Letters to Prof Ann Saddlemeyer from Denis Johnston and others: IE TCD MS 11169. Letters from Denis Johnston to Prof Ann Saddlemeyer: IE TCD MS 11186. Papers of Denis Johnston: University of Ulster, Coleraine. Papers of Jennifer Johnston (b. 1930), novelist and playwright, daughter of Denis Johnston and Shelah Richards: IE TCD MS 11063. Papers of Shelah Richards (d. 1985), Abbey actress and RTE producer: IE Dublin Corporation Archives/Irish Theatre Archive/128. Papers of Judge William J Johnston, Johnston family history, Shelah Richards, photograph albums, films and video tapes: privately owned by Micheal Johnston, son of Denis Johnston and Shelah Richards. Papers and photographs of Betty Chancellor (d. 1984): privately owned by the family of the late Jeremy Johnston, son of Denis Johnston and Betty Chancellor. Originals of the War Field Books 1-6 (IE TCD MS 10066/188-191 and TCD Misc photocopies 103-104) are in the Denis Johnston Collection, University of Ulster, Coleraine, Co Derry. Annotated mimeographs of plays and the Brazen Horn, and microfilms of Denis Johnston's diaries ('Z' series and 1947 war diary) are held in Williston Memorial Library, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts. The script of 'The dreaming Dust' is in the Special Collections library of the Northwestern University, Illinois.
Publication NoteBernard Adams, Denis Johnston: a life (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2002). Denis Johnston, Nine Rivers from Jordan (London: Derek Verschoyle, 1953). Denis Johnston, In Search of Swift (Dublin: Hodges Figgis, 1959). Denis Johnston, The Brazen Horn (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1976). Orders and Desecrations, ed. Rory Johnston (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1992). Denis Johnston: a retrospective, ed. Joseph Ronsley (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1981). The Dramatic Works of Denis Johnston, ed. Joseph Ronsley, 3 vols (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1992).

Descriptive Control Area

Archivist NoteAdapted by Natalie Milne, February 2014.
Rules/ConventionsISAD(G): General International Standard Archival Description. 2nd ed. Ottowa: International Council on Archives, 2000. National Council on Archives: Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names. Chippenham: National Council on Archives, 1997.
Date of Descriptions41671