Jeanne Rathbone

Lady Augusta Gregory Galway woman

Posted in Lady Augusta Gregory Irish Literary Revival by sheelanagigcomedienne on April 29, 2018

 

 

Lady Augusta Gregory née Persse 1852 – 1932 was an Irish dramatist, folklorist and theatre manager.

Augusta Gregory was born at Roxborough, which was  a 6,000-acre estate located between near Gort, the main house of which was later burnt down during the Irish civil war. Her family were whiskey makers based in Nun’s island in Galway. She was educated at home, and her future career was strongly influenced by the family nurse/nanny, Mary Sheridan, a Catholic and a native Irish speaker, who introduced the young Augusta to the history and legends of the local area.

The Persses were Protestant landowners of English origin, part of a close-knit network of families who dominated  local government in Galway until the end of the 19th century. However, her maternal grandparents, the O’Gradys and the Barrys, were descended from native Irish and Norman families who had converted to Protestantism to escape the penal legislation imposed on Catholics. Augusta’s father had three children during his first marriage and thirteen with his second wife, Frances Barry Persse , Augusta’s mother. Frances Persse was a fervent evangelical Protestant and, with her eldest daughter and two stepdaughters, actively proselytized among the local Catholic peasantry around Roxborough. This caused much resentment, especially during the Great Famine, and remained an issue of political sensitivity for the family.

It took some time for her conversion from Unionism to Irish Nationalism.

 

She married Sir William Gregory , a widower with an estate at Coole Park, near Gort 1880. He was 35 years her elder, had just retired from his position as Governor of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), having previously served several terms as Member of Parliament for County Galway. He was a well-educated man with many literary and artistic interests, and the house at Coole housed a large library and extensive art collection, both of which Lady Gregory was eager to explore. He also had a house in London, where the couple spent a considerable amount of time, holding weekly salons  frequented by many leading literary and artistic figures of the day, including Robert Browning, Lord Tennyson John Everett Millais and Henry James.

 

Barely two years into her married life, and a young mother, she fell totally in love with a serial seducer, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. The affair lasted a year, and ended by a mutual pact in the summer of 1883. On the morning after their last night together she gave him 12 perfectly composed sonnets outlining her utter passion and complete surrender to him.

Their only child, Robert, was born in 1881. He was killed during the First World war, while serving as a pilot, an event which inspired Yeats’s poems “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” and “Shepherd and Goatherd.”

With Yeats and Edward Martyn, she co-founded the Irish Literary theatre and the Abbey theatre, and wrote numerous short works for both companies. Lady Gregory produced a number of books of retellings of stories taken from Irish mythology. Born into a class that identified closely with British rule, her conversion to cultural nationalism, as evidenced by her writings, was emblematic of many of the political struggles to occur in Ireland during her lifetime. George Bernard Shaw , John Millington Synge and Sean O’Casey. They and many others carved their initials on the Autograph Tree, an old Copper beech still standing in the walled garden today.

 

The Yeats poem The Wild Swans at Coole was inspired by the beauty of the swans in the turlough at Coole Park. Yeats’s home at Thoor Balylee was just 3 miles away; he also wrote “Coole Park, 1929”, a poem that describes the park as a symbol for the revival of Irish literature. The “big house” at Coole was demolished in 1941. In the late 1960s, Coole was opened to the public for amenity use (which my uncle Canon Quinn was later instrumental in developing), served as an important meeting place for leading Revival figures, and her early work as a member of the board of the Abbey was at least as important for the theatre’s development as her creative writings.

Some random quotes of Augusta Gregory

Every trick is an old one, but with a change of players, a change of dress, it comes out as new as before.

In my childhood there was every year at my old home, Roxborough, or, as it is called in Irish Cregroostha, a great sheep-shearing that lasted many days. On the last evening there was always a dance for the shearers and their helpers, and two pipers used to sit on chairs placed on a corn-bin to make music for the dance.

In writing a little tragedy, ‘The Gaol Gate,’ I made the scenario in three lines, ‘He is an informer; he is dead; he is hanged.’ I wrote that play very quickly.

Once in my childhood I had been eager to learn Irish; I thought to get leave to take lessons from an old Scripture-reader who spent a part of his time in the parish of Killinane, teaching such scholars as he could find to read their own language in the hope that they might turn to the only book then being printed in Irish, the Bible.

We would not give up our own country – Ireland – if we were to get the whole world as an estate, and the Country of the Young along with it.

Every day in the year there comes some malice into the world, and where it comes from is no good place.

It was among farmers and potato diggers and old men in workhouses and beggars at my own door that I found what was beyond these and yet farther beyond that drawingroom poet of my childhood in the expression of love, and grief, and the pain of parting, that are the disclosure of the individual soul.

Her grandaughter Anne died in 2009. She had written a delightful little book which my daughter Barbara bought when she was a teenager and she loved it. There are quotes from it in granite stones around Coole Park.

In Me and Nu: Childhood at Coole, she recalled meeting some of the leading writers and artists of the day. WB Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Augustus John and Oliver St John Gogarty were among those who enjoyed Lady Gregory’s hospitality. She told of GBS by putting butter on the underside of the bread and jam on top and cheating at Blind man’s buff. She thought O’Casey was a tramp calling.

 She found Yeats grumpy, rather distant and often distracted. She remembered him humming while he wrote his verses. “He used to hum the rhythm of the verse before he wrote the words,” she said. “Grandma told us that was why his poems were so good to read aloud.”

Of Yeats’s poem to her yellow hair she said: “I thought it was doggerel at first and was not impressed. It was not as romantic as I would have liked it.”But when the poet publicly announced the publication of the poem and described the young Anne as “having hair like a cornfield in the sun”, she warmed to it.

 

We always visit Coole Park when we go home and Thoor Balilee. My uncle Canon Quinn was instrumental in getting the development of Coole as an attraction. We got to see some of her one act plays enacted at outdoor at Coole. We have visited the charming Kiltartan museum. They are all wonderfully  atmospheric – a literary pilgrimage as well as a lovely day out.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: