Friday, 24 April 2015

Lady Gregory

Lady Gregory – an Irish Life. Judith Hill. Sutton Publishers, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2005, pp 420. Photos.

This review was written on May 7th 2011

Lady Gregory was born Isabella Augusta Persse in 1852, the ninth of the 13 children of Dudley Persse and Frances née Barry who were part of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and who lived in Roxborough, an extensive estate in East Galway. Augusta was a disappointment to her mother who had hoped for a fifth boy. It is thought that she had little affection for the child   Augusta was more in tune with her brothers who were her nearer siblings. She was less attached to her sisters who were conservative, straight-laced and religious. She appears to have had a poor education and showed little interest during her growing years in reading and other intellectual activities.  She joined her brothers' outdoor pursuits which were eschewed by her older sisters. She was considered something of an oddity by the family.
A wild swan at Coole

After this unpromising start, she met Sir William Gregory and
 remained on friendly terms with him for a few years before accepting a proposal of marriage at the age of 25. He was a widower, 35 years older than she but this did not prevent his proposing marriage which she bravely accepted.  Gregory was part of the establishment in Westminster and had been a member of parliament. He had some important diplomatic duties and appointments during his career. He was extravagant and profligate, like many of his privileged land owner colleagues, having lost most of his land in Coole close to Gort in East Galway through gambling. He was left with a mere 5,000 acres when he married Augusta.

Vanity Fair caricature of William Gregory
After marriage he led her a merry dance, travelling Europe and the world. She benefited through the many social and influential contacts she made during her travels with Sir William and through her own curiosity, intelligence and personality, and her natural ease in male company. They had one child, Robert, who was the light of her eyes. He was to inherit the Coole estate and had three children but was to die at the age pf 35 during the Great War in Italy. It was about Robert that Yeats wrote his poem An Irish Airman foresees his Death.

During their eleven years of marriage and after Sir William’s death Augusta Gregory showed political instincts which were to lead her to an increasing sense of Irish nationalism, to disapproval of the wide social, economic and cultural divisions which existed in the country, and to the baleful effects of government by Westminster. By the time of the Treaty ratification she had become politicised to the extent that she had some sympathy for those who opposed the Treaty. However, she did not approve of the military resistance to the Provisional Government by the irregulars and she deplored the vandalism and the social and economic consequences of the Civil War. She and Sir William were on good terms with their tenants and, although Coole was like many other estates gradually passed over to its tenantry, the stresses involved were alleviated by the understanding and goodwill of both parties, and by the inevitability of land purchase through the Land Act of 1909.

Coole House - now demolished.
She became more intimately involved with the local people through her charitable work in the locality of Coole and Gort, and, significantly in relation to her increasing contacts with Yeats, Hyde, Martyn, Synge, and others who were driving the mounting Celtic Revival. She began to collect Irish songs and stories from the country people who, in the absence of formal education, still possessed a vast collection of oral folklore. It was her increasing familiarity with the stories of the country people that inspired her to write the many books, plays, essays, articles and political pamphlets which made such a seminal contribution to the Irish cultural advances of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

She was quite extraordinarily prolific with 39 plays and 18 books mentioned in the index of this biography, and with a record of numerous essays, articles and pamphlets.

While obviously she was in a minority among the Irish landowning class and among the urban Anglo-Irish, her career and her increasing attachment to Ireland and the Irish social and cultural background, in contrast to the English, was part of a movement which presaged at the turn of the century an advance of democracy and of equality among the different Irish social classes. Such a social trend was also driven by the advance of the land question, the emergence of a Catholic middle class following Catholic Emancipation in 1827, the huge contribution the Catholic teaching orders were making to secondary education among Catholics, and by the gradual taking over of local government by the majority Catholic population.

Reading this book left me with the thought that 1916 may have been a great disaster with its aftermath of a destructive War of Independence and the ‘compound disaster’ (My father’s words) of the Civil War with its long-standing bitterness, its baleful effect on Ireland’s reputation, its vandalism, its moral and economic ill-effects at a time of serious post-war recession, and the futility of its genesis and its anti-democratic origin. Unfortunately the execution of the 1916 leaders created a martyrdom which made it difficult to make a dispassionate appraisal of the Rising’s justification or at least to be seen to be critical of its motives. The heroism of its leaders and the rhetoric of the Republic should not blind us to the adverse political and military consequences of the Rising

Lady Gregory had a strong influence on her many colleagues who joined her in literary, cultural, academic and artistic circles. In particular she had a huge influence on WB Yeats and his success as a poet and playwright, just as he had a powerful influence on her. In her role in founding and safeguarding the Abbey Theatre, she played a seminal role in management, financial and moral support, in sound advice and in contributing plays which were widely acknowledged by national and international audiences. Her close association with the Abbey was a constant source of concern because of recurring personality problems, political conflicts between nationalists and conservatives, and chronic financial worries.

Yeats' signature, amongst others, on a tree at Coole Park.
She paid four prolonged visits to the United States where her lecture tours were most popular. In America she organised and managed visits by the Abbey players and became spectacularly and courageously involved in combating the many protests of the Irish-Americans who were incensed by The Playboy of the Western World. Following the death of her nephew, Hugh Lane, during the war, she devoted the rest of her life in a personal campaign aimed at the return of his pictures to Dublin.

Although separated from the masses in terms of birth, education, wealth, religion, social life and political affiliations, she emerges from the pages of this fine biography as patriotic, energetic and intelligent, with a great love of Ireland and its people. She was passionate about Ireland’s folklore and its unique Celtic culture and, above all, she played a leading role in the Celtic Revival and in encouraging and advising those who were active during this important phase of Irish life.

No comments:

Post a Comment