Dying aged 80 in 1932, Lady Augusta Gregory had greatly influenced Irish literature, theatre and nationalism. So indelible was her mark that for the past 15 years, she has been remembered annually at the Lady Gregory Autumn Gathering at Coole Park. More than just a congregation of academics, the gathering offers something for everyone, according to one of its organisers, Marion Cox, herself a Lady Gregory enthusiast.
“Lady Gregory was an amazing woman. To me, she is like a role model in a way that there are no other role models for women. She was respectful of the era she grew up in which was very conservative, where boys got the formal education and girls were educated with a view to becoming the lady of the house and were expected to marry commensurate with their station.
“Her having grown up in Roxborough House (in nearby Loughrea), she would have been expected to marry into the gentry. That would have been her role but instead she fostered an interest in books and Irish literature, Irish people and the nationalist movement, which she got through her nanny Mary Sheridan and she continued that in her life. I think that is what the Gathering really celebrates,” Marion reflects.
“The Gathering is held here in Coole, which as well as being the most beautiful, peaceful place, it is also where she invited Yeats and all the Irish writers of the time to come and have a home and an area where they could dedicate themselves to art and to literature. If you think about that, that woman would not have been brought up to do that. It was way beyond what her family would have expected of her but she developed that interest herself. She had tremendous drive and that is what comes across when you meet all the people who visit. You have the academics, then you have the people who love Irish theatre and literature and they are all just similarly impressed by her and her determination,” she continues.
Having lived in America for 20 years, then having transferred to Leitrim, Marion moved to Galway just three years ago.
“Two years ago I was invited to the Autumn Gathering and I met a lot of the people through mutual friends who have been attending for years. They told me they had additional need for manpower to help organise the Autumn Gathering and basically that is how I got involved,” Marion recalls.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Lady Gregory Autumn Gathering and even though she is dead 77 years, Marion believes the deeds of the woman at the heart of the Irish Literary Revival remain worthy of recognition and remembrance.
“She was a selfless person. She was a true enabler. She was the one who made it possible and she was willing to step back into the shadows to allow Yeats and Synge and all the others to publish their plays and have them produced. She was very involved behind the scenes in production and finalising scripts and that sort of thing but she did not take the credit, though anyone who was anyone at the time knew she was the force behind it. So I guess in a way there was a great dignity about her but yet she wasn’t a dull woman.
“Someone looking at her from the outside might have thought she was mediocre. You know, you look at her small stature and all that but then you look at what she achieved. She had a quiet dignity about her but also tremendous drive and determination because none of the things she achieved would have happened without her. So I think it is that determination coupled with the dignity that I really find amazing because when you look at what she accomplished, it is just mind boggling,” Marion continues.
Lady Gregory was renowned for her work recording Irish language, learning it, recording fairy tales and local folklore and for this Marion calls her “a true archivist”.
“What she knew about the local area and what she did from her own wealth and personal position to help people in the area was astounding and she did that herself. She had no role model. This woman came from a very conservative background, totally broke the mould yet retained her femininity, a lot of the style and the good things about the gentry and yet embraced the Irish people around her. She was just an amazing woman and she had to be to put up with the temperaments of Yeats and Synge and George Bernard Shaw and then be admired by them. She is the kind of person you would love to sit down and have a cup of tea with and understand what it is that motivated her,” Marion says.
The Lady Gregory Autumn Gathering is open to all, though there is a fee, and Marion feels it is especially suitable for those with an interest in history, in the Irish Literary Revival, in Yeats, Synge, Shaw or any of the world-famous authors who stayed with her in Coole Park.
“This is a festival that celebrates Lady Gregory but it is a festival that draws such a wide audience too, which really is reflective of her openness and her attitude to life and literature and arts,” Marion believes.
The Gathering begins on Friday, September 25 and continues to Sunday, September 27. There will be presentations by a number of acclaimed speakers, including James Pethica, the official Lady Gregory biographer; Brenda Maddox, who has written biographies of DH Lawrence, WB Yeats, Nora Barnacle and Elizabeth Taylor; Dr Cecily O’Neill, an internationally recognised authority on drama and arts education; local historian Sr De Lourdes Fahy and author Adrian Frazier, along with Stella Mew, chief executive officer of the Yeats Society in Sligo.
There will also be a tour of St Teresa’s Church in Labane, a visit to the Kiltartan Museum, a walk in the woods, a candlelight dinner and a trip to Thoor Ballylee.
The gathering will be officially opened by Geoffrey O’Byrne White, CEO of CityJet and great-grandnephew of Lady Gregory, along with his teenage daughter Elise.
For Marion, identifying her favourite element of the Gathering is easy.
“I love on the Saturday afternoon when we break for the walk in the woods. That is where you feel the spirit of Lady Gregory and if you are not that familiar with her, maybe when you go out whether the sun is shining, or the rain is coming down amongst the trees you are looking for her spirit there and you cannot help being inspired by the atmosphere, the beautiful walks, the trees and the lake itself. In a way you feel the atmosphere and the peace and the quiet that must have inspired all of the writers and you feel her spirit a bit too,” Marion concludes.