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Taking a fresh look at Lady Gregory’s legacy

LADY Augusta Gregory’s achievements are immense. As well as establishing Coole as a linchpin of the Irish Literary Revival, she co-founded the Abbey Theatre, wrote plays that were performed across the world, was a pioneering folklorist and a close friend and patron of WB Yeats. George Bernard Shaw called her “Ireland’s greatest living Irishwoman”.
Yet, Lady Gregory appears to us as an elusive, Victorian figure, defined more by her relationships with her literary contemporaries than in her own right. Judith Hill’s lucid new biography, Lady Gregory – An Irish Life, redresses this imbalance by revealing a complex, modern and influential woman.
“One starting point was the negative reactions to Lady Gregory,” says Ms Hill, a Limerick-based architectural historian and writer, who has published books on Irish buildings, sculpture and a biography of the Irish sailor and gunrunner, Conor O’Brien.
“She’s known for her work in folklore and theatre but she wasn’t ideologically driven and that really attracted me to her.”
Ms Hill set out to paint an intimate portrait of Augusta Gregory and to remove her from the shadows of her more glamorous peers.
“I tried to find out what she was really like as a person, to see her as she was at the time – how she dressed, how she presented herself, how she appeared to other people,” explains Ms Hill. “That was one part. The other was to look at her as a woman with a son, a husband and who had affairs with two men.”
Born Augusta Presse in 1852 at Roxborough Estate in Galway, she married Coole’s Sir William Gregory in 1880. He was 35 years her senior, a former MP for Galway and colonial governor.
The couple honeymooned in London, Paris and Italy and Ms Hill excels at evoking the aristocratic society into which the retiring Augusta was thrust, chronicling an audience with Queen Victoria, an introduction to Pope Leo X and dinner with the Crown Princess of Prussia.
Augusta and William typically spent six months of the year abroad and during the winter of 1881-2 they visited Egypt. It proved seminal in Augusta’s life. When she fell in love and had an affair with Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, the English poet and Egyptian nationalist, it sparked a transformation in her political outlook and inspired her literary ambitions.
“She supported Blunt as a romantic nationalist,” says Ms Hill, hinting at the new cause Augusta would later embrace in Ireland. “The affair gave her confidence in the idea she might be a writer. She wrote 12 sonnets for Blunt – her first writing.”
Blunt published the poems as his own in A Woman’s Sonnets but the affair, and Augusta’s authorship, was only revealed when Blunt’s secret memoirs were opened in 1972.
The biography outlines Augusta’s friendship with key players in the Literary Revival, such as JM Synge, Sean O’Casey and Edward Martyn. But towering above these is her enduring, mutually-supportive relationship with Yeats, whom she met shortly after her husband’s death in 1892.
“It was an extremely close relationship,” explains Ms Hill. “Augusta was looking for a role to play after William had died. She wanted to write and make a contribution but she wasn’t sure how. She realised that with Yeats she could be of use to him and he to her.”
When Yeats was writing Cathleen Ní Houlihan in 1901 for the Abbey, he asked Augusta – because of her folklore experience – to write the dialogue.
“Yeats needed her as a patron and collaborator,” adds Ms Hill. “She had him stay at Coole every summer until 1916 and he came back regularly towards the end of her life. They were close friends and worked well together. He valued their relationship very strongly.”
Around the turn of the century, Augusta invited many writers to Coole during each summer and, as Yeats’s later poems would emphasise, the estate became the focal point of the Literary Revival.
“The setting in rural Galway was very important,” explains Ms Hill, as it put Augusta’s guests in the “orbit of the Gaelic League” and “helped establish Coole almost as a symbol of the Literary Revival and Augusta as the centre”.
It also became a microcosm of the pluralist Ireland Augusta envisaged, incorporating both her ascendancy inheritance and emerging nationalism.
“Augusta was keen that [her son] Robert would have good summers at Coole,” Ms Hill says. “She invited his cousins around for cricket matches, as she wanted him to have a traditional Anglo-Irish upbringing.”
Meanwhile, “Douglas Hyde might be inside writing a play in Irish. So you had two cultures existing side by side, with Augusta in the middle.”
Ms Hill cites diplomacy as an important weapon in Augusta’s armoury and she deployed it deftly during the nationalist opposition that greeted The Playboy of the Western World in the Abbey in 1907 and during its US tour in 1911.
In Dublin, Augusta disarmed rioters by selectively cutting contentious lines from the text and organising a police reserve, while in New York she dispelled further protests by persuading former president, Theodore Roosevelt to attend the third night of the production. In New York she fell in love with lawyer and Irish-American patron, John Quinn.
This scrupulously researched biography draws extensively on primary sources and one of Augusta’s letters after Robert’s death at the front during the First World War is especially affecting. “My heart is very sore for my fair haired child…I am maimed without him.”
Illuminating and objective, the book challenges the received view of its subject by presenting her as a contemporary, non-sectarian figure who, despite considerable differences in history and sensibilities, developed both a close rapport with her neighbours in Coole and nationalist sympathies, while remaining an Anglo-Irish landowner.
“She had a vision of Ireland where people of different traditions could make a contribution,” says Ms Hill of Augusta’s legacy. “She wanted a multicultural Ireland. As a landed Protestant, she valued her background and represented it but in a modern Irish society that was nationalist.”
In 1932, and approaching death, Augusta wrote a letter in blue pencil to Yeats, “It may be the time has come for me to slip away…I have had a full life and except for the grief of parting with those who have gone, a happy one.”
Judith Hill’s biography is an eloquent testament to that life. Lady Gregory – An Irish Life by Judith Hill is published by The Collins Press.

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