Gregory, (Isabella) Augusta (1852–1932), Lady Gregory, writer, folklorist and patron of the arts, was born Isabella Augusta Persse at Roxborough House, Co. Galway, on 15 March 1852. She was the ninth of thirteen children (eight boys and five girls) of Dudley Persse and his second wife Frances (née Barry). (Her father had a son and two daughters by his first marriage to Katherine O'Grady, a cousin of Standish Hayes O'Grady (qv).)
Childhood and marriage
Gregory's mother, who made it plain that she greatly preferred boys to girls, was a fiercely evangelical protestant and biblical literalist, who engaged in religious proselytisation with some of her elder daughters (Augusta later denied that she had taken part). The male Persses were generally unintellectual and principally interested in field sports; several of Augusta's brothers were alcoholics. It is clear from her autobiography that Augusta's relations with her parents were cold and distant; her writings emphasise her relationship with her nurse, Mary Sheridan (d. 1876), who spoke to her of 1798 and the Young Irelanders. While there is near-contemporary evidence that she was extremely close to Sheridan, some commentators have suggested that her later emphasis on the relationship was in part a ploy to provide her with ‘roots’ more palatable to catholic nationalists than her ultra-tory family.
Augusta developed intellectual interests which were neither fulfilled by the limited reading matter available at Roxborough nor encouraged by her family. As a young woman she was generally regarded as plain, destined to remain unmarried and to serve as a carer within the family. Indeed, she accompanied an invalid brother on trips to the French riviera from 1875 and helped to look after the estate following her father's death in 1878. Her position was transformed by her marriage to Sir William Gregory (qv) of Coole on 4 March 1880. Her husband acted as an intellectual and artistic mentor and introduced her to metropolitan literary and social circles (whose delight in conversation, she recalled, gave her the foundations for her later work as a dramatist). Sir William, however, was considerably older than his wife; while Augusta always spoke of him with fondness and respect there are hints that, while outwardly accepting that his comfort must come first, she privately saw him as somewhat selfish and regretted that his fondness for travel involved her in long separations from their only child, Robert Gregory (qv) (b. 20 May 1881). (A rumour that Robert was in fact the child of a local blacksmith has been recorded by some scholars but lacks supporting evidence.) She assimilated his partial account of the Gregorys as generous landlords who had always maintained paternal relations with their tenants – he felt grievously betrayed by the events of the land war. Much of Augusta's later life would be spent in refurbishing and maintaining this invented tradition from a mixture of expediency, desire to preserve something of the estate for her descendants, and a sense, inculcated by her religious upbringing and by reading Thomas Carlyle, that life achieved meaning through purposeful work.
In 1881–2, while wintering in Egypt, the Gregorys developed sympathy for the movement led by the army officer Ahmed Arabi Pasha and supported by Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (qv); they joined in Blunt's campaign to persuade British public opinion that Arabi was not an aspiring military despot but a reformer who deserved sympathy, even if his plans imperilled the interests of British bondholders. Sir William was less outspoken in the cause than Lady Gregory; her account ‘Arabi and his household’, published in The Times (1882, and later as a pamphlet) after the defeat and capture of Arabi by a British force, is credited with saving him from execution (he was banished to Ceylon). When Blunt's papers were made public in 1971 it was revealed that he and Gregory had been lovers in 1882–3 and that ‘A Woman's Sonnets’ published in 1892 in a collection of his poetry were in fact by her. These sonnets are marked by a combination of guilt and pride which reflects the theme, in her later work, of outward decorum combined with secret dreams and passions.
During the following years Gregory moved in London society, occasionally dabbled in journalism, and carried out social work in the slums of Holborn and Southwark (the latter chosen because she thought south London neglected compared with the more conspicuous East End). She was accompanied on one occasion by Sophie Raffalovich (qv) (later O'Brien), whose brother André was a close associate of the Gregorys, who found her manner patronising. This criticism may have been influenced by political differences: while Sophie (who later married William O'Brien (qv)) strongly supported Irish nationalism and land agitation, Gregory was at this time fiercely opposed to home rule, though she privately expressed some personal sympathy with Blunt when he was jailed in 1888 for participating in the Plan of Campaign in east Galway. She also displayed sympathy for Parnell (qv) during the split, which added support to her lifelong though discreet contempt for catholicism as enslaving the mind; she applied the biblical quotation ‘Had Zimri peace that slew his master?’ at different times to William O'Brien and John Dillon (qv), and Parnell appears as Moses in her play ‘The deliverer’ (1910), which also contains satiric portraits of Dillon and T. M. Healy (qv). On annual visits to Coole, Lady Gregory carried out charitable work in the local workhouse; she maintained this custom till the last years of her life, and the workhouse inmates proved valuable sources of folklore.
Writer and folklorist
Sir William Gregory's death on 6 March 1892 led to the revelation that the finances of the estate were more precarious than she had realised. She decided against remarrying and set to work to eliminate the estate's financial liabilities so that Robert would inherit it unencumbered on his coming of age. Although she emphasised her role as dutiful widow and mother, it has also been noted that her decision prevented her from having to submit to the authority of a second husband: indeed, her widowhood marked the beginning of her artistic and political reinvention. Her editions of Sir William's unfinished autobiography (published in 1894), which she had encouraged him to write so that Robert could understand his father, and of the political correspondence of his grandfather William Gregory (Mr. Gregory's letter-box, 1898) can be seen both as acts of widowed piety and as important steps in her literary apprenticeship.
In 1893 Gregory published anonymously A phantom's pilgrimage, in which Gladstone's spirit is sent to a home rule Ireland ten years after his death under threat of being reincarnated as a boycotted Irish cow if he cannot within twenty-four hours find one person who has benefited from home rule. From c.1895, however, Gregory developed nationalist political views (influenced by contact with the nationalist journalist Richard Barry O'Brien (qv)) and an increasing acceptance that the old power of the landlords was gone, perhaps deservedly so. Like Horace Plunkett (qv), whose plans for agricultural improvement she supported locally, she believed that land purchase would stabilise Irish society and that the gentry must use their abilities in the service of Ireland if they were to maintain their place in the new world. As part of her retrenchment she moved out of London (though she continued to rent a flat there till 1902) and spent more time at Coole. She now learned Irish (having made two previous unsuccessful attempts) and became active in the Gaelic League at local level. She later supplied Douglas Hyde (qv) with scenarios for his plays ‘An posadh’ and ‘Teach na mbocht’ (her own play ‘The workhouse ward’ (1908) was also based on the second of these). She visited the Aran Islands, comparing her experiences with the portrayal of island society in Grania by Emily Lawless (qv), and began collecting folklore.
These activities laid the basis for the intense friendship which she formed from 1896 with W. B. Yeats (qv). Her relationship to the poet was that of a mother and a friend; while some commentators have suggested a degree of repressed sexual attraction, too much should not be made of this – Gregory's letters to her nephew Hugh Lane (qv) show a similarly incongruous mixture of quasi-maternal solicitude and flirtatiousness. Gregory acted as Yeats's closest confidant for almost twenty years, and commented on and collaborated in his work. (She also lent him small sums of money; in 1917 he repaid £500 as a debt of honour.) Long summer residences at Coole provided the poet with a base which he had previously lacked and allowed Gregory to oversee his physical well-being. The mocking report of Lord Dunsany (qv) that she claimed to have saved the life of the undernourished Yeats ‘by feeding him Bovril’ was actually not far from the truth. His presence at Coole later led to tension with Robert Gregory, who resented the manner in which the poet was treated as virtual master of the house. Gregory supplied Yeats with folkloric material for magazine articles; she was annoyed when he spent some of these earnings to visit Maud Gonne (qv), who, she believed, exploited Yeats for her own emotional gratification. In return Gregory derived literary encouragement from his example. She later acquiesced publicly in Yeats's view that he was wholly responsible for her literary career and interest in folklore, while privately protesting; at the same time she firmly believed that without him she would have remained a minor writer for literary reviews.
In 1897 Gregory was one of the participants in a conversation at Duras, the Galway home of Count Florimond de Basterot, which led to the formation of the project of an Irish national theatre; she acted as secretary to the organising committee, and her social standing helped to persuade many prominent public figures to act as guarantors for the first performances in 1899. The establishment of the theatre was of a piece with her growing political disaffection, which she had already expressed by refusing to light a bonfire for Queen Victoria's jubilee in 1897. During the Boer war she was strongly sympathetic to the Boers, though society reaction to her views and to a fiercely nationalist article on street ballads, published in 1900, led her to mute the expression of her sentiments for fear of damaging the theatre or antagonising her unionist son.
Yeats did not fully recognise Gregory as a fellow writer till February 1901, when she read to him an episode from her adaptation of the Red Branch cycle, which she had translated into the Hiberno-English dialect that came to be known as ‘Kiltartan’ and was used for most of her works. Her Cuchulainn of Murtheimne (1902) and Gods and fighting men (1904) played a crucial role in popularising the Irish sagas and winning for them an international audience. These synthetic versions were explicitly presented as a reply to Professor Robert Atkinson (qv) of TCD, who had declared that ancient Irish literature was completely lacking in heroism or idealism. Her introduction to Cuchulain, addressed to ‘My Friends’ the local peasantry, in which she denounces the Trinity professors for neglecting the study of ancient Gaelic literature, and presents herself as ‘a woman of the house that has to be minding the place, and listening to complaints, and dividing her share of food’ (p. 5) has been widely ridiculed for being patronising. Her versions of the sagas have been criticised for their bowdlerisation of references to sex and bodily functions and the omission of grotesque features such as the physical distortions of Cú-Chulainn (qv) in his battle frenzy; this approach owes something to her apologetic purposes but chiefly reflects her own sense of decorum, though, by the standards of her day (and in contrast to the idealised versions produced by, among others, Standish James O'Grady (qv)) she is quite frank on certain points, such as the sexual promiscuity of Finn (qv) and Cú-Chulainn.
Further works in the same vein include Poets and dreamers (1903), a folklore collection deriving from local traditions about the poet Raftery, Saints and wonders (1906), The Kiltartan poetry book (1919), and The Kiltartan history book (1909). A projected work on the folk beliefs of the west of Ireland, which was to have been produced jointly with Yeats, broke down because Gregory took a more sceptical attitude to the material than her collaborator. But their researches for the book led to her publication of Visions and beliefs in the west of Ireland (1920) with two appended essays by Yeats, which draws on such authorities as Matthew Hopkins to elucidate the deeper significance of her material.
Playwright and collaborator
Although that project stalled, Gregory engaged in numerous literary collaborations with Yeats; her contributions were not always recognised at the time, and she privately expressed resentment that ‘Kathleen Ni Houlihan’ was not publicly acknowledged as their joint work. They collaborated formally on ‘Where there is nothing’ and ‘The pot of broth’ and Gregory contributed dialogue to ‘On Baile's strand’ and ‘The king's threshold’. From 1902 she began to write plays for the national theatre, beginning with the tragicomedy ‘Twenty-five’. These may be divided into comedies, often set around the town of ‘Cloon’ (which was loosely based on Gort) and sometimes involving the same characters, of which ‘Spreading the news’ (1905) is perhaps the most famous; tragedies, notably ‘Dervorgilla’ (1907), in which the portrayal of Diarmuid MacMurrough's former lover, who tries to atone for her sin by piety and charity, only to find herself exposed to ‘the swift unerring judgment of the young’, has been seen as Gregory's meditation on her own secret life and the ambivalent nature of her aristocratic heritage; and folk histories, such as ‘The white cockade’ (1905), in which through the characters of Patrick Sarsfield (qv) and James II (qv) she shows how loyalty to an ideal can give meaning and purpose to otherwise pointless lives, but how those lives fall back into anomie when the ideal proves unworthy.
Between 1904 and 1912 the Abbey staged nineteen original plays and seven translations by Gregory; she was the company's most widely performed and popular author. Even such a suspicious Irish Irelander as D. P. Moran (qv) delighted in her comedies, while Arthur Clery (qv) turned from excoriating John Synge (qv) as morbid to declare her folk history Kincora (1905) the Abbey's first undoubted masterpiece. Two of her most highly acclaimed plays aroused some political controversy. ‘The rising of the moon’ (1903), in which a fleeing patriot persuades a police sergeant to allow him to escape by appealing to his love of Ireland, was widely criticised by unionists for encouraging disloyalty. (A film adaptation directed by John Ford (qv), with the setting advanced from the 1867 Fenian rising to 1921, appeared in 1957.) ‘The gaol gate’ (1906) depicts the wife and mother of a man arrested for an agrarian murder, who are awaiting his release; when they discover that he has been hanged they rejoice because his death disproves a rumour that he had turned informer. The proposal by the Abbey to stage this play during a visit to Galway city caused Gregory some embarrassment, as the production coincided with an upsurge of agrarian agitation in east Galway in 1907–8. Although she was proud of the role of her nephew John Shawe-Taylor (qv) in brokering the 1903 Wyndham land settlement (her play ‘The image’ (1909) is dedicated jointly to Lane and Shawe-Taylor as ‘image-makers’), the Coole estate continued to be involved in disputes over rent and purchase terms; in 1901 her brother Frank, the estate's land agent, retaliated on tenants who had had their rent reduced by making them pay the ‘hanging gale’ (six months’ arrears customarily allowed to tenants), and at one point threatened to counter a rent strike with cattle seizures – a threat which received Gregory's hesitant but determined support.
During the 1902 reorganisation of the national theatre, Gregory became one of the three governing directors. Her steadfast support for Yeats's determination that the Abbey should be a writers’ rather than an actors’ theatre created tension with the actors, which was not entirely assuaged by her famous gift of a large barm brack from Gort on the opening night of every new production. She was seen by some critics as remote and condescending, a view shared by unionist acquaintances such as Beatrice Dunsany, who remarked that she disowned the privileges of her caste in such a manner as to emphasise her entitlement to them. This self-confidence and loyalty to the Yeatsian project underlay her support for Synge's ‘Playboy of the western world’ (which she personally disliked) and her role in counterbalancing defiance of official censorship with the Abbey's staging of ‘Blanco Posnet’ by George Bernard Shaw (qv). In 1911–12 she accompanied the Abbey players on an American tour and oversaw the response to protests organised by Irish-American activists such as John Devoy (qv) against the staging of the ‘Playboy’. During this visit to America she had a brief affair with John Quinn (qv) and discovered the profits obtainable by lecturing to American audiences; she returned to America for a lecture tour in 1913. The ‘Playboy’ tour of America also gave rise to her semi-official and decidedly selective history of the company, Our Irish theatre (1913), written in the form of letters to her grandson Richard (b. 1909).
Last years and reputation
From 1914 Gregory's life set into decline, prefigured by the death of John Shawe-Taylor in 1913. The Coole estate was finally sold to the Congested Districts Board for division among the tenantry in December 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the first world war, in which eleven of Gregory's nephews served and five died. On 7 May 1915 Hugh Lane was drowned when the Lusitania was torpedoed off the Irish coast. (This did not deter Gregory from undertaking another American tour in late 1915 and early 1916.) The campaign for the return of Lane's collection of pictures to Dublin became the major cause of Gregory's later years; it underlies her 1921 biography of Lane (republished with additional material in 1972) and the journals which she began as a record of the campaign in October 1916 and maintained till 1931. Yeats's marriage in October 1917 necessarily meant a lessening of her role as his confidant (though they remained close and Gregory was on good terms with George Yeats (qv)). On 23 January 1918 Robert Gregory, who had joined the Royal Flying Corps, was killed on the Italian front; she found some solace by urging Yeats to memorialise him in verse. This loss fuelled an intensification of her (still flexible) anglican faith, which is reflected in her passion play ‘The tidings brought by Brigit’ (1924) and the miracle play ‘Dave’ (1925).
Gregory combined imaginative sympathy for the post-1916 revolutionary movement with dismay at local agrarian violence (especially when this impinged on the sale of the Coole demesne lands in October 1920). She was horrified – and radicalised – by state violence in 1920–21, and published anonymous accounts of atrocities in east Galway in the British liberal weekly The Nation. While initially supportive of the treaty, she developed mild republican sympathies as the civil war progressed and in her last years saw Éamon de Valera (qv) as best placed to achieve national reconciliation. Gregory refused nomination to the Free State Senate in 1923; she agreed to stand in the 1925 senate election but did not canvass and was heavily defeated.
Gregory continued to play a leading role in the administration of the Abbey, acting as an intermediary between the actors and the more remote and experimental Yeats. She formed a friendship with Sean O'Casey (qv), who famously recalled her as resembling ‘a nun of a peculiar order . . . a cross between Puck and the Lord Jesus Christ’; in 1925 she assisted in the defence of ‘The plough and the stars’. Their friendship broke down over her support for Yeats's decision to reject ‘The silver tassie’ for staging at the Abbey; this reflected not only her continuing bond to Yeats but her growing remoteness from literary creativity and newer trends. (While the claim by Denis Johnston (qv) that he derived the title of ‘The old lady says no’ from a note on his manuscript recording Gregory's rejection of the play has been shown to be apocryphal, there may be more substance in the statement that she praised the prologue in the mistaken belief that it exemplified the Romantic nationalist drama that it parodied.)
After Robert's death Gregory continued to hope that his son Richard would retain ownership of the house and grounds of Coole as a private residence. (Her loving relationship with her grandchildren is recorded in the memoir Me and Nu (1970) by her granddaughter Anne.) This hope was not shared by Richard or by Robert's widow, Margaret, who was reinforced in this view in May 1921 when she was the only survivor of a tennis party (including two police officers) ambushed by the IRA outside Coole demesne. The two women subsequently entered into an agreement whereby Margaret would find a house elsewhere while Gregory rented Coole from her and took financial responsibility for its upkeep. Matters were complicated by the fact that while Gregory had surrendered her lifetime right to reside in the house (under her husband's will) when her son married, she continued to believe she had a moral right to remain there (much of her literary earnings had gone on improvements to and maintenance of the house). The mutual respect between her and Margaret was accompanied (though never destroyed) by exasperation. Coole House and its woods were sold to the forestry commission on 1 April 1927 with the proviso that Gregory should continue to reside there till her death.
During her last years Gregory worked on an autobiography, Seventy years (undertaken partly for financial reasons). After an account of her upbringing and her activities in London this becomes a collection of extracts from her correspondence; it was left for Yeats to edit but it was not published till 1974. Her final literary project was a descriptive account of Coole House (not published in full till 1971), which serves as a coda to, and memorialisation of, the Gregorys’ role and her own guardianship. Gregory underwent a mastectomy because of breast cancer in 1923, followed by further operations in 1926 and 1929. Though suffering increasingly from rheumatic pain, she refused most palliative drugs in an effort to keep her mind clear; she experienced memory lapses and increasing difficulty in walking. She died 22 May 1932 at Coole and was buried at Bohermore cemetery in Galway city; the house was sold to a building contractor and demolished in 1941.
Gregory features in the major memoirs of the Irish literary revival. She is extensively lampooned by James Joyce (qv) in Finnegans Wake, where her folklore collecting is mocked as the scratchings of Belinda the Hen on a prehistoric dung-heap, and she also appears as Kate the Sweep, ‘the Abbey charwoman’ (a description humorously originated by George Bernard Shaw and taken up by Gregory herself). A selection from her detailed late journals was published in 1946 by Lennox Robinson (qv); the full text was published in 1978 and 1987 as part of the monumental Coole edition of her works, which (after a hiatus covering most of the 1980s) made her texts widely available for study. Her 1890s journals were edited and published in 1995. Gregory's plays (especially her comedies) were widely performed in the decades after her death but became less popular as the rural and small-town society she depicted receded into the past. Recent studies emphasise the extent to which her self-effacing public image represented a determined act of self-fashioning and the degree of her covert self-identification with the frustrated dreamers of her work. Although her literary idiom has become outmoded she retains greatness as the foremost enabler of the Irish literary revival, its indispensable (though selective) chronicler, and a witness to aristocratic decline. The principal body of Lady Gregory's papers is in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library.