Shedding light on Lady Gregory before the Celtic dawn

Augusta Gregory’s writing career predated meeting Yeats and betrays some unionist sympathies

Lady Gregory  may have wanted to disguise her broader Irish sympathies from her London unionist friends and  veil her residual unionism from her Irish neighbours. Photograph: Hulton Getty

Lady Gregory may have wanted to disguise her broader Irish sympathies from her London unionist friends and veil her residual unionism from her Irish neighbours. Photograph: Hulton Getty


On a summer’s evening in 1894, Augusta Gregory went to a party at the London home of Lord Morris of Spiddal. There, as she wrote in her diary, she briefly “met Yates, looking every inch a poet, though I think his prose ‘Celtic Twilight’ is the best thing he has done.” Two years later, they would meet again in Co Galway, founding a lasting friendship and a collaborative partnership that ranged from writing plays together to founding the Abbey Theatre.

Yeats has long been regarded as the catalyst that triggered Lady Gregory’s mid-life emergence as a playwright, folklorist, Irish literary nationalist and patron – a judgment both she and he promulgated to varying degrees. “If I had not met Yeats,” she wrote, “I believe I should still have become a writer . . . [but] I might never have found opportunity or freedom; I might have become [at most] a writer of middle articles in literary papers.” After her death, Yeats observed that “neither she”, nor he, nor others of their circle had initially “thought her a possible creator”.

But prior to their meeting, Gregory was already an aspiring and active writer, having authored a memoir, numerous essays, four short stories and some three dozen poems. Only five of these writings were published under her name, and a few appeared anonymously or pseudonymously. However, this body of work shows her discovering subject matter central to her later career, and reflecting self-consciously on her own creative capacities, well before she deliberately sought to become part of the Irish literary revival, and long before her much-mythologised meeting with Yeats. Most importantly, some of these early writings show her responding specifically and acutely to the changing political conditions in Ireland in the 1880s. These are now being published in Lady Gregory’s Early Irish Writings, 1883-1893, the 18th volume of the Coole Edition issued by Colin Smythe.

Gregory’s memoir, An Emigrant’s Note Book, written during the winter of 1883-84, obliges a significant reassessment of her emergence as a writer, and of her married life. As its title suggests, she had come back to Ireland after several years living mainly in London, following her 1880 marriage to Sir William Gregory – a neighbouring Galway landlord 35 years her senior – feeling like an outsider, dislocated from her childhood home and memories of youth. More significantly, the memoir also registers the radical changes ushered in by the Irish Land War of 1879-1882.

Having married expecting security and status as dame of the Coole estate, she quickly found herself facing lower income and even the prospect of outright dispossession. Sir William indeed at one point determined to strip Coole of its valuables and leave, remarking angrily that if the Land Leaguers chose to “blow up the residence” he would not care. Amidst this political turmoil, and the limitations of union with a much older man, she had also conducted a brief, covert affair with the charismatic poet, explorer and political gadfly Wilfrid Scawen Blunt in 1882-83. The Note Book is the work of a woman facing fundamental uncertainty about her economic and personal future, demoralised and troubled by her infidelity to her husband, and trying to come to terms with new political realities.

The vignettes of the Note Book set at Gregory’s childhood home, Roxborough, conjure up a lost Eden, in which “we lived in peace and charity with all men and loved our people and they loved us”. This paternalist Ascendancy viewpoint dominates, but the memoir also shows a dawning awareness of Gregory’s own tendency to condescension and nostalgia, and a striving to be a “photographer” of the emerging Ireland. She even had a “half-formed” idea of turning the memoir into a novel – “attractive Irish novels are not a glut in the market” – but chose not to, presumably since so much in it was so revealingly germane to her own private life. The Note Book remained unpublished until now.

During or soon after the summer of 1890, Gregory wrote three highly autobiographical short stories under the pseudonym Angus Grey (a name doubtless inspired by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell). In them she explores whether English, or Anglo-Irish, “outsiders” could either understand or be accepted by Irish country people. A Philanthropist and A Gentleman both turn on the arrival in the west of Ireland of a woman raised and educated in England, who finds her loyalties to class, culture and nationality strained – to varying effect – by her growing affection for the culture she encounters.

Louise Eden, in A Philanthropist, devotes herself to the sick and needy on an encumbered estate. Wanting to assimilate, she even adopts the “rough madder-dyed skirt of the peasant women of the district”. But her idealism weakens when she begins to understand that staying would involve a real and permanent loss of social status, and realises that her philanthropy, however devout, has always involved an element of condescension and self-interest.

Similarly, in A Gentleman, Lady Norreys, the new young wife of a Galway landlord, is determined to reform her “raw Irish home”. But the idiosyncrasies and innate nobility of an old gardener, Myles O’Loughlin, a Thady Quirke figure who has served the Norreys family for 60 years, challenge her ways of thinking. Like the last figures from a Gaelic lineage in Lady Morgan’s novels – by then fixtures in the Unionist Irish literary tradition – O’Loughin serves as the focus for a sentimental aestheticisation of a native heritage which is already safely in the past as a real force. Yet what he says repeatedly calls attention to Lady Norreys’ limited capacity for interpreting him or his culture.

A third story, Peeler Astore, centres on a young policeman, now dead, and the incognito return to Ireland of the Anglo-Irish woman who had loved him. Never published, it is the most conflicted and complicated of Gregory’s stories in its investigations of matters of class, religion and political loyalties. In their verbatim use of phrases and sentences that Gregory had recorded after hearing them spoken by Galway locals, all three strive toward greater authenticity than she had achieved in An Emigrant’s Note Book. They confirm that Gregory had begun to realise the value of the folklore and life around her at Coole, and was already developing the idiomatic style Yeats was to call her “great discovery in literature”, years before she first read the work of Yeats or of Douglas Hyde.

The independence she gained on becoming a widow in 1892 was crucial. Sir William’s death left Gregory, at 39, facing an uncertain future as a single mother and as sole caretaker of Coole. As with An Emigrant’s Note Book, she responded to the strain of her situation by writing. The resulting fiction, A Phantom’s Pilgrimage, voicing her opposition to the new Home Rule Bill Gladstone had begun to advance through parliament in September 1892, was published anonymously in London as a pamphlet in June 1893.

Gregory imagines Gladstone returning from the grave, 10 years after a successful passage of his Bill, to survey the changes wrought in Ireland by the advent of Home Rule. Gladstone’s “phantom” has chosen this as the legislative achievement on which he is content for his life to be judged by the (remarkably, Egyptian) gods, having been given 12 hours to obtain an affidavit of support for his policy from “any one of [his] fellow-mortals”. The Phantom travels the country in a Victorian Gothic quest, searching – unsuccessfully – for approval before the clock strikes midnight.

In later life, unsurprisingly, Gregory called no attention to a work that would have awkwardly compromised her credentials as an Irish nationalist, and which might have added fuel to the allegations of sectarian bias sometimes whispered against her. Yet, despite its apparently party-line unionist agenda, much in this work suggests mixed feelings and political uncertainty. The pamphlet notably voices sympathetic concern for Irish people of all classes, rather than narrowly stressing the threat to Gregory’s own vested interests. She shows ruined farmers, unemployed labourers, struggling merchants, and children without schooling.

The most emotive vignettes, and those involving the most closely-observed human interactions, are consistently those representing the sufferings of the peasantry and the countrypeople. The pamphlet even registers traces of Gregory’s lingering admiration for Parnell, since a furious mob attacking parliament directs its main anger at an unnamed figure easily recognisable as William O’Brien – whose desertion of Parnell in 1890 had ensured his fall. So too, the narrator of A Phantom’s Pilgrimage shows Gladstone’s repeated complacency as an object lesson in the errors of reading Ireland from a colonial viewpoint.

By adopting the pseudonym Angus Grey, Gregory may have wanted to disguise her broader Irish sympathies from her London unionist friends; and in issuing A Phantom’s Pilgrimage anonymously, to veil her residual unionism from her Irish neighbours. But her own divided loyalties were soon to be resolved. In October 1893 she went by open boat to Inisheer, the smallest of the Aran islands, and was “storm bound for five days . . . amongst people speaking scarcely any English”; she read Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight soon after, and then met him at that party in London. She quickly became more fully aware of the Irish literary movement, and deliberately sought to become a part of it by 1896 – using her relationship with Yeats, from the first, as a means to this end. That collaboration would result in, among other things, poems, plays, the founding of the Irish National Theatre, and a lifelong friendship. But Gregory’s political evolution, and her hallmark concerns as a writer, were firmly established in her first writings on Ireland, beginning more than a decade before she met Yeats.
Early Irish Writings 1882-1893 (The Coole Edition of Lady Gregory’s Writings) by James Pethica is published by Colin Smythe Press

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