Druid: Holding their nerve while raising Augusta Gregory’s spirit at Coole

She wasn’t just founder of the Abbey; she created theatre for the ordinary people

There’s a colourised photograph of Lady Augusta Gregory – author, playwright, folklorist, founder of the Abbey Theatre – taken in 1916. Somehow the delicate tint by John Breslin (Old Ireland in Colour) emphasises the striking resemblance between Gregory and actor and Druid co-founder Marie Mullen.

The image was colourised for DruidGregory, bringing live theatre – a tribute to and animation of Gregory’s life and work – to the fields, woods and gardens of Coole Park in Co Galway, her home and a focal point for writers and the Irish literary revival in the early 20th century.

Of the resemblance, Mullen says: “I know, everybody says that!” “We’ve been saying that to Marie for 20 years,” says director and Druid co-founder Garry Hynes.

We’re chatting, three of us scattered in a large room, after rehearsals in the community hall next door. There were just four actors in the large hall, with director, designer and stage manager at separate desks down the length of the hall, working on Gregory’s The Rising of the Moon.


Tables and plastic chairs represent a rock, a gate and two barrels as Marty Rea, Garrett Lombard, Liam Heslin and Donal Gallery work through the quirky one-actor about divided loyalties as police seek a man on the run. At various points Hynes jumps out of her seat, grabbing her mask as she goes, to show an actor a gesture.

The plays will be in several Coole locations, including on the plinth of the demolished house; Rising will be by the river, the setting of many Gregory family photos.

Being back in the rehearsal room after all this time is fantastic, they agree, even with restrictions. They can rehearse without masks, as long as actors are distanced from each other. The company spent two months preparing to manage it safely.

Outdoors was the only way we could have any chance of getting in front of a live audience again

“Every time I say, ‘Approach a bit closer,’ I’ve a stage manager warning, ‘No, can’t do that,’” says Hynes. “Druid had to assume responsibility for the lives of everyone working on this production; it’s a moral duty of care.”

Lady Gregory at Coole is a Covid project. From Gregory’s 40 plays, there are five one-acts and extracts from another (plus poetry, other writing, music, dance), with 12 actors and musicians. They’re all small-cast plays, with no love scenes, no fights, to perform within guidelines. Also, outdoors was “the only way we could have any chance of getting in front of a live audience again”.

Ironically, the rules on numbers at controlled theatre events outdoors changed mid-rehearsal to significantly fewer outside (15) than inside (50). “Right now, we are working day-to-day in the rehearsal room, absolutely within Covid limits. There’s a situation which is changing out there. While we can continue to work, we’re going to.”

Mullen talks about rehearsing The Jail Gate with Sarah Morris, as mother and daughter, without getting too close, and how the audience become allies in a different way, “You have to give it out to the audience”, including them in a larger performance bubble.

DruidGregory, a Galway 2020 commission, gradually emerged while living with Covid, from its Capital of Culture plan for 11 one-act 20th-century plays. The one-act was an early Druid staple: “Lunchtime theatre to attract people, to give a try without committing.” In those early days they also did An Evening at Coole, including Gregory plays; the poster hung in its Druid Lane theatre for years.

Moving outdoors to Coole because of Covid, it crystalised into a Gregory project. “It became about rising up her spirit in Coole. Here was a woman who was so hugely influential, so hugely made a difference. Founder of the Abbey Theatre, one of the leaders of the literary renaissance, who created Coole” as a literary hub. They plan a 14-venue, four-week Co Galway tour, from Portumna to Glenamaddy, Ballinasloe to Clifden, including one-off outdoor performances at Kylemore Abbey, Teach an Phiarsaigh and Ballyglunin Station.

“It’s the real fit-up,” says Mullen. Coole Park, for up to 50 people, with significant space for physical distancing, sold out in 10 minutes, and the entire tour in 48 hours.

“It is right for us to give her a bit of a platform, to give her a space for herself, especially because the plays are very much about her own [place around Gort] and the dialect she was grew with [Hiberno-English ‘Kiltartanese’],” says Mullen. “Not just the Abbey thing. I mean, it’s wonderful she created the National Theatre, we’re very proud of that. But all of her world emerged out of the west of Ireland where Druid is based and where we grew up.”

Augusta Persse (1852-1932) was born into Anglo-Irish gentry. The family home, Roxborough, bordered Coole Park and they owned a distillery at Nun’s Island in Galway city. She married widower William Gregory in 1880. Hynes describes a “rather romantic” aside, from years earlier: Gregory knew she was interested in literature but had no library in Roxborough, and said she could use Coole’s library. In his will, long before they married, he left her any six books from his library. Little was she to know that eventually she’d live there.

Shaw described her as the greatest living Irishwoman

Augusta learned Irish, collected folklore from the area, started writing. William Gregory died in March 1892. Their only child, Robert Gregory, was killed in his 30s during the first World War.

She was to write later: “If I had not married, I should not have learned the quick enrichment of sentences that one gets in conversation; had I not been widowed, I should not have found the detachment of mind, the leisure for observation necessary to give insight into character, to express and interpret it. Loneliness made me rich-‘full’, as Bacon says.”

She became a key figure in Irish literary life, and founded the Irish National Theatre Society. Shaw described her as “the greatest living Irishwoman”. Mullen says, “She nourished those guys [a community of writers] in Coole, mentally, physically and every other way. It was like a haven of creativity down there that she encouraged. You get a sense of her being there because she loved it so much.”

For all that she’s neglected, she’s celebrated at the annual Autumn Gathering in Coole, which Robert’s children – Catherine, Anne and Richard – attend.

Gregory sold the house to the State, retaining lifetime tenancy. After her death it fell into disrepair, and was demolished; her possessions were auctioned, and Gort’s Kiltartan Gregory Museum’s collection includes old Abbey programmes and a tiny gold Tiffany watch, a gift from her lover, Irish-American lawyer John Quinn.

“She was the first of all of them to go to Inish Maan” (before JM Synge), says Hynes, and she was a key figure, along with Douglas Hyde and Synge, in the creation of a Gaelic literature of the people based on Irish people’s use of the English language.

She understood a good story, and she understood how to
tell it. She was doing theatre for the ordinary people

People’s perception of Gregory is limited, says Hynes. “They’re aware of the literary renaissance, the Victoria-lookalike, dumpy woman, her time in the Abbey. But she ran the Abbey, she was patent holder, responsible for the finance. Everything you read about her in those first 10 years of the Abbey, she’s running a bloody theatre, and trying desperately to keep it alive. This wasn’t some sort of ascendancy indulgence. These people are working hard, fighting hard.”

Mullen says: “Her plays were the ones that kept the Abbey going in the first 10 years. They packed out. She understood a good story, and she understood how to tell it. She was doing theatre for the ordinary people.”

Hynes says Gregory’s plays were a “contrast to the magic plays of Yeats”, which also figured strongly in the early years. “There had to be some fun and comedy, a bit of ordinariness. She wrote the plays to be performed in the Abbey.”

While there is significant academic work about her, she’s “unbelievably, shockingly” neglected, observes Hynes. One of the Druid plays is Cathleen Ní Houlihan, which she wrote with her friend and collaborator WB Yeats – she wrote the characters and dialogue and Yeats the poetry – but which was not credited to her in her lifetime.

In the text – in the Berg Collection at New York Public Library (NYPL) – Gregory has written alongside sections: “All this mine alone,” the phrase now the title of a current NYPL exhibition about Gregory’s creative evolution, achievements and influence, curated by Colm Tóibín and James Pethica.

“She’s in the vault of history, she’s known by name but not performed very often,” says Hynes. Do the plays hold up? “Absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt.”

All the same, “We’re not turning around for a second and saying these are great masterpieces like Playboy, or Riders to the Sea. They’re not. But my God, they’re good plays, they’re interesting plays and they and the woman herself deserve more than just to be remembered from a black and white profile photograph and spoken about as founder of the Abbey.”

The Druid season also includes On the Outside, Tom Murphy’s 1959 play, written with Noel O’Donoghue. Originally part of the pre-Covid Galway 2020 Druid plan, they held onto the Murphy.

“On the Outside is one of those first plays that lays out the preoccupations, characters and themes a great writer is going to spend 50 years of his life writing. Usually a writer’s first play bears no resemblance to what... God forgive me, I’m sorry, John Synge. If you look at Synge’s first play, it’s awful. Whereas in Tom’s play you can see the first versions of characters that were to people his landscape of writing.

“An Irish theatre began with Lady Gregory and Synge and the literary renaissance, and a modern Irish theatre began in the ‘50s with Friel and Murphy. So we wanted to keep this play because the Ireland we grew up in started with this play. And also because obviously Tom is so close to our hearts.”

Meantime, it’s a sort of massive holding of nerve as they rehearse, design, plan. The rule of 15 at outdoor shows runs till September 13th. Their first performance is September 15th.

“We don’t know what the rules will be when we come to performance. It is better to travel hopefully. We are working totally within the guidelines, and we are going to keep going.”

Mullen says: “The only thing we can do now is to work and obey the rules and to be ready, for whatever happens.” Hynes adds: “And if by the time it comes we won’t be able to perform, well, then we have to sit down, suspend, pause and be ready to perform later.”

It’s a pressure “if you think about it, but we don’t”, says Hynes. “It’s out of our hands,” says Mullen.

“And we are all in this together”, says Hynes, with “all the theatres talking to one another, and exchanges with the department. Everybody is trying to keep everybody safe within the context of Covid and yet at the same time try to let life, in the safest way possible, go on. The engagement we have in live theatre is an essential part of what we are and so it’s in all our interests.”