George Bernard Shaw – not a man known to gush – called Lady Augusta Gregory "the greatest living Irishwoman", and certainly what remains after watching Fire in the Blood: The Revivalists (RTE One, Monday) is the image of a powerhouse of woman, someone who could make things happen.
As well as co-founding the Abbey Theatre, she was a key figure in the Celtic Revival, a prolific writer (which she only began when she was widowed and in middle-age), and a landlord of a large working estate in Galway. She was urbane and cultured, her house a magnet for literary figures in the early years of the 20th century.
This first part in a four-part series on key figures in the Celtic Revival, and shown as part of the 1916 commemoration strand, focuses on Gregory and is presented by actor Derbhle Crotty.
While by the end of it, I’m not too much the wiser about the Celtic Revival, I know a lot more about Gregory – enough to wonder why she was allowed fade so much into the background of 20th-century Irish cultural history.
And fade she has. I suspect part of the reason is that she was perceived by the new State as a “posh Prod” (the Lady in her name can’t have helped), and arty too. And a woman.
For a 30-minute film, Fire in the Blood: The Revivalists packs a lot in. It focuses on her cultural crusade but also touches tantalisingly on her personal life – her marriage to a man 35 years her senior, the death of her only son in the first World War and her mastectomy under local anaesthetic – enough to make you want to know more.
Gregory co-wrote with WB Yeats the play Cathleen ni Houlihan, staged in the Abbey, which many 1916 rebels cited as an inspiration, the root of their nationalist awakening.
All of which makes it even more absurd – regardless of gender balance – that the theatre she founded didn’t find room for her in its 1916 programme. Though as is pointed out in the documentary, Yeats – her long-time friend and collaborator – took credit for the play, poetically elbowing her out of the frame.
Crotty comes over as a passionate advocate for Gregory – and her enthusiasm is infectious – but it’s a pity she’s not used more in the film. Too often her role is just of narrator when it would have been interesting to see her talking with contributors, including writer Fintan O’Toole, Sr de Lourdes Fahy of the Kiltartan Museum and director Lynne Parker. More dynamic, anyway, that just having them talk into camera.