Yeats's girl with the yellow hair

 

Yeats was grumpy, Augustus John frightened them, G.B.S. played find the thimble (but did he cheat?) Anne de Winton, the granddaughter of Lady Gregory, now in her mid-80s and living in Devon, recalls for Aodhán Madden her idyllic childhood in Coole Park among giants of Irish literature

With the genteel graciousness of another age, the girl with the yellow hair, as W.B. Yeats described her in his famous poem, admitted me into her house in the lovely Devon countryside. Illogically, I was half-expecting to see some flaxen traces of that distant Yeatsian portrait, but Anne de Winton (née Gregory) the granddaughter of Lady Gregory, is now a frail though lively lady in her mid-80s, and her once-beautiful hair has thinned and greyed.

"It's so wonderful when people call. I thought everyone had forgotten about me," she mused as she showed me into her elegant front drawing room, flooded with mellow sunlight. She took an armchair beneath the window and asked her elderly companion, Nanno, to provide us with refreshments.

The room is a museum of Gregory mementoes. There are books on Yeats, plays by Shaw, Lady Gregory's stories, and pictures of the young Anne Gregory playing with her sister Catherine in the gardens of Coole. There are numerous photographs of Lady Gregory and of Anne's father, Maj Robert Gregory, who was killed in 1918 ('An Irish Airman Foresees His Death'). The sunlight cast a sepia glow over everything, and I felt as if I had stepped into the past.

When I told her I was from Ireland and had written plays for the Abbey, her still-girlish face beamed with genuine delight.

"I so miss Ireland," she said. "The strange light of Galway and those wonderful days at Coole when we lived with my grandma."

As Nanno brought in the china cups and cream cakes, I recited a verse of Yeats's poem to her:

Never shall a young man

Thrown into despair

By those great honey-coloured

Ramparts of your ear . . .

But she interrupted me. "I thought it was doggerel at first and was not impressed. It was not as romantic as I would have liked it." But when Yeats publicly announced the publication of the poem and described the young Anne as "having hair like a cornfield in the sun", she warmed to it. As Nanno served the tea, de Winton recited the rest of it in a soft, still discernibly Irish voice.

"It all started," she said, "when Yeats sent a message at Coole for me to go down to his sitting room as he had just written a poem called 'Yellow Hair' which he had dedicated to me. He then proceeded to read it aloud in his humming voice.

"We would hear him humming away for hours while he wrote his verses. He used to hum the rhythm of the verse before he wrote the words. Grandma told us that was why his poems were so good to read aloud.

"But on this occasion, I was petrified. I had no idea that he was going to write a poem for me. It was agony. I was nearly in tears for fear of doing something silly."

De Winton recalled her youth in great detail. Indeed, her memory of her Coole years seemed quite astonishing.

" 'Read it again,' I pleaded. Yeats beamed, put on his pince-nez attached to the black silk ribbon and read it through again.

"This time I was about to stutter, 'wonderful, thank you so much. I must go and wash my hair', and crashed out."

She giggled girlishly at this recollection of her childhood at Coole.

The flaxen-haired girl could still be glimpsed as she tossed her head in the sunlight streaming in the front window.

She had, by all accounts, an idyllic childhood in Coole, where she and her sister Catherine (nicknamed Nu) explored the Co Galway countryside with great freedom and played children's games with some of the greatest literary and artistic figures of the age - Yeats himself, George Bernard Shaw, Augustus John, Sean O'Casey, Jack B. Yeats and Oliver St John Gogarty, who was to remove de Winton's tonsils.

Yeats stayed at Coole from as far back as she can remember. He had his own special study there, and Lady Gregory fussed over him constantly, providing him with pens, paper, ink, and silence whenever his unpredictable muse descended. The children were then banished outdoors so that the great man could write in peace.

What was her very first impression of Yeats? De Winton thought for a moment and then came a peal of mischievous laughter.

"His smell," she said. "You see, I think he smoked, and no one else smoked there. So it must have been that smell. It really was quite strong." She also found the poet rather distant and often distracted.

"He didn't speak much in the house, but he would come alive when we had tea in the garden in the summertime."

Yet he appeared to have cast a strange spell over the two impressionable children.

"He wore a signet ring with an enormous stone. It was his holy ring, he told us, because it had been in touch with his halo."

De Winton was less impressed by his table manners. "They were appalling. He would simply hold out his cup for grandma to fill without a please or a thank you. She waited on him hand and foot."

George Bernard Shaw was far more open and playful with the children. He used to play a game with them called "Find the thimble", and the girls were convinced that the old duffer actually cheated them.

Shaw also wrote a children's poem for de Winton and her sister after they had sent him a parcel of his favourite Grafton apples from the orchards of Coole.

Two ladies of Galway called Catherine and

Anne

Whom some call ma cushla and some call

Alanna

On finding the gates of the fruit garden

undone

Stole grandmamma's apples and sent them

to London

I noticed that all of Lady Gregory's books and volumes of plays took pride of place on the bookshelves in the drawingroom.

"I loved her. She might have been so formidable to others, but she was always kind to us - even though we often did terrible things when we were staying at Coole, like the time I caused her to fall down the stairs."

Lady Gregory obviously tried to imbue her grandchildren with her own passion for the stories and legends of the Ireland that lay beyond the ornate halls of Coole.

Something of this passion still drives de Winton, in her continuing interest in the Abbey Theatre and in all things Irish generally.

"Grandma loved telling us stories about Kiltartan and Ireland, which she had been told by the country people.

"She was wonderful at telling these stories. She got a lot of them from Curly the Piper, who came to Coole and sat on the seat outside the hall window for hours, while Grandma sat on the wooden bench and listened to him talking and playing the pipes, and then giving him tea and barm brack to eat.

"They were wonderful days with grandma," de Winton recalled.

Her parents were often away in Paris, painting, so the children had the freedom of the demesne and the woods beyond to explore to their hearts' content, and it was Lady Gregory who most encouraged their childhood imaginations.

She was the cornerstone of the Irish literary revival in the first quarter of the 20th century. At Coole, she was hostess to most of the greatest writers and artists of the age, and it was here, of course, where she and Yeats discussed plans for an Irish literary theatre which culminated in the establishment of the Abbey in 1904.

I asked de Winton for her impressions of some of the famous people who dropped in and out of her childhood.

'Well, I was frightened by the painter Augustus John. He was a very large man and we felt that he might step on us as he used to stride about never looking where he was going.

" 'Little pagans,' I once heard Mama say to Augustus John. She said, 'I can't really let them grow up as savages. They will have to go to school and get civilised and get some human feelings.' But John replied, 'Leave them alone. They will grow to it only too quickly.' "

The two ascendancy children were also intrigued by Sean O'Casey's rough Dublin accent and by his fascination for the trees in Coole Park.

"He loved the trees, especially the two great catalpas which grandma told him my great-great-grandpa brought back from one of his tours, carrying the 10 foot trees in cloth with the rest of his luggage'.

O'Casey was apparently thrilled by this story.

"He stroked the enormous leaves as if they were alive, saying that he was touching something that had travelled half-way round the world years before he was born."

Her mood darkened when I mention her father, Maj Robert Gregory, the subject of Yeats's great poem 'An Irish Airman Foresees His Death'.

"I have very vague memories of him," she said. "You see, we were very young when he died. But I do see him always on a horse in the front driveway. He was a great horseman you know." Then her voice trailed off into some distant sense of loss.

But over the tea and the Devon cream cakes, our conversation always came back to Lady Gregory herself, the woman who probably had the greatest influence on de Winton's life.

"She might have done all those great things, compiling her stories, starting the Abbey Theatre, encouraging Synge and Yeats, even pushing to get a bill passed in the House of Commons to enable the National Theatre to be set up; but to us, she was this lovable grandma whose greatest joy was to sit us down and tell us one of her wonderful stories."

Then, somewhat wistfully, she said, "I often think now of those years at Coole. They were the happiest years of my life. I can always see that wonderful clear light of Galway."

Anne de Winton has known tragedy as well as happiness in her 85 years - the loss of her father, then the loss of her husband in the second World War.

And one suspects another, more tenuous loss - that of her Anglo-Irish identity.

Her house, with its books and letters, is her only link now to a vanished past. Few people in the area know who she is.

There are no books on Lady Gregory and very few on Yeats in the bookshops of Exeter or Torquay.

As I was leaving her house, I couldn't help but notice the remarkable resemblance to Lady Gregory herself. And something of that great lady's indomitable spirit lives on in her granddaughter.