Lady Gregory’s political dilemmas offer lessons for today

Abbey Theatre co-founder championed ‘fearless and imaginative opposition’ to conventional parliamentarians

Lady Gregory was no feminist or populist: she wrote in her journal in September 1919 that she had a rule of “never talking of politics with a woman” and the fear of the Irish “rabble” did not leave her. Photograph: George C Beresford/Getty Images

Lady Gregory was no feminist or populist: she wrote in her journal in September 1919 that she had a rule of “never talking of politics with a woman” and the fear of the Irish “rabble” did not leave her. Photograph: George C Beresford/Getty Images

 

Today, the Abbey Theatre celebrates its 110th anniversary. It began its remarkable life under the auspices of the Irish National Theatre Society, of which poet WBYeats was president, and its inaugural night included performances of Yeats’s On Baile’s Strand and his close friend and collaborator Lady Augusta Gregory’s Spreading the News. In the coming year there will be no shortage of reflections on Yeats, as 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of his birth. But Lady Gregory was also a remarkable individual and her life provides an interesting prism through which to view the impact of the Irish revolution a century ago. Like many of her contemporaries, she struggled to make sense of it, or come to terms with it; she was moved and emboldened by it but also sometimes horrified by its course and its consequences.

In her correspondence with Yeats from her home outside Gort in Galway, in the immediate aftermath of the 1916 Rising, she wrote, “it is terrible to think of the executions and killings that are sure to come . . . yet it must be so . . . we had been at the mercy of a rabble for a long time, both here and in Dublin, with no apparent policy”.

And yet, very quickly, as the executions of the Rising’s leaders were carried out, she changed her tone; her mind was now “filled with sorrow at the Dublin tragedy”; the execution of John MacBride was “the best event that could come to him, giving him dignity”. The leaders, she mused, were “enthusiastic . . . and I keep wondering whether we could not have brought them into the intellectual movement”.

Ambiguous attitude to Irish revolution

The preoccupation with and admiration for dignity was what propelled Gregory in her Irish cultural endeavours, but it also left her feeling uncertain and ambiguous in her attitude to the Irish revolution. Depending on what letters of hers from this period are read she can be seen as a republican, a unionist, a woman of the people, but also a self-interested landlord.

She got great satisfaction out of seeing ordinary Dubliners enter the Abbey Theatre, and yet, when corresponding privately, as observed by novelist Colm Tóibín, she could assert haughtily that those Dubliners were of a class that did not use a toothbrush; a “rabble” whose oral hygiene left much to be desired, unlike her own class who were destined to rule and clean their teeth.

Gregory navigated the choppy political waves of this period through a mixture of pragmatism, snobbery, defiance, cleverness and conviction, while also, in private at least, revealing a degree of vulnerability about the future of her own class, which was perhaps inevitable given her Ascendancy status. On the conflicting allegiances of the Civil War period, she perhaps summed it up best in recording an encounter with a local priest in her journal in December 1923: “I told Fr O’Kelly one should not be more angry with government or republicans than with different sections of one’s own mind, tilting to good or bad on one or the other side”.

Yeats’s posturing

Gregory also got fed up with Yeats and some of his posturing during the upheavals; his attitude to revolution in Ireland was complicated by the intersections and traditions of his own life, including historical allegiances, personal relationships, and his sense of divided identity which witnessed him dividing his time between England and Ireland, most notably during the War of Independence, when he paid only one visit to Ireland. His absence caused tension between him and Gregory and she was irritated when Yeats complained, “the constant bad news from Ireland kills my power of poetical work.” She recorded privately: “Yeats only knows by hearsay while our troubles go on”. Their personal relationship, however, was robust enough to weather the storm.

Gregory was no feminist or populist; she wrote in her journal in September 1919, that she had a rule of “never talking of politics with a woman” and the fear of the Irish “rabble”, or what she also referred to as “armed bullies” and “village tyrants”, did not leave her. But what is also striking now is how versions of the questions she was asking and the dilemmas she was articulating nearly 100 years ago resonate strongly today.

One observation she made after the Rising was that what was required was “fearless and imaginative opposition to the conventional and opportunist parliamentarians”. In September 1919, she told police “the country would never be all right until there is a national government that honest people will support.” But she also criticised anti-Treaty Sinn Féin a few years later for being “barren of all except anger at the government”.

There has been much comment this year about an unprecedented drop in support for the established Irish political parties and the new space for alternatives. But will the next few years really harden a revolutionary sentiment and bring a “fearless and imaginative” new venture that will preoccupy the Irish playwrights of the future?

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