In 1933, a year after her death, in his book The Winding Stair and Other Poems, W.B. Yeats published his great stanzas about Lady Gregory in “Coole Park, 1929”:
Here, traveller, scholar, poet, take your stand
When all those rooms and passages are gone,
When nettles wave upon a shapeless mound
And saplings root among the broken stone,
And dedicate—eyes bent upon the ground,
Back turned upon the brightness of the sun
And all the sensuality of the shade—
A moment’s memory to that laurelled head.
The house is indeed gone, but there is no shapeless mound, there are no nettles. Coole Park did not meet the fate of other such houses in the period between 1918 and 1924. It was not burned; it was not attacked by the locals. It was sold to the Forestry Commission of the new Irish state, and in turn, after Lady Gregory’s death in 1932, it was sold to a local builder who demolished it. The site where it stood is now cemented over. But the famous tree where the famous carved their initials is still there, and it is still possible to make out the names from WBY and JBY to JMS and SOC and AE to GBS and, indeed, some others, less famous, both locals and visitors.
The house where Augusta Gregory was born, Roxborough, just seven miles away, was, however, burned down in 1924 during the Civil War. She was born Augusta Persse there in 1852, the youngest girl in a large family, followed by four boys. She was brought up in a strict and rigid Protestantism with much Bible-reading and devotion to duty. Her mother and sister visited the local Catholics, attempting to convert them to the reformed faith. Her mother held strong views on what or who was not suitable for her daughters and this included any reading except the Bible.
Lady Gregory’s sisters had greater accomplishments in the art of finding a suitable partner. Augusta was considered the plain one, destined to be the carer, the spinster. In 1879, however, while accompanying her mother and her brother, who was ill, to Nice, she renewed her acquaintance with their neighbor Sir William Gregory, a widower, who owned Coole Park. He was thirty-five years older than she was, he had been a member of Parliament for both Dublin and Galway, and had also been governor of Ceylon. Unlike her own family, he did not farm his Irish estate or live fully on its proceeds. He lived mainly in London, where he was a trustee of the National Gallery. He was interested in books and paintings and, when he came to Ireland, he gave her the run of his library at Coole. She read Roderick Hudson under his auspices and Middlemarch. In 1880, she followed Dorothea and she married him.
The house he took her to, and the life he gave her in their twelve years of marriage, and indeed his own connections and history, offered her a rich set of associations. At school in Harrow, he had sat beside Anthony Trollope. “He was a big boy,” Sir William Gregory wrote in the autobiography which Lady Gregory edited after his death, “older than the rest of the form, and without exception the most slovenly and dirty boy I ever met. He was not only slovenly in person and in dress, but his work was equally dirty.” In the early 1840s, when Trollope was working for the post office in the Irish midlands forty miles from Coole, he renewed his acquaintance with Gregory and was a guest in the house. At twenty-five, Gregory had become an MP and was a great favorite among the political hostesses in London and indeed, for some time, was a protégé of Prime Minister Peel himself.
William Gregory introduced Trollope to many of the leading writers and politicians. Trollope repaid the compliment by using aspects of Gregory, his popularity and his promise in the London of those years, in the creation of the character of Phineas Finn.
Despite the birth of their only child, Robert, in 1881, Sir William Gregory and his young wife spent a great deal of time in the 1880s traveling, leaving their son at home, which caused her much pain. Within a short time after her marriage she met Henry James in Rome and later in London Robert Browning, Tennyson, James Russell Lowell, Mark Twain, and many other writers, politicians, and hostesses who were in Sir William’s circle.
The most important and enduring relationship of those years began in Egypt in December 1881. Wilfred Scawen Blunt, a handsome English poet and anti-imperialist, was traveling in Egypt with his wife, the grand-daughter of Byron. Both couples became interested in Egyptian nationalism and especially in the fate of Arabi Bey, the Egyptian leader who sought a degree of freedom from the control which Britain and France exercised over his country. Blunt and Gregory began to write letters to the Times, whose editor was a friend of Gregory’s, which went against British official policy. This made Blunt immensely happy. He loved foreign causes (and would soon, to the Gregorys’ consternation, become involved in Ireland), but as the British government became more alarmed, Sir William, a pillar of the establishment all his life, slowly withdrew support. Yet Lady Gregory remained on Blunt’s side. With Sir William’s wavering approval, she sought to win support for Arabi in England by writing about her meeting his wife and children. It was her first published work, printed in the Times and later separately as a pamphlet.
Sir William died in March 1892. Lady Gregory’s tone in her journal entry in January 1893 when she remembered his death and his funeral was grave, full of closely observed details and sharply remembered moments. “At Gort [near Coole],” she wrote, “the people met him at the train & carried him to the Church & went into the service—And next morning the tenants came, & attended service again, old Gormally kneeling by the coffin all the time—Snow was falling & there were few able to come from a distance—but all the poor were there.” By temperament and upbringing she was skilled in the art of “dutiful self-suppression,” in James Pethica’s phrase, and skilled too in the art of discretion. It is possible that nobody noticed anything special or peculiar in the twelve sonnets entitled “A Woman’s Sonnets” which Wilfred Scawen Blunt published under his own name at the end of January 1892, just more than six weeks before Sir William Gregory’s death. They were not written by Blunt, however; they were written by Lady Gregory.
Her sonnets make clear that she was in love with Blunt and that she had an affair with him, which began during their Egyptian sojourn, when she had been married for less than two years, and ended eighteen months later. Her image after Sir William’s death was that of a dowager who exuded dryness and coldness and watchfulness, who wore black and modeled herself on Queen Victoria. The sonnets on the other hand disclose someone else:
If the past year were offered me again,
And the choice of good and ill before me set
Would I accept the pleasure with the pain
Or dare to wish that we had never met?
Ah! Could I bear those happy hours to miss
When love began, unthought of and unspoke—
That summer day when by a sudden kiss
We knew each other’s secret and awoke?
The ten years in Lady Gregory’s life between the death of her husband in 1892 and the first performance of Cathleen ni Houlihan in 1902 involve what is ostensibly a complete transformation in her life. She moved from being a landlord’s daughter and widow, steeped in the attitudes of her class, to becoming an Irish nationalist and leader of a cultural movement which was more powerful than politics. But her activities in these ten years also displayed what would, for the rest of her life, range from ambiguities to deep divisions in her loyalties and her beliefs. In 1893, for example, she published in London an anonymous pamphlet called A Phantom’s Pilgrimage or Home Ruin, essentially a piece of pro-Unionist rhetoric, in which Gladstone returns from the grave ten years after Home Rule to find that every class in Ireland has suffered dire consequences. Later that year, she traveled alone to the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, staying in a cottage in Inishere “among people speaking scarcely any English.” In the meantime, she worked on her husband’s incomplete manuscript for his autobiography.
While this work seemed to Wilfred Scawen Blunt merely a widow’s “pious act,” and had very many dull moments and displays of Sir William’s self-importance and vanity, it was at the same time a piece of careful repositioning and reinvention which would become the basis not only for Lady Gregory’s life at Coole and her work with Yeats, but also for many of Yeats’s poems about Coole and many of his Anglo-Irish attitudes. It would emphasize, as in her account of Sir William’s funeral, that he was loved by the people, that he and his family were respected as landlords. She would emphasize this all her life. In her own conclusion to the book, she quoted from a letter he had written to her “just before our marriage”:
I always felt the strongest sense of duty towards my tenants, and I have had a great affection for them. They have never in a single instance caused me displeasure, and I know you can and will do everything in your power to make them love and value us.
She continued: “He was glad at the last to think that, having held the estate through the old days of the Famine and the later days of agitation, he had never once evicted a tenant.”
Chapter VII of the autobiography contains a section entitled “The Gregory Clause.” This clause, which was passed by the House of Commons in March 1847, was to have far-reaching implications. Sir William proposed that no one who held a lease for more than a quarter of an acre of land should be allowed to enter the workhouse or to avail of any of the relief schemes. This meant that a cottier tenant whose potato crop had failed a second year in succession and who had no money to buy food would be faced with a stark choice. If he wanted to take his family into the workhouse, the only place where they could be fed, he would have to give up his lease and he would never get it back. His mud cabin would be razed to the ground as soon as it was empty. If he and his family survived the workhouse, where disease was rampant, they would have nowhere to go. They would have to live on the side of the road, or try to emigrate. Nor could a man send his wife and children into the workhouse and stay on the land himself. They could get no relief unless he gave up the lease. “Persons,” Sir William said in the House of Commons, “should not be encouraged to exercise the double vocation of pauper and farmer.”