Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush

Lady Gregory
Lady Gregory; drawing by David Levine


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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.