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.”
The effects of the clause were foreseen by both those who favored the clause and those who voted against it. Sir William’s proposing speech was followed by William Smith O’Brien who said: “If a man was only to have a right to outdoor relief upon condition of his giving up his land, a person might receive relief for a few weeks and become a beggar for ever. [He] thought this was a cruel enactment.” Another speaker in the same debate said that the consequence of Sir William Gregory’s clause “would be a complete clearance of the small farmers of Ireland—a change which would amount to a perfect social revolution in the state of things in that country. To introduce it at once would have the effect of turning great masses of pauperism adrift on the community.”
In his autobiography, Sir William wrote:
There is no doubt but that the immediate effect of the clause was severe. Old Archbishop MacHale never forgave me on account of it. But it pulled up suddenly the country from falling into the open pit of pauperism on the verge of which it stood. Though I got an evil reputation in consequence, those who really understood the condition of the country have always regarded this clause as its salvation.
Sir William’s “evil reputation” was as much a part of the legacy of Coole as of his good name as a landlord. His famous clause helped to undermine the very class which Yeats and Lady Gregory later set out to exalt. Neither Yeats nor Lady Gregory wrote plays or poems about the Famine. It was not part of the Ireland they sought to celebrate or lament or dream into being. And there is something astonishing in the intensity with which Yeats sought to establish Coole Park and its legacy as noble, with “a scene well set and excellent company” with
Beloved books that famous hands have bound,
Old marble heads, old pictures everywhere;
Great rooms where traveled men and children found
Content or joy; a last inheritor
Where none has reigned that lacked a name and fame
Or out of folly into folly came.
Lady Gregory’s response to her ambiguous legacy is fascinating. There was nothing impetuous in her nature. In the years after she had edited her husband’s autobiography, she began to learn the Irish language, she went once more to the Aran Islands, and she began to study Irish history to assist her in editing her husband’s grandfather’s letters. Gradually, her Unionist sympathies dissolved, disappeared. The transformation was slow. She did not go the way of other women of her class such as Constance Gore-Booth or Maud Gonne. She did not become a firebrand or a revolutionary. Her personality was calm and steadfast, and there was an odd wisdom in the way she lived from now on. She loved Coole and she wished to remain true to her husband’s memory and keep the estate and the house in order until Robert, her only child, could come into his inheritance. And slowly she began to love Ireland also, in the way that other nationalists of her time loved Ireland, inventing and discovering a rich past for her, and imagining a great future, and managing to ignore the muddy and guilt-ridden history in between this ancient glory and the time to come.
Lady Gregory first saw W.B. Yeats in the spring of 1894, as she noted in her diary, “at Lord Morris’ met Yates [sic] looking every inch a poet, though I think his prose Celtic Twilight is the best thing he has done.” In the summer of 1896, she met him again when he was staying with Arthur Symonds at Edward Martyn’s house, which was close to Coole. “As soon as her terrible eye fell upon him,” Symonds later said, “I knew that she would keep him.” On a rainy afternoon the following summer in a neighbor’s house Yeats and Lady Gregory began the conversation which resulted in the Abbey Theatre.
In the early years of their relationship, Yeats had a sense of her practical and dutiful nature, but none of her talent. She dreamed that she had been writing some articles, and that Yeats had said to her: “It’s not your business to write. Your business is to make an atmosphere.” Her life as a writer started slowly and tentatively, beginning with her writing out the folklore which she collected in the area around Coole.
In 1900 an English editor asked Yeats to write a version of the ancient Irish Cuchulain sagas, stories of warriors and heroes, which, although pre-Christian in origin, were written down by the early Christian monks in Ireland. But he refused, saying that he did not have the time. When Lady Gregory suggested that she might do a translation, Yeats was not enthusiastic; he had no confidence in her literary skills. But she set to work, and when she showed him a section she had done, he changed his mind and encouraged her. Her aim was to produce a version of the story which would display all its ingenuity and intricacy but would also be accessible to the general public and, she thought, “might be used as a school book,” which meant that she took great care not to include material which would shock the prudish. Much had been published over the years in fragmentary form; Lady Gregory now sought to stitch it together, making use of earlier translations, so that as a narrative it would make sense; she invented an idiom for it which was neither a direct translation nor standard English. She translated it into the English of Kiltartan, she said, the area around Coole.
She dedicated her translation to the people of Kiltartan. The page-long introduction managed a number of false notes, as though Lady Gregory had been caught halfway in the act of self-invention, when her new struggling self had not been fully formed. The mistress of Coole left herself open to mockery:
And indeed if there were more respect for Irish things among the learned men that live in the college in Dublin, where so many of these old writings are stored, this work would not have been left to a woman of the house, that has to be minding the place, and listening to complaints and dividing her share of food.
She would also create a past for herself, much as Yeats would do, a heritage which did not include rent-collecting and proselytizing Protest-antism and three brothers who died from drink. In her dedication, she mentioned a figure who would emerge as central in her version of her past. “I have told the whole story in plain and simple words,” she wrote, “in the same way my old nurse Mary Sheridan used to be telling stories from the Irish long ago, and I a child at Roxborough.” In her memoirs she also invoked the spirit of Mary Sheridan, claiming to have overheard Mary Sheridan talking to a beggar woman about their memory of the French arriving in Killala in the west of Ireland, sixty years earlier, in 1798. “And a child of the Big House,” she wrote, “keeps a clear memory of the old, old nurse in earnest talk on the doorstep with an old, old beggar, each remembering, through near a century, the landing of the French in that year to help the rebels.” Mary Sheridan, Lady Gregory wrote, had previously worked for Hamilton Rowan, one of the leaders of the 1798 Rebellion.
In recreating herself, she moved from claiming a background which was connected to the Irish rebellion to writing in support of rebellion itself. In the May 1900 edition of the Cornhill magazine, in an article called “Felons of Our Land,” she wrote about the ballads and poems of Irish rebellion with great naiveté, praising the literature of rebellion with the unrestrained approval of the recently converted. The fate of the Manchester martyrs, Irish rebels who had been executed by the British, she wrote, “gave the touch of pathos that had been wanting to the Fenian movement.” She included some lines written by Blunt while in jail in Galway for opposing Irish landlords and inscribed on a book for her as an example of an old Irish ballad. In those years, as she remade herself, anything could become part of the useful past.
Cathleen ni Houlihan was Yeats’s third play. At Coole in the summer of 1901, Yeats told Lady Gregory of a dream “almost as distinct as a vision, of a cottage where there was well-being and firelight and talk of a marriage, and into the midst of that cottage there came an old woman in a long cloak” who was “Ireland herself, that Cathleen ni Houlihan for whom so many songs have been sung, and about whom so many stories have been told and for whose sake so many have gone to their death.” This woman would lead the young man of the house away from domestic happiness to join the French who had landed to fight the British at Killala in Country Mayo in 1798.
It is now absolutely clear that this play Cathleen ni Houlihan was actually written by Lady Gregory rather than Yeats. The idea belonged to Yeats and Yeats wrote the chant of the old woman at the end. But he could not write naturalistic peasant dialogue, and the play depends on the naturalistic setting, the talk of money and marriage, the sense of ease in family life in a small holding. In the manuscript held in the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library, Lady Gregory has written in pencil on the first section of ten pages “All this mine alone” and “This with WBY” at the beginning of the second section. James Pethica has described how Lady Gregory managed in the play to temper Yeats’s tendency “‘to symbolize rather than to represent life’ and grounded the development of the play within a realistic framework.”
In her journal for 1922, Lady Gregory said that she wrote “all but all” of Cathleen ni Houlihan. Lennox Robinson stated that “the verses in it are the poet’s, but all the homely dialogue is Lady Gregory’s. Indeed Yeats has told me more than once that the authorship of the play should be ascribed to her.” Willie Fay also reported that Lady Gregory had written all of the play “except the part of Cathleen.”
It is clear that Lady Gregory contributed “directly and abundantly,” in James Pethica’s phrase, to Yeats’s work for the theater, especially to On Baile’s Strand, The Pot of Broth, The King’s Threshold, and Deirdre. In his dedication of Where There Is Nothing to Lady Gregory in 1902, Yeats wrote:
I never did anything that went so easily and quickly; for when I hesitated, you had the right thought ready, and it was always you who gave the right turn to the phrase and gave it the ring of daily life. We finished several plays, of which this is the longest, in so few weeks, that if I were to say how few, I do not think anybody would believe me.
In public Yeats gave Lady Gregory some credit for this collaboration, but he never acknowledged the extent of her work on Cathleen ni Houlihan. In a diary entry in 1925 Lady Gregory complained that not giving her name with the play was “rather hard on me.” Elizabeth Coxhead, in her literary portrait of Lady Gregory, wrote that “when her family…urged her to stake her claim, she always refused with a smile, saying that she could not take from [Yeats] any part of what had proved, after all, his one real popular success.”
The play was performed with George Russell’s play Deirdre in Dublin in April 1902 with Maud Gonne playing Cathleen. Lady Gregory, according to Roy Foster, attended one rehearsal and “slipped away to Venice well before the first night.” Yeats, in an interview with the United Irishman, said that his subject was “Ireland and its struggle for independence.” “Apparently,” Roy Foster wrote, “neither of them anticipated the response to their joint production.” The hall was packed every night, and the effect of the play was powerful. It was short and stark, with no subplots or stylized dialogue until Cathleen herself appeared, and its message was clear: that young men would have to give up everything for Ireland. The audience and the ordinary people on the stage were as one, and both were visited by this haunting force, a woman both old and young, Platonic Ireland, who would pull them toward heroism and away from everyday materialism. The critic Stephen Gwynn attended the performance and wrote:
I went home asking myself if such plays should be produced unless one was prepared for people to go out to shoot and be shot…Yeats was not alone responsible; no doubt but Lady Gregory helped him to get the peasant speech so perfect; but above all Miss Gonne’s impersonation had stirred the audience as I have never seen another audience stirred…
George Bernard Shaw later said that it was a play “which might lead a man to do something foolish.” By 1904, Yeats was ready to deny that “it was a political play of a propaganda kind,” but he was not convincing. Many years later, he would wonder “Did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot.”
Two other one-act plays to which Lady Gregory gave her name as sole author, Gaol Gate and The Rising of the Moon, both produced and published over the next few years, made no bones about her support for rebellion. Lennox Robinson wrote that Cathleen ni Houlihan and The Rising of the Moon “made more rebels in Ireland than a thousand political speeches or a hundred reasoned books.”
How she managed her two separate worlds in these years is a mystery, but she managed superbly. In these same years, she could write Yeats a description of a dance at Coole:
Our dance last night went off splendidly, lasted till three o’clock this morning, I wished you could have been there it was such a pretty bright sight, the drawing room cleared and lighted by close of fifty wax candles, the supper served on the twenty silver dishes, all the table silver and flowers and tempting dishes…. We were about thirty, chiefly cousins of Robert’s and also two or three officers and a sister of Lord Westmeath’s, Lady Emily Nugent. It was the merriest dance I ever saw (my experience has not been great, Buckingham Palace and Indian Viceregal and Embassy Balls chiefly).
In Cathleen ni Houlihan, The Rising of the Moon, and Gaol Gate, indeed in the story of Cuchulain himself, the lone male hero was ready to sacrifice himself. He was an idealistic, inspirational figure, free from the mire of the struggle for land which preoccupied most Irish peasants in these years. In Cathleen Ni Houlihan, the family’s desire for more land is something the son will have no truck with now that the old woman has come to the house and the French have landed at Killala. There was no grubby land-hunger in the rhetoric of these heroes.
Thus it was easier for Lady Gregory to apply the same zeal to collecting her folklore as to collecting her rents. She was, however, on at least one occasion, frightened enough by what she herself had created to write to Frank Fay in 1907: “I particularly didn’t wish to have Gaol Gate [produced in Galway] in the present state of agrarian excitement, it [might] be looked on as a direct incitement to crime.”
Her plays could incite crime; and when crime came close to her, it kept her awake. In May 1912 she wrote to Yeats about her tenants:
Dear Willie, I am in great trouble this week—my brother wrote last week that he had had a meeting with the tenants but that they could not come to terms at present. Then Monday was rent day and he wired “Tenants demand 6/– in the pound reduction—no rents paid.” This was a shock and gave me a sleepless night and in the morning I had a letter from him saying the tenants are trying to blackmail us—and that he is making preparations to seize their cattle end of this week or beginning of next, which will he thinks bring them to reason, especially as the bulk of them are really anxious to pay.
She wrote to her son that their agent “was sure that the seizures would bring them to their senses…. He had arranged to start from Gort at 7 o’clock Friday morning, with eight Gort men, four Coole men and twenty police; to begin with the stock of the small tenants, and to sweep that of the larger ones as well.”
The cattle raid in Coole did not take place, however, since a settlement was negotiated. Robert, who was away, owned the estate and the rents were his income. “I hope you think I have done right,” she wrote to him, “I have done what I think best for your happiness.” This is the key to understanding Lady Gregory’s role as landlord at Coole. The cold, ruthless tone in her letters to Yeats and Robert about the tenants was not because she was a landlord’s daughter who could not shake off this tone. She held Coole for Robert. It was his heritage and his inheritance. However much she may have changed in other matters, she remained steadfast in this.
Lady Gregory’s mixture of high ideals and natural haughtiness gave her an inflexibility and sturdy determination which were invaluable when dealing with those who opposed her. Her gifts for governing men, her passion and precision, as Yeats put it, came into their own in the early years of the twentieth century when she became involved with the Abbey Theatre.
Her first battle was with Miss Horniman, the tea heiress from Manchester who bankrolled the theater in its early days and made great demands on the management and fellow directors while also making a pitch for the affections of W.B. Yeats. In many letters to Yeats, Lady Gregory deplored Miss Horniman’s “vulgar arrogance and bullying” and suggested that she “should be locked up.” She also called her “cracked,” “a blood sucker,” “a crocodille,” “the Saxon shilling,” “wicked,” “a mad woman,” “insane,” and “a raving lunatic.” If this was not enough to dislodge her, Lady Gregory pulled rank. “I have never treated her as an equal,” she wrote to Yeats, “without regretting it.” And later: “I think it is a mistake treating tradespeople as if they had one’s own table of values.”
This hauteur and invective were accompanied, however, over several years by Lady Gregory’s slow and deliberate and tireless preparations to have Miss Horniman removed. While Miss Horniman ranted and raved, Lady Gregory never lost her nerve. By early 1911, she had succeeded.
This readiness to do battle, this tough attitude toward opposition, made all the difference when the artistic integrity of the Abbey Theatre was under attack. The importance of Yeats’s and Lady Gregory’s collaboration at the Abbey was not so much that words of theirs sent out certain men the English shot, as that during the time when they ran the theater a number of enduring masterpieces were produced, notably the plays of Synge and O’Casey, and also George Bernard Shaw’s The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet.
Both Yeats and Lady Gregory maintained their relationship to a peasant culture they had dreamed into being, and at the same time made no effort to repudiate their own Anglo-Irish heritage. This gave them an enormous advantage in both Ireland and London: they were members of a ruling class who lost none of their edge or high manners or old friends while espousing a new politics and a new art in Ireland. They were independent and they did what they liked, subject to no peer group or class pressure. It was the mixture of ambiguity and arrogance in their position which made them ready for the exemplary battles they were now to fight for artistic freedom in Ireland, the right to stage the plays of Synge, Shaw, and O’Casey. They, and no one else, had the strength of will and the class confidence and the belief in their cause to do battle with the rabble, the Catholic Church, the Lord Lieutenant, and, when the time came, the new Irish state.
The young Catholic revolutionaries who had been so inspired by the simple message of Cathleen ni Houlihan were not ready for the mocking ironies and wild paganism of John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, which the Abbey Theatre first produced in 1907. Yeats and Lady Gregory were ready to stand up to them, insisting on their own nationalist credentials, but reverting also to Ascendancy hauteur. After a week of riots in the theater against the presentation of Irish peasants as less than holy, there was, on Yeats’s suggestion, a public debate held in the Abbey on February 4. Yeats took the stage, announcing that he spoke as the author of Cathleen ni Houlihan. Referring to a priest in Liverpool who had withdrawn a play because of the public’s objection, he said of the Abbey directors, who were all Protestants: “We have not such pliant bones and did not learn in the houses that bred us a suppliant knee.” The audience would have understood this very clearly as a statement of arrogant Ascendancy values over suppliant Roman ones. When Yeats’s father in the same debate referred to Ireland as an island of saints and scholars and then, sneeringly, referred to “plaster saints” (“his beautiful mischievous head thrown back,” as Yeats described him many years later in “Beautiful Lofty Things”), the audience would also have understood his remark as an insult to Catholicism.
Lady Gregory’s nephew led a group of Trinity students to the theater to defend the play and offer what was perhaps most missing in the debate—a rendering of “God Save the King.” And as the disturbances continued in the theater, the Abbey directors, as property owners, knew what to do: they called the police, who arrested rioters. The calling of the police did not win them many friends in nationalist Ireland. In 1909, two years after The Playboy, Lady Gregory placed the conflict between the Abbey directors and the Catholic nationalist mob in terms both stark and superior: “It is the old battle,” she wrote to Yeats, “between those who use a toothbrush and those who don’t.”
Between February 16 and March 8, 1909, George Bernard Shaw wrote his own version of The Playboy; it was a short play called The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet: A Sermon in Crude Melodrama, and it was set in America, Blanco being an unrepentant and non-toothbrush-owning horse thief with strong views on the Almighty. There were also several foulmouthed women, and a lot of very funny, sometimes silly, and often irreverent and blaspheming dialogue. In London the Lord Chamberlain banned the play. The Chamberlain’s remit did not extend to Dublin, however, and when Shaw handed the script to Lady Gregory, she took it to Yeats and they decided to produce it at the Abbey.
This would prove, if anyone needed proof (and indeed some did), that the Abbey Theatre would oppose censorship from every quarter. Yeats and Lady Gregory had stood up to the rabble; now they would, with the same hauteur and moral authority, stand up to the British authorities in Dublin Castle. In August 1909 Lady Gregory herself directed the play while Yeats stayed at Coole; it was the first play she had directed alone. Soon the authorities wrote to her objecting; Lady Gregory was warned that the theater could lose its patent.
In Our Theatre Business, Lady Gregory described with great relish the meetings which she had with the authorities. An official “implored us… to save the Lord Lieutenant from his delicate position.” “Can you suggest no way out?” he asked. “None, except our being left alone,” they told him. “Oh Lady Gregory,” he said, “appeal to your own common sense.” Her common sense told her to give in, but then, she wrote,
When we were walking through the lamp-lighted streets, we found that during those two or three hours our minds had come to the same decision, that we had given our word, that at all risks we must keep it or it would never be trusted again; that we must in no case go back, but must go on at any cost.
Dublin Castle caved in and the play opened, to capacity audiences and huge publicity, on August 25.
Yeats wrote many of his greatest poems about Coole, the house and the estate and the legacy of the Gregorys. In his relationship with Lady Gregory he displayed both an astonishing closeness and a sporadic tactlessness. When her son was shot down over Italy in the First World War, he wrote four poems. Two of them, “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” and “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” show an enormous understanding of the shape of her grief. (Indeed, she oversaw the first of these, which was written at Coole, making many suggestions.) The other two poems, “Shepherd and Goatherd,” written early in 1918, and “Reprisals,” written in November 1920, displeased her. Yeats wrote “Reprisals” in Oxford on hearing of British soldiers on the rampage in the area around Coole. He suggested that Robert Gregory, who, although Irish, had fought with the British army and was thus among “the cheated dead”:
Half-drunk or whole-mad soldiery
Are murdering your tenants there;
Men that revere your father yet
Are shot at on the open plain;
Where can new-married women sit
To suckle children now? Armed men
May murder them in passing by
Nor parliament, nor law take heed:—
Then stop your ears with dust and lie
Among the other cheated dead.
November 23, 1920
On the envelope in which he had enclosed the poem, which is in the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library, Lady Gregory wrote: “I did not like this and asked not to have it published.” The poem did not appear in any periodical of the time, nor in any collection by Yeats. It was first printed in a magazine in 1948 when they were both dead.
As the first Irish government was formed, Yeats and Lady Gregory decided that the best way to ensure the theater’s future was to offer it to the state; there were many discussions and negotiations. In the end, it was decided that the state would subsidize the theater, rather than take it over, but the price of the subsidy was a government rep-resentative, the economist George O’Brien, on the board of the theater. This was the context in which Yeats and Lady Gregory’s last great battle about censorship and freedom of expression would take place.
In August 1925, Sean O’Casey submitted his new play The Plough and the Stars, which dealt with Easter Week 1916, to the Abbey. Yeats and Lennox Robinson and Lady Gregory liked the play (“she is an extraordinarily broad-minded woman,” O’Casey wrote to a friend) and it was to be staged in February 1926. By early September there were problems. One of the players wrote to Lady Gregory: “At any time I would think twice before having anything to do with it. The language is—to use an Abbey phrase—beyond the beyonds. The song at the end of the second Act sung by the ‘girl-of-the-streets’ is impossible.”
The play allowed Irish nationalists to mix with prostitutes; it also showed a Tricolour, the Irish flag, being brought into a pub. But the overall message of the play was even more offensive: it did not glorify those who fought for Irish freedom at a time when many of them were hungry for glory. Soon the play was read by George O’Brien, who wrote of “the possibility that the play might offend any section of public opinion so seriously as to provoke an attack on the Theatre of a kind that would endanger the continuance of the subsidy.” In his letter to Yeats he listed words which he thought should be removed. (These included “Jesus,” “Jasus,” and “Christ” as well as “bitch,” “lowsers,” and “lice.”) Of the presence of the prostitute, he wrote that “the lady’s professional side is unduly emphasized.” The tone of his letter suggested that he was within his rights to demand the removal of words, characters, and undue emphasis.
When Yeats came to Coole to discuss this, Lady Gregory, according to her journal, “said at once that our position is clear. If we have to choose between the subsidy and our freedom, it is our freedom we choose. And we must tell George O’Brien that there was no condition attached to the subsidy.”
On February 11, there was a riot in the theater. Lady Gregory was at Coole and read about it in the newspaper on her way to Dublin. Yeats had been in the theater and had addressed the audience, who had difficulty hearing him, from the stage. However, he sent his speech to the Irish Times:
You have disgraced yourselves again…. Is this…going to be a recurring celebration of Irish genius? Synge first and then O’Casey! The news of the happening of the last few minutes here will flash from country to country. Dublin has once more rocked the cradle of a reputation. From such a scene in this theatre, went forth the fame of Synge. Equally, the fame of O’Casey is born here tonight. This is his apotheosis.
Yeats met Lady Gregory at the station. He wanted to have another debate, as they did after the Playboy riots, but she realized that this was different. Many of the rioters were women who had lost men in 1916 and the War of Independence; they were not the rabble, many of them owned toothbrushes, and they would always have the support of the public. Lady Gregory had very little time for women, and no interest in debating with them. She had a rule, which she wrote down in her journal for September 29, 1919, “of never talking of politics with a woman.” Thus there was no Abbey debate.
In 1929 James McNeill, the governor-general of the Irish Free State, invited Lady Gregory to stay in his house, the old Viceregal Lodge. She came with her granddaughter Catherine. As they were shown around the house, Lady Gregory said that Catherine’s grandfather, Sir William, had come to this house a hundred years earlier when his own grandfather was undersecretary and lived close by. Sir William had learned his Latin lessons from the Viceroy Lord Wellesley in these rooms.
Lady Gregory was in a unique position in the new state. She, whose family was steeped in the history of English power in Ireland, was welcome in the house of the Irish governor-general. Most of her class had left the country. She lived in two worlds: one of them became the Irish Free State and she was proud of that. The other one disappeared. In 1930, two years before she died, Richard, her grandson, had his twenty-first birthday at Coole. “But it is a contrast,” she wrote, “to Robert’s coming of age [in 1902], with the gathering of cousins and the big feast and dance for the tenants—Coole no longer ours. But the days of landed gentry have passed. It is better so. Yet I wish some one of our blood would after my death care enough for what has been a home for so long, to keep it open.”
August 9, 2001