This past March 15, marked 167 years since the birth of one of Ireland’s most seminal folklorists. Isabella Augusta Gregory — who would later go on to be known merely as “Lady Gregory,” a title that has long since befitted the regal pride with which she continues to be associated — was more than just a researcher, a writer, an actress or an activist; she was a beacon of potential for the women of her time. Today, we celebrate her colorful life, and the massive contributions she made in her time to the world of Irish folklore studies.
EARLY EXPOSURE TO IRISH FOLKLORE AND LITERARY SOCIETY
Born in Roxborough, Co. Galway in 1852, Augusta was the youngest daughter of an Anglo-Irish family by the name of Persse. The family owned a large amount of land — some 6,000 acres, as a matter of fact, on which she and her siblings were educated. Over the course of her school years, Augusta grew exceptionally close to the family nanny, Mary Sheridan. It was in her relationship with Mary that Augusta found they key to a word of curiosities inside of her; fascinations which, as time would prove, would stay with her for the rest of her life. In contrast to Augusta and her family, Mary was a Catholic and a native Irish speaker. She spoke to the young girl about the local history and legends associated with the Roxborough area, and taught her many of the conventions of traditional Irish folklore as a whole.
At the age of 28, Augusta married Sir William Henry Gregory, a widower from the nearby area of Gort who was 35 years her senior. Gregory had recently retired from his posting as Governor of Sri Lanka, and was eager to settle into his august years, enjoying the company of his witty new wife, comfortable house, and expansive collection of books and art, which Augusta herself was excited to peruse. She quickly became involved in William’s dealings in the London literary community, helping him to host weekly salons, attended at times by noteworthy figures such as Robert Browning, Lord Tennyson, and Henry James. One year later, the couple had their first and only child, Robert, who himself began to show proclivity as an artist, illustrating books and stage pieces.
Together, the Gregory family travelled far and wide, spending time in Sri Lanka, India, Spain, Italy, and Egypt. In each new place, Augusta fell in love with a new language, culture, and literature; in Egypt, this infatuation become more literal when she entered into a passionate affair with Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, an English poet to whom she dedicated a collection of love poems entitled A Woman’s Sonnets. It was also in Egypt that her interest in politics would first make itself known: in 1882, she wrote Arabi and His Household, a pamphlet in support of an Egyptian nationalist revolt against the repressive regime of the Khedive. After publishing the booklet, she was reported as saying: “Whatever political indignation or energy was born in me may have run its course in that Egyptian year and run itself out.” Despite this, in 1893, she released A Phantom’s Privilege, or Home Ruin, an pamphlet against the proposed second Home Rule Act in Ireland.
The Gregorys continued to travel the world for many years, with Augusta and Robert returning home only after the death of William in 1892. Augusta was only forty, and in the prime of her writerly life. Later, she said: “If I had no married I should not have learned the quick enrichment of sentences that one gets in conversation; had I not been widowed I should not have found the detachment of the mind, the leisure for observation necessary to give insight into character, to express and interpret it. Loneliness has made me rich.”
FROM STUDENT TO TEACHER
Perhaps it was loneliness that drove Augusta to take a fateful trip out to Inisheer of Ireland’s Aran Islands the following year, in 1893. The wild, craggy beauty of the island and colorful tongue of the local people re-awoke in her a love of Irish language, history and folklore that not been thoroughly nourished since she had parted ways with her nanny all those years ago.
Consequently, Augusta began to take steps to bring Irish culture to the fore in Galway: she commissioned Irish speakers to teach language lessons in Coole. Among these teachers was Norma Borthwick, a British writer and artist who imparted all of the Irish she knew to Augusta. Famously, during one visit, she and Douglas Hyde (who would later go on to become the first president of Ireland) held an Irish-language Punch and Judy puppet show for neighborhood children.
At the same time as this, Lady Gregory began to use her literary talents to record folk stories as told by the local residents. In doing this, she was particularly drawn to the Gort Workhouse, where the workers had much to tell her. She was so prolific that over the next several years, she published multiple books of Irish folk material, such as A Book of Saints and Wonders in 1906, The Kiltartan History Book in 1909, and The Kiltartan Wonder Book the following year.
Lady Gregory also developed a kind of written language known as Kiltartanese, or English with Irish syntax, which was the manner of speaking which was most common in Kiltartan. This was used primarily in Cuchulain of Muirthemne, a version of the collected myths concerning Cú Chulainn, a mythological hero from the Ulster mythological cycle. Published in 1902, it drew on local folklore to inform the character’s life story, from conception to death. In writing the book’s introduction, W.B. Yeats — who was a close friend of Lady Gregory’s — wrote: “I think this is the best book to come out of Ireland in my time,” and, upon its release in the United States, Cuchulain of Muirthemne received praise from prominent figures such as Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain.
However, not all reception of the book was so positive. In writing it, Lady Gregory had forgone the inclusion of several elements that she had felt might offend the sensibilities of the Victorian reader. It was important to her to present a “respectable” image of Irish myth, even if this meant divorcing it from some of its more “barbaric” Celtic aspects. These included sexual encounters between mythical figures, mentions of bodily functions in stories, and the “battle frenzy” for which Cú Chulainn was famous. It should be noted, however, that this censorship drew the ire of several critics, many of her omissions were milder than that of some of her male contemporaries, such as Standish O’Grady, an Irish author, journalist, and historian with similar interests to Lady Gregory.
LADY GREGORY AND W.B. YEATS
Lady Gregory had first met Yeats in 1896, in a visit to Tullira Castle, the home of their mutual friend, Edward Martyn. All three had a powerful passion for storytelling and drama, and it was over the course of many discussions that they laid the groundwork for the opening of the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899. Though Gregory’s initial efforts to generate funding were successful, allowing the theatre to run for two years, they river eventually ran dry. Three years later, however, the trio were joined by other like-minded individuals to launch the Irish National Theatre Society. It was this group who would eventually purchase the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, outfitting it to meet their performative needs. One of Lady Gregory’s own short plays, Spreading the News, was performed on the Abbey’s opening evening on December 27, 1904.
In 1914, Lady Gregory lost her son, Robert, to the First World War. At this time, he was 34 years old and married, with three children of his own. In response to the tragedy, W.B. Yeats, who had been close to Robert in his younger years, penned four poems in his honor: “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” “Shepherd and Goatherd,” and “Reprisals.” According to rumors which circulated at the time, Lady Gregory was unhappy with some of the poems’ contents, perhaps believing they didn’t do adequate justice to the life and death of her son.
For her own part, Lady Gregory wrote little on the matter of her son’s loss, seeming to prefer to escape into her work rather than use it as a mirror for her troubles. By the time of her retirement in 1928, she had written over 19 plays, most of which were performed in her beloved Abbey. In 1919, she played the leading role in three performances of Cathleen ni Houlihan, a one-act play written in collaboration with Yeats. The play focuses on the events of the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland, with a powerful nationalistic bent. The titular character, Cathleen, is an embodiment of a separate and independently-run Irish state, and those who fight for her freedom “shall be remembered forever, / They shall be alive forever, / They shall be speaking forever, / The people shall hear them forever.”
LADY GREGORY’S LATER YEARS
Still fascinated with the folklore of her hometown, she produced another two-volume work on the subject. Published in 1920, it was titled Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. She also continued to avidly read texts pertaining to Irish history and folklore, and spent many days between the shelves of the National Library of Ireland, providing translations to many of the works.
After her retirement from her board position at the Abbey, Lady Gregory left the busy streets of Dublin to return to her beloved Galway. There, she was frequently visited by her many writer friends, her home at one point becoming a focal point for the Irish literary greats: on one tree on the grounds, one can still see the playfully-carved initials of Yeats, Synge, George Moore, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, Katharine Tynan, and Violet Martin. A great admirer of Lady Gregory’s talent and resolve, Shaw once referred to her as the “greatest living Irishwoman” of their time.
Lady Gregory died at the age of 80 after a prolonged battle with breast cancer, and was interred in the New Cemetery at Bohermore, Co. Galway. Upon their discovery, many of the diaries, journals, and logs that she kept over the course of her eventful life were published, serving to provide a fascinating insight into the Irish literary world in the first 30 years of the 20th century; now, a kind of folklore in its own right.