The awaking of Augusta …A creative life

Week IV

Augusta Lady Gregory, and her husband Sir William, were away in Italy in May 1888, when her former lover Wilfrid Scawen Blunt was imprisoned in Galway for participating in an anti-eviction rally at Woodford the previous October. I described last week, that within two days of her return to Galway she visited his empty cell, and remained sometime.*

At this period Augusta was still very much a Unionist, and the chatelaine of a large estate. Later that summer when Sir William was involved in a dispute with the tenant, Patrick Spelman, who occupied the Ballylee Castle holding (which would later become a holiday home for WB Yeats and his family ), she acted as his secretary, and was closely involved in all aspects of the process.

Spelman had not paid rent for two years. Furthermore he had sub-let much of the land, without permission, to three other individuals, including his own daughter and her husband. When negotiations failed Sir William began proceedings to evict Spelman, while at the same time he sought to instal Spelman’s subtenants as leaseholders on reduced terms. After some difficulty Spelman was evicted, a move Sir William took reluctantly, and only after seeking the approval both of Fr Fahey, the Gort parish priest, and the newly-installed Bishop of Galway, Francis McCormack.

The combination of the eviction, with all its worries and circumstances, and her presence in Blunt’s prison cell, brought together an unusual conflict of emotions in Augusta’s mind. The love affair had ended, but her feelings for Blunt had not yet fully abated. In her poem The Eviction ‘Unruly tenant of my heart/Full fain would I be quit of thee’.

But in the last stanza she admits:

‘Thou are come with thy lost tenant right

And hast possession as before.’

Hottentots and Hindus

Despite his advancing years, Sir William continued to travel, while Augusta spent more time at Coole with her young son Robert. The political world of landlordism was beginning to face a serious challenge from the Land League. It was a dangerous time. Landlords and some of their agents were murdered in County Galway.**

Augusta, however, took increasing interest in life at Coole Park, learning to appreciate that ‘the best part of living in Ireland’ ‘was visiting her tenants’. She expressed a genuine affection for her tenants. It may sound condescending today, but it was a discovery for an intelligent young woman, brought up in a cosseted, and rigid Unionist society, that ‘the Irish people, the poor’ were ‘charming, courteous, and full of tact even in their discontent’.

Her political affiliations began to change. She began to understand the injustice of the land system. She slowly began to accept and believe that Home Rule was inevitable; and would best serve the people’s interest. She believed that the purchase of land by tenants would stabilise Irish society.

Her visits to London lessened, chiefly because she felt more and more isolated the more she identified with being Irish. Even Sir William was outraged when the prime minister, Lord Salisbury, characterised the 86 Irish Nationalist MPs, then sitting in parliament, all speaking ‘inanities in the same brogue.’ He angrily denounced the comment as: ‘odiously and wantonly offensive’.

Augusta bristled with indignation at Salisbury’s suggestion that the Irish ‘like the Hottentots and even the Hindus’ were essentially unfit for self-government.

Une certaine hauteur

She soon awoke to the rural isolation of Coole, its people and its landscape. She learned Irish and began to write. She listened to the stories and beliefs of the people, and recorded their idiomatic linguistic phrases, and their humour which she later used to great success in her 40 plays. She was to become the Abbey Theatre’s most popular playwright, whose plays were the most widely presented.***

Her translations of the Cuchulainn legends, and those incredible stories of the ancient Irish, played a crucial role in popularising our remote civilisation on the western edge of Europe, and winning over an international audience.

Of course she was not popular with everyone. She retained une certaine hauteur. She dressed in black, always travelled third class on the train, and managed the Abbey Theatre, both in Dublin and on their Amercan tours, with authority.

When the O’Shea divorce verdict was announced in November 1890****, she never forgave Catholic Ireland for hounding Parnell out of office. The break-up of the Irish Parliamentary Party, following the collapse of the Parnell leadership, meant an initial reprieve for the landlord class. Yet during Parnell’s struggle to stay in power, and as events neared their climax, she wrote to Blunt: ‘Parnell is going to win - and ought to win.’ Her letter continued, somewhat remarkably, ‘I want Sir William to stand as Parnelllite, against some of the Judases.’ I imagine Sir William was quietly relieved that Parnell was out of the way, at least for a time, and that Coole Park would be safe for his son Robert to inherit.

Despite her exceptional strengths and determined character, Augusta attracted needy men. From her aged husband, Sir William, no doubt was glad of her support in his late years; Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, who had to be soothed with bon bons when he became upset, to the most needy of all, which at this moment, was coming up the avenue at Coole ‘looking every inch a poet.’ WB Yeats however, was a genius in hiding. Augusta, even though it meant at times her work was unacknowledged, and side-tracked, brought that genius to the fore.

But that is another story.

NOTES: *Blunt had been moved to Kilmainham, Dublin, to finish his sentence.

** The Land League, under the outstanding leadership of John Davitt, Charles Stewart Parnell, and others in the late 19th century, was successful in having a series of Land Acts passed which gave more control to tenant farmers; and ultimately to a redistribution of land ownership.

***In 1897 she co-founded the Abbey Theatre. With JM Synge and WB Yeats was its governing director.

**** Charles Stewart Parnell (1846 - 1891 ), the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, was one of the most powerful figures in the British House of Commons in the 1880s. With Home Rule for Ireland almost within grasp he fell from grace when Captain O’Shea sued for divorce claiming Parnell had been his wife’s long time lover.

Again, for this Diary, I am leaning heavily and most grateful for, James Pethica’s absorbing Lady Gregory’s Early Irish Writings, published recently by Colin Smythe, and on sale.

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