Celebrating Lady Gregory - the Autumn Gathering at Coole

Sheila O’Donnellan. 
Pic:- Mike Shaughnessy.

Sheila O’Donnellan. Pic:- Mike Shaughnessy.

TOMORROW, SATURDAY, and Sunday, the fabled Coole Park plays host to the 14th annual Lady Gregory Autumn Gathering which, as ever, features a top-notch array of speakers and performers coming together to celebrate Lady Gregory and her world.

Participants this year include playwright Thomas Kilroy; former Abbey director Christopher Fitz-Simon; Barbara Dawson, director of the Hugh Lane gallery; and Lady Gregory’s grand-nephew Richard Persse.

Rescuing Lady Gregory

Sheila O’Donnellan has been closely involved with the festival right from the beginning and, ahead of this year’s Gathering, she took time out to reflect on its development into one of the staples of Galway’s cultural calendar.

“I remember a few of us got talking about Lady Gregory back in 1995,” she recalls. “I had always been interested in Lady Gregory and that whole period. As we talked one thing led to another and we decided to start this festival.

“While Yeats was obviously very prominent we felt Lady Gregory wasn’t getting the attention she merited and that was part of the impetus behind starting the festival. We’ve been running it ever since and it’s now become a permanent fixture.”

Nearly all original founders of the Autumn Gathering remain closely involved with the event, giving it a distinct continuity, and the festival has enticed many prominent visitors to Coole down the years.

“Even though we don’t have huge finances, we’ve found when we write to people inviting them to come no-one has ever turned us down,” O’Donnellan notes. “They all like to come and meet people and reminisce. We’ve had many terrific people at the festival down the years – such as Yeats’ son Michael for instance.

“In the early years we had Lady Gregory’s granddaughters, Katherine and Ann, as regular visitors. They were wonderful people, so lively and so interested in everyone and they were in their 70s at the time.

“They would talk about their lives at Coole and growing up there, and reminisce about their grandmother. It was fascinating because it brought all that world to life as you listened to them talk about it. Another regular visitor is the publisher Colin Smythe. He first got interested in Lady Gregory while he was at Trinity and he went on to publish her work when nobody else was interested in it.”

O’Donnellan feels the Gathering has succeeded in its aim of rescuing Lady Gregory’s reputation from the neglect it had tended to suffer in earlier years.

“When we started first there was very little mention of Lady Gregory and we felt she should get more acknowledgement of her contribution because she really was one of the important instigators of that period and was instrumental in the founding of the Abbey and also its location in Ireland - Yeats for instance was initially in favour of founding a theatre in England and Edward Martyn even suggested going to Germany.

“So you had all these conflicting suggestions but it was Lady Gregory who somehow kept everyone focused on the task in hand which ultimately led to the Abbey being founded in Dublin. I do think the Autumn Gathering has managed to remind people of the important role Lady Gregory played in that period.”

Moving onto this year’s programme, it features a fascinating selection of talks, performances and guided tours.

The festival will be formally opened on Friday evening by Lady Gregory’s grand-nephew Richard Persse, who is making his second visit to the event. On Saturday morning Edward Martyn’s biographer Madeleine Humphreys will give a talk on Irish landlords as cultural nationalists’, and Barbara Dawson will talk about the return of the famous 39 Continental Paintings to the Hugh Lane Gallery from the National Gallery in London.

This year marks the centenary of the Hugh Lane gallery and the centrepiece of the celebrations is Hugh Lane 100 Years, which features the collection of 39 Continental Pictures. This will be the first time these paintings, including world famous Impressionist paintings, will be exhibited alongside the original collection in Dublin since the site controversy in 1913 when they were removed to the National Gallery, London.

On Saturday afternoon award-winning playwright and novelist Tom Kilroy will talk about Lady Gregory’s plays and adaptations and later that evening Wild Swan Theatre Company will present her short comedy-drama, The Workhouse Ward.

Sheila O’Donnellan declares it to be one of her personal favourites of Lady Gregory’s plays and observes of her as a dramatist; “I enjoy her work. I think she wrote very interesting plays, her dialogue was always very good and very descriptive. She brings out her characters very well and that’s certainly true of The Workhouse Ward.”

Christopher Fitz-Simon

On Sunday morning at the Gathering, there is a coach trip and guided tour to Tulira Castle, home of Edward Martyn, followed by a return to Coole for lunch. After that, author and theatre director Christopher Fitz-Simon will read from his much-praised childhood memoir Eleven Houses.

Fitz-Simon was born into an extraordinary Irish family, with Daniel O’Connell on one side and Ulster Protestants on the other, and his childhood coincided with the Second World War. Eleven Houses is a crystalline memoir of his family’s odd progress through those odd years, an account by turns hilarious and heartbreaking.

Christopher's father was an officer in the British army, serving in the Middle East when war broke out, and the family home in these years was in fact a series of homes, in all four provinces of Ireland.

For long periods Christopher and his brother were not enrolled in school, and the commencement of formal education proved a shock after years of the freedom of houses, orchards, lanes, and fields.

Drawing on his extraordinarily vivid recall of the places and feelings of those years, Christopher Fitz-Simon tells a story of growing up that is also, in effect, a story of various hidden Irelands during the twilit years of the war. Funny, moving and sharp, it is a childhood memoir like no other.

Following Fitz-Simon’s reading, there is a final assembly at Gort’s Lady Gregory Hotel for tea and brack before everyone takes their leave.

The 14th Lady Gregory Autumn Gathering seems sure to be another memorable occasion and Sheila O’Donnellan and her fellow organisers have once again excelled in putting together a fine programme.

Bookings for the event can be made by phoning Mary Troy Fennell at 091-521144 or emailing [email protected]

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