Autumn Gathering hears how ‘ghosts’ saved the marriage of Ireland’s famous poet

One of the most unusual strategies ever used by a young wife to keep a faltering marriage together was employed by Mrs W B Yeats on their honeymoon.

Both the poet and his wife were interested in spiritualism. They met at meetings of the Golden Dawn, a magical order founded in Britain during the 19th century. The famous poet was 27 years older than his wife, and had endured a turbulent romance with Maude Gonne, his one-time lover and life-long muse. But now a new urgency crept into his life. Astrology advised that October 20 1917 was the favourable date for his marriage. Yeats had previously proposed to Maude on three occasions, but each time he was firmly but gently rejected. Maude had a long time relationship with a Frenchman, Lucien Millevoye. They had two children, Seán and Iseult.

That relationship faltered, and Maude married Major John MacBride. When he was executed following the 1916 Rising, Yeats again pleaded for her hand. Once again he was refused. In despair Yeats proposed to Maude’s adolescent daughter Iseult. Again he was turned down. Desperate to meet his destiny on October 20, Yeats proposed to his friend and adoring George. Despite her mother warning her that this was a mistake, three days after her 25th birthday Georgie (George ) Hyde Lees was delighted to marry the 52-year old poet.

The biographer and radio writer Brenda Maddox* told a fascinated Autumn Gathering (an annual celebration of the life of Lady Augusta Gregory at Coole, Gort ), that Yeats could be quite barmy at times but he wrote brilliant poetry. Part of WB’s and George’s honeymoon was spent at Stone Cottage in the Ashdown Forest in Sussex. Yeats was miserable. A storm was blowing around the house, the young wife was neglected upstairs, while Yeats wrote letters and poems downstairs. Incredibly he wrote to Iseult outlining his misery, only to receive a mature and guiding letter back from her, reassuring him that it was natural to have feelings of distress at his ‘abruptly new condition’, which she said was bound to have ‘a little of the fearfulness of a birth’.

Even more incredibly, Yeats shared his correspondence with his wife. She was shattered. Ms Maddox said that George believed that “any illusion that Yeats loved her was shattered. Her mother had been right. She had been taken on the rebound. She thought of walking out, but instead on the afternoon of October 27 1917 she saved the marriage by doing something remarkable”.

Burst of magic

That evening George picked up a pencil and, keeping up a stream of conversation, let her hand wander over the paper, scrawling words with no break between them that ran right off the edge of the page. Something was being written through her, she said. Yeats was intrigued. He began to decipher the words and read: ‘All is well.’ He wrote later to his friend Lady Gregory that he had had “an incredible experience”, an intervention from the spirit world to tell him that in marrying George he had done the right thing.

Suddenly all was well. Within a halfhour, his aches, depression and utter weariness had vanished. “So too”, said Ms Maddox, “had his impotence. He could love his wife and, presumably, made love to her too”.

The spirit writings went on for some years, often providing Yeats with symbols and ideas for his poems, and sometimes advice on sexual matters, oddly echoing Marie Stopes’s controversial book at the time: Married Love.

Yet Yeats saw his wife literally as a medium: a conduit through which spirits told him about truths hidden from the real world. When their second child, Michael, was born, the messages abruptly stopped.

Ms Maddox, who says she doesn’t believe in ghosts, agreed that George’s burst of magic was a brilliant stroke: “One of the most ingenious wifely stratagems ever tried to take her husband’s mind off another woman”.

Intellectual energies

The beautiful parkland of Coole was once again the perfect setting for the 15th Autumn Gathering, held at both Coole and at the former Yeats home, Thoor Ballylee. Stella Mew, from the Sligo Yeats’ Society, spoke about the poet’s indebtedness to Lady Gregory. But Gregory’s instincts as a mother, and powerful intellectual energies, were satisfied in helping the young poet whom she first met when he was impoverished and in poor health. Professor James Pethica, who has written extensively on the Irish literary revival of the last century and is working on the authorised biography of Lady Gregory, discussed the three women praised in Yeats’ poem Friends. They include his life-long friend and mentor, Lady Gregory, his first lover Olivia Shakespeare, and the iconic Maude Gonne.

Now must I these three praise

Three women that have wrought

What joy is in my days...

Lady Gregory told him that she liked all his poems except Friends. “I don’t like to be catalogued,” she said sternly.

Gregory in Hollywood

Lady Gregory wrote 42 plays. Many of them were one-acts used as curtain-raisers before the main event. But as her popularity was replaced by younger and modern playwrights in Dublin, her plays continued to delight audiences during the Abbey Theatre tours in America. Dr Adrian Frazier presented an insight in his current book: Hollywood Irish: Abbey Actors in Hollywood, 1936-1953. Not only did the famous director John Ford enjoy her plays, but paid her the compliment of using some of her theatrical ideas in his films. Frazier showed extracts from the opening sequences of Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer, made by Ford in 1935, where he uses Gregory’s opening ideas in her patriotic play The Rising of the Moon. Significantly, the opening scene of The Quiet Man, made in 1951, echoes her play Spreading The News. Abbey actors Barry Fitzgerald, Arthur Shields and Eileen Crowe also appear in the film.

Spirits still there

The Autumn Gathering was opened by Geoffrey O’Byrne White, a great-grandnephew of Lady Gregory who like Gregory’s son Robert, was a pilot with the Irish Air Corps, and now CEO of the City Jet airline. His daughter Elise performed Yeats’ poem: Reprisals perfectly. The well known local historian, and curator of the Kiltartan Gregory Museum, Sister Mary de Lourdes Fahy, guided the speakers and the participants through two days of talks, discussions, and renewal of friendships, with humour and personal recollections; while Sheila O’Donnellan and Sighle Meehan presented extracts from Anne de Winton’s Me and Nu, after the candle-lit dinner on Saturday evening at Coole. Tommy Keane played the uileann pipes while Kincaid and Eimer from the Celine Hession Dancers raised the rafters in the Irish way.

But the spirits were not totally forgotten. Dr Cecily O’Neill, an internationally recognised authority on drama in education, who had spoken warmly about the personality of Lady Gregory on the opening evening, concluded the event on Sunday morning in Yeats’ tower at Ballylee (given as a wedding present to George by her husband ).

As the participants sat in a circle in the castle diningroom, Dr O’Neill distributed extracts from the writings, poems, diaries, memories associated with Coole, which were read out in turn. It was a ghostly moment, as voices from long ago were heard again in the old tower. Someone said that George was watching, grinning widely.

* Among Brenda Maddox’s many biographies is George’s Ghosts - A New Life of W B Yeats, published 1999, Picador Books.

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