I find it hard to imagine that not everyone liked Lady Augusta Gregory of Coole Park. What few readers there are of the Diary, I am told, sigh with exasperation when they see her name appear. They know that I will eulogise endlessly about how her home at Coole became a ‘workshop’ for writers, poets and artists during those exciting days at the beginning of the last century, leading to such remarkable talents as WB Yeats, John M Synge, Sean O’Casey and others to stand as giants on the European literary stage. She was the co-founder of the Abbey Theatre, its director and organiser during its shaky early days. She was a substantial playwright, journal keeper, folklorist, scholar, etc, etc, and, in my opinion, this amazing Galway woman never got the recognition she deserved.
So it came as a bit of a blow, when last Friday evening, the prize-winning novelist and playwright Jennifer Johnston said quite plainly that her mother, the Abbey actress Shelah Richards, couldn’t stand Lady Gregory, nor could Lady Gregory stand her mother! Speaking at he opening of the 16th Autumn Gathering, Ms Johnson said that Lady Gregory was born in 1852, fifty-two years before her mother. Her mother, Shelah Richards, became a member of the Abbey Theatre company in her early twenties. “ Lady Gregory did not like her. This annoyed my mother somewhat as she was used to being loved.”
Apparently Lady Gregory referred to Shelah as ‘that little Miss Richards from Rathmines,’ This annoyed Shelah immensely ‘as she was from Lower Fitzwilliam Street, a far cry from dismal Rathmines in every way.’
At that time at the Abbey Lady Gregory was in her seventies, and everyone admired her and treated her with respect. Except, of course, Miss Shelah Richards who all her life had her own agenda for living, and the vigour of spirit to keep following it.’ Yeats noticed her early on in her career. “Who is the girl with the head of a lion?” he had asked. And according to Miss Shelah Richards (who, her daughter adds, may not have been the most reliable reporter ) Barry Fitzgerald wanted to marry her, and Sean O’Casey tried “very hard” to seduce her.
The two tramps
One on occasion her mother had to drive to their holiday home on the coast and Yeats and Lennox Robinson came along for the ride. Shelah gave the two men a tennis racket each and told them to play on the grass court while she did whatever she had to do.
She had forgotten that her father was also in the house. His pride and joy was his tennis court. He tended to it lovingly. Shelah was disturbed when her father burst into her room, shouting: “ Quick! Call the police. There are two tramps playing on my tennis court!”
She ended by marrying Denis Johnston, a young barrister who had given up practising the law, and was writing plays. They had met just when his first experimental play had been rejected with the legend scrawled across its cover: ‘The Old Lady says No.’
Another reason to dislike Lady Gregory. However, he and Shelah were married. She moved from Lower Fitzwilliam Street to posh Fitzwilliam Square. No Rathmines in sight.
Yet in many ways Ms Johnston’s upbringing echoed the childhood Lady Gregory gave to her three grandchildren who lived most of their young lives with her at Coole. Ms Johnston’s grandmother read to her and her siblings every evening.When Ms Johnston was older and tucked into bed her aunt Juliet read quite different books to her including works by Kipling, Kenneth Graham, Stevenson, John Masefield “ and of course wonderful, wonderful Alice. My aunt read beautifully, and like Lady Gregory sometimes got carried away with the sound of her own voice.”
There were other similarities too. Lady Gregory’s only child Robert was killed towards the end of World War I, a source of anguish and deep remorse for her. It prompted her friend Yeats to write the poem An Irish Airman foresees his Death, acknowledged as one of the finest poems in the English language. In August 1915, Shelah’s eldest brother Billy, who served with the Dublin Fusiliers, was killed in Suvla Bay, at Gallipoli. The following letter arrived to their home after the family had learned he had been killed.
We have been fighting now for 4 days and I am sorry to say have lost most of the Bn. We were doing fatigues for the first 2 days and only lost about 10 men but yesterday morning about 3am we were called up to stop a counter-attack. In about 2 hours we lost 12 officers and about 450 men. How I got through I shall never understand, the shrapnel and bullets were coming down like hail. Three men were shot handing me messages. The colonel also got through all right. Luke had his hand blown off but is all right. Martin got a slight wound in the arm. In the last five nights I have had about five hours sleep, but still feel fairly fit in body but my heart is broken for all those fellows I liked so much. The water here is very scarce. We get one qt. per day to do everything with, cook, wash etc. I am at present watching the 2 Divisions which are coming up to relieve us getting the most awful shelling. We are at present much nearer to the enemy than they are, but they are giving us a rest. When they come up we will all attack.
After yesterday I have a feeling I shall get through this ‘job’. I would like to see some of the young lads who are staying at home get a few days of this. If they weren’t killed they would or should die of shame.
I must shut up as I have a great deal to do before this show starts.
Give my love to mother and everybody at home. I hope you are well. So long. I have not had a mail yet. Thanks ever so much for all you have done for me.
Yours as ever, Billy.
Ms Johnston always carries the original letter with her. Looking back now, she believes that if both her mother and Lady Gregory had taken the trouble to get to know each other, they probably would have liked one another.