Sir William Gregory, a wealthy widower was 60, 35 years older than Augusta, when he first met her. It was at a cricket match at her home at Roxborough in the summer of 1877, to which he was invited. He was late, and sat at the only vacant place left at the table, beside Augusta. ‘Augusta wore a fashionable dress bought at Bon Marché in Paris, and a black and white straw hat decorated with corn ears and poppies. The usually plain, quiet, girl was noticeable and pretty.’ By the end of the day Sir William was smitten.
During the next few winters as Augusta accompanied her tubercular brother to Cannes, Sir William just happened to be in the same place. He once called to her hotel three times in one day. Back in Co Galway, she was invited to spend a night at Coole, chaperoned by her brother. ‘While Roxborough was associated with hunting and rowdiness, Coole was civilised and scholarly’*. It had a magnificent library, and Sir William not only allowed her to choose any book she wanted to read, but he asked her to choose six titles which he included in his will for her.
Although her family were slow to notice the blossoming friendship that was developing between the two, Sir William was anxious to press home his intentions of marriage. He briefly agonised about their age differences to his close friends, but felt he could not bear another winter of loneliness. Augusta, when she remembered the moment she agreed to marry, wrote: “I felt extraordinarily happy and serene, happy in the thought of being with him, of serving him, of learning from him. And I was happy also in the thought of not leaving the country, the neighbourhood which I loved.”
Her family, without exception, were at first amazed, and then delighted with the news. It was considered a brilliant match. The boys remarked characteristically that now they could enjoy uninterrupted hunting and shooting from their cousin’s estate at Castle Taylor all the way to Coole; and if only another one of their sisters married Edward Martin they would have the freedom of Tullira as well!
His old schoolfriend
The 5,000 acre estate at Coole, near Gort, was a little less than nine miles from Roxborough where Augusta was born. It must be said that Sir William was no Colin Firth. He looked every inch a Victorian gentleman with his mutton-chop whiskers, thin hair, and heavy build. He had an air of authority about him which was not surprising because when he first met Augusta he had just returned from five years as the governor of Ceylon (Sri Lanka ). As a young man there was a wildness in him that must have given him a certain notoriety. He was a gambler, and all his life addicted to the racecourse. Coole once consisted of 15,000 acres, but huge tracts of land had to be sold to pay off his debts. More damaging was his amendment to the Poor Law Bill 1847 during his first term as an MP for Dublin. He was 25 years old when elected. At the height of the Great Famine, the so called ‘Gregory Clause’ meant that no tenant could seek relief from the workhouse for himself or his family, if he owned as much as a quarter acre of land. The tenant was forced to sell his little parcel, which was all the security he had in the world, if at the moment of extreme distress, he sought public assistance for himself or his family. When he left the workhouse he had nowhere to go but to the emigrant ship. Although Gregory himself never evicted any tenant from his estate, and his father before him had died from typhus caught while trying to ease the suffering of some of his sick tenants, other ruthless landlords used the ‘Gregory Clause’ to clear their lands of unproductive people. In 1857 Gregory re-entered parliament as MP for Galway ‘supported by the Catholic Church to address the economic and social needs of the west of Ireland’, and made a more positive contribution to public life.
I must assume that when he first met Augusta, Gregory’s kinder instincts were to the fore. His old schoolfriend from Harrow, Anthony Trollope, called to see him in 1844, and recognised the decency in the man. Trollope was to become one of Victorian England’s best loved novelists, but at the time of his Coole visit he was an insecure and poorly paid assistant surveyor for the Post Office in Ireland. Impressed by what he saw and heard of Gregory’s ideas, and the good that was in the man, he based the political adventures of his well intentioned character Phineas Finn on his friend Sir William Gregory.
Open door at Coole
“Yesterday, the anniversary of my marriage, half a century ago!” wrote Lady Gregory in her journal on March 5 1930. “So fresh still in my memory, the threshold of 12 such happy years.”
Marriage for Augusta was like letting a bird out of a cage. Although Sir William died 12 years later, for at least the first half of that short time together, they lived life to the full. Their son Robert was born, whom they both adored. They lived a hectic social life in London, entertaining and being entertained, and meeting many of the great literary men and women of the day. They travelled extensively all over Europe and to Egypt, where Augusta had her first, of at least two, passionate love affairs. She read and wrote; and after Sir William’s death, rediscovered her interest in folklore. She became a close friend, and patron, and artistic collaborator with the poet WB Yeats. She learned the Irish language on Inis Meán, and although for her son’s sake (who would inherit Coole ) she continued her landlord duties, she attempted to turn Coole into an Irish speaking ‘gaeltacht’. She translated some of the ancient collections of Irish myths and legends into English, and with her friend Yeats and others, founded the Abbey Theatre. In its day it was one of the great national theatres of the world. She became its administrator and tour manager. She lectured in America, and won the admiration of Theodore Roosevelt. She wrote more than 45 plays for the Abbey. Coole became the centre of the Irish Literary Movement which was to dazzle Europe, and inspire writers and artists. The door at Coole was opened to the leading writers of the time:
‘They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a swallow to its first intent...’
She gradually moved away from her Unionist background to embrace Sinn Féin principles. She complained to British newspapers about Black and Tan atrocities in south Galway, and suffered heartbreak when her son Robert and her nephew Hugh Lane were killed in World War I. She published folklore of her neighbourhood, and a biography of her late husband. She fought tirelessly for the Hugh Lane paintings to be returned to Dublin. She remonstrated with the local IRA following her daughter-in-law, Margaret’s, narrow escape from a vicious ambush at the gate of the Baggot estate, at Ballyturin, not far from Gort. The British District Inspector Capt Blake, his wife and two officers were shot dead. Margaret was allowed to run away.
She loved with great patience and humour her three grandchildren who grew up on the estate until it was sold in 1937, and gradually fell into disrepair to become ‘A moment’s memory to that laurelled head.**’
And what about the ‘little girl in the Loughrea bookshop’ all those years before? It was perhaps fitting that when she grew up, she was a member of the Carnagie Committee in Galway, charged with providing library services to the county. She was critical of the ‘mass of rubbishy fiction’ found on the shelves, and urged that the more expensive, but she believed more educational, ‘biographies and history and travel books’ be stocked instead.
*Quotes are taken from Judith Hill’s Lady Gregory - An Irish life, published by Sutton Publishing, 2005, and Lady Gregory’s Seventy years, 1852-1922, an autobiography, published by Macmillan and Co, 1974
** Both quotes taken from the poem Coole Park, 1929 by WB Yeats.