‘Oh what a happy world it might be with you back and the war at an end’

Lady Augusta Gregory. Her last letter to her son Robert was returned unopened.

Lady Augusta Gregory. Her last letter to her son Robert was returned unopened.

Week V

Whatever misgivings Lady Gregory had about her son Robert’s affair with Nora Summers, that was soon overshadowed by her worry for his safety. In the first few years of World War I the typical life expectancy for a fighter pilot in combat was numbered in weeks. Not all deaths were from German bullets. Many were caused by human errors, faulty machines, injuries sustained at training, or operational mishaps.

In the winter of 1917 she told WB Yeats that she was worn out with anxiety. ‘I am really suffering from the long strain of anxiety about Robert, and his ever-increasing danger. He is kept very hard at work now leading patrols and his squadron in these air-fights. His promised leave has been twice withdrawn, and there is no doubt the German machines are ahead of ours…I sometimes awake feeling as if some part of me was crying in another place.’

Not all leave was cancelled, however. He did spend time with Margaret in London, even if at times he was ‘depressed…all rather sad and dull’. Margaret became pregnant, something that neither of them wanted. In April that year Robert came to Coole on a brief visit. He looked ‘well and cheery’. He optimistically declared that the Germans were beaten in the air. They could, he allowed, still inflict damage on British aeroplanes, ‘but they would not be able to penetrate British lines.’

He even managed to return to Coole in June, for a brief stay. It was to be his last time home. There was talk of him spending three months in England teaching at a flying school in Wiltshire. His mother was delighted. She said that she probably would not see him for that time, but at least he would be safe.

Finding a wife

Robert and Yeats had not been getting on well in recent years. Robert resented the poet’s long months at Coole, sleeping in his late father’s room, drinking the house wine, and his dreamy presence at table. Robert’s resentment had to be embarrassing for Lady Gregory who was Yeats’ great patron, his advisor and literary companion in their dynamic work behind the Irish Literary Revival. Coole Park had been an important meeting place for like-minded writers and artists.

But happily for Yeats he did not have to endure this humiliation for long. In 1917, at 52 years of age, he was in the throes of finding a wife. With Robert and Margaret away, he confided his feelings to Lady Gregory at Coole. He was dithering between the young Iseult, the daughter of his life-long muse Maude Gonne, and the equally young Bertha Georgie Hyde-Lees (known as George ), whom he had met at meetings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Both the poet and George were into astrology and magic. Lady Gregory encouraged WB to settle for George, and wrote an encouraging letter to her.

Letter unopened

WB Yeats and Georgie were married in London on October 20 1917. Four days later Robert was suddenly ordered to France to take command of 66 Squadron. There was no time for leave. He wrote regretting that he had not seen the children. He was now a major.

On November 22 his squadron was sent to the Italian-Austrian border in response to appeals for British assistance from the Italian prime minister. On December 4 Robert was at Grossa, in the mountains surrounded by snow. Later that month there was a determined Austrian offensive, which the Allies counterattacked. On January 26 1918 Lady Gregory wrote optimistically to her son: ‘Oh what a happy world it might be with you back and the war at an end…’ (the letter was never delivered. Lady Gregory noted in her diary: it ‘was sent back to me unopened’ ).

Three days earlier, January 23, Major Robert Gregory was killed when his plane seemed to fall out of the sky on a clear sunny day.**

Lady Gregory heard the news on February 1. She was writing letters in the drawing-room when Marian, the house maid, came in weeping with the ‘long dreaded’ telegram in her hand. Appalled, and barely able to speak, Lady Gregory had only one thought: to get the news to Margaret who was staying with her children at Lady Gregory’s sister, Arabella Waithman’s house, at 36 Dominick Street, Galway. Margaret had still barely recovered from her debilitating miscarriage before Christmas.

Lady Gregory was brought by horse and trap to the station at Gort. Then the train to Athenry, to catch the Dublin to Galway train. Walking out of the station, around Eyre Square, down Williamsgate Street, William Street, Shop Street, Mainguard Street, and into Dominick Street. Margaret was standing on the stairs. When she saw Lady Gregory she knew at once. “He’s dead isn’t he?” Lady Gregory could not answer. She leant back against the wall, and slowly, sat on the hall floor. The two women crying.

Next week: The Poems

NOTES: * Despite differences in age, and Yeats’s dalliances with other women, the marriage was a success. They had two children, Anne and Michael. They lived in Dublin, and stayed for short periods in Coole. While they were making Thoor Ballylee, an ancient Norman tower house near Coole (subject to flooding! ), liveable, they stayed at Ballinamantane House near Gort. There were no more long stays at Coole.

** There is still speculation why Robert’s plane fell from the sky. There was reports that his plane was shot down by enemy fire, or by mistake by friendly fire, or engine failure. The conjecture today, however, is that he lost consciousness at the controls. Probably as a reaction to a ‘flu vaccination.

References for today’s Diary include Lady Gregory - An Irish Life (Sutton Publishing 2005 ), by Judith Hill, Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush (The Lilliput Press, 2002 ), by Colm Tóibín, and Yeats’s Perfect man, by James Pethica (The Dublin Review 26/06/2015 ).

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