NUI Galway hosted the Lady Gregory Yeats Gathering with a book launch for Lady Gregory’s Irish Writings 1883-1893 edited by James Pethica and a new exhibition of materials at the Special Collections Reading Room of the James Hardiman Library.
The exhibition, open until Christmas, has a special emphasis on the art of Robert Gregory in the anniversary year of his death, and features newly acquired materials from the Yeats family collection sale. These include works by Jack B. Yeats and Elizabeth Rivers, the artist and writer, with original illustrations for her remarkable hand-coloured book Stranger in Aran (1946 ).
These exquisite drawings of the crafts, labour, and natural world of the islands became illustrations for the very last book printed at the Yeats family’s Cuala Press – a book conceived, written and illustrated by one person, and an Englishwoman at that, who spent considerably more time on the islands than all of the Yeatses and Synges combined.
Another independent-minded woman with great influence on Irish culture was, of course, Augusta Lady Gregory. Watched over by Festus Kelly’s august portrait of Gregory, her book of Irish Writings 1883-1893 edited by Professor James Pethica of Williams College, was launched by Dr Adrian Paterson of the English Department, NUI Galway.
Noting how many of the items on show had been plucked from the flood of the Yeats sale, he commented that “Ireland as a country is good at remembering, as the success of the decade of centenaries continues to show; it is also a country too good at forgetting.”
“The astonishing cultural revolution engineered by the Gregory and Yeats family was sometimes subject to selective memory. ‘We are lucky, then, to have such scholars as Professor James Pethica to remind us of their importance. The book he has introduced and edited with great scholarship brings together unpublished or forgotten works by Lady Gregory to remind us of three things: how much she owed to the life and landscape of Galway; what a formative time years these early years were; and that the story of her life as we understand it, of a dutiful widow woken to the cause of Ireland and its folklore by the work and influence of WB Yeats is not an accurate picture.’
The book shows Gregory’s great independence of mind from a young age. Before Yeats, two other men had a lasting influence on her – her much older politician husband, Sir William Gregory, and the dashing Wilfred Scawen Blunt, who seems almost to step out of the pages of a novel to have an affair with her, while they were involved in Egyptian nationalist politicking.
The book includes a pamphlet written by William Gregory, presciently predicting the decline of the landed classes in Ireland, and her own political tract, a dark satire of Gladstone’s Home Rule policies that depicts a broken impoverished Ireland under ‘Home Ruin’. But it also brings together more introspective unpublished pieces like ‘An Emigrant’s Notebook’ with early childhood memories mixed with contemporary observations, demonstrating her evolving political sense. ‘I don’t know whether the breach in our family can ever be healed’, she writes. ‘How is love to take the place of bitterness, and sympathy to bind class with class?’.
Early poems and stories show how much she loved the sound of local ballads long before she met WB Yeats. Her debt to the language, culture, and people of the west – and her growing skill as a writer – is evident from these fascinating fugitive pieces, all beautifully edited and annotated. In fact James Pethica’s magisterial introduction is worth the admission price alone.
A taster for his forthcoming biography, it shows a young Gregory as not the person we thought we knew, but at a time before the soft wax had hardened and she was awake, alive, and open to new ideas and influence, ready to help build a new Ireland.