Hidden lives on a Galway tree

Week II

 A sketch by Jack B Yeats of a picnic tea at Coole, on a summer’s day, near the lake. Left to right: Robert Gregory’s horse ‘Sarsfield’, Lady Margaret Sackville, Robert, T A Harvey (Robert’s tutor, later Bishop of Cashel), and Jack’s wife Cottie (From A Guide to Coole Park by Colin Smythe).

A sketch by Jack B Yeats of a picnic tea at Coole, on a summer’s day, near the lake. Left to right: Robert Gregory’s horse ‘Sarsfield’, Lady Margaret Sackville, Robert, T A Harvey (Robert’s tutor, later Bishop of Cashel), and Jack’s wife Cottie (From A Guide to Coole Park by Colin Smythe).

In April 1902 Augusta Lady Gregory was working hard at her home at Coole, translating from Irish the myths and legends of Ireland. Somebody had dubbed Coole ‘the workshop of Ireland’, and the phrase went straight to her heart. Her pride in it glows in her letters to Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, her one-time lover and life-long friend, and admirer.*

‘If Lady Margaret wants to take up Irish things she had better come and pay us a visit in the summer. Coole is said to be the workshop of Ireland, I expect people to do so much when they come, but the truth is there is so much to be done we can use all hands.’That year the Irish Literary Revival was in full swing.

In the autumn she wrote to Blunt, breathlessly, that the week of November 16 ‘was an extraordinarily interesting week. Young actors writing plays, young writers acting, AE (George Russell ) painting his own scenery, Yeats speaking from the stage. I have never seen such an enthusiastic intellectual life.

’The following year Lady Gregory again wrote to Blunt saying, that ‘we have harvested five plays in this house this summer: two by Hyde, two by Yeats, one by me; and proof sheets go out interminably. The new book, Gods and Fighting Men will be a hundred pages longer than Cuchulain.’ **

Young women

It was Lady Margaret Sackville, a 21 years old poet, that had captured Blunt’s gaze; and he recommended that she went to Coole, to absorb the atmosphere there.

By all accounts Lady Margaret was a beautiful young woman. She was born into the very aristocratic Sackville-West family, and her mother was a second cousin of Queen Victoria. She initially arrives at Coole accompanied by an equally aristocratic Countess Sibel Cromartie, a member of the Mackenzie family who just managed to avoid being executed for supporting the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. Somehow the family managed to hold on to their lands. Being one of the largest family landowners in Great Britain, Sibell was a wealthy young woman, well known in the literary world as a writer of romantic stories of Highland life.

Lady Gregory had previously met the countess in London, and in fact had introduced her to W B Yeats. It was probably a combination of Yeats’ growing reputation as a poet, and Blunt’s enthusiasm for Coole that brought the two women there for the first time in the summer 1905.***

Mischievous spirit

The visit was a success, during which Lady Gregory invited both women to carve their initials on her ‘hall of fame,’ the famous copper beech tree in the walled garden at Coole. Lady Gregory might have had a wish that her son Robert, also in his early 20s and a student at Slade Art College London, would marry Lady Margaret but it was not to be. Clearly they were relaxed in each other’s company, but two years later Robert married Margaret Perry, a fellow art student.

Lady Margaret would never marry, but she was spared the publicity of her great love affair, and all secret affairs, viewed contemptuously by George Moore, also a signatory close to her own letters on the tree.

George Moore, who lived a Bohemian life in Paris for some years was a mischievous spirit casting a cold eye on the busy, romantic revisionists working hard at Coole and elsewhere. In his book, Modern Painting, he wrote that ‘women did not often paint or write works of genius because they could not transcend shame. They would never dare to make a full sexual confession…’

Public opinion then, and probably still today, would not allow any such exposure. Lady Margaret’s sexual life, like Lady Gregory’s, would only be revealed after her death.

Next week: Lady Margaret and the British Prime Minister.

NOTES: *Blunt loved a cause. He was renowned for his anti imperialist views, and for a time was passionate about Arab nationalism, and Arabian horses. He championed the plight of the Earl of Clanricarde tenants in east Galway, for which he suffered a period in Galway gaol. He had married Lady Anne Lovelace, Lord Byron’s granddaughter, but he had many mistresses. In 1892 he published A Woman’s Sonnets, containing a ‘re-writing of intimate love poems’ given to him by Lady Gregory, at the end of their affair. It was only many years later that the true author of the sonnets was revealed.

** Lady Gregory - A Literary Portrait, by Elizabeth Coxhead, published by Secker and Warburg, 1961.

*** William Henry in his recently published The Autograph Tree, now on sale €15, tells an amusing anecdote about Yeats and the Countess. Yeats who was always a bit of a snob, was invited to the Countess’ magnificent family home, Stafford House, in the heart of London. There was a children’s party in an adjoining room, and when Yeats went in to see the fun he was met by Sibel’s mother who introduced him to Queen Alexandra: ‘a tall, very beautiful woman’ standing among the children.They spoke for about five minutes during which the queen said how much she liked his poetry. Yeats was flattered. But he wondered what effect his meeting might have on some Irish nationalist friends at home, and how impressed or unimpressed, would his muse Maude Gonne be, when she heard.


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