Augusta Lady Gregory, writer, folklorist and great patron of the arts, who died at her home at Coole Park in 1932, reappeared during the Druid production of five of her plays each evening this week. Druid is no stranger to magic, and such is their skill that Lady Gregory (Marie Mullen ) makes several appearances inviting the audience to follow her for yet another of her plays performed in different locations around her home. From the edge of Coole lake to the old stables and yards, her ghostly figure seductively beckoned. The audience followed enchanted, moved by the strange power of her deceptively simple plays.
Yet there is the astonishing play ‘McDonough’s Wife’ where the wife of the acclaimed piper McDonough (Marty Rea ) dies in the poorhouse, and he returns too late to give her a comfortable death that his wealth can afford. In language as wild and as savage as Synge, his absence is cruelly taunted by women, until MacDonough calls to the men in the fields and at the Galway fair to come to his aid, and bury his wife with the dignity she deserved. The men come and gently carry her away, as McDonough cries: “ It is the story of the burying of McDonough’s wife will be written in the book of the people”.
The ‘book of the people’ was the quest for the young Lady Gregory, where she sought to find where she stood in a changing Ireland.
Initially she thought ‘the people’ were her own Protestant Ascendancy class, who in the 1890’s were horrified, and felt betrayed by the succession of Land Acts which in effect compelled landlords to take responsibility for their tenants; and eventually to face a government buy-out, and the redistribution of their land among their tenants.
Started by prime minister Gladstone to try to bring peace to the murderous campaign waged by dissident groups against landlords and their agents, and a powerful Irish Parliamentary lobby, supported by Irish America. It was plain to see that matters were inexorably moving towards Home Rule. For many of the landed class, of which good and bad were lumped together, it was an unsettling revolution.
Gregory, who came from a substantial landlord family near Loughrea, and on the death of her husband Sir William Gregory, inherited the Coole estate, initially wrote strong pro-Unionist propaganda. Most famously ‘The Phantom’s Pilgrimage, or Home Ruin’ where the ghost of Gladstone sits astride the engine of a train that carries him from the west of Ireland to Dublin, passing through a wasteland. He is threatened of being reincarnated as a boycotted Irish cow if he cannot within 24 hours find one person who benefitted from Home Rule. Her unionists friends were delighted with her sagacity, and humorous vision.
But as time went by, her ‘duties’ to her tenants involved visits to the farms on her estate, and visiting the workhouse in Gort where she gradually became absorbed into the culture of the people, and began noting their stories and folklore.
Local historian Mary de Lourdes Fahy tells us, in the Druid programme, that she invited Sir Horace Plunkett, the founder of the Irish agricultural cooperative, to set up a branch at Coole, giving farmers the advantage to purchase in bulk. She cooperated with the Mercy Sisters in Gort, establishing Gort Industries ‘which became one of the most successful such ventures in Ireland. ‘She began to learn Irish, enlisting the help of Pat Mulkere of Castletown to help her translate Irish legends, ‘though Pat admitted that she didn’t have the real blas!’ She would eventually successfully translate the legends and myths of Cuchulainn and the early Irish sagas. Her books are still in print.
Poet and his friends
The night before St John’s Eve 1897 Lady Gregory and her friends really annoyed George Gough of Lough Cutra castle. To show defiance among the ascendancy class he wrote to all his land-owing neighbours urging them to light a bonfire to mark Queen Victoria’s jubilee. Gregory refused. She replied that ‘after the long and marked neglect shown by the queen to Ireland’ she thought it right to show her ‘disapproval.’ Her neighbour and cousin Shaw Taylor declined saying that turf was ‘dear’ implying it should not be wasted; while Edward Martyn of Tuliria replied saying he had no turf, but perhaps his tenants who had access to bogs may light fires in her majesty’s honour.
Gregory wrote in her diary: “George Gough was sadly grieved by my disloyalty and wrote an impassioned letter - a sort of wail over a lost soul..’
But the realisation that she had found her ‘book of the people’ came after she discovered the unmarked grave of Antoine Ó Raiftearaí, the 18th century poet, at Killeeneen, and arranged to have a stone to mark his grave.
One evening as she was walking along the road from Killeeneen to Craughwell asking local people for past memories of the poet, she suddenly found that her world had changed:
‘ As I went back along the silent road there was suddenly a sound of horses and a rushing and waving about me, and I found myself in the midst of the County Galway foxhounds, coming back from cub-hunting. The English Master and his wife rode by, and I wondered if they had ever heard of the poet whose last road this had been. Most likely not, for it is only among the people that his name has been kept in remembrance.’
Nor would the Master or his wife have recognised Lady Gregory walking on a country road. For her part, she probably kept her head down. Yet her account clearly suggests that walking while the hunters rode, Lady Gregory now identified with the poet and his friends.