The story of the watch at Kiltartan

Week II

Gregory stayed at the Algonquin Hotel, on 44th Street, a few blocks from the Maxine Elliott Theatre where JM Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World, opened on Monday November 27 1911. This was the Abbey Theatre’s first tour of America, and it was much anticipated. But its opening night was brought to a standstill by riotous and disruptive behaviour by a yahoo Irish element, who objected to its depiction of Irish womanhood. The play continued only after the police dragged off the worst offenders to jail.

The arrival of former president Roosevelt the following night totally disarmed the yahoos, and without further interruption the New York run was a triumph. What audience could miss a ‘scandalous’ play that caused a riot, and thrilled a president?

One unexpected result of all this excitement, was that Lady Gregory, at 59 years of age, became totally enamoured by the diversity and energy of New York and America. ‘I grew fond of the little corner of the city,’ she wrote, describing the ‘dangerous excitement’ of crossing 6th Avenue, ‘with motors dashing in all directions, and railway trains thundering overhead.’

It was a pivotal time in New York. Much of the infrastructure and many of the landmarks which define it today were being built; the foundations of the New York Public Library, which now contains many of her manuscripts, were being laid that year.

Since she arrived in Boston the previous September Gregory found, as most of us still do, that it is far less a foreign country than England. She was constantly giving interviews, and dealing with reporters all of which she managed with growing confidence ever day. She was not disturbed by the abusive letters which arrived at regular intervals. In contrast the well wishers were numerous and encouraging. She particularly enjoyed when former Roxborough (her birth home near Loughrea ), and Coole tenants called in their stylish clothes and visiting cards.

‘A screaming success’

While in Boston she was welcomed by the ebullient and energetic Isabella Gardner - a well travelled heiress, who had designed her home, Fenway Court, to resemble a Renaissance Venetian palace. The two women immediately hit it off. Gregory was encouraged to give a lecture on playwriting, which she delivered in the Gardner’s medieval music room, to an invited audience. A delighted Isabella pronounced it ‘a screaming success’. Gregory earned $40.

Having never lectured before Gregory found new confidence. In the margins of the tour she gave a series of lectures to schools and colleges ‘where strangers welcomed me, and I seemed to say goodbye to friends’.

Great excitement

She dozed on midnight trains. Once outside Chicago heavy snow stopped her train. She had to walk ‘in unsuitable shoes’ to the next station. She was glad to get to her hotel that night, and to hear the familiar tones of a Mayo woman fussing about as she was settled into her room.

She watched college girls at Vassar dressed as boys playing football. As they grouped around her, out of breath, with mud stained clothes, she must have envied their freedom compared to her days growing up at Roxborough where the girls were side-lined in favour of the boys, and evenings spent at rigid Bible readings; and those awful excursions with her mother to preach Protestantism to the tenant families on their estate. How she hated it.

She wrote to her friend George Bernard Shaw: ‘I like America very much, indeed in spite of all - it is great excitement seeing a new country at my time of life, and since Philadelphia I feel any romantic adventure is


John Quinn

That ‘romantic adventure’ had already started. She had first met John Quinn in August 1900 at the Feis Ceoil that followed the unveiling of a headstone over the forgotten grave of Ó Raifteiraí at Killeeneen cemetery, and he joined Yeats, Edward Martyn, Douglas Hyde and others afterwards at Coole.

Born in Ohio 1870, the son of an Irish immigrant baker, Quinn powered through university emerging with an advanced degree from Harvard, and moved to New York where he worked on high-profile corporate cases becoming one of the highest paid lawyers in the country.

He was fascinated by the Irish literary revival of which Yeats and Lady Gregory were an integral part. He spent several weeks every August hosting long lunches in the Gresham, and other hotels, listening to the political developments in Ireland, of which the arts were becoming an independent force of its own. He was a generous patron and supporter of the Irish writers of the time, giving them money, buying manuscripts and paintings.*

Meeting Lady Gregory in New York, and putting his offices at her disposal, Quinn became invaluable at smoothing troubled waters as they arose. But soon he had a personal interest. What began as admiration for Lady Gregory, then friendship, developed into a full blown affair. It took Gregory by surprise, writing to him: ‘it was some call that came in a moment…something impetuous and masterful about you that satisfies me’… the fact that Quinn was 18 years her junior never mattered. (Gregory’s husband Sir William, with whom there had been a considerable age difference on his side, had died 19 years previously ).

As Christmas approached, Gregory was constantly in the company of Quinn. They went shopping together. He brought her into the famous Tiffany’s jewellers, and bought her an expensive gold watch. It is engraved: ‘To AG from JQ Christmas 1912’ (see photograph ).

The tour continued, with Gregory staying with the players and writing long, affectionate letters to Quinn, as they travelled through snowy Pittsburg, Richmond (Indiana ), Indianapolis and Chicago, playing to packed houses, and receiving wonderful reviews.

Then when everyone thought their troubles were over, after the first performance in Philadelphia, the Gaelic League was successful in securing an injunction against further performances. Gregory and the entire cast were arrested. Bail bonds were organised binding the players to appear in court the following day.

Quinn arrived from New York just as the court opened, and weaved his lawyer’s magic to such an extent that the judge was laughing out loud at the comedy of the play, and could not see any immorality in the text. The Gaelic Leaguers (Ireland’s ‘Pathriots’ as Quinn called them ) were left looking foolish, and Quinn was carried shoulder high by the cast.

‘Heavy hearted’

The Abbey players returned to Ireland the following March 1912. The tour had been an outstanding success, and the Abbey Theatre had shown not only new plays from an emerging new Ireland, but to the delight of the American press showed an independent talent and spirit, and a ‘gutsy’ Lady Gregory, that swept criticism aside. It was an immensely challenging time for Gregory, but she triumphed.

Gregory’s biographer, Judith Hill, writes of how the tour, and her affair, changed Lady Gregory profoundly. Although she had a long creative life ahead of her, she had revelled in ‘that call that came in a moment’. ‘She had entered a different realm; she was passionate, candid, joyous. The woman who was habitually so measured and discreet, laid bare her feelings’.

Writing later from Coole: ‘Oh my darling, am I now lonely after you? Do I not awake looking for you - and long to be alone sometimes that I may think only of you’….

Inevitably, through distance and time, the emotion ebbed, but their friendship remained. Gregory was to visit America on two further occasions, and met Quinn for the last time in 1915. They continued to write to each other until his death from cancer in 1924. Upon hearing the news, Gregory wrote in her diary: ‘A great blow yesterday. A cable from New York ‘John Quinn died this morning.’ America will seem very distant now without that warm, steady sympathy and my day and night have been sad, and I am heavy hearted’…

Shortly after returning from that life-changing experience, for a time Lady Gregory was at a complete loss. She had written to Quinn: ‘Just two months today I said goodbye to America and to you. I have felt more profound loneliness than I have felt for many a year. I know it is just paying for past happiness, that rapture of friendship that so possessed and satisfied me…’

NOTES: *Quinn also gave financial assistance to TS Eliot, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, Ezra Pound, and others. He was equally enthusiastic about European art, and bought paintings by Van Gogh, Matisse, Seurat, Picasso, and others, which decorated his large apartment overlooking Central Park. He staged the famous Armoury Show in 1913, the first great exhibition of European and American modern art.

He never married. His long term companion was Mrs Jeanne Robert Foster, who helped him on his later European trips. Following his death, his art collection, some 2,000 paintings and sculpture, were auctioned. His letters to Gregory do not survive.

Quinn represented Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap charged with a criminal offence for serialising portions of James Joyce’s Ulysses, in their magazine The Little Review. The US Post Office had found it to be ‘obscene’. He lost that case, and the two women went to prison.

But the right to publish Ulysses in America eventually prevailed in a second trial as late as 1934. Judge Learned Hand famously agreed that while some long passages did contain matter that were obscene, nevertheless, taken as a whole the book was not within the statutory prohibition.

Sources this week include Lady Gregory - An Irish Life, published by Sutton 2005, and notes on the wristwatch by Peggy Doherty.


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