A heavy shadow over Coole

In Roy Foster’s impressive biography of WB Yeats* he tells an interesting anecdote concerning the sinking of the RMS Lusitania off the Cork coast on May 7 1915. The Galway writer Violet Martin (the second half of the caustic but amusing Sommerville and Ross duo ), was walking by the sea near Castletownshend, Co Cork, when she saw the Lusitania pass in ‘beautiful weather’. Half and hour later, as the ship steamed passed the Old Head of Kinsale on her way to Liverpool, it was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Nearly 2,000 people perished.

I have written about the sinking of the Lusitania before, telling the tragic story of young Annie Kelly of Newbridge, Mountbellew, who followed her boyfriend, William Murphy, to America only to be turned back by emigration for failing her medical examination on Ellis Island. She was sent home on the Lusitania, which left New York minutes before her boyfriend arrived with a permit allowing her to stay.

For the next few weeks, however, I want to tell the story of another passenger, Sir Hugh Lane, the great art connoisseur, collector, and despite his awkward and trying character at times, a generous benefactor to the Irish nation. He was the favourite nephew of Lady Augusta Gregory of Coole, Co Galway, who was impressed by her generosity and dedication to the emerging new Ireland. He admired her great work as a playwright, and co-founder of the Abbey. The jury is out on whether he admired her change from unionist to nationalist political views; but he saw at first hand the benefit of her open house to young artists, writers and musicians, which collectively formed the core of the Irish cultural renaissance in the early decades of the 20th century. He wanted to follow her example, and do something for Ireland in the art world.

On this fateful May 7, Lane, who had recently experienced some financial difficulties, was returning to Britain in triumph. He had just sold a Holbein and a Titian of his own to Henry Clay Frick for a handsome profit. Whereas poor Annie Kelly would have travelled third class, Sir Hugh would have enjoyed first class. But, unlike the Titanic three years earlier, where preference was given to first class passengers to avail of the life boats, class didn’t matter on the Lusitania. Neither Annie nor Sir Hugh survived.

There was no time. The torpedo slammed into the ship’s side at 2.10 that afternoon, and within seconds an mysterious second explosion literally ripped her apart**. Chaos reigned. The Lusitania listed so badly and quickly that lifeboats crashed into passengers crowded on deck, or swept frantic passengers into the water. Within 18 minutes the giant ship slipped beneath the sea. One thousand one hundred and nineteen of the 1,924 on board died.

Generous bequests

Sir Hugh Percy Lane was the son of Lady Augusta’s sister Adelaide who had married for love a poor clergyman, and lived for a while in Ballybrack, Co Cork, The marriage was always considered beneath the status of the Persse family, who were landed gentry living in style at Roxborough, near Loughrea. But Gregory always kept in touch with her sister, and kept an interest in her children. The Lanes moved to Cornwall, where Hugh was brought up. He learned his trade as an apprentice painting restorer, and quickly moved into the art dealing business. He soon gained a reputation as an expert on Impressionist paintings, and began to build up the collection at the National Gallery in London, where he was a director. He was a controversial figure. There were rows and difficulties with committees, but it was a risky business to alienate Lane on account of his generous bequests.

Through regular visits to Coole he remained in contact with developments in Ireland, and wanted to foster young Irish artists by ensuring they had access to the best of modern paintings of the time. He generously presented an acclaimed collection to Dublin city council on the condition it provided a suitable gallery of modern art to display it. While waiting for such a gallery to materialise, the collection was displayed in Clonmell House, Harcourt Street, which opened its doors to the public in January 1908, one hundred years ago. At the comparatively young age of 33 Lane was knighted for his services to art in Ireland.

‘I hate the place’

Impatient to get things moving, Lane brought over from London the famous architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, and asked him to draw up ideas for the gallery of modern art. Lutyens was one of the most important English architects in the early 20th century. Much of his most spectacular work is still to be seen in India. He virtually designed and planned the city of New Delhi. After World War I he was responsible for several prestigious buildings and war memorials, including the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London, the moving Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval, France, and the Islandbridge War Memorial in Dublin. Lutyens threw himself into Lane’s idea of the new gallery and produced several brilliant plans. One was a colonnaded building in St Stephen’s Green opposite the Royal College of Surgeons; and a stunning ‘bridge gallery’ over the Liffy. This took the form of two pavilions at either end linked by a columned pergola over a three arched bridge.

But sadly, and perhaps typically Irish, local Dublin architects were incensed that a ‘foreign’ architect should be considered for such a prestigious building. Despite Lutyens’ mother being Irish, Lane was criticised and ridiculed. When his aunt Gregory wrote to praise him for the work he was doing for Dublin, she received a stiff reply telling her that: “I hate the place, the people, and the Gallery.”

There were further consequences. Lane perceived that the Dublin City Council was dragging its heels over the gallery, and in a fit of pique, he withdrew 39 paintings from the collection. In the event of his death, he willed them to the National Gallery of London rather than Dublin. This was a blow as the works included such artists as Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot and possibly the favourite of all, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s The Umbrellas (Les Parapluies ).

Some hours later, that same May 7 evening, Violet Martin was walking home. A cottager called from his door ‘in horror’ to tell her that that Lusitania had been sunk. She wrote to Lady Gregory: ‘The shadow of it has been over us ever since.’

That shadow fell heavily over Coole. For the remaining 17 years of her life Lady Gregory endeavoured to fulfil her nephew’s wishes, and to give to the Irish people the paintings and the gallery that he originally wanted. She instinctively believed there might be a codicil to the will, and she eventually found it. But it was to be a long struggle, and not necessarily a successful one.

More next week


* WB Yeats, A Life: Volume II The Arch-Poet, by RF Foster, published by Oxford University Press 2003.

**Unknown to the passengers, the ‘mysterious’ second explosion was said to have been caused by a hidden cargo of munitions and contraband destined for the British war effort. Germany regarded the Lusitania as a legitimate target. Among the dead, however, were 114 Americans. The outcry that followed in the US brought America into the war.

Autumn Gathering at Coole

Barbara Dawson, director of the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, will be on on the main speakers at the forthcoming 14th Lady Gregory Autumn Gathering, to be held at Coole Park, near Gort on the last weekend of this month.

Other speakers include Madeleine Humphreys, author of a recent biography of Edward Martyn, and Tom Kilroy, award winning dramatist and novelist.

There will be a guided walk through the woods at Coole, a candle-lit dinner in the old stables, a presentation of Gregory’s famous The Workhouse Ward by the Wild Swan Theatre Company, and a reading by Christopher Fitz-Simon from his book A Memoir of Childhood.

It is a most enjoyable and informative occasion, and very popular. Contact: Mary Troy Fennell, phone: 091-521144 or e-mail: [email protected]


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