You might think that those at the core of the Irish literary renaissance at the beginning of the 20th century, were one big happy family beavering away in their rooms at Lady Gregory’s home at Coole, Co Galway. In those early days it was a house full of voices and sounds. Sometimes you heard WB Yeats humming the rhythm of a poem he was cobbling together; or the click-clacking of Lady Gregory’s typewriter as she worked on another play for the Abbey. There was the sound of the Gregory grandchildren playing in the garden; the booming voice of George Bernard Shaw, as he complains that he is only allowed to have either butter or jam on his bread, but not both to comply with war rations (He cheated by the way. He put butter on one side of his bread, and when he thought no one was looking, piled jam on the other! ); or the voices of the artist Jack Yeats and JM Synge returning from a day messing about on a boat calling out to a shy Sean O’Casey to come out of the library for God’s sake and enjoy the summer afternoon.
And then there was the flamboyantly Bohemian Augustus John, who was her son Robert’s best man at his wedding. John was a bit wild, and loved to pinch maids’ bottoms as he swept by (“Oh! Mr John!” ). It was unlikely, however, he ever pinched Marian. She was the kindly but formidable Lady Gregory’s right-hand ‘man’ in all domestic arrangements. Marian saw that guests dressed properly for meals, which were always served punctually. Despite his wickedness, she had a soft spot for Augustus. Augustus would climb to the top of the highest trees at Coole, and lie on the uppermost branches swaying in the breeze. Marian’s voice could be heard shouting up to him to come down or he’d be killed, and that dinner was on the table.
Of course it wasn’t all sweetness and light at Coole. There were rows, and tensions, jealousies and money problems; with the wars, internationally and at home, taking their inevitable toll. But there was also a magpie among this busy woodpile, and that magpie was George Moore. Not that Moore was very popular with the inner circle of Coole artists and writers, he sort of latched himself on to them; and there is every reason to believe he was both admired and feared. He became a sort an Irish Voltaire exposing pomposity and hypocrisy among the literary giants of the time.
In 1914, he published a gossipy, three-volume memoir Hail and Farewell, which entertained its readers but infuriated former friends. Moore wryly commented: “Dublin is now divided into two sets; one half is afraid it will be in the book, and the other is afraid it won’t.”
He was particularly mean to poor old JM Synge (author of The Playboy of the Western World ), who had recently died. He wrote:“ Synge’s death seems to have done him a great deal of good; he was not cold in his grave when his plays began to sell like hot cakes.”
WB Yeats was an easy target. In their quest for the authentic language of the people, he and Lady Gregory would visit cottages, and allegedly, only Gregory would go into the cottage, while Yeats waited outside. Moore often stayed with his ‘friend’ Edward Martyn, who lived in Tulira Castle, close to Coole. One day, when he was staying at Tulira, he spotted “ the hieratic Yeats and Lady Gregory out walking, seeking living speech from cottage to cottage, Yeats remaining seated under the stunted hawthorn usually found growing at the corner of the field, Lady Gregory braving the suffocating interior for the sacred cause of Idiom.” He further observed that Yeats had recently returned from the States “with a paunch, a huge stride, and an immense fur overcoat.”
Even his friend Martyn was not safe. A wealthy landlord and a devote Catholic, Martyn paid for and established the famous Palestrina Choir in Dublin. “While Yeats contemplates the lake and water-fowl, esurient Edward devours huge loin chops, followed by stewed chicken and a plateful of curried eggs, for he is suffering terrific qualms of conscience. And finding that food cannot allay them, he founds a choir for the singing of Palestrina Masses, hoping to do something for his Church; but the only result of Palestrina is the emptying of two churches.”
Revenge of sorts
Poor Lady Gregory got it hot and heavy too. He accused her of trying to convert Catholics to the Protestant religion when she was a young woman living on her family estate at Roxborrough, near Loughrea. She was infuriated at the slur; but admitted laughing out loud at Moore’s swipe at her neighbour and friend, Edward Martyn: “No one ought ever to speak to him again, though I suppose we shall all do so.” She grinned and bravely bore his comments about her plays:“ We must get it into our heads that the Abbey Theatre would have come to naught but for Lady Gregory’s talent for rolling up little anecdotes into one-act plays.”
But she finally went ballistic when Moore touched on a particularly raw subject, namely her late nephew Sir Hugh Lane. Before his untimely death Lane had bequeathed a substantial quantity of valuable paintings to the National Gallery of London; but in a controversial codicil to that will, changed his mind, and left the paintings to Dublin. Unfortunately, the codicil was never witnessed, and a long and bitter row ensued between Dublin and London as to the rightful owner of the pictures. Lane was her favourite nephew, and Lady Gregory devoted the last 17 years of her life in a tireless campaign to have the pictures returned to Ireland. But Moore scoffed at all that. Instead he writes how surprised Lady Gregory was one day to discover Lane, as a young man, dressing in her clothes. He haughtily criticised her choice of tailoring: “ Doesn’t it seem to you, Aunt Augusta, that the skirt is a little too full?”
However, she and Yeats were to have revenge of sorts. Gregory said that she was afraid to write directly to Moore in case he just ridiculed her further. Instead she urged Yeats to publish a poem, which he did in the New Statesman on February 7 1914, called Notoriety. The poem ended: ‘All my priceless things/ Are but a post the passing dogs defile.”
That shut Moore up for a while.
A weekend at Coole
This weekend celebrates the 14th Lady Gregory Autumn Gathering at Coole, Co Galway, the famous estate associated with the Irish literary renaissance in the last century. There are lectures on Edward Martyn, the Hugh Lane bequest, and on Lady Gregory’s plays; a guided walk and tour of Tulira Castle (the home of Edward Martyn ), and a candlelit dinner at Coole. And lots more. Only limited places available. Please contact Ms Lois Tobin tel 091-524329, or [email protected]