What would have happened to James Joyce had he come to the relative comforts of Coole, instead of opting for hardship and exile and the life of a wandering artist in Europe?
This was one of the intriguing questions posed by Marc Conner, Professor of English at Washington and Lee, Virginia, during the 16th successive Autumn Gathering at Coole last weekend. The whole ‘workshop atmosphere’ at Coole, spearheaded by Lady Augusta Gregory and WB Yeats, was initially towards the appreciation and revival of the ancient Irish literary tradition. Joyce was equally seeking to establish his Irish identity and would successfully do so by looking at Dublin and Ireland as it was in his immediate present. Joyce had quickly placed himself apart from the growing literary trend of the day. He mocked contemporary politics and, as a young man, drew his critical sword against Yeats. In a leading article in the Irish Times May 9 1899, he slaughtered Yeats’ first play The Countess Cathleen. He wrote that the play ‘lacked action’, that it was ‘without truth’, and perhaps most hurtful of all, that ‘as a Celtic dramatic effort it was not entitled to have serious consideration.’
Joyce was never directly invited to Coole. His initials are not inscribed among the parthenon of famous initials on Coole’s famous autograph tree in its walled garden. Two divergent, and distinctly different paths were emerging as to where the Irish literary revolution was heading, and Joyce went his own way.
After his graduation from University College Dublin in 1902, Joyce spent a year in Paris, returning in 1903 when his mother was fatally ill. He met Yeats when he was 20 years old and with all the arrogance of youth, told him “ I have met you too late. You are too old.”
Yeats, 37 at the time, was quietly amused, and impressed. He wrote to Lady Gregory that ‘the younger generation was knocking at his door’. In recommending Joyce for a bursary later, he described the young writer as “ the most remarkable new talent in Ireland today...a man of genius.”
And Joyce was not without an appreciation for Yeats’ poetry. Shortly after meeting his partner Nora Barnacle, he gave her Yeats’ poem Down by the Sally Gardens. He signed it by the poet, as if suggesting that even he, for all his arrogance, could not better this.
Joyce left Ireland permanently in 1904, this time with Nora, and the nearly completed 15 stories of Dubliners (which would not be published until 1914 ). Lady Gregory expressed her genuine regret that Joyce felt that he had to leave. She wrote:“ I don’t like to lose you here. I am sorry you cannot stay in Ireland.” She enclosed £15.
Professor Conner remarked that ‘Coole for Joyce would have been at best a delay, at worst a block on his creative genius.’
Plays in Irish
Although Lady Gregory wrote more than 40 plays, she never wrote a play in Irish. She learned to speak Irish, encouraged Irish to be spoken on her Coole estate, and translated from ancient Irish manuscripts the legends of Cuchulain and the old myths. Yet during this year’s Autumn Gathering Philip O’Leary, professor of English at Boston College, suggested that she provided a springboard for Irish language drama. In 1898 Douglas Hyde and Ms Norma Borthwick presented in Irish a Punch and Judy show at a Christmas party for children at Coole. The children were delighted and ran back to tell their parents what wonderful curses they had learned from the baby and the policeman at the play.
Douglas Hyde, the principle founder of the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge ), saw the potential of using drama to promote the language. He followed the Coole show with The Twisting of the Rope, the first Irish play to be presented in Dublin. Irish drama, however, has struggled to consistently attract large audiences. But the more popular plays of Gregory, including translations of Spreading the News, The Rising of the Moon, Hyacinth Halvy, and in particular The Golden Apple have consistently attracted good audiences. Professor O’Leary praised An Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe’s veteran translators, and innovative producers, Seán and Máire Stafford. The Taibhdhearc’s tradition of its annual pantomime was an acknowledgement of that early event during that Christmas at Coole.
‘A serviceable woman’
There were gasps of incredulity when Washington lawyer Joe Hassett (A regular attender at the Autumn Gathering ), said that Yeats gave up his pursuit of the youthful Iseult Gonne, the beautiful daughter of his life-long passion, Maud, to settle for a “friendly, serviceable woman” George Hyde-Lees, who became his wife.
Mr Hassett’s new book, WB Yeats and the Muses* explores how nine fascinating women inspired much of WB Yeat’s poetry. Yeats believed that a great poet is inspired and possessed by the feminine voices of the Muses. His extraordinary long and fruitful poetic career was fuelled by passionate relationships with women about whom he wrote his most compelling poetry. Yeats however, needed his Muses to be the fruit ‘just out of reach’; the unattainable being the source of his inspiration.
In August 1912 Yeats visits Maud’s villa at Colleville, Normandy, where she again tells him she will not marry him. Yeats is desperate. Yet he stays on, becoming totally captivated by her daughter Iseult, then just 18, intelligent and flattered by the poet’s attention. The poet is 47 at this time.
This period inspires several unselfconscious poems, including A Memory of Youth:
My dear, my dear, I know
More than another
What makes your heart beat so;
Not even your own mother
Can know it as I know,
Who broke my heart for her,
When the wild thought,
That she denies
And has forgot,
Set all her blood astir
And glittered in her eyes.
Iseult will not marry him, but lets him down gently. Yet she toys with the idea of allowing him follow her with desire as her mother had done. Yeats eventually understands this, and wakes up from his dream and disappointment. He writes to Lady Gregory that he will propose to George Hyde-Lees, whom he met two years previously and whom he knows would marry him. He says that he needs “a friendly serviceable woman - after all I want quiet more than any other thing. Quiet and habit create great affection.”
Florimond de Basterot
On Sunday morning the Gathering went by bus to Doorus House and nearby St Brecan’s cemetery at Parkmore where Count de Basterot lived and is buried. De Basterot was a great friend of Lady Gregory’s husband, Sir William; and after his death a warm and loved friend of Lady Gregory. It was in his house, now a youth hostel, on one rainy summer’s day in 1898, that Florimond de Basterot was joined by the young poet Yeats, Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn. Both Martyn and Yeats had written plays but were frustrated that there was no Irish nationalist theatre to present them. Before the afternoon was over, the idea, which eventually became the Abbey Theatre, was agreed, and a strategy planned.
The Gathering was met by journalist and local historian Jeff O’Connell who told the story of the de Basterots, first at their impressive mausoleum at Parkmore, and then at Doorus House. The de Basterots fled Bordeaux at the outbreak of the Revolution, married into the Galway Ffrench family, and owing to the vicissitudes of the Famine, and poor financial investment, saw their large estates and income dramatically reduced. Mr O’Connell presented Florimond de Basterot’s life-story with such conviction and knowledge, that he concluded by saying he felt that the count had become a member of his family.
The Gathering was welcomed by the hostel manager Sean Glynn. Tea and scones were provided by Aine O’Connell. Chairman for this year’s Gathering was the drama educator and author Cecily O’Neill who cheerfully admitted that the Autumn Gathering had become an addiction to which people returned year after year. She believed there was no cure.
NOTES: * Mr Joseph M Hassett, a graduate of Harvard Law School, holds a Ph.D. in Anglo Irish literature, practices law in Washington, and lectures extensively on literary subjects. His book, to be launched in Dublin this week, is published by Oxford University Press.