Has Sir William Gregory been brought in from the cold?

New evidence shows that his humanitarian intentions were exploited

A Gathering at Coole last weekend: (back row) John Joe Conwell (Ireland Reaching Out), Professor Brian Walker, Ms Susan Persse,  Sean Tobin, and Ronnie O’Gorman (director of the Gathering). 
(Front row) Edward Persse, James Persse, Richard Persse, Dr Cecily O’Neill, Hedy Gibbons-Lynott (chairman of the Gathering), Lois Tobin (founder of the Gathering),  Professor Angela Bourke, Sr Mary de Lourdes Fahy, and Marion Cox (secretary of the Autumn Gathering).

A Gathering at Coole last weekend: (back row) John Joe Conwell (Ireland Reaching Out), Professor Brian Walker, Ms Susan Persse, Sean Tobin, and Ronnie O’Gorman (director of the Gathering). (Front row) Edward Persse, James Persse, Richard Persse, Dr Cecily O’Neill, Hedy Gibbons-Lynott (chairman of the Gathering), Lois Tobin (founder of the Gathering), Professor Angela Bourke, Sr Mary de Lourdes Fahy, and Marion Cox (secretary of the Autumn Gathering).

Sir William Gregory of Coole, Co Galway, and the husband of Lady Augusta in his later years, has been vilified unfairly by historians and commentators, said Brian Walker, professor of Irish Studies at Queen’s University last weekend. As the member of parliament who introduced the so called ‘Gregory clause’ as the Great Famine raged through the land, he did so for humane motives; but it was exploited by some ruthless landlords to clear their land.

Gregory, a Conservative member for Dublin at the time, and a considerable land owner in south Galway, was alarmed at the growing destitution of tenant farmers and small holders throughout the country. His father Robert, when visiting one of his tenants in Kinvara, had contacted a fever and died.

The London government had decided that it would be no longer take financial responsibility for famine relief schemes in Ireland. In future such schemes were to be financed by the local ratepayers, which included the majority of landlords. But because of the crisis on the land, many tenants were unable to pay their rent. Yet the landlord was now expected to contribute to all relief schemes, including the workhouse, with a dwindling income.

Gregory presented two amendments to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1847. The first proposal was that any tenant rated at a net value not exceeding £5 should be assisted to emigrate by the Guardians of the Union; and that the landlord should not only drop his demand for rent, but should financially assist the tenant and his family to emigrate. The proposal was regarded as a humane gesture. It was agreed without opposition.

Some landlords, however, immediately exploited the Act to clear their land of some of their poorest tenants. This outcome was not foreseen by Gregory. His intention was that while there was starvation and fever at home, and little or no future for many thousands of people on the land, surely in America there was every hope of a new and a better life.

As for the burden on ratepayers to meet the costs of the relief schemes (which in some landlords’ areas had surpassed the amount of the yearly rent of the land ), Gregory’s second proposition stated that a test be applied to ensure that no undeserving person should get relief. He suggested that if a tenant possessed more than a quarter of an acre of land, he should not be entitled to assistance. This too was carried by 116 votes to nine.

Humanitarian attitude

Professor Walker, a political historian, began to question the resentment that had been heaped on Gregory when he studied the general election of 1847, the year that the Act was passed. Gregory lost his seat that year, and Professor Walker assumed it was because of the ‘Gregory Clause’. However, with the exception of one reference in Carlow, it was never mentioned throughout the campaign.

Furthermore Walker challenges the remarks attributed to Gregory recorded in Hansard, the official House of Commons record of all debates. Hansard stated that some members ‘insisted that the operation of the (Gregory ) clause, would destroy all the small farmers’. Hansard attributed to Gregory the following callous remark: ‘ If it could have such an effect he did not see what use such small farmers could possibly be..’

Walker doubted that Gregory, based on his reputation of never having evicted a tenant, ever made such a remark. Walker says that Gregory was misquoted.

The London Times also covered the same debate. It recorded a different remark from Gregory: “ As for the clause destroying the small farmers, of what value could their farming be if this would affect them.”

Hansard was not the official Government record and archive at that time. It was an unofficial record, contributed to by a number of journalists. Mistakes were made. Professor Walker prefers to accept The Time’s version of the debate. (Hansard did not become an official record until 1907 ).

When Gregory died in March 6 1892 both the Tuam Herald, and the radical nationalist newspaper The Galway Vindicator made no mention of the clause; but praised Gregory’s parliamentary skills, and his humanitarian attitudes to his tenants.

However, despite his good intentions, the so called ‘Gregory Clause’ was used ruthlessly to evict small farmers from many landlord properties. Between 1849 - 1854 one and a half million tenants had been evicted.

Archbishop McHale of Tuam never forgave Gregory on account of his clause. He always referred to him as ‘Quarter Acre Gregory’. The author of The History of the Famine 1847, Fr O’Rourke stated that ‘A more complete engine of the slaughter and degradation of the people was never designed.’ John Mitchell described the clause as “ the cheapest and most efficient of the ejectment acts.”

The hearts of men

The life of the Gregory family was much in evidence during the successful 17th Lady Gregory Autumn Gathering held in perfect autumnal weather at Coole, Co Galway, last weekend. The eminent historian, and curator of the Kiltartan museum, Sr Mary de Lourdes Fahy, said that in her research throughout south Galway, she had never heard a bad word said about the Gregorys as landlords. She had numerous stories about emigrants from the area, many of whom worked on the Gregory estate. When Sir William was in Cincinnati, USA, the wife of the hotel porter was a Regan from Kiltulla, who had actually worked as a maid in the big house. Sir William was invited to their ‘snug rooms’ where he met several other people originally from Gort. After a meal, tea and whiskey, the party walked Sir William back to his hotel. There was a lot of laughing and whispering before the former maid got up courage and asked if she could give her former employer a kiss. This was granted amid great hilarity.

Sr Mary said that she had numerous stories of former employees of the Gregorys, going to America. Their first job was probably in domestic service, but their children became clerks or local authority employees, or attended university.

But emigration could be painful too. When on tour in the USA with the Abbey players in 1912, Lady Gregory met many emigrants from south Galway. She recalled in her journal passing a roofless, long-deserted cottage near Kiltartan, when a well-to-do man, son or grandson of the last who had lived there, had come along and taken two stones from the wall, to bring with him back to America. ‘It has always been so. That little Ireland has held the hearts of men through the ages.’

Persse’s whiskey

Edward and James Persse, great-grand-nephews of Lady Augusta Gregory, officially opened the Gathering by showing a series of slides taken in the 1890s of the Roxborough estate near Loughrea where Augusta was born. These views of Roxborough had never been seen before, and were gathered from family archives in America and South Africa. Augusta’s parents, Dudley and Frances Persse, had 13 children, in addition to Dudley’s three by his first marriage. Roxborough was a busy working estate, employing more than 100 people. It had a sawmill and a flourmill, and a large walled garden, with its walls ‘covered with pears, cherries, and peaches. Beyond the walls one could see the low green hills and the brown heather.’ The Persse’s also had a famous whiskey distillery at Nun’s Island, Galway, which thrived for over 60 years, producing over 10,000 gallons, at 20 per cent proof, every week. It employed over 100 people, and sold throughout the world, and in the House of Commons. A bottle of Persse’s whiskey was recently auctioned at Christie’s of London for £100,000.

The distillery closed in 1908, and was bequeathed to Atty Persse, the Queen Mother’s horse trainer. Roxborough house was burned in 1924.

A steady heart

Aspects of Lady Gregory’s complex character were discussed too. Lelia Doolin reminded everyone that Gregory appeared to be wealthy, and may appear to have had an easier life than in today’s world. But her times were as frugal and embattled as they are now. In fact her accomplishments against the odds were astounding. Not only was she running the Abbey Theatre, its tours and quelling the rows among quarrelsome actors and directors, receiving bad reviews, and enduring riots and court cases, she was also collecting folklore, writing books and plays, minding her grandchildren, coping with the death of her husband and her only child, worrying about her home, her two love affairs, her endless journeys from Gort, to Athenry, to Dublin, London and America, the violence of the War of Independence, the Civil War, and her reportage in a liberal British periodical about the horrors of the Black and Tans. There was the Ballyturn ambush on May 15 1921, and the perceived threat to raid or burn her home leaving her vulnerable and sitting all night by an open window waiting for an attack. There were her ceaseless efforts to win back her nephew Hugh Lane’s paintings for Ireland, and her prolonged battle with breast cancer. “The art of making ends meet” said Ms Doolin, “was, and is, a state of mind that meets every challenge to creativity and endurance with a steady heart.”

As well as her astonishing dedication and work load, Lady Gregory was engaged in a curious mental struggle between her growing nationalism, and trying to preserve an imperialist lifestyle for her son Robert. Judith Hill, the author of a new book on Lady Gregory’s life,* told the Gathering that Gregory mourned the execution of Pearse and McDonagh, and felt that beside such bravery, the literary movement was made look ‘insincere’. She regretted that the intellectual movement’ as she described the literary revival, had been put into shadow. She hated war and violence, and was disturbed to see her London friends become bellicose and jingoistic in their support for World War I. She had always believed that the literary movement was ‘not working for Home Rule, but was preparing for it’. Yet her son was fighting on the British side, and, despite her growing support for nationalism, she worked hard to maintain Coole as a landlord’s estate for him.

A natural collector

There was a 35 year difference between Augusta and Sir William, and when he died in 1892, she began writing. She finished his autobiography (published in 1894 ) and gathered the political correspondence of her husband’s grandfather (Mr Gregory’s Letterbox ), which she published four years later. In a sense this was her literary apprenticeship. She learned Irish, initially on Inis Meán, and immersed herself collecting folklore along the Burren shore and on the Coole estate. The main preoccupation of many country people was the belief in the fairies, although even to call them by that name somehow excited attention. A old woman of Kiltartan spoke about the fairies as ‘Them’. “ Coole is alive with Them, as plenty as grass. In May they are as thick as the grass, but there’s no fear at all in you or for Master Robert. I know that, for one told it to me.”

Professor Angela Bourke, UCD School of Irish and Celtic Studies,** who wrote the acclaimed The Burning of Bridget Cleary, said the fairies were often used to explain a sudden change of character, an illness, a birth defect, or madness. Many stories centred around marriage break down, the belief often being that the good wife was taken away and an ‘old hag’. or ‘changeling’, was left in her place. By following certain rituals it was possible to get the original wife back.

Gregory was a natural collector of these stories. She may have been separated from her family’s tenants by birth, but not by snobbery or lack of respect. They spoke to her freely, and she wrote their stories in the vernacular. In all she published five volumes on local folklore: Poets and Dreamers (1903 ), Saints and Wonders (1906 ), The Kiltartan History Book 1909 ), The Kiltartan Poetry Book (1919 ), and two volumes of Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920 ). I intend to talk about the case of Bridget Cleary in the next few weeks.

The weekend concluded with, under the direction of Dr Cecily O’Neill, a play of voices gleaned from diaries, letters, and memoirs, telling the story of the early days of the Abbey Theatre. Here were the rows, the disappointments, the riots and the tours, the love affairs and the flirting, and the tragic death of JM Synge on March 24 1909, at the very height of his career, and on the verge of marrying his sweetheart Molly Allgood. He was 38 years of age. Dr O’Neill distributed the scripts among the audience, and as the lines were spoken, history slipped from the pages into the room.

NOTES:*Lady Gregory - An Irish Life, by Judith Hill, published by The Collins Press, on sale €14.99.

**The Burning of Bridget Cleary, by Angela Bourke published by Viking Penguin in 1999.


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