“ We are no petty people. We are of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence...." so spoke out WB Yeats proudly, during a passionate debate in the senate in June 1925.
Yeats could be a terrible snob at times, but on this occasion there is something in what he said. The landed gentry had become a threatened race, and those that were left after successive land acts bought them out must have feared for their survival in the new Republic. From the mid 1920s on only the tradition of centuries held their society together. But they were a class apart. And some were cultured and well educated. The leading Galway families, including the Clanricardes, Clonbrocks, Gregorys, Martins, Clancartys and Dalys moved in the upper circles of English society. There were numerous social, marriage, and family ties; while the officer class, or service in the Empire, absorbed much of the ambition and energy of the gentry sons from poorer peripheral areas like Connacht.
Many of the older gentry had a tradition of travel in Europe, giving them a European rather than a narrow English outlook. Rome was the centre of aristicratic Catholic families such as the Blakes, Joyces and Redingtons. Richard Gregory of Coole, and the Redingtons surrounded themselves with art treasures from Italy. Families like the Kellys of Newtown, McDermotts of Ramore, Basterots of Duras, De Stackpooles of Mount Hazel, and FitzGerald-Kennedys all had connections with France.
The De Basterots were an old Bordeaux family who had married into the Frenchs' of Duras estate at Kinvara. Count Florimond de Basterot, a life-long traveller, divided the year between Duras, Paris, and Rome. Duras, like Coole Park, Tulira and Renvyle, became a meeting place for literary celebrities, such as WB Yeats, Edward Martyn, and Lady Gregory. It was on a wet summer's afternoon, sheltering in de Basterots' Duras home in 1898, that plans were laid to establish a national theatre of Ireland in Dublin, which later became the famous Abbey Theatre.
All this of course, Patrick Melvin reminds us in his interesting Estates and Landed Society in Galway*, was far removed from the lives of the struggling tenantry. The general lack of rural prosperity meant that 'big house ' culture was the exception apart from a handful of cases like Clonbrock and Mount Bellew. 'The cosmopolitan world of the gentry was foreign and irrelevant to the majority of tenantry. The gentry came to be seen as alien landlords, and a different race of people with a large unbridgeable gulf between the classes.'
Pride in Irishness
Lady Augusta Gregory of Coole, however, recognised the story-telling, musical, and poetic tradition that survived among her tenants in south Galway. " It is in cottages and workhouses here that we find the really cultivated classes,” she wrote to the German Celtic scholar Kuno Meyer.
During her lifetime she experienced a remarkable rebirth. She abandoned her allegiance to her landlord class, to become Irish nationalist. Coming from a traditional Unionist background on the large Roxborough estate she was fortunate to marry Sir William Gregory, a widely travelled, highly cultured man many years her senior. He delighted introducing her to London's stunning literary society. The Gregorys moved with ease between the homesteads of Kiltartan and the salons of European culture.
When she became chatelaine of Coole, she learned the Irish language on Inis Meáin, and organised Irish classes among her tenants. With help from Pat Mulkere she translated into English the poems of the blind peasant Anthony Raftery; sought out his unmarked grave at Killeeneen, and raised a monument there in his memory.
She encouraged her protege WB Yeats to look for inspiration among the people; which she did herself, collecting folklore, and translating the ancient Cuchulain myths, which she published in several books. Inspired by these stories and events she wrote more than 40 plays for the Abbey. At a time when revolution was in the air, she opened her home to writers and artists who celebrated her passion for pride in Irishness.
A haunting ruin
Lady Gregory and the writer Violet Martin of Ross witnessed the decay of the landed society to which their families had long belonged. On a lonely peninsula beyond Kilcolgan lies the haunting ruin of Tyrone House, once the palacial home of the reckless St George family. It was burnt in 1912. Violet went down to see it, and described it as 'A great square-cut stone house of three stories, perfectly empty, and such ceilings, architraves, teak doors and chimney pieces as one sees in the old houses of Dublin'.
But the family, she noted with some distaste, had 'rioted there for several generations, living with country women, occasionally marrying them, all illegitimate four times over.'
'About 150 years ago a very grand Lady Harriet St Lawrence married a St George, and lived there, and was so corroded with pride that she would not allow her daughters to associate with Galway people. She lived to see them marry two men in the yard...'
* Now on sale at €75.
**Taken from WB Yeats - A Life (Vol II ) by Roy Foster, Oxford University Press 2003.