I brought her a bag of apples on our first ‘date’. Not very romantic, I hear you say. True. And not very generous. Also true (Tesco special offer – one pound for a ‘family bag’ ). I was merely continuing a tradition. She was Anne Gregory and during her childhood at Coole Park, “every year John Quinn, Grandma’s great friend in New York, used to send a great case of apples to us.” So it is recorded in Anne’s beautiful book Me and Nu, Childhood at Coole. ‘Nu’ was Anne’s sister, Catherine. If you haven’t read Me and Nu, treat yourself to a copy for the New Year. It is still in print after nearly 40 years.
Anyway, back to my ‘date’. How could I, bearing the same name as Grandma’s New York friend, meet these charming ladies and not bring a gift of apples? They were very impressed and fell into a fit of giggles. More of that anon. The year was 1994. Earlier I had made a radio documentary about Coole Park and Lady Gregory and had used excerpts from Me and Nu to illustrate the programme. The thought occurred to me. Me and Nu would be in their eighties now. Are they still alive? If so, wouldn’t it be wonderful to bring them back to Coole and record their amazing childhood memories for another documentary? A quick call to Anne’s publisher, ColinSmythe, elicited the good news that they were very much alive – Catherine in Co Cork and Anne in the quaintly-named Budleigh Salterton in Devon. (Anne later told me she had bought a copy of her own book at a local jumble sale and was disturbed to see ‘Author Deceased’ written on the fly-leaf! ) Invitations were issued. RTE would pay their expenses (with a bag of Tesco apples thrown in ) and here they were in Glynn’s Hotel, Gort, on a September afternoon waiting to meet “John Quinn – Mark 2” as they called me. I was a little nervous. What if this idea doesn’t work and they have nothing to say? I need not have worried. The next two days would turn out to be two of the most memorable and enjoyable days of a long broadcasting career.
Nothing to say? After 70 years the memories came tumbling out. Anne and Catherine had an uncanny knack of complementing each other perfectly. One unfolds a delightful anecdote and the other picked it up seamlessly. Not surprisingly their warmest memories focus on Grandma – Lady Gregory – who was “the centre of our lives, more a mother than a grandmother really.” (Their parents spent a lot of time abroad ). Grandma was quite a disciplinarian – “Manners maketh man” was a favourite saying – but although she looked quite stern, dressed in her ‘widow’s weeds’, she had a terrific sense of humour. Although she had a very busy life running the estate, writing, entertaining writers and artists, travelling to Dublin to oversee The Abbey Theatre and to London to fight for the return of the Lane Pictures – she always had time for her “chicks”, as she called them. “We only had to run in excitedly and say ‘Come and see the bird’s nest we found’ – and she would be with us at once.” She was their teacher too – basic arithmetic, some French (“her knowledge was great but her pronunciation was awful!” ) and the chicks had to read a chapter of the Bible aloud to her every morning. She made them learn poetry by heart and read stories to them – from Brer Rabbit to Swiss Family Robinson. When they were eventually sent to school in England, “we hated it and only wanted to be back in Coole with Grandma”. Her death in 1932 was “sheer desolation” to the now grown-up chicks, “It was the end of our world, in a way.”
The visitors to Coole were a ‘Who’s Who?’ of the then arts world. “Mr Yeats would go around humming to himself, trying to get the rhythm of a poem.” Once, the poet claimed he had stroked a badger’s head in the woods, but Anne pointed out that “it was only my little dog Taddy. If Mr Yeats had stroked a badger, the badger would still have his hand!” Yeats summoned Anne to his room one day and read to her a poem he had written about her golden tresses:
Never shall a young man
Thrown into despair
By these great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair......
Oliver St John Gogarty seemed to be “talking Latin a lot of the time and it all seemed terribly dull – but we were only children and had no idea they were important.....” They watched in awe at Sean O’Casey’s expertise in carving his initials on the Autograph Tree, until he explained that he had lots of practice carving his name on the door of his tenement flat in Dublin. The girls’ favourite visitor was GBS – George Bernard Shaw – who joined in their fun and games regularly. One day, however, they caught him cheating at Hunt the Thimble – by peeping through his fingers! They were very upset by this and reported him to Grandma. Later when GBS was ill in London, Grandma insisted they send him a box of his favourite apples. Imagine the delight when GBS replied with a poem to the girls written on the back of five postcards. It began
Two ladies of Galway, called Catherine and Anna
Whom some call Acushla and some call Alanna ...
(This poem is now carved on five stones in Coole Park. )
We stood sheltering from merciless rain as Anne and Catherine recreated the Coole Park of their childhood – the house, long gone, is remembered in detail; the lake where they boated and fished; the well where “poor old Charlie the horse had to go round and round driving the shaft that pumped water from the lake – we regularly found leeches in the bath!”; the Visitor Centre, then an open barn for drying timber and storing hay; the coffee shop, then a stables; the haggard where the carriages were housed – wagonette, brougham, Victoria; and beyond that a huge walled manure-heap under which a spring was later discovered (“we suggested they market it as Coole Water!” ) and in one barn “millions of bats – I can still smell them!”
It was as Anne said “a perfect life”. The girls spent idyllic days exploring and playing in the woods. They needed to bring food with them of course, so each day they would stuff apples into their long knickers, elasticated at the knee..... All was well until the day they bumped into their grandmother who was out walking with Augustus John. She demanded an explanation for their unusual gait. On hearing it, she was disgusted and insisted that they empty their knickers there and then. “We were so embarrassed. Augustus John fell about the place laughing...”
Day Two of our adventure took us to the Flaggy Shore where the sprightly eighty-somethings recalled bathing and searching for fish in the rock pools. We arrive at Lady Gregory’s summer home, Mount Vernon, now owned by Mrs Helmore. We admired the mantelpieces made by their father and Augustus John. Anne recalled sacks of mosaic pieces brought from Italy to make a floor. “They’re still here – out in the store” says Mrs Helmore. In a minute, the two women, incredulous and delighted, are crawling under a table to fill two ‘party bags’, supplied by Mrs. Helmore, with those same mosaic pieces.
Our tour concluded in Galway at 22 Dominick Street, now the Galway Arts Centre, then the home of their godmother. They recall a giant stuffed bear on the landing – “about the same size as you, John Quinn, but with rather more hair!” . They giggled at the memory of peeping through the floorboards of the bathroom at the carry-on of the cook with visitors in the kitchen below. It was here also that they learned of their father’s death during World War I action in Italy. Anne was six years old. Yeats commemorated Robert Gregory’s death in verse:
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love
Our journey has ended. Reluctantly, I took leave of these two charming ladies of Galway. Before she leaves, Anne signs my copy of Me and Nu – with an impish grin on her face....
I would of course meet Anne and Catherine again in the mid-nineties when they were special guests at the Lady Gregory Autumn Gathering at Coole. They charmed everyone with their presence. Each year they would cut the ceremonial Coole Brack. Anne had experienced great tragedy in her adult years. Her young husband, a British army officer, was assassinated in Trieste just after World War II, leaving Anne with an infant son, William. His nanny, Nan Wyles, became Anne’s life-companion until she died a few years ago. The years took their toll. Catherine died in 2000 and we accompanied Anne back to Coole Lake to scatter the ashes of her dear sister there. Anne became senile and could no longer return to her beloved Coole. She died on December 23, 2008 – two days short of her 98th Christmas.
In her book and in her recorded memories she has preserved much of the rich legacy that was Coole. Even in her eighties she was still that impish, beautiful child at heart, epitomised by her inscription on my copy of Me and Nu.
“Thank you John Quinn Mark Two for the apples.
Sadly we couldn’t carry them as in our childhood!