One of the great moments in the 20 year history of the annual Lady Gregory Autumn Gathering, was the arrival Lady Gregory’s two surviving grandchildren, Anne de Winton, and Catherine Kennedy. They drove up the avenue at speed, let their dog out for a run, and came over to the welcoming crowd grinning broadly.
Broadcaster John Quinn recorded the moment: “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 “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!”
The Lady Gregory Autumn Gathering was the brainchild of a remarkable women, Sheila O’Donnellan, who sadly passed away on July 21. Always interested in literature, she was delighted to come to Galway with her husband Kevin who got a job with the Board of Works here shortly after they were married in the early 1950s. She immediately enjoyed the wealth of associations that places, houses, and landscape had with many of the great Irish writers in the early 20th century. From Coole Park, to Thoor Ballylee, Ardrahan to Loughrea all resonated the memories and works of WB Yeats, GB Shaw Edward Martin, Sean O’Casey, and An Túr Gloine, who decorated St Brendan’s cathedral. In Galway city there was Nora Barnacle’s home, at Bowling Green, who ran away and married James Joyce.
Sheila believed that all this must be celebrated. With Lois Tobin and Mary McDonagh she set up the Autumn Gathering, for a while became a guide at Nora Barnacle’s home, and presented a one-woman show at An Taibhdhearc Theatre, telling delighted audiences the life of Lady Gregory.
All this, and more (she was a prominent member of the ICA, and taught elocution in schools ), was accomplished despite, after a prolonged illness, her beloved husband dying young. Sheila was left alone to raise six children Niall, Rory, Colm, Finola, Maeve and Eoin. To help make ends meet she opened a crafts shop at Quay Street explaining that a shop was better than an office job as the children could drop in and see her at any time. But a shop did not confine her enthusiasm for the arts. With Judy Greene and others she set up the Quay Street Festival, which for years was one of the highlights of the Galway Summer.
A remarkably elegant women, tall, smiling and kind, Sheila Crotty came from a hardworking Dublin family. Her father worked with the Land Commission while her mother nursed in Holles Street. During the war years Sheila and two of her sisters (there was five sisters and three boys in the family ), helped their mother in the Red Cross comforting refugees as they came ashore at Dun Laoghaire. Later the three girls trained as nurses at St Vincent’s, and Niall O’Donnellan told the congregation last Thursday, that because of their hard work, they were known as the Crotty Sisters, or, more forcibly as the ‘Panzer Division’.
Galway was lucky to have attracted this creative and hard working woman. She enriched the lives of many.
May Sheila rest in Peace.