Even though the 20th successive Autumn Gathering centred on the talented Lady Augusta Gregory and her influence on the Celtic cultural revival at the beginning of the last century, it was her prodigy, WB Yeats, who stole the show.
In a revealing one-hour play, presented by the Curlew Theatre Company at Gort’s Town Hall, Yeats’ extraordinarily long and fruitful poetic career was fuelled by passionate relationships with women to and about whom he wrote some of his most compelling poetry.
The women in his life were played to perfection by Tegolin Knowland who, with a simple switch of a shoulder shawl, convincingly brought each of the nine women to life. They spoke frankly of their relationships. Even the lewd Crazy Jane, who shouts at a poor bishop on the road with wild words: ‘Woman can be proud and stiff,/ When on love intent,/ But love has pitched his mansion in/ The place of excrement’, startled us all with her fierce confrontation.
Written and produced by Eamon Grennan, the play is based on the book, WB Yeats and the Muses, by the Irish literary scholar and New York lawyer, and long time friend of the Gathering, Joe Hassett.
A lasting image, however, is of poor Iseult, the second child of Maude Gonne and her French lover Lucien Millevoye. She was conceived actually on the grave of her late brother George. When she was 23 Yeats, frustrated by her mother’s continued refusal, and enchanted by Iseult’s youth and dreams, proposed marriage to her. She turned him down. Later she had a brief affair with Ezra Pound, and at 26 married the Irish Australian novelist Francis Stuart, who was then 18 years old. The marriage was not a success.
All Yeats’ women loved the poet in their own way, and were happy to inspire him. His wonderful wife accepted the situation, and lived on as his faithful guardian, and generous keeper of his works for 30 years after his death.
Into County Clare
And then another powerful image of the poet. This time in old age. In 1937, two years before he died, Yeats wrote the poem The Municipal Gallery Revisited. Professor Nicholas Grene, TCD, told the Gathering that Yeats, ‘ heart-smitten with emotion’ 30 years later, looks again at the portraits of his friends and events on the walls. These included the trial of Roger Casement, Arthur Griffith, Kevin O’Higgins, the blessing of the Tricolour, Robert Gregory, Hugh Lane, John Synge, and Augusta Gregory. With the last two he had spent his life endeavouring to express the ‘Dream of the noble and the beggar-man’.
Yeats had written that ‘for a long time I had not visited the Municipal Gallery. ‘I went there a week ago and was restored to many friends...I sat down overwhelmed with emotion.’
But the highlight of the Gathering was the visit on Sunday to the former Gregory owned Mount Vernon, on the Flaggy Shore, in County Clare. Mark Helmore welcomed everyone to his beautiful Victorian home, which contains many memories of the Gregory family, including three fireplaces built by Robert Gregory and Augustus John more than a century ago. In glorious sunshine, sitting outside looking out on the shore Eamon Grennan read poems including Seamus Heaney’s wonderful Postscript:
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other...
Broadcaster and author John Quinn led tributes to Lois and Sean Tobin, who with the late Sheila O’Donnellan and Mary McDonagh founded the Autumn Gathering 20 years before. On Saturday afternoon, the O’Donnellan family gathered in force at the walled garden of Coole. With the help of head guide Hilda O’Loughlin, a tree was planted in memory of Sheila. It is a Chinese Ginkgo Biloba, whose delicate autumnal leaves symbolise remembrance.