Lady Augusta Gregory

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Lady Augusta Gregory

The Irish dramatist Lady Augusta Gregory (1852-1932) is best known for her collaboration with Yeats and Synge in the formation of the Irish National Theatre and the Abbey Theatre Company.

Isabella Augusta Persse was born on March 15, 1852, to Dudley Persse and his second wife, Frances Barry, near Gort, County Galway, in the west of Ireland, where Gaelic is still the language spoken by the people. In 1881 she married Sir William Gregory of Coole Park (an estate near Gort), member of Parliament, former governor of Ceylon, and a friend of the English novelist Anthony Trollope. Their only son, the artist Robert Gregory, was shot down over Italy in World War I; he was memorialized in several poems by William Butler Yeats ("An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," among others).

After her husband's death in 1892, Gregory began collecting legends and history concerning the west of Ireland; these she translated into the dialect she called "Kiltartanese" (from the Kiltartan region of Galway). Her meeting with Yeats in 1896 marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration in "mythmaking" and supplied Yeats with financial support, a summer home, and needed translations. Of her contribution to his art Yeats wrote, "Lady Gregory helped me … in every play of mine where there is dialect, and sometimes where there is not."

Gregory's best plays were comedies. The one-act farce Spreading the News (1904) has been popularized through study in high schools in America, and two longer comedies, The Rising of the Moon (1907) and The Workhouse Ward (1908), were perennial favorites in the Abbey repertoire. Her Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902) became the major source of information concerning the heroes of the Red Branch line of Ulster kings, used by Yeats, AE, and others in their poetry and plays. Her longer history plays, Colman and Guaire (1901) and Grania (1911), have been less successful.

Among Gregory's other works were The Kiltartan History Book (1909), intended for use in Irish schools, and Our Irish Theatre (1913), still a basic source of information on the Irish literary renaissance. Her prose translation of Gaelic poems, The Kiltartan Poetry Book, appeared in 1919 and was followed by Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920), containing valuable material for anthropologists and poets. Because of her tireless activities on behalf of the Irish theater, she has been called the "godmother of the Abbey Theatre," and George Bernard Shaw referred to her as its "charwoman." Gregory died on May 22, 1932.

Further Reading

Although there is no full-length biography of Lady Gregory, much biographical information is contained in her Journals 1916-1930, edited by Lennox Robinson (1947). A posthumous tribute, Mario M. Rossi, Pilgrimage in the West (1933), contains some valuable information on her life. The best critical studies are Elizabeth Coxhead, Lady Gregory: A Literary Portrait (1961), and Ann Saddlemyer, In Defence of Lady Gregory, Playwright (1966), both of which contain biographical material.

Additional Sources

Lady Gregory: interviews and recollections, Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977. □

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Gregory, Lady Augusta (1852–1932). Though her plays and other writings fill many volumes, she is most often remembered in connection with W. B. Yeats. Her translations from the Gaelic influenced his work and in verse he celebrated Coole Park, her Co. Galway house, and the ‘powerful character’ which made her collaboration valuable. Her son, Major Robert Gregory, he elegized as embodiment of the artist as man of action. Though from the protestant ascendancy and sometimes at odds with nationalist opinion, she was committed to the Republic and Coole survived the civil war. Into her seventies she was active on the board of the Abbey theatre and her plays show a gift for comedy lacking in Yeats. Attempts to secure a Dublin home for her nephew Hugh Lane's picture collection were less successful, but her place as a moving spirit in the Irish renaissance is assured.

John Saunders

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Lady Augusta Gregory (Isabella Augusta Persse), 1859–1932, Irish dramatist. Though she did not begin her writing career until middle-age, Lady Gregory soon became a vital force in the Irish drama. She was a founder and the manager-director of the Abbey Theatre, for which she wrote many of her most successful pieces, including Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), written with friend and colleague W. B. Yeats, Spreading the News (1904), The Gaol Gate (1906), The Rising of the Moon (1907), and The Workhouse Ward (1908). Her short plays, mainly comedies, are rich in portrayals of Irish peasantry. Among her other works are Our Irish Theater (1913) and several long plays dealing with Irish history.

See her journals (ed. by L. Robinson, 1946); biography by C. Toibin (2003); studies by H. Adams (1973) and M. L. Kohfeldt (1985).