Gregory, Augusta (1852–1932)

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Gregory, Augusta (1852–1932)

Irish patron, author, playwright, and folklorist who co-founded the Abbey Theater in Dublin. Name variations: Lady Gregory. Born Isabella Augusta Persseon March 15, 1852, at Roxborough, County Galway, Ireland; died at Coole Park, County Galway, Ireland, on May 23, 1932; daughter of Dudley Persse (a landowner) and Frances (Barry) Persse; educated at home; married Sir William Gregory, on March 4, 1880 (died 1892); children: Robert (1881–1918).

Published her first writing (1882); had meeting with W.B. Yeats (1894); responsible for first performances of Irish Literary Theater (1899); wrote plays with Yeats (1901); served as director, Abbey Theater (1904); was manager for the first U.S. tour of Abbey (1911–12); beginning of Lane Pictures controversy (1915); death of son (1918); had friendship with Sean O'Casey (1924); saw the sale and lease-back of Coole (1927).

Selected publications:

The Coole Edition of the Works of Lady Gregory: Collected Plays (4 vols, Gerrards Cross, Colin Smythe, 1970); Cuchulain of Muirthemne (Gerrards Cross, Colin Smythe, 1972, first published 1902); Gods and Fighting Men (Gerrards Cross, Colin Smythe, 1970, first published 1904); The Kiltartan Books (Gerrards Cross, Colin Smythe, 1971, first published 1909–18); Our Irish Theater (Gerrards Cross, Colin Smythe, 1972, first published 1913); Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (Gerrards Cross, Colin Smythe, 1970, first published 1920); Sir Hugh Lane (Gerrards Cross, Colin Smythe, 1973, first published 1921).

Augusta Gregory's family, the Persses, had been established at their County Galway estate, Roxborough, for nearly 200 years by the time of her birth in 1852. The Persses were Protestant landowners of English origin, part of a close-knit network of families who dominated local government in Galway until the end of the 19th century. However, her maternal grandparents, the O'Gradys and the Barrys, were descended from native Irish and Norman families who had converted to Protestantism to escape the penal legislation imposed on Catholics. Augusta's father had three children during his first marriage and thirteen with his second wife, Frances Barry Persse , Augusta's mother. Frances Persse was a fervent evangelical Protestant and, with her eldest daughter and two stepdaughters, actively proselytized among the local Catholic peasantry around Roxborough. This caused much resentment, especially during the Great Famine, and remained an issue of political sensitivity for the family. In later life, Gregory was accused by some detractors (notably the writer George Moore) of having participated in her family's proselytizing activities.

Augusta, who was 12th in the family, had a distant relationship with her mother whom she referred to in her autobiography as "the Mistress." Frances Persse preferred her sons to her daughters and, in any event, had little in common with her quiet, studious daughter. Augusta, though devoted to her four younger brothers, lacked the wildness and instability which drove several of them to alcoholism. One of the formative influences of her early life was her nurse Mary Sheridan , a Catholic, who worked for the family for over 40 years. Sheridan remembered the Irish rebellion of 1798 and had a fund of stories, legends, and folklore for the receptive Augusta. There was no library at Roxborough and novels were forbidden, but Gregory read extensively in essays and poetry.

In the mid-1870s, Augusta accompanied her brother Richard, who was suffering from tuberculosis, to France and Italy. In 1877 at Roxborough, she met Sir William Gregory, who owned Coole Park, a neighboring estate. William, who was 61, had been a member of Parliament, first as a Conservative from 1842 to 1847 then as a Liberal from 1852 to 1871. In 1872, he was appointed governor of Ceylon and was successful in this post, doing much to stimulate the production of tea and coffee. C. Litton Falkiner, in his entry on Sir William for the Dictionary of National Biography, described him as a man of "great natural abilities, real political talent, and marked personal charm" who, but for a certain instability, would have achieved high political office. His first wife Elizabeth Clay Bowdoin died in 1873, and he had just returned from Ceylon when he met Augusta Persse. Their relationship, though not a passionate one, was based on mutual affection and respect. Sir William was attracted by her intelligence, good sense, and culture which marked her out from her contemporaries. Augusta admired William and, despite initial reservations, realized that marriage to him offered wider social and intellectual horizons denied to her as the "spinster" daughter who was at the beck and call of her large family. This was particularly true after the death of her father in 1878. He left only £10,000 to be divided among the 13 children of his second marriage. Her brother Richard died in 1879 and when Sir William proposed to her early in 1880, she accepted. They were married in Dublin in March 1880.

Over the next 12 years, the Gregorys spent most of their time either at their house in London or traveling abroad, spending only summers at Coole. In the first year of their marriage, they went to Rome, Athens, and Constantinople where they were guests of the ambassador, Sir Henry Layard, and his wife Enid Layard who became Augusta's closest friend. Henry Layard and William Gregory were both trustees of the National Gallery in London and many of the Gregorys' continental visits were to the great European galleries and museums. Sir William also knew some of the most distinguished literary celebrities in London and Lady Gregory met Robert Browning, Henry James, and the historians W.E.H. Lecky and J.A. Froude. She was also involved in charitable work. Her only child Robert was born in May 1881.

The Gregorys spent the winter of 1881–82 in Egypt where they met Lady Anne Blunt and her husband Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. Wilfrid was one of the most remarkable men of his age: a Catholic who flirted with Islam, writer, traveler, great landowner, horse-breeder and notorious womanizer. He was sympathetic to Egyptian nationalism and impressed the Gregorys with his views. Together, they supported the cause of Arabi Bey, an Egyptian officer who was put on trial for his opposition to Egypt's Turkish rulers. The case was the subject of Gregory's first published writing, Arabi and his Household (1882).

However, for all her sympathy with Egyptian nationalism, she was hostile to Irish nationalism and especially to the campaign for land reform which was bound to affect the Gregorys and the Persses.

In summer 1882, Lady Gregory and Wilfrid Blunt began a passionate year-long affair which remained a well-kept secret until the publication of Wilfrid's official biography in 1979. The relationship ended in 1883 by mutual consent, but they remained friends for 40 years and Wilfrid had great affection and respect for her. She was, he wrote in 1913, "the only woman I have known of real intellectual power equal to men." She was also "an entirely practical business woman." Over the following years, Gregory's life settled into a routine of summer at Coole and winter and spring in London with more farflung travels to India. She wrote articles about her travels and in 1891 published her first fiction in The Argosy. She was devoted to her son but was increasingly concerned by her husband's failing health. He died on March 6, 1892, just before her 40th birthday.

It is the visionary who is the really practical worker, for he works with the faith that moves mountains.

—Augusta Gregory

Coole was the most pressing problem she faced after William Gregory's death. Two-thirds of the estate had been sold to pay off debts, and the rest was mortgaged. Augusta was determined that her son would inherit the estate unencumbered by debt. Her own attitude to Coole was ambivalent: compared to Roxborough, the exterior was undistinguished but its contents reflected the more cosmopolitan lives of the Gregorys. It was not until after her husband's death that she came to love the house. She kept a London base and edited and published her husband's autobiography and the letters of his grandfather. But the early 1890s witnessed the beginning of the Irish cultural renaissance. In 1893, the Gaelic League was founded to promote the Irish language, and that year also saw the publication of W.B. Yeats' The Celtic Twilight and Douglas Hyde's Love Songs of Connacht. These and other works made a considerable impression on Gregory, and she became increasingly interested in history and folklore. She also learned the Irish language.

She first met "Yates," as she called him, in 1894, but their friendship became established in 1896–97 when she invited him to stay at Coole. He was in the throes of his unhappy affair with Maud Gonne , and his two-month stay at Coole in 1897 provided him with much needed rest and peace. They discussed plays, poetry, and folklore and gave each other valuable intellectual stimulus. In 1898, Gregory visited the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, one of the last outposts of Irish peasant culture. By the end of the 1890s, her political views had shifted radically, and she now supported self-government for Ireland. Her refusal to light a bonfire to celebrate Queen Victoria 's jubilee in 1897 led to disapproving comments, but she was aware that time was running out for her class. Roxborough had been beset by a succession of problems, and in March 1898 her brother Gerald had died, the third of her brothers to die from alcoholism. The 1898 Local Government Act finally broke the power base of the Persses, the Gregorys, and the other Anglo-Irish families in Galway.

Gregory, Yeats, and Edward Martyn, a wealthy Galway neighbor who was interested in the literary revival, drew up a prospectus for an Irish literary theater, proposing a season of Irish and Celtic plays. Augusta solicited subscriptions and the first performances took place in Dublin in May 1899. They were a success and a second season took place in February 1900. In the summer of 1900, Yeats suggested that Gregory take over a projected book about the ancient Irish epics which he had no time to complete. Over the next four years, she researched in British and Irish libraries and the results of her work were seen in Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902) and Gods and Fighting Men (1904), the first books to render Irish mythology into an Irish idiom. They attracted admiring tributes from, among others, Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt.

Gregory's playwrighting career started tentatively in 1901–02. She and Yeats collaborated on Cathleen ni Houlihan and The Pot of Broth. In both cases the ideas had been Yeats' but were put into dramatic form by Gregory, though she allowed Yeats' name to appear as author. Cathleen ni Houlihan was performed in April 1902 with Maud Gonne in the title role and created a sensation, becoming one of the most popular plays in the repertory. In 1904, thanks to a gift from Annie Horniman , the wealthy English patron, the Abbey Theater was founded with Gregory, Yeats, and the playwright John Millington Synge as directors. The next ten years were the most active and prolific of Gregory's life. She wrote over 20 plays—comedies, historical dramas, adaptations from Molière—of which the most successful were Spreading the News (1904), Kincora (1905), Hyacinth Halvey (1906), The Rising of the Moon (1907), The Workhouse Ward (1908), and MacDonogh's Wife (1912).

In January 1907, the Abbey had its first major scandal with the premiere of Synge's The Playboy of the Western World which caused a riot. Gregory was staunch in her public support for Synge and the play, though privately she disliked it. In Gort, the town nearest to Coole, the council expressed its disapproval, and the local children were forbidden to attend her treats at Coole which distressed her. In fact, the riots were short-lived and when the play returned to the repertory in 1909 there was little opposition. Synge's death in 1909 was a great blow to the theater, although she and Yeats had often found Synge a difficult collaborator. The Playboy was not the only problem play. George Bernard Shaw had been a supporter of the Abbey from its early days, and in 1909 the theater agreed to stage his play The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet which had been banned in Britain. The authorities threatened the Abbey with fines and the loss of its license if it proceeded with the play, but Gregory and Yeats ignored them. To their relief, nothing happened, and Shaw remained a friend and admirer for the rest of Gregory's life. This could not be said for James Joyce whom she helped with money and a job reviewing books. Her reward was the description of her folklore as "bagses of trash" and the lampoon in the National Library section of Ulysses.

In October 1911, Gregory took the Abbey company on its first American tour, a tour which tested to the full not only her administrative and promotional skills but also her resolve. The Playboy had been requested by the tour's promoters and during the first weeks of the circuit was well received. However, the Irish-American press in New York was hostile both to the play and the company, and there were disturbances on the first night in New York. The presence of Theodore Roosevelt in the audience on the second night gave Gregory valuable moral support. The tour was a considerable financial success for the company and a personal success for Gregory who was much in demand for lectures and interviews. There were further U.S. tours in 1912–13 and 1914–15.

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 brought Gregory personal anxiety. Her son Robert joined the British army and then transferred to the Royal Flying Corps which was more dangerous. Robert was a well-known painter and had designed several plays for his mother and Yeats. He married Margaret Graham (Gregory) in 1907 and Augusta was devoted to her three grandchildren who spent much of their childhood at Coole. Gregory was also close to her nephew Sir Hugh Lane, the art dealer and connoisseur, who died in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. Augusta was the trustee of his will but soon found it a poisoned chalice. Lane's efforts to establish a gallery of modern art in Dublin had been the subject of contentious debate. In his will, he left his collection of pictures to the National Gallery in London but changed his mind and left them to the National Gallery in Dublin. Unfortunately, the codicil containing the change was not witnessed, and thus began a long and exhausting battle for the pictures which was not finally resolved until nearly 30 years after Gregory's death. In January 1918, Robert Gregory was killed in action, and it was a measure of the depth of her grief that she rarely referred to his death in her published writings. Yeats wrote one of his most famous poems about the event: "An Irish Airman Foresees his Death." Robert's death meant that the future of Coole was uncertain as his widow Margaret was now the owner and was anxious to sell the estate.

The years 1919–23 saw major political unrest in Ireland. Coole and its neighborhood were not immune from the troubles, as Gregory's journals testified. Her sympathies were with the republicans although her family was the subject of their attacks. Her nephew was murdered by the Irish Republican Army and her daughter-in-law narrowly escaped death in an IRA ambush. Roxborough was burned in 1922 although Coole escaped. Following the turmoil of the war of independence and the civil war, the Abbey was rescued from the doldrums by Sean O'Casey whose plays were a huge critical and financial success. As with Synge's Playboy, Gregory staunchly supported The Plough and the Stars which provoked disturbances in 1926 although this time she had no doubts about the play. O'Casey was notoriously difficult and touchy but respected her more than he did the other Abbey directors, Yeats and Lennox Robinson. O'Casey and Gregory developed a deep friendship which was broken off in 1928 when the Abbey rejected his play The Silver Tassie. To his subsequent remorse, O'Casey rejected overtures from Gregory to heal the rift but made some amends in his autobiography Inishfallen Fare Thee Well (1949). His touching and respectful portrait of her came at a time when her contribution to the Abbey was gradually being forgotten, if not actively dismissed.

In 1923 and 1926, Gregory had two operations for breast cancer, and in 1927 Coole was finally sold to the Irish Land Commission with the proviso that she could rent it back annually for a small sum until her death. Her essay Coole, published in 1931, was her elegy for the house, and in it she thanked her husband for bringing her to Coole 48 years before. Her health failed, and she told Yeats in February 1932 that she was grateful for her full life: "I do think I have been of use to the country & for that in great part I thank you." She died on May 23, 1932. Coole was demolished in 1941.

Despite the many tributes paid to her after her death, Augusta Gregory's reputation went into eclipse until Elizabeth Coxhead 's biography in 1961. Coxhead attacked Yeats and a group of "Dublin literary gossips," notably Oliver St. John Gogarty, for minimizing and denigrating her contribution to the literary revival and to the Abbey. Their efforts, Coxhead wrote, "passed pretty well unchallenged in an anti-feminist country" and were "an injustice as outrageous as any that literary history can show." After this, the balance began to be redressed, and in 1970 the first volumes of the Coole Edition of the Works of Lady Gregory were published. Later volumes included the first publication of her autobiography Seventy Years.


Murphy, Daniel, ed. Journals 1916–32. 2 vols. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1978–87.

Pethica, James, ed. Lady Gregory's Diaries 1892–1902. Gerrard's Cross: Colin Smythe, 1996.

Smythe, Colin, ed. Seventy Years: Being the Autobiography of Lady Gregory. The Coole Edition of the Works of Lady Gregory. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1974.

suggested reading:

Coxhead, Elizabeth. Lady Gregory: A Literary Portrait. 2nd ed. London: Secker and Warburg, 1966.

Kohfeldt, Mary Lou. Lady Gregory: The Woman Behind the Irish Renaissance. London: Andre Deutsch, 1985.

Saddlemyer, Ann, and Colin Smythe, eds. Lady Gregory: Fifty Years After. NY: Barnes and Noble, 1987.


Gregory archives in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

Deirdre McMahon , lecturer in History at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland

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Gregory, Augusta (1852–1932)

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