The Nationalist playwright
Born in 1852 Lady Augusta Gregory was the writer of some of the most important popular translations of Irish mythology, which were published in the early twentieth century.
She was a playwright and one of the key players in the Irish literary revival: an influential movement of writers in the late 19th and early 20th century that produced works that helped preserve and promote Irish culture and foster Irish nationalism.
Born in County Galway in 1852 she travelled extensively in her earlier years but was to spend much of her life enmeshed in the cultural life of Dublin.
Despite coming from an Anglo-Irish family she was a prominent Irish nationalist at a time when Ireland was ruled by England, and had a keen interest in the Irish language.
To this end Lady Gregory worked extremely closely with renowned nationalist author, poet and playwright W.B. Yeats and others to found an Irish Theatre company, and she was critical in getting the financial backing to set up the Abbey Theatre which opened in 1904 and in which she would be involved for most the rest of her life, writing 19 plays to be performed there, in addition to her hands on role as a director. The Abbey thrives to this day as the National Theatre of Ireland.
Her translated collections of Irish myths in “Gods and Fighting men” and “Cuchulain of Muirthemne” were popular works and responsible for first introducing a lot of these myths to the English speaking world, and it’s for these that I’ve had reason to mention her on the podcast, where her forming of the narrative of the Fenian cycle, from many disparate parts, has been particularly important to my telling and to that of many others.
Podcast episodes featuring Lady Gregory
A storytelling and folklore podcast.
Telling some of the famous and not so famous British and Irish myths, legends and folktales, in no particular order.
Coming direct from South Yorkshire it is currently regularish, and will feature all of the above and whatever other miscellaneous snippets take my fancy.
Presented by Graeme. Website at http://www.TalesofBritainandIreland.com
Early life and marriage
Lady Gregory was born Isabella Augusta Persse in 1852, daughter of a very wealthy Galway family. She was to become lady Gregory when in 1880 she married Sir William Henry Gregory, from another rich Anglo-Irish family. He was 35 years older than her. And this all seems quite remarkable given the later turn in her life. For it’s difficult to write much good about Sir Gregory.
Key facts that stand out about him are that, while an MP for Galway during the Great Famine he was notoriously responsible for limiting relief, that he was a pro-imperialist who was for a time the governor of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and that he was addicted to gambling on horse racing.
He did host literary salons and a very large house and estate filled with books and stuff, but that doesn’t seem to quite balance it out. Altogether it seems like a strange match.
They had one son together born in 1881, Robert Gregory, who would pre-decease Lady Gregory, being killed in the first world war.
The Gregory’s seemed to have travelled together: in Ceylon, India, Spain, Italy and Egypt in the 1880s.
Now I don’t have a lot of details on what Lady Gregory thought about her husband or why she married him. I do know that while travelling she had an affair with Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, who was known for his strongly anti-imperialist views. Lady Gregory herself clearly held somewhat similar views: writing in support of an Egyptian revolution in 1879.
She wrote a few small pieces during this time but little that was published, though she was clearly engaged in many writing projects, including the ” Emigrant’s Notebook” – an autobiography she never finished, and a number of short stories.
In 1893 she wrote an anti Irish-home rule pamphlet, demonstrating that even by this point in her late thirties she still had some way to go in developing her position from being a unionist to being the nationalist figure of her later life. In three short stories of hers from around this period reveal her concerns about being Anglo Irish and what this meant for the relationship of the Anglo-Irish to Ireland.
Her much older husband died only 12 years after their marriage, in 1892, and her first significant published project was his autobiography published in 1894, which she says was originally intended only for “me and our boy”. Despite only having few publications she was clearly an accomplished writer by the time.
Irish Literary Revival
It was after her husband’s death that Lady’s Gregory career as a writer really began.
A significant Irish literary movement was starting up at this time. Often termed the “Celtic Twilight” (and confusingly also sometimes “The Celtic Dawn) its central figure was the poet W.B. Yeats who had published volumes of collected folklore in the late 1880s and 1890s.
A number of Irish literary societies were established in Ireland and London at this time and in 1893 Douglas Hyde founded Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League), an organisation which aimed to revitalise the Irish language which was on the brink of extinction.
The Irish home rule movement had been active for some decades, and following the defeat of the second home rule bill in 1893 it continued to be the most important issue in Irish politics.
At this time Lady Gregory found an interest in local folklore and in the Irish language. She set up Irish lessons at Coole Park, the large estate she had inherited from her husband, and which was to become a bit of a centre of the Irish revival, and in 1894 she met W.B. Yeats who was developing as a poet and playwright.
From 1896 she started to deepen her connections to the circle of writers and particularly Yates, and at this point really comes into her own as a leading figure in the movement. The two were close for the rest of their lives, and influenced each other, with their shared interests in Irish Nationalism, drama and Irish myth and folklore.
It was during the last years of the nineteenth century that Lady Gregory changed her views to become a supporter of Irish Nationalism.
n 1899 Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and Yeats founded The Irish Literary Theatre. Gregory had helped raise money for the project and given some of her own.
In 1904 they, together with a number of others, founded the Irish National Theatre Society, which would be known as the Abbey Theatre and which continues to this day.
This was to become a significant focus of the rest of Lady Gregory’s life, not only in an organisational capacity but also as a playwright.
Lady Gregory wrote one of the plays performed there on the first night, a short comedy called “Spreading the News” and a great many more in the years afterwards, eventually writing a total of around 20 plays for the Abbey.
The theatre had some financial difficulties and reputational issues, but had some early successes and has survived up the present day.
Gregory went on to enjoy her new career as a playwright, and as Director of the Abbey Theatre, being heavily involved in the running of the place, along with Yeats.
Her plays were on a variety of different themes and styles: comedies and tragedies both, often with an overt Irish nationalist sentiment. A number of them also drew upon her familiarity with Irish myth – Grania is perhaps one of the most notable, a retelling of one of the main stories of the Fenian cycle but which in the play is refashioned somewhat to explore Lady Gregory’s own feelings about her ex-husband and her affair.
Which, honestly is a hell of a way to use a play. And unfortunately, probably for this reason it was, while published, never performed during her lifetime.
She was still writing plays until she was almost 70 years old. Which has to be an impressive by any standards.
Irish myths and Folklore
Turning now to why Lady Gregory is featured on the podcast and so why you’re reading about her here.
Lady Gregory had developed a keen interest in Irish myths and folklore, and there was demand growing for translations of Irish myths in the 1900s. English author Alfred Nutt had asked Yeats directly, but he had refused to produce them and been too busy and so in this roundabout way it came to Lady Gregory to do this.
She is clearly very conscious of her expected gender refers to this in her introduction to her first volume “And indeed if there was more respect for Irish things among the learned men that live in the college at Dublin, where so many of these old writings are stored, this work would not have been left to a woman of the house.” [Though clearly she was much more than that, however much she protests].
Cuchulain of Muirthemne
Her first translation of Irish myth was Cuchulain of Muirthemne, a telling of the myths of Cú Chulainn, which are often said now to form what is known as the Ulster cycle, and form the bulk of the Táin, the Irish Epic that at time of writing we’ve not covered on the podcast.
Others had translated the manuscript sources before but Gregory wanted to produce versions that were actually good to read, rather than simply dry academic texts. She sets out her stall very clearly in the introduction to the book and it’s worth quoting her intentions in full:
“When I went looking for the stories in the old writings, I found that the Irish in them is too hard for any person to read that has not made a long study of it. Some scholars have worked well at them. Irish- men and Germans and Frenchmen, but they have printed them in the old cramped Irish, with translations into German or French or English, and these are not easy for you to get, or to understand, and the stories themselves are confused, every one giving a different account from the others in some small thing, the way there is not much pleasure in reading them.
I have tried to do, to take the best of the stories, or what-ever parts of each will fit best to one another, and in that way to give a fair account of Cuchulain’s life and death. I left out a good deal I thought you would not care about for one reason or another, but I put in nothing of my own that could be helped, only a sentence or so now and again to link the different parts together.”
It probably goes without saying that I believe this approach is very commendable. (in a writer or story teller rather than an academic perhaps!). The stories are only likely to survive if they are accessible, enjoyable and if they are told.
Over a couple of years Lady Gregory brought together translations from manuscript sources and, in my opinion, created translation of them which has a clear narrative and is enjoyable to read. She published into in 1902 only two years after beginning the project.
Now the book is written in what lady Gregory terms “Kiltartanese”, which is her rendering of English language in Gaelic syntax, which was that as spoken by the people in Kiltartan in which she lived. But I’ve read bits of it and… I genuinely struggle to tell that it’s not simply English, in possibly a slightly archaic manner.
The work was very well received, widely popular and reprinted, and seemed to have the intended effect of hugely increasing knowledge of the Cú Chulainn story, which Lady Gregory says was mostly forgotten, as compared especially to the exploits of Fionn and Oisin.
Gods and Fighting Men
After her first volume met with success she went on to publish “God’s and Fighting Men”. This told stories of the Mythological cycle, featuring the Tuatha de Danaan, as she styles them, in the first part of the book, and latterly what is now called the Fenian cycle and was then chiefly known as the Ossianic cycle, which tell the tales of Fionn MacCumhaill
While she adopted a very similar approach to the work in terms of weaving together disparate stories into a narrative the cultural situation of the Fenian stories especially was very different to those of Cú Chulainn.
Many stories about Fionn existed in the oral tradition, were generally much better known Ireland and many of these had been recorded and published.
There existed already a good number of translation of various of the stories, and Oisin at least was well known to the world at large through James Macpherson’s falsified translations of supposedly Scottish Highland stories about him in the 1760s (There’s a lot to unpack there: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ossian).
It was perhaps even more daunting to tie these together into a coherent narrative than it had been for her previous work, but once again she seemed to have succeeded.
The book was published to acclaim in 1904 and it proved very popular indeed. Lady Gregory’s own short introduction and Yeats’s much longer and very lyrical and poetic preface making much appeal to the myths as a source of Irish pride, nationhood and as directly relevant to the Irish independence movement:
Impact and reception of the translations
Now these two works on Irish mythology have to some degree fallen out of favour these days due to Lady Gregory’s omissions of sex, intense violence and more scatological aspects of the tales, which are present in the original manuscripts. I’ve seen the lack of Cú Chulainn’s “warp spasm”, his kind of monstrous battle form, as the most egregious example of this.
But, honestly it’s difficult to see how she could do otherwise and have the books be accepted: the same is true of most translations of medieval manuscripts of the time. Other translators of the time very much did likewise, for instance the key earlier translation of the Ulster Cycle, Standish James O’Grady, and Lady Charlotte Guest (whose mother Lady Gregory knew well – because the 19th century world of Celtic translations of medieval manuscripts was unsurprisingly a rather small and exclusive one).
But that doesn’t diminish the impact Lady Gregory’s work:
Over the twentieth century the star of Cú Chulainn, and of the Táin in particular, has risen over that of Fionn, with the Táin largely considered to be the national epic, the most important legend of pre-modern Ireland.
Cú Chulainn became especially closely associated with independence fighters generally and the Easter rising in 1916 in particular, with a statue of the hero erected at the central Dublin post office which was a centre of the rebellion. And yet, as an Ulster hero, Cú Chulainn has also been claimed by Irish loyalists. A mythological hero for both sides is quite something.
Lady Gregory’s central role in causing Cú Chulainn to become so prominent a figure is undoubted.
With regards the Mythological and Fenian cycles the key impact of these works may lie in how Gregory manages to create a strong narrative from a body of works that are really pretty different.
Many attempts since to plot the story of the Fenian cycle draw from Lady Gregory’s format, and while there are draw backs in how accurately this reflects the sources we have for ‘original’ legends there’s no doubt it makes for a far more satisfying story.
Other works and later life
After publishing these translations Lady Gregory went on to publish a few more volumes on folklore and history.
She published some very short history books and “A book of Saints and Wonders”, which is a collection of Christian focused tales, with particularly focus on Irish saints and telling the voyages of Maeldune and Brandon.
Most relevant to this podcast in her later writing is probably the “Visions and beliefs in the West of Ireland” in 1920, which is a pretty typical folklore collection containing all the weird and wonderful stories they tend to, and which I enjoy immensely. It consists largely of lots of snippets of folklore that has been collected from people interviewed and while I doubt their words are completely verbatim they are small, unconnected accounts that seem to be by and large as told, rather than stories written by Gregory.
This lack the epic feel to her earlier works, but this is due to the nature of the stories rather than because of her writing.
As indicated earlier throughout almost all the rest of her life Gregory was involved heavily with the theatre, as a play write and Director, up until her retirement in 1928, in her mid 70s.
Even after that her estate continued to be used by a meeting place for writers of the literary revival.
Lady Gregory died of cancer in 1932 at 80 years of age having lived a long, influential and interesting life. Her position as a key figure in Irish literature was firmly cemented even if her plays declined in popularity after her death, and the history of Irish mythology in the 20th century is firmly indebted to her.
Episode pages featuring Lady Gregory
- History matters Biography
- Lady Gregory’s Grania
- Lady Gregory and History
- Yeats and Death of Lady Gregory
- Shedding light on Lady Gregory before the Celtic dawn
- Review of Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush
Works by Lady Gregory
(Works relevant to the podcast, no plays included)