Lady Augusta Gregory was born Isabella Augusta Persse on March 15, 1852, at Roxborough in County Galway, the twelfth of sixteen children. Her staunchly Protestant family was thought to have come to Ireland in the seventeenth century at the time of Oliver Cromwell’s suppression of Ireland. The intellectual and aesthetic sterility of her childhood was relieved by the storytelling and quiet nationalism of her Catholic nurse, Mary Sheridan.
An avenue to the larger world of which she longed to be a part was provided by her marriage in 1880 to Sir William Gregory, a man of sixty-three who had recently resigned as governor of Ceylon and returned to his country estate at Coole Park, not far from Roxborough. As the new Lady Gregory, she found a large library, a kind and intelligent husband, and the beginning of an outlet for her incipient talents.
It was to be many years before Lady Gregory would think of herself as a writer. Her first efforts consisted largely of editing the autobiography and letters of her husband, who died in 1892. Of more importance to her career, however, was the publication in 1893 of both Douglas Hyde’s Love Songs of Connacht and Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight. These two books sparked her own latent interest in the tales and speech of the Irish peasant. She was drawn to their lyric beauty, imaginativeness, and rich spirituality, and she made it her task for much of the rest of her life to record this rich oral tradition.
Lady Gregory first discussed with Yeats in 1894 the possibility of launching a theater devoted to the writers and plays of Ireland. Their dream became a reality in January, 1899, with the founding of the Irish Literary Theatre. This movement was to be the central concern and accomplishment of her life.
Initially, Lady Gregory’s contribution was largely practical. She was an organizer, fund-raiser, encourager, and occasional collaborating playwright; it was she who first argued that the theater should be in Dublin, not London, as Yeats proposed. Within a few years, however, she was writing plays of her own, initially, she said, to provide some brief comic relief from Yeats’s more esoteric works. These one-act plays proved to be more popular with the Dublin audiences than were Yeats’s, and her career as a...
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