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 playwright was well, if late, begun.
The early years of the literary movement also saw the publication of a series of her collections of Irish myth and folklore, beginning with Cuchulain of Muirthemne and followed in rapid succession by Poets and Dreamers (1903), Gods and Fighting Men (1904), A Book of Saints and Wonders (1907), and The Kiltartan Wonder Book (1910). These were important books because they offered a single coherent telling of previously scattered tales (especially of the mythic hero Cuchulain) and, in so doing, made this heritage more widely known not only in Ireland but also abroad.
The single phrase that sums up all that Lady Gregory aimed for and achieved was her own oft-repeated observation to her fellow laborers that “we work to add dignity to Ireland,” and work she did. As one of the directors of the Abbey Theatre (initially with Yeats and Synge), she was involved in constant battles—artistic, political, financial, and personal—to preserve the dramatic movement. As an Anglo-Irish Protestant with strong nationalistic convictions, she was suspected and attacked by both sides in the increasingly politicized and polarized Ireland.
The symbol of all this was the famous riots early in 1907 over Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (pr., pb. 1907). Considered a slur against Ireland by the ardent nationalists, and immoral by some quarters of the Catholic Church, the play evoked a series of riotous confrontations within the theater and an ongoing controversy without. Lady Gregory defended the play with all her energies at the time and during a subsequent tour in the United States in the winter of 1911 to 1912, even though she personally disliked it.
Lady Gregory’s skill as a dramatist grew rapidly, and her works were increasingly important to the financial solvency of the Abbey Theatre (especially since she collected no royalties for her plays). The first of a number of collections of her dramas, Seven Short Plays, came out in 1909, followed later by Irish Folk-History Plays (1912) and New Comedies (1913).
The beginning of World War I marks a tragic turn in the life of a remarkable woman who became a central figure in the literary life of a nation, a woman who did not write her first imaginative work until she was fifty. Lady Gregory’s beloved nephew, Hugh Lane, died in the sinking of the Lusitania. His death left her with the task of trying to get his important collection of French Impressionist art returned from England to its rightful place in Ireland, a battle into which she futilely poured her declining energy until her death. In January, 1918, her only child, Robert Gregory, was killed while flying for the Royal Flying Corps. These personal tragedies, combined with her grief for the suffering of Ireland during the prolonged bloodshed of that nation’s struggle for liberation, cast a darkness over Lady Gregory’s declining years.
The 1920’s were still years of effort on behalf of the Abbey Theatre, however, and they were brightened for a time by Lady Gregory’s special role in the discovery and encouragement of Sean O’Casey . That undertaking also took a sad turn, as O’Casey broke relations with her and the Abbey Theatre over their rejection in 1928 of The Silver Tassie. Lady Gregory’s last years were spent in poor health and growing loneliness, but she maintained her aristocratic dignity up until her death at Coole Park in 1932.
Lady Augusta Gregory was born Isabella Augusta Persse, the daughter of a wealthy Anglo-Irish landowner. She was educated privately and in 1880 married Sir William Henry Gregory, the well-known Orientalist, governor of Ceylon, and Irish M.P., who died in 1892. They had one son, Robert, a painter.
The turning point in Lady Gregory’s life came about through an 1892 meeting with William Butler Yeats, who collaborated with her on several Irish folk plays. With Yeats, Edward Martyn, and George Moore, she began the Irish literary revival that resulted in the founding of the Irish National Theatre Society and later the Abbey Theatre in 1904. To this world-renowned troupe she devoted her interest, playwriting ability, enthusiasm, and financial support. Though she is overshadowed as an author by Yeats and John Millington Synge, her Spreading the News, The Rising of the Moon, and Hyacinth Halvey are excellent one-act Irish peasant plays, and many of her works are masterpieces of suspense, folk humor, and incisiveness. She translated plays by Molière, Carlo Goldoni, and Hermann Sudermann into Irish country speech. Yet she gained her fame principally as playwright, producer, director, and the “godmother” of the Abbey Theatre, a group that would never have been able to perform without her steady guiding hand and masterful diplomacy at home and on English and American tours.
Her later years were saddened by the death of her son in World War I. The Abbey Theatre burned after her death in 1932 but was rebuilt in 1966. Lady Gregory’s influence continues to be felt in the theater. Through her plays and her support of playwrights such as Synge, Yeats, and Sean O’Casey, she left a legacy of Irish pride in their heritage.