Irish dignity

At the turn of the 20th century, Lady Augusta Gregory emerged as a key figure within the Irish Literary Revival. She was a major organiser of the theatre movement, a founder of the Abbey Theatre, and an important translator and dramatist in her own right. In Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush Irish novelist Colm Tóibín provides us with an evocative sketch of this complex figure.

Gregory was born into the Anglo-Irish landlord class, rulers by inheritance who were under increasing pressure from an emergent Catholic middle class and an indigenous nationalist movement. Inherited rule is suggested by her marriage to Sir William Gregory, an Irish landowner, former British Cabinet minister and former Governor General of Ceylon. An interest in more illicit alignments is perhaps suggested by her early affair with the prominent anti-imperialist campaigner and poet, Wilfred Scawen Blunt.

In the decade following Sir William’s death in 1892, Gregory edited his autobiography, which Tóibín regards as a key moment in her own emergence and self-invention. The Anglo–Irish image and ethos that she drew upon emphasised the traditionalist relation between landlord and tenant with its attendant duties and responsibilities. This tie between the Anglo-Irish and the native Irish was important in mediating the tension between her ruling inheritance and her increasing interest in Irish nationalism. It was an ideology that would also inform the political and poetic vision of W.B. Yeats.

Gregory would later take some satisfaction in recalling that there were no evictions from Sir William’s estate at Coole during the famine. Tóibín notes the elision here: Sir William lent his name to the infamous ‘Gregory clause,’ an amendment to the Poor Law requiring the famine stricken to abandon even the most meagre land leases before receiving relief. Sir William’s personal enlightenment and benevolence proved no guarantee against participating in government policy that caused great suffering and distress.

During the 1890s, Gregory learns the Irish language, studies Irish history and literature, visits the Aran Islands and collects Irish folklore. Under the radicalising influence of the Gaelic League, she undertakes a translation of the Cuchulain myth, partly in answer to the Trinity University professors who argued that there was little of value in indigenous literature. As Tóibín also notes, the cultural nationalism underpinning all this ethnographic and literary activity did not prevent her from maintaining her position and estate at Coole, or being aghast at radical nationalist incitements against the landlords.

Tóibín recognises that ‘inconsistencies are part of the history of Ireland in these years’. Gregory’s combination of conservative and radical viewpoints was connected, in part, to the intense strains within Irish culture and society itself. It is a bit odd, then, that Tóibín seems not to give broader pressures much determining force, veering instead towards the suggestion that Gregory behaved with some degree of personal bad faith. He would have it that Gregory was not prone to much self-reflection and that she displayed considerable skills in managing contradiction. Missing certainly is any sense of a personal, artistic or political struggle with her inherited position.

Tóibín observes that even as she joined the ranks of the rebels she seemed hardly to have moved much beyond the old friendships and associations. Indeed, she called upon such connections to lend support to the formation of the Abbey Theatre. Tóibín also argues that the reason she did not press her claim to joint authorship of the play Cathleen Ni Houlihan was because its call for nationalist insurrection threatened these older associations. Another sidewards glance at other areas of her life at this time sees her threatening to seize the cattle of tenants for non-payment of rents.

Tóibín acknowledges Gregory’s determination and passion. Her powers of organisation and direction were instrumental in establishing the Abbey. (He does observe a touch of the feudal in her dealings with supporters and actors.) Gregory also defended artistic freedom against the formidable line-up of the Catholic Church, the British administration, and other nationalists. She ensured some of the key works of 20th-century Irish theatre by Synge, Shaw and O’Casey first saw the light of the Dublin day.

It is arguably Gregory’s and Yeats’ defences of artistic freedom against narrower forms of Irish nationalism that provided their most important intervention in Irish cultural debate of the period. Tóibín notes the obvious key moment: the riot against the Abbey performance of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. The play offended the pieties and idealisations of religious and nationalist forces, causing them to come together in unruly protest. Tóibín might have drawn attention here to extreme sensitivity of cultural questions within Irish society during these years. What he mostly identifies, however, was how readily Gregory and Yeats reverted to Anglo–Irish type: Gregory apparently characterised this as a conflict ‘between those who use a toothbrush and those who don’t’.

It is interesting that Gregory helped the young James Joyce, despite ‘his intermittent use of a toothbrush’. And yet, Gregory’s basic lack of empathy for the Catholic middle-class world of Joyce’s writing meant that their relationship would be cautious at best. Joyce, for his part, was not beyond ‘biting the hand’ and penned some rude comments about her in reviews and letters. Recent criticism has begun exploring Joyce’s complex relationship with the Literary Revival, in which Yeats and Gregory played such a pivotal role. This is something Tóibín hints at but leaves undeveloped.

Not surprisingly, some of the tensions in Gregory’s position come to the fore with the dramatic years of the 1916 Irish Uprising and World War I. After an initially negative reaction to the Rising she comes to perceive its symbolic importance and urges Yeats to do likewise. When he writes ‘Easter 1916’ Gregory has second thoughts and uses her considerable influence on him to delay its publication by some years. This influence is also evident in Yeats’ remarkable sequence of poems to commemorate Gregory’s son, Robert, killed while serving with the Royal Flying Corps. The titles of two of the best known of these reveal a tension between Robert’s apparent English patriotism and his Irish origins: ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ and ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’.

After the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922, Yeats and Gregory sought official status (and subsidy) for the Abbey. This brought new pressures, such as those ranged against the staging of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars  because of the offence it would cause to public opinion. To their credit, Yeats and Gregory defended the right to cause such offence and riots occurred once again at the performance of an Abbey play. Tóibín notes the imperiousness of Yeats’ response, but also marks it as an important victory against what was to prove to be an extremely censorious Irish state.

The Abbey underwent a slow decline in the subsequent years and decades. Rejection of O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie, because of its expressionist aspects, evidenced a failure to keep up with European developments in theatre: ‘They had supervised one theatrical revolution; they were not ready to pay attention to another’. A new generation of playwrights, including those like Denis Johnston, would look to the newly founded Gate Theatre instead.

The least convincing moment in the book comes when Tóibín has Gregory meet Éamon de Valera, veteran of the 1916 Uprising, head of various Irish governments and subsequent President of Ireland. De Valera’s politics were famously grounded in idealised images of a frugal and self-sufficient peasantry. Tóibín remarks: ‘The ideology on which he based his politics was essentially hers, but without her liberalism and her belief in aristocracy, and, because it was politics, ready to accept failure.’ These are large exceptions, but Tóibín does not allow this to deter him from suggesting a very strong continuity between Gregory and the ideology that informed Dev’s blinkered theocratic state.

Tóibín’s meditation on Gregory’s life and work is frequently interesting and insightful, even if he sometimes displays a peculiar lack of sympathy for his subject. He skilfully weaves the key moments of her life into a cultural narrative of this important period. What is only occasionally evident, however, is the way Yeats’ and Gregory’s association with a basically residual world was complicated by a forward-looking cultural vision. Gregory will continue to interest us because she was part of a cultural formation that staged what some now identify as ‘resistance theatre’, and beyond that, signalled the arrival of the uniquely important Irish contribution to 20th-century modernism. 

Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush, Colm Tóibín. Picador, 2003. isbn 0 330 41993 5, rrp $22

Dr Gary Pearce is a librarian at RMIT University.



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