Isabella Augusta Gregory was born at Roxborough (County Galway) the youngest daughter of the gentry family Persse. Her mother, Frances Barry, was related to Viscount Guillamore.
She was educated at home and her future career was strongly influenced by the family nurse, Mary Sheridan (a Catholic and a native Irish speaker), who introduced the young Augusta to the history and legends of the local area.
She married Sir William Henry Gregory, a widower with an estate at Coole Park, on 4 March 1880 in St Matthias’ Church, Dublin.
Sir William had just retired from his position as Governor of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), having previously served several terms as Member of Parliament for County Galway. He was a well-educated man with many literary and artistic interests and the house at Coole Park housed a large library and extensive art collection, both of which Lady Gregory was eager to explore.
He also had a house in London, where the couple spent a considerable amount of time, holding weekly salons frequented by many leading literary and artistic figures of the day, including Robert Browning, Lord Tennyson, John Everett Millais and Henry James.
Their only child, Robert Gregory ( born in 1881) was killed during the First World War while serving as a pilot, an event which inspired W. B. Yeats’s poems “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”, “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” and “Shepherd and Goatherd”.
Beginning of writing career
The Gregorys travelled in Ceylon, India, Spain, Italy and Egypt. While in Egypt, Lady Gregory had an affair with the English poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, during which she wrote a series of love poems (A Woman’s Sonnets).
Her earliest work appearing under her own name was Arabi and His Household (1882), a pamphlet in support of Ahmed Orabi Pasha, leader of what has come to be known as the Urabi Revolt, an 1879 Egyptian nationalist revolt against the oppressive regime of the Khedive and the European domination of Egypt. She later commented on this booklet, “whatever political indignation or energy was born with me may have run its course in that Egyptian year and worn itself out”.
In 1893 she published A Phantom’s Pilgrimage, or Home Ruin, an anti-Nationalist pamphlet against William Ewart Gladstone’s proposed second Home Rule Act.
During the winter of 1883, whilst her husband was away in Ceylon, she worked on a series of memoirs of her childhood home, with a view to publishing them under the title An Emigrant’s Notebook. However, this plan was abandoned.
She wrote a series of pamphlets in 1887 called Over the River, in which she appealed for funds for the parish of St. Stephens in Southwark, south London. She also wrote a number of short stories in the years 1890 and 1891, although these also never appeared in print. A number of unpublished poems from this period have also survived.
When Sir William Gregory died in March 1892, Lady Gregory went into mourning and returned to Coole Park, where she edited her husband’s autobiography which she published in 1894. She was to write later:
“If I had not married I should not have learned the quick enrichment of sentences that one gets in conversation; had I not been widowed I should not have found the detachment of mind, the leisure for observation necessary to give insight into character, to express and interpret it. Loneliness made me rich—’full’, as Bacon says.”
In 1893, during a trip to Inisheer in the Aran Islands Lady Gregory’s interest in the Irish language and in the folklore of the area in which she lived was rekindled. She organised Irish lessons at the school at Coole and began collecting tales from the area around her home (especially from the residents of Gort workhouse).
One of the tutors she employed was Norma Borthwick, who would visit Coole numerous times. This activity led to the publication of a number of volumes of folk material, including A Book of Saints and Wonders (1906), The Kiltartan History Book (1909) and The Kiltartan Wonder Book (1910).
She also produced a number of collections of “Kiltartanese” versions( Lady Gregory’s term for English with Gaelic syntax, based on the dialect spoken in Kiltarta) of Irish myths, including Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902) and Gods and Fighting Men (1903). In his introduction to the former, Yeats wrote “I think this book is the best that has come out of Ireland in my time.”. James Joyce was to parody this claim in the Scylla and Charybdis chapter of his novel Ulysses.
Towards the end of 1894, encouraged by the positive reception of the editing of her husband’s autobiography, Lady Gregory turned her attention to another editorial project. She decided to prepare selections from Sir William Gregory’s grandfather’s correspondence for publication as Mr Gregory’s Letter-Box 1813–30 (1898).
This entailed her researching Irish history of the period resulting in a shift in her political position, from the “soft” Unionism of her earlier writing on Home Rule to a definite support of Irish nationalism and Republicanism and to what she was later to describe as “a dislike and distrust of England”
Co-Founding of the Abbey Theatre
Edward Martyn was a neighbour of Lady Gregory and it was during a visit to his home (Tullira Castle) in 1896 that she first met W. B. Yeats. Discussions between the three of them, over the following year or so, led to the founding of the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899. Lady Gregory undertook fundraising and the first programme consisted of Martyn’s The Heather Field and Yeats’s The Countess Cathleen.
The Irish Literary Theatre project lasted until 1901,when it collapsed owing to lack of funding. In 1904, Lady Gregory, Martyn, Yeats, John Millington Synge, Æ, Annie Horniman and William and Frank Fay came together to form the Irish National Theatre Society.
The first performances staged by the society took place in a building called the Molesworth Hall. When the Hibernian Theatre of Varieties in Lower Abbey Street and an adjacent building in Marlborough Street became available, Horniman and William Fay agreed to their purchase and refitting to meet the needs of the society.
On 11 May 1904, the society formally accepted Horniman’s offer of the use of the building. As Horniman was not normally resident in Ireland the Royal Letters Patent required were paid for by her but granted in the name of Lady Gregory. One of her own plays, Spreading the News, was performed on the opening night, 27 December 1904.
At the opening of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World in January 1907, a significant portion of the crowd rioted, causing the remainder of the performances to be acted out in dumbshow. Lady Gregory did not think as highly of the play as Yeats did, but she defended Synge as a matter of principle.
Later writing career
Lady Gregory remained an active director of the theatre until ill-health led to her retirement in 1928. During this time she wrote more than 19 plays, mainly for production at the Abbey. Her plays had been among the most successful at the Abbey in the earlier years, but their popularity declined. Indeed, the Irish writer Oliver St. John Gogarty once wrote “the perpetual presentation of her plays nearly ruined the Abbey”.
In addition to her plays, she wrote a two-volume study of the folklore of her native area called Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland in 1920. She also played the lead role in three performances of Cathleen Ni Houlihan in 1919.
During her time on the board of the Abbey, Coole Park remained her home and she spent her time in Dublin staying in a number of hotels. In these she dined frugally, often on food she had brought with her from home. She frequently used her hotel rooms to interview would-be Abbey dramatists and to entertain the company after opening nights of new plays. Many of her days were spent working on her translations in the National Library of Ireland.
Lady Gregory gained a reputation as being a somewhat conservative figure. For example, when Denis Johnston submitted to the Abbey his first play, Shadowdance, it was rejected by Lady Gregory and returned to the author with “The Old Lady says No” written on the title page. Johnston decided to rename the play and The Old Lady Says ‘No!’ was eventually staged by the Gate Theatre in 1928.
Retirement and death
When she retired from the Abbey board, Lady Gregory returned to live in Galway, although she continued to visit Dublin regularly. The house and demesne at Coole Park had been sold to the Irish Forestry Commission in 1927, with Lady Gregory retaining life tenancy.
Her Galway home had long been a focal point for the writers associated with the Irish Literary Revival, and this continued after her retirement. On a tree in what were the grounds of the house, one can still see the carved initials of Synge, Æ, Yeats and his artist brother Jack, George Moore, Seán O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, Katharine Tynan and Violet Martin. Yeats wrote five poems about, or set in, the house and grounds: “The Wild Swans at Coole”, “I walked among the seven woods of Coole”, “In the Seven Woods”, “Coole Park, 1929” and “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931”.
Lady Gregory died at home aged 80 from breast cancer and is buried in the New Cemetery in Bohermore, County Galway. The entire contents of Coole Park were auctioned three months after her death, and the house was demolished in 1941.