Isabella Augusta Persse, Lady Gregory 1852 – 1932
The twelfth of sixteen children, Augusta was born in Co. Galway at Roxborough, the Persse estate. Augusta’s lineage included both English and native Irish. Her father, Dudley Persse, was a wealthy landowner with Irish tenants.
Augusta’s early education was private, followed by self-education through reading. The family nurse, a native Irish speaker, related fairy stories and stories about Irish famine and rebellion. Comfortable among her father’s tenants and serving them in charitable ways, Augusta stood apart from members of her family even as a child. Augusta continued in this path, and grew in later years to embrace Irish nationalist ideology.
In 1880, Augusta married Sir William Gregory, landlord and owner of the beautiful estate, Coole Park. Sir Gregory was an English gentleman who had served in Parliament and as Governor of Ceylon. William and Augusta spent time in London and Ireland and traveled widely during their twelve-year marriage, including a stay in Egypt. They had one child, William Robert. Sir William died in 1892, and Lady Gregory wore black mourning clothes for the rest of her life.
Lady Gregory’s early writing is represented by an essay on Egypt, and the editing of Sir William’s autobiography and his grandfather’s letters. In 1896, a meeting with the young poet William Butler Yeats set the stage for her involvement in dramatic writing and in the establishment of an Irish Literary Theatre. The two shared an interest in folklore and Irish nationalism, and with Edward Martyn, established what would become the Abbey theatre. Yeats spent every summer for twenty years working on plays with Lady Gregory at Coole. Eventually, in order to add comedies to the theatre’s repertoire of plays, Lady Gregory began to write works of her own. Time spent among the native Irish shone through Lady Gregory’s dramatic works in the integrity of the dialogue, the worldview of many of her characters, and in the plausibility of some seemingly implausible plots.
Histories, tragedies, tragic-comedies, and supernatural and wonder plays are among the 39 plays that she wrote as sole author; the list is longer if one includes collaboration with Yeats and others. Cathleen Ní Houlihan, a much-celebrated play attributed to Yeats, was very much a collaborative effort. George Bernard Shaw expressed respect for Lady Gregory’s work by dubbing her the Irish Moliére.
Her folklore collecting resulted in three books, including Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. Other works include translations from Irish, Lady Gregory’s retellings of ancient myths, and a book tracing the history of the Irish Literary Theatre, Our Irish Theatre.
Many consider Lady Gregory to be the woman behind the Irish Renaissance, which flourished on the mining of Irish life, folk beliefs, early myths, stories, and songs.
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