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A photograph taken of Lady Gregory on an Abbey Theatre tour of the US. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

The Irish For Kiltartanese and a passionate affair. The story of Galway's Lady Gregory

Darach Ó Séaghdha follows the artistic path of one of Ireland’s most fascinating historical women.

The Gaelic language itself depends very much on ear and rhythm, and when those who are thinking in Gaelic speak in English, they get the same rhythm.

Lady Gregory

ONE HUNDRED AND forty years ago this month, a young Galway woman called Augusta Persse married a Tory politician and landlord who was 35 years her senior.

He was known for speaking in defence of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, for introducing a notorious clause in parliament limiting access to relief during the Irish Famine, and for being the governor of Ceylon when its cash crop (coffee) failed, leading to an economic crisis there.

His name was Lord William Gregory, and Augusta would thereafter be known as Lady Gregory.

Nowadays she is far better known than her husband on account of her leading role in Irish Literary Revival, including the founding of the Abbey Theatre. But how did she step out of his shadow to become a leader who left an indelible mark on Irish culture?

Her political awakening can be traced back to a visit to Egypt with her husband shortly in the early 1880s. Prior to this, it appears she shared the imperial sympathies of her family and her husband. While in Cairo she met a poet by the name of Wilfred Scawen Blunt.

Lady Gregory - Ben Bay drawing A painting of Gregory by ‘Ben Bay’. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Though he came from a respectable background (old family, diplomatic career, member of the Carlton Club), Wilfred was considered a bit bohemian on account of his literary pursuits and edgy political opinions (including support for Egyptian independence and Home Rule) haunting the blur between colonial high society and the underworld of artists and radicals.

And while Lord Gregory’s interest in horses was limited to betting and losing his inherited wealth on them, Wilfred was an aficionado of equine pursuits, introducing Arabian breeds to Britain as well as keeping his own stud farm. A notorious womaniser, his modus operandi was to invite young women to the stables to meet the thoroughbreds as a pretext for seduction, and Augusta was no exception.

First writings

Before long, Augusta and Wilfred were having a passionate affair. It was during this intense period that the two first works attributed to her were produced. The first of these was “Arabi and His Family” a pamphlet defending the Egyptian rebel leader Ahmed Urabi for this part in a rising there. The pamphlet, which also ran as a letter in The Times, was well received and Urabi’s death sentence was appealed (he was merely banished instead of shot).

The second work was a body of love poetry about her affair with Wilfred. Obviously it would have been scandalous to publish such works under her own name at the time.

“A Woman’s Sonnets” was published by Wilfred himself anonymously, allowing him to take credit for the works while also being able to slyly gloat about being their subject. This probably annoyed Augusta, as did Wilfred moving on to a new romantic conquest – Jane Morris, the famous pre-Raphaelite model and wife of the painter William Morris. Nonetheless, they stayed in touch for years, including during his spell in a Galway jail for protesting an eviction there.

vtls000224826_001 A cartoon drawn by Grace Gifford Plunkett which is entitled ‘Lady Gregory sighing for new worlds to Kiltartanise’ – a reference to the version of the Hiberno-English dialect spoken around Kiltartan which Gregory used in her writings. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland


While the poems in “A Woman’s Sonnets” are written in an almost Shakespearean style, she rejected this model when she returned to writing in the 1890s. Wanting to communicate the sense as well as the storylines of Irish mythology to an English-speaking audience, she used a stylised Hiberno-English in her books Cuchulain of Muirthemne and Gods and Fighting Men. She called this Kiltartanese in acknowledgement of the way the people of Kiltartan used English.

When she wrote her own version of Grania, Yeats was horrified that her take on the story of a king’s young wife falling for a young warrior was too obviously autobiographical and urged her to use her platform and wealth to promote other writers instead. And promote she did, although she continued to write prolifically.

While Kiltartanese was not the way Augusta spoke English herself, it represents the first significant attempt in print to present Irish-idiom English outside the context of ridicule, and it kicked the door down for other writers to make progress in this area, as well as creating an interested audience for the original texts themselves.

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