In the late 19th century and early 20th century, an Irish literary revival occurred as a means of establishing cultural nationalism, and Irish literary talent bloomed. As a result, culturally significant organisations were developed such as the Gaelic League (an organisation formed to promote the use of the Irish language) and The Abbey Theatre.

The history of The Abbey Theatre began with the publication of the ‘Manifesto for Irish Literary Theatre’ in 1897, in which Lady Gregory (full name: Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory) and Edward Martyn stated their intentions to establish a national theatre for Ireland. This led to the formation of the Irish National Theatre by Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and W. B. Yeats at a meeting at Lady Gregory’s home, Coole Park, in 1897. Lady Gregory proved pivotal in obtaining funding for the theatre and the patent was granted in her name. She created it as a limited liability company.

Lady Gregory’s one act play, Spreading the News, was performed on the opening night of the theatre on 27 December 1904. The plot of the play revolves around a series of misunderstandings that result in the residents of an Irish village believing that one of the locals, Bartley Fallon, has murdered another local, Jack Smith, in a jealous rage. Lady Gregory’s intentions were for the play to be a comedy with a political undertone. On the one hand, it was considered to be an innovative play in its exploration of the social construction of reality. However, other members of the public considered it a farce, in which the Irish stereotype of the time was exploited. This stereotype painted the Irish as wild, dim, easy to manipulate and dangerous. The play also satirizes the English through the character of the Magistrate, who comes to the village expecting violent crimes to be committed and in a way, imposes his idea of their corruption on the people of the village. This further highlights the inability of the villagers to assert themselves politically.

Lady Gregory was a member of the Ascendancy, the great landowners belonging to the established church, who possessed political, economic and social domination over Ireland under British rule. She was born on the 15 March 1852 into an Anglo-Irish family at Roxborough, Galway. The Roxborough estate covered 6000 acres (its house was later burned down during the Irish Civil War). But, despite her antecendents, Lady Gregory sympathised with the native Irish. She had been educated at home and was strongly influenced by the family nurse, a Catholic and an Irish speaker, who introduced the young Isabella Augusta to the history and legends of the local area.

In 1880 she married Sir William Henry Gregory, a neighbouring landowner who had previously served in parliament and as Governor of Ceylon (a British colony between 1817 and 1948, now known as Sri Lanka.) After the death of her husband in 1892 she visited Inisheer, one of the Aran Islands, a visit which inspired her to learn the Irish language and Hiberno-English (the distinct way in which the Irish speak English). In 1897 Lady Gregory met Douglas Hyde, co-founder of the Gaelic League, and he began teaching her the Irish language. She also began collecting tales from the area around her home, leading to the publication of a number of volumes of folk material, including A Book of Saints and Wonders (1906) and The Kiltartan History Book (1909).

After the performance of Spreading the News, Lady Gregory went on to write eighteen more original plays and also did seven translations for the Abbey between 1904 and 1912. These plays proved to be very successful at the time, but as time passed their popularity declined and Irish author, Oliver Joseph 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, entitled Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland.

The woman, George Bernard Shaw once described as “the greatest living Irish woman”, died at home, aged eighty, from breast cancer. Her plays fell out of favour after her death and are rarely performed today. Many of the diaries she kept for the majority of her adult life have been published, providing a rich source of information on Irish literary history during the first three decades of the 20th century.

Quotes Attributed to Lady Gregory:

"There is many a man without learning will get the better of a college-bred man, and will have better words, too."

"I feel more and more the time wasted that is not spent in Ireland."

"It takes madness to find out madness."

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Tags: Drama, History of Ireland, Theater


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