While they agreed there was a wealth of writing talent in the country, indeed some of it in that very room, there was no theatre in Ireland where their work could be performed. They decided that they themselves could remedy the situation by founding a theatre where Irish playwrights could showcase their work. The outcome of that discussion on that wet July day was the Irish Literary Theatre, which would later become the Abbey Theatre.
The Celtic Literary Revival was part of a broader movement at the end of the 19th century which saw the Irish people, after centuries of repression, rediscovering their own national identity. Drawing on ancient Celtic culture for inspiration, new cultural organisations were leading the charge. The Gaelic League was set up to promote the revival of the native Irish language, while the Gaelic Athletic Association was laying down the rules for hurling, a game played in Ireland since ancient times. The arts were instrumental in creating this revived Celtic identity.
The first performance of the Irish Literary Theatre was at the Antient Rooms on Dublin’s Pearse St on 8th May 1899, where Yeat’s The Countess Cathleen was well received. Soon other writers joined the movement. While the plays were inevitably performed in the metropolis of Dublin, Coole Park became a sanctuary and often a source of inspiration, not just playwrights but for poets, novelists and artists.
The Gregorys came to East Galway in the 1770s, when Robert Gregory bought the estate at Coole near Gort with money he had made while working for the East India Company. Augusta Persse, of the neighbouring Roxborough estate, married Sir William Gregory, who was 35 years here senior, in 1880. When he died in 1892 Lady Gregory found herself in financial difficulty. To make ends meet she turned her hand to writing. She began by editing Sir William’s autobiography and then turned her attention to Irish folklore. Encouraged by William Butler Yeats she began writing plays. With the inception of the Celtic Literary Revival she opened the doors of Coole Park to Irish writers and artists of the day.
All of the well known writers of the period visited Coole Park, many of them recording their visit by carving their initials on the trunk of the Copper Beech tree in the walled garden. The Autograph tree is a who’s who of the Celtic Literary Revival. Along with Yeats and Lady Gregory, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, Sean O’Casey, Douglas Hyde, Violet Martin and Jack Butler Yeats, among others, left their mark on that majestic tree. Some were playwrights, some wrote novels, and some of them found Coole and other parts of County Galway a source of material for their work.
John Millington Synge was one such writer. The native Dubliner had originally aspired to a career in music but decided that he was more suited to writing. However he struggled to find a subject matter. He went to Paris in December 1896 where he met William Butler Yeats. It was on Yeat’s suggestion that he paid a visit to the Aran Islands. There he found his elusive subject matter. He spend many summers on Inishmaan, where the traditions, language and way of life of the islanders inspired plays such as Riders to the Sea and his best known work, Playboy of the Western World, which when first performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1907 was not well received.
Yeats too found inspiration for his work in County Galway. In 1917 he bought Thoor Ballylea, a ruined tower castle near Coole Park. He had it refurbished and in later years published a volume of poetry entitled The Tower.
Edward Martyn, who attended that first meeting in Kinvara and whose play The Heather Field was also performed on the opening night of the Irish Literary Theatre fell out with Lady Gregory and Yeats and by the time the Abbey Theatre was founded in 1904 he was no longer involved in the movement. He had a wide range of interests beyond literature, and was the founder of the Palestrina Boy’s Choir at St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin.
One writer of the era who had her roots in Galway was Violet Martin. She grew up at Ross Castle near Oughterard. Along with her cousin Edith Somerville, from Castletownsend in Cork, they wrote a series of books entitled The Irish R.M. Writing under the names Somerville and Ross, Edith came up with the storylines about the interactions of a Resident Magistrate with the wily locals and fox hunting mad gentry in a rural Irish community, but it was Violet’s witty writing that made their writing successful.
The carved autographs have begun to fade as the Autograph Tree grows, but the legacy of Lady Gregory and Yeats is still with us today as the Abbey Theatre is a world renown company keeping the tradition of performing Irish plays.
By Helen Lee