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Preserving the Ruins of Mythology: Coole Park, William Yeats and Lady Gregory

Updated: Apr 6, 2019

Ireland is full of ruined old houses and castles - yet these ancient places are steeped in mythology and legend and provide a doorway into the sacred. In 2017, I visited Coole Park in Galway, and I found inspiration and sought to reconnect with the old house of my ancestors. As I was moving over the site of the demolished house I suddenly remembered a glimpse of the joy that emanated throughout my childhood as I created games in the playground. I could build an entire house in my mind's eye – everywhere in the playground was a site of possibility – each nook or stone wall had potential - a story or game was waiting to unfold. Seeing the site of the demolished house at Coole Park had ignited my heart and drawn me closer to the realm of the formless. As I passed by old stone stairs, great stone walls and eventually the cut lawn around the empty house site, I felt an expansiveness, a sense of mystery, a joy and an urge to explore. I then realised that these places live on in the mythic Otherworld, the formless realm – their presence continues to be felt and inspire new stories and legends. It was here, in Coole Park, that I longed to return to my ancestor's house and discover its own lost stories and explore more of County Galway.

The house had originally been built for Robert Gregory, from Galway, who bought the estate in 1768; he had become rich after serving in the Honourable East India Company in India and over the years had extended the size of the property buying various townlands. His great-grandson, William Henry Gregory, married Isabella Augusta Persse in 1880, who later was known as Lady Gregory. Isabella was born in 1852 at Roxborough in South County Galway. Her husband introduced her to London society, literature and travelling and after his death she devoted her time to writing - eventually learning Irish in the Aran Islands, she began translating Irish mythology and folklore into English and produced many highly-praised compilations of myth and legend.

Lady Gregory once said: "[One] of my objects – the one nearest my heart – is the making of the soil of Ireland sacred by getting legends known.  By translating a legend, or some piece of folklore, we may give to the hills and the fields a new meaning, a new colour, a new inspiration for those who make their homes among them – thus, as I say, bringing back the soul of Ireland to herself.”  (Saddlemyer and Smythe, p. 309)

Lady Gregory's wedding photo.

A painting of the house at The Lady Gregory Hotel in Gort, Galway

Images from A Guide to Coole Park: the house had 6 levels and was 61 feet tall.

In 1896, Lady Gregory first met Irish poet William Butler Yeats who was fascinated by Celtic mythology and encouraged him to write drama and so began a long friendship. Born in 1865, Yeats became a famous poet, writer and a leading figure in the Irish literary establishment - in 1899 he jointly established the Irish Literary Theatre which presented Irish plays along with Lady Gregory, George Moore and Edward Martyn. Yeats was greatly inspired by Coole Park – whilst living in Gregory's house, Yeats wrote his famous poem The Wild Swans at Coole in 1916-1917.

Photograph of Yeats taken in 1903 by American, Alice Boughton

In his book, A Guide to Coole Park, Colin Smythe wrote about Lady Gregory's fascination with Celtic legends and the mythical realms embedded in the landscapes around her: “Lady Gregory collected the stories and experiences of the people of the region over a period of twenty years or more, and published the collection as Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland which describes the folk-lore, healing herbs, charms, strange visions, seers and healers, the forths and the sheoguey (faery) places of Connaught.”

At Dhulough, by Inchy Wood, to the south-west of Coole, various strange sightings were seen and later recorded by Lady Gregory – a man with an eel spear had fainted after hitting something in the water that was like a horse or a calf and Smythe recounted: “a less terrible vision was told of by another who 'saw two ladies down by the lake, and I thought it was the ladies form the house gone out for a walk. But when I came near it was two strange women I saw sitting there by the lake, and their wings came and they vanished into the air.'”

Yews in the walled garden, loved by Lady Gregory - in the foreground is a analemmatic sundial. Yews feature prevalently in Irish mythology and as evergreen trees, they were considered a symbol of everlasting life and reincarnation to the druids.

Lady Gregory, after her husband's death, struggled to maintain the keeping costs of the house and although she tried to pay for its expenses using her earnings as a playwright and author, she eventually sold the house and rented it from the Forestry Department of the Land Commission. The estate was eventually owned by the Office of Public Works, who turned it into a nature reserve and the area is now known as the Coole-Garryland Nature Reserve.

After the house at Coole Park was sold to the Forestry Commission, it was sold to a local builder who demolished it and the site was cemented over. Augusta Gregory's original home in Roxbourough, seven miles away was destroyed in the Civil War by fire on the 8th October 1924. In Lady Gregory's Toothbrush, Colm Tóibín quoted the following: “'This is a sad day to the whole of us,' Sean O'Casey wrote to her. 'The ruins of all these lovely houses constitute a desolate monument of shame to Irish humanity.'”

In his essay 'The Narrative Creation of Place' from Decoding the Landscape (edited by Timothy Collins) Pat Sheeran wrote: “The evidence for the Irish failure to cultivate, cherish or enhance place in any material way is all around us. What is esteemed is the narrative woven about particular locations, not location per se. If we can speak about continuity at all we should speak about the continuity of stories and tales rather than the continuity of the land as Beckett suggested.”

Some more ruins of manor houses across Ireland. For anyone interested in locating these ruins, you may find Robert O'Byrne's book, The Irish Aesthete: Ruins of Ireland, helpful:

This mythical realm, the realm of the formless or, in Ireland, a place often designated with the name Tír na nÓg (the Land of Youth) was alluded to by Yeats in his poetry and Pat Sheeran wrote: “Throughout his work Yeats evinces a striking lack of interest in nature or landscape per se. Hills and mountains, plains and rivers are important to him not so much for their intrinsic of even aesthetic value but insofar as they can be made to symbolise a world elsewhere or because they are connected with a particular incident: a fairy woman has manifested or an arrogant lady has cut off a cheeky servant's ear.”

In Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danann, (the deities of Pre-Christian Ireland,) were the dwellers of the eternal, supernatural land of Tír na nÓg and in the poem, The Wanderings of Usheen written to his muse Maude Gonne, Yeats wrote about the journey of Oisin, son of the great magician and warrior, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, who fell in love with Niamh and followed her into the mysterious fairy realm of Tír na nÓg.

A marble bust of Maecenas (c 80 B.C.) a Roman statesman, brought from Italy by Richard Gregory and placed in the walled garden where the Autograph Tree, a Copper Beech, can also be found containing many signatures including those of Yeats and George Bernard Shaw.

For Yeats, the woods, waters and swans of Coole Park were doorways into Eden, and it was the wild, natural landscape which held the key to the Otherworld, rather than any cultural garden or well-maintained building, rich in symbology and allusion. Although we may see many ruins around us, nature constantly reminds us of re-growth and renewed hope - and perhaps it is the power of mythology that can help us to preserve these sacred places where places of worship, or great homes were often built. These realms of nature, these wonderlands, invigorated with life-force energy and creativity can jolt our nervous systems and remind us of our timeless peace. These hidden places are doorways; they are centre-pieces in the map of legends and can inspire all hearts.

Is Eden far away, or do you hide From human thought, as hares and mice and coneys That run before the reaping-hook and lie In the last ridge of the barley? Do our woods

And winds and ponds cover more quiet woods

More shining winds, more star-glimmering ponds?

Is Eden out of time and out of space? The Shadowy Waters, Yeats (1906)

The magical lake, full of swans, at Coole Park

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