The Autograph Tree (Transcript)
Season 2, Episode 1
Published October 11, 2023
Doug Still: [00:01]
Beech trees have a smooth, thin gray bark that makes the perfect writing tablet for vandals. This is true for both Fagus grandifolia - that's American beech here in North America - and the species Fagus sylvatica, indigenous to much of Europe. You can't blame tree lovers or park managers for shaking their heads in dismay upon seeing Johnny plus Susie scratched proudly onto the trunk, marring it for decades. But not everyone feels that way. There's a magnificent copper beech in Ireland - Gort in County Galway to be exact - where bark signatures were not only appreciated but encouraged. They made the tree famous. Thousands of tourists come to visit it each year, also to see the Coole Park Nature Reserve where it stands. What's the story here?
To crack this beech nut, we need to delve into the world of Isabella Augusta Gregory, or Lady Gregory as she's known. Writer, intellectual, playwright, folklorist and patron of the Irish literary revival at the turn of the 20th century, Lady Gregory drew writers of her day to her house and garden. If they made the grade, they were allowed to sign our subject today, The Autograph Tree. I'm Doug Still and this is This Old Tree.
[This Old Tree theme]
[song - Cailleach an Airgid]
Doug Still: [02:13]
Who was Lady Gregory and why were her literary guests at Coole Park signing her copper beech tree? I have two of the world's foremost scholars on Lady Gregory here to describe her life and passions, Dr. James Pethica of Williams College, and Dr. Anna Pilz of the University of Edinburgh. First, however, I actually had the privilege of traveling to Gort, Ireland to stand beneath the canopy of this amazing tree in person as William Butler Yeats did, and George Bernard Shaw, and Seán O'Casey, George William Russell, and many others.
While there, I met some very kind staff members at the Coole Park Nature Reserve, including Becky Teesdale, Jenni McGuire, Niall O'Reilly, and Margaux Pierrel, who not only showed me the beech tree but also the gorgeous woods and paths and lakes that make up this conservation gem. Here's my interview with Jenni McGuire, the head guide at Coole with the noble beech towering over us.
Jenni McGuire: [03:16]
Hi, Doug. Nice to meet you.
Doug Still: [03:18]
For our listeners, what's the setting here, and what is Coole Park?
Jenni McGuire: [00:03:23]
So, yes, we're in a mixed broadleaf woodland. It's a nature reserve of about 1,000 acres. We're standing in the walled garden within that nature reserve. We're about 10 kms inland from the coast at Kinvara, so we're quite low lying here. It was designated a nature reserve in 1983, but prior to that it has a rich cultural history dating back to 1768 when the park area, initially 600 acres, was acquired by the first of four generations of Gregory’s to own this estate. So, that was Robert Gregory in 1768.
Subsequent four generations of the Gregory family have continued a tradition of planting trees in the estate. The first Robert set about building stone walls all around the boundary, and he established a nursery in what is now our red deer enclosure to furnish the woodlands with exotic trees. As the age of botany developed and explorers went traveling further afield, they were able to bring back more exotic specimens. So, as you go for, perhaps, a little wander around the reserve later on, you may see specimens that you may be more familiar with in the States. We have Western Red Cedar, we have a sequoia, we have a Monterey pine. So, all of these are our living history, the legacy left behind by the Gregory family.
Doug Still: [04:56]
I recognized some of them on the drive in was spectacular. We drove into a tunnel of trees from the countryside, and you instantly know you're in a different space.
Jenni McGuire: [05:08]
That's right. Yeah, estates were all about status symbols as well. The main driveway that you came in on will have been planted up by the third-generation of Gregory family. So, they planted a lot of lime trees, so common lime around Quercus ilex, so holm oak or holly oak. And this formed like a Gothic arch above the main driveway, which was intended to have impact as people approach the estate.
Doug Still: [05:37]
Yes. You tested me on the holly oak [Jenni laughs] just a minute ago, and I failed miserably by the very interesting tree.
Jenni McGuire: [05:43]
We let you off. [laughter]
Doug Still: [05:46]
What part of the estate are we on now?
Jenni McGuire: [05:48]
So, we're in the walled garden. We're not too far from the main house. That was built in 1770, I believe. But the house was central in the whole estate, and the walled garden was a little bit off to the left. It's a walled garden. It used to be called the flower garden in Lady Gregory's time. So, Lady Gregory was the wife of the final Gregory generation to own the estate. She married Sir William Gregory in the 1800s. She was very young. She wasn't from far away. She was only from another wealthy landowning estate of Roxborough, about 5 miles from here.
Doug Still: [06:35] I see.
Jenni McGuire: [06:36]
She was the youngest of a family of about 17 children and a little bit disregarded by her parents.
Doug Still: [06:42]
Well, after 16 other siblings.
Jenni McGuire: [06:45]
Yeah, I think so. I think they were a bit bored of children at that point. [laughter]
Doug Still: [06:50]
Well, she made a name for herself.
Jenni McGuire: [06:51]
She did. So, the walled garden itself was really only a minor factor of the estate. It was a place where they could come and sit and enjoy the peace and quiet, and the additional heat that a walled garden provides. The high walls protecting from the salt laden wind. It wasn't the main destination. The autograph tree would not have been the focal point of the walled garden. You saw as you walked in that it's off to the side. It's not in a central location. It doesn't draw the eye until you get a bit closer to it and have stopped looking at everything else.
Doug Still: [00:07:30]
Jenni shared that Lady Gregory was widowed in 1892.
Jenni McGuire: [00:07:34]
That's when her life took off in a literary fashion. But also parallel to that was her love of tree planting. She then met William Butler Yeats, a famous poet. She met him in London in 1896, and he then came to Coole. She invited him to Coole in 1898, and thus was the start of a lifelong friendship. He subsequently visited Coole Park for 20 consecutive summers.
Doug Still: [08:06]
Jenni McGuire: [08:05]
He was the first to be invited to carve his initials in the Autograph Tree.
Doug Still: [08:10]
Jenni McGuire: [08:11]
Now this wasn't a new practice. Like, trees are etched all over the world.
Doug Still: [08:18]
That's one of the ID features for a beech tree.
Jenni McGuire: [08:20]
It is. Yeah.
Doug Still: [08:21]
If someone's carved their initials into it, when you teach people for the first time.
Jenni McGuire: [08:27]
Yeah. It's the smooth bark.
Doug Still: [08:29]
Jenni McGuire: [08:30]
Doug Still: [08:30]
It just welcomes that.
Jenni McGuire: [08:32]
It does. And Lady Gregory, she knew her trees as is evident in an article she wrote for the Irish Homestead. At a time when horticultural practice and actual females planting trees and knowing so much about sylviculture was quite unheard of. And for her to write a practical article about planting trees was quite unusual.
Doug Still: [08:56]
If you listen closely, you can hear the rain pattering down on the canopy of the autograph tree above us. Jenni read a quote from a visitor to the walled garden named Sidney [unintelligible [00:09:05].
Jenni McGuire: [09:07]
That afternoon, I found the garden. The rare glow of sunshine lay on the high gray walls, hung with yellow drooping roses and reddening vines and waxy white flowers. A broad shadowed walk ran the length of the wall. There was an enchanting vista of it from the garden gate. I went slowly along, crushing rosemary between my fingers and wondering at the dark groups of stately Irish hues. At the end of the garden, I found a gate in the wall, a big old rusty and green gate through which I peered at a wet wilderness of trees and mossy stones.
So, as you've seen yourself, it doesn't look too much different to those times. It hasn't changed an awful lot, but the big difference is the gate at the end of the wall. Now, that was locked in those times. Yeats was given a key. He had free reign of the grounds. [Doug laughs] When he came to visit here, Lady Gregory really looked after him. He was given the best room in the house, he was given free reign of the wine cellar, which really irked her son, Robert. [Doug laughs] She set out fresh paper and ink for him every morning, and she really tried to nurture his writing. He was given the key to nutwood and he would often be found just wandering, lost in thought. If he passed anybody, he rarely acknowledged them. He was very much away with the fairies.
Doug Still: [10:34]
[laughs] That's funny.
Jenni McGuire: [10:35]
What she created here was a literary landscape within a woodland setting. Like, she had equal love of both. She loved the literary side. She penned 50 plays herself. She nurtured Yeats. She invited all these literary greats here, whose names are all before us on the tree, slightly blurred now, over time. When she set about gathering folklore from local Irish people, she took herself off to the Aran Islands of County Galway to go and gather folklore and translated it from Irish. So, she was bringing the Irish language back into the fore at a time when Ireland was under-- There was a lot of political unrest and the Irish kind of-- Irishism was disappearing under the weight of that, and she wanted to revive that, and she found her partner in Yeats to help do that.
Doug Still: [11:34]
Yes, they both did.
Jenni McGuire: [11:35]
They did. The late 1800s, early 1900s was the Irish literary revival. They established the Irish National Theatre, a world stage for Irish playwrights to have a voice. Up until then, it had been maybe American theatre companies, British companies touring, and Irish people weren't very well portrayed, a bit typecast. So, this was an option, an opportunity for Irish playwrights to-- [crosstalk]
Doug Still: [12:06]
And a celebration of Irish folklore.
Jenni McGuire: [12:08]
Doug Still: [12:09]
So, you have a quote from Lady Gregory.
Jenni McGuire: [12:11]
But lady Gregory, yeah, to indicate her love of trees and her knowledge of trees, she wrote in The Irish Homestead, and this was printed in 1898, the same year that Yeats signed this tree. And she wrote, “We find the little seedlings we had put down in faith are over our heads and acting as our protectors. And even if we do not live to sit under their shade, yet nonetheless, they will grow while we are sleeping, that long sleep in which we may so easily be forgotten. And we are not likely to have more lasting monuments put over us, and we cannot have more gracious ones than the living, rustling trees that we had planted and that we had loved.”
Doug Still: [12:57]
This is the perfect place to read that-
Jenni McGuire: [12:59]
Doug Still: [13:00]
-as the autograph tree is rustling in the wind and protecting us from the light rain that's happening outside.
Jenni McGuire: [13:07]
Yes, absolutely it is. It's a cathedral under here. It's a copper beech, as we've said. It's Fagus sylvatica ‘purpurea.’
Doug Still: [13:17]
Could you describe the tree for our listeners?
Jenni McGuire: [13:18]
Yeah. We estimate it's around 200 years old, give or take 20 years.
Doug Still: [13:26]
Well, it's covered in moss, so it looks very old as well.
Jenni McGuire: [13:28]
It’s covered in moss. Yeah. We're standing underneath like some drooping boughs, which creating a tent like atmosphere. As you look up, it is reminiscent of like a cathedral dome. The drooping boughs are grazing the floor around it. We're completely protected from the elements under here. The girth of the tree itself, in 2017, measured three and a half meters. It's likely put on a little bit of weight since then as well, but we currently have a little boardwalk around the base of the tree, so that visitors can look all the way around it.
Doug Still: [14:14]
And protect the roots.
Jenni McGuire: [14:15]
And protect the roots. We have a metal cage which was put in place, I think, in the 1970s, or it's been protected since the early 1970s, because as well as all of our literary greats, we have a lot of locals, and visitors, and foresters who have also carved their initials on here over the years.
Doug Still: [14:37]
Right. The temptation is too great.
Jenni McGuire: [14:39]
Too great. Yeah.
Doug Still: [14:40]
So, now they can't do that.
Jenni McGuire: [14:41]
They can't do that at all. But yeah, there's a plaque standing at the base of the tree listing some of the key figures that signed their names. There are numbers marked on the back of the tree to help locate them, because over the years, every signing is damage to the tree, the tree tries to repair itself. It's quite incredible that it survived all of this repair. Some of the autographs have folded in on themselves now and are really hard to decipher.
Doug Still: [15:15]
Now, on the sign, there are 15 people listed-
Jenni McGuire: [15:19]
Doug Still: [15:19]
-and there are markers on the tree where their initials are.
Jenni McGuire: [15:24]
That's it. Yes. So, it indicates exactly where each initial was. And then we also list a few other names of significant people who've also signed the tree, but they aren't labeled by number. But if you're interested in learning a little bit more about them, I can tell you who some of them are. There's actually an interesting one. She's not labelled on the tree, but she was an actress called Sara Allgood. She was one of the leading ladies in many of Lady Gregory's plays. But in her later life, she moved to Hollywood and ended up starring in a lot of the early talkie movies. She was nominated for an Academy Award for How Green Was My Valley, an old John Ford film from way back.
Doug Still: [16:12]
Now, would a lot of the people have been invited by William Yeats or both or--?
Jenni McGuire: [16:21]
Lady Gregory was the sole decider of who signed this tree.
Doug Still: [16:25]
Jenni McGuire: [16:25]
Yes. This was her tree. She decided it.
Doug Still: [16:28]
It must have been considered an honor.
Jenni McGuire: [16:30]
It must have been. Oh, it was indeed. There were other guests here who weren't invited to sign the tree, even though they were here with the literary grace.
Doug Still: [16:39]
They must have left disappointed. Who comes to visit Coole Park now?
Jenni McGuire: [16:44]
People from all over the world. We have coach tours, we have a lot of Americans come here, we have national tour groups come here, literary groups, poet groups. There's a regular poetry group called The Gathering Cloud Collective who come and do poetry readings under the tree. Literary students will come and families. People, who just stumble across it have no idea what they're looking at. And also, ecologists. So, it appeals to people coming at it from a historical angle and people coming at it from a love of nature.
Initially, you felt it yourself. You had to duck through a small opening in the boughs to come and enter into this dome like tent. That's the initial impression is just of awe at the size and just wonderment in looking up at those boughs.
Doug Still: [17:43]
Yeah. I can say when we entered the walled garden, it didn't stand out right of way-
Jenni McGuire: [17:48] No.
Doug Still: [17:48]
-until we got maybe halfway down the path, because it's sort of a wall of leaves.
Jenni McGuire: [17:54]
Doug Still: [17:53] [chuckles]
It looks like when you walk up to it, but then you see the tunnel entrance and you walk in. It's a different world under here.
Jenni McGuire: [18:01]
Yeah, it is.
Doug Still: [18:03]
What would you say is the most common question about it?
Jenni McGuire: [18:06]
About the tree?
Doug Still: [18:07]
About the tree or Coole Park.
Jenni McGuire: [18:09]
The most common question we actually get asked in the visitor center is, what happened to the house? Because the house no longer stands.
Doug Still: [18:16]
Right. What did happen to the house?
Jenni McGuire: [18:18]
What did happen to the house? Well, the common misconception is that it was burned during the Troubles, but it wasn't burned at all. Lady Gregory died in 1932. When she died, she had no longer been the owner of the house for five years. Her daughter-in-law, Margaret Perry, so her son's wife had sold the house with Lady Gregory's blessing to the state. It was run then by the Forestry Service, who then spent the next 60 years planting up available space with commercial timber for lumber. But Lady Gregory, according to Sir William's will, she was entitled to remain in the house until her death. So, she actually ended up paying rent to stay in her own house.
Doug Still: [19:08]
Jenni McGuire: [19:09]
She paid £100 a year, but she was actually quite happy that it had gone to the Forestry Service, because-- [crosstalk]
Doug Still: [19:15]
Right. She didn't have to take care of it anymore.
Jenni McGuire: [19:16]
She didn't, but she still was involved. She was delighted that-
Doug Still: [19:20]
Jenni McGuire: [19:21]
-planting was taking place, that this kind of tree planting legacy was still being continued and that the estate would remain for future generations as a woodland. So, her, paying rent. She was no longer receiving rent from tenants. So, the upkeep was a little bit hard on the house. And then when she died, the first thing the Forestry Service did was remove the lead from the roof. It's obviously something that could have been recycled at the time. Ireland was a relatively new independent state, and any kind of recycling and saving of money would have been to the fore. Once the weather gets in, then the demise of the house was-- [crosstalk]
Doug Still: [20:00]
Once you start dismantling the roof-
Jenni McGuire: [20:02]
Yes, that’s it.
Doug Still: [20:02]
-it's over, isn't it?
Jenni McGuire: [20:03]
So, it was eventually demolished for the price of the stone to a local building contractor in 1941. Sadly.
Doug Still: [20:11]
Jenni McGuire: [20:11]
Doug Still: [20:16]
We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll take a walk through that garden gate that Jenni talked about into the magical woods of the Coole-Garryland, Special Area of Conservation with the Conservation Ranger, Margaux Pierrel. Then I have a conversation with Lady Gregory scholar, James Pethica, to dig down into who Lady Gregory was and how the autograph tree helps tell her story. I'm Doug Still, and you're listening to This Old Tree.
[song - Cailleach an Airgid]
Doug Still: [21:05]
So, I'm here with the Conservation Ranger at Coole Park. Could you state your name?
Margaux Pierrel: [21:10]
Hi. My name is Margaux Pierrel. And yes, I'm the ranger for Coole Park and Garryland Nature Reserve.
Doug Still: [21:16]
So, we're in the Coole-Garryland Nature Reserve right now.
Margaux Pierrel: [21:20]
Yeah, that's correct. So, we walked a few kilometers from the walled garden, and now we are now at the heart of the nature reserve.
Doug Still: [21:28]
It's a beautiful dark wood. I wanted to ask you about European beech, because the autograph tree is a European copper beech, but they are throughout this forest, at least this part of the forest, correct?
Margaux Pierrel: [21:46]
Yeah. So, common beech and copper beech would actually trees that would be considered not native to Ireland. So, they are thought to have been imported in the 16th century. But in fact, most of the woodland in Ireland would be formed of beech trees nowadays. They provide good shelter and food for a lot of animal species. And right now, we're standing under one that has been carved just like the autograph tree, but in a slight different ways where it's not protective. The rest of the woodland is composed of Pedunculate oak and ash trees. And then there's another story of hazel and elm.
Doug Still: [22:33] What was the type of oak tree?
Margaux Pierrel: [22:35] Pedunculate.
Doug Still: [22:36]
Someone was just describing, this as the dark wood. Could you elaborate on that?
Margaux Pierrel: [22:43]
Yeah. Well, I suppose on a gray day like today, the beech trees really form that dark atmosphere. It's very sheltered, and it does get very dark. Now on a spring and sunny day, it would be a very different story with the fresh leaves and the greenery.
Doug Still: [23:05]
But it'd be wonderful to be in here.
Margaux Pierrel: [23:06]
Yeah. Every day is a different atmosphere in Ireland, really.
Doug Still: [23:11]
So, what people have to remember is, this is a nature reserve in addition to the cultural aspect of the park.
Margaux Pierrel: [23:17] Y
es, absolutely. Yeah, Coole Park is known for Lady Gregory and the autograph tree and the walled garden, but it forms part of a bigger estate that is the Coole-Garryland Nature Reserve. Now, that nature reserve was established in 1983. And since 1987, it's being managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Now, it is designated under two directives. So, under the habitat directive, which means it's an SAC, so Special Area of Conservation.
Doug Still: [23:50]
Margaux Pierrel: [23:50]
Under the … directive, it's also protected as an SPA, a Special Protection Area.
Doug Still: [23:57]
What's the biggest issue you're facing right now in preserving this woodland?
Margaux Pierrel: [24:03]
Well, the wood itself has to be protected and managed against invasive species mostly.
Doug Still: [24:14]
Which a lot of them were, right, they were planted for lumber originally.
Margaux Pierrel: [24:18]
Yeah. So, those would not be technically considered invasive species, but more non-native. So, a lot of the conifers that were planted in the 20th century have been removed now. These areas that have been cut from conifers are now being regenerated as natural woodland. But now invasive species imported into gardens, for example, have found their way in Garryland and in Coole Park and are affecting a lot of trees. Yeah.
Doug Still: [24:57]
Now, the beech you were encouraging, or you're fine with the beech being, right?
Margaux Pierrel: [25:03]
Well, we have to start somewhere. The priority was really removing the nonnative conifers. So, the beech now they form a big part of the woodland. The beech woodland is not a qualifying interest for the nature reserve. It's not technically protected, but it forms an integral part of it.
Doug Still: [25:24]
We won't tell anyone. We're just going to keep these beech trees.
Margaux Pierrel: [25:27]
That’s it. Yes.
Doug Still: [25:29]
As I'm learning about Yeats poetry, he wrote about the swans on this lake.
Margaux Pierrel: [25:35]
Doug Still: [25:36]
So, the swans would come in the winter.
Margaux Pierrel: [25:37]
Yes. So, the wild swans of Coole Park that Yeats was wrote about-- So, as I mentioned, the nature reserve is also designated as a special protection area for whooper swans.
Doug Still: [25:51]
Margaux Pierrel: [25:52]
Yes. So, the whooper swans are coming from Iceland and they come and migrate here to spend a milder winter than they would have had in Iceland.
Doug Still: [25:59]
That's a long flight.
Margaux Pierrel: [26:00]
It is a pretty long flight, but they can do that in a couple of days, really. And then they have all the food that they want, because Turlocks are fantastic habitats in terms of grasses that they feed on.
Doug Still: [26:11]
But I can see what they appreciated about this landscape. The open lake area, the deep woods, the pinetum, the walled garden, it's all just very beautiful.
Margaux Pierrel: [26:24]
It's very beautiful and it does sustain them. It provides food and shelter, which is the most important.
Margaux Pierrel: [26:29]
And of course, the autograph tree.
Margaux Pierrel: [26:31]
And of course, the autograph tree.
Doug Still: [26:32]
Margaux, thanks so much for showing me this beautiful forest.
Margaux Pierrel: [26:37]
Doug Still: [26:39]
I got a great view of the autograph tree, and absolutely loved the tour through the surrounding woodlands. But who was Lady Gregory and what made her tick? How did her literary life and mission resonate with Ireland itself? Here's my talk with James Pethica, Senior Lecturer in English and Theatre at Williams College.
Thanks for coming on the show. I appreciate you taking the time.
James Pethica: [27:06]
Absolutely, my pleasure.
Doug Still: [27:08]
Lady Gregory is well known in Ireland, but I would hazard to say that most of us from North America and elsewhere don't really know of her. I know you're working to change that through your work and the authorized biography you have underway.
James Pethica: [27:25]
That's right. First, the question of her being known, she is known, if she is known well across the world by being Yeats’s friend, Yeats’s patron. She, of course, appears in a number of his canonical poems where he's expressing his gratitude for the support she gave him. The biography, yes, I've been at work for some time, as it were, pushing the tanker in a slightly different direction trying to highlight her foundational role in so many things in Irish culture, literary and artistic culture of the time.
First up, I suppose, her support for Yeats, she was really the figure who galvanized his folklore collecting, brought it in a new direction. She was a decent Irish speaker and good at translations, and that gave him access to a mass of new material. Then she helped him in a secretarial and an amanuensis role with his playwriting and gradually became a playwright herself. She also facilitated the founding of The Irish Literary Theatre, a three-year experiment which in turn led to The Abbey Theatre being built and renovated in 1904, which became Ireland's Abbey Theatre. So, an incredible influence here, much of it behind the scenes through other people, through collaboration.
Doug Still: [29:07]
How would you describe who she was just on a basic level?
James Pethica: [29:11]
Great question. Born in the west of Ireland, 1852. When we think of Galway, a country estate in Galway in 1852, that's a long way from the Metropolitan Center in Dublin, let alone the Metropolitan Center in London.
Doug Still: [29:30]
It feels very different.
James Pethica: [29:32]
Yes, it's a train ride from Galway. But getting to London, it literally is a couple of days. So, one of the youngest children in a big, bustling household, which was very insular, not bookish, particularly the purses. Her birth family were not well liked as landlords. She has the great fortune. She's 27 years old when she marries the nearby landlord of a large estate, Sir William Gregory. He's a cultivated man. He was Governor of Ceylon in the early 1870s. He'd been an MP in the British Parliament for a number of terms from early on. He is 35 years older than her. She marries just at the point where it looks like she's 27 is old in 1888-- [crosstalk]
Doug Still: [30:30]
Right. They got married.
James Pethica: [30:32]
Nobody expects her to get an offer. He is looking for a companion in old age, looking for somebody who is bookish. It lights on her and it transforms her world. She immediately goes to London and is introduced into this cultivated world. He's been a Colonial Governor and knows all the political people. She's dining with the Prime Minister, cabinet ministers, the rest.
Doug Still: [31:01]
Her life just changed.
James Pethica: [31:03]
Absolutely. He has significant artistic interests. He's a Director of the National Gallery in London. So, knows all the artistic figures as well. So, you can imagine the dinner parties in a London house. Robert Browning is there, Henry James is there. It launches her into an entirely new world. Travel to India and Ceylon and so on. And she starts her earliest writings in the 1880s in a very tentative way looking for a subject. She writes travel articles, journalistic articles, but they're not in any systematic way connected with Irish culture. It's not until towards the end of the married period that she starts turning her attention to the world around her. There are reasons for that.
From around 1880 onward, there was, what was termed, the land war in Ireland, where tenants are pushing basically for land distribution. Bit by bit it's clear that the stranglehold of particularly Protestant landlords and absentee landlords is going to be broken up. There are several efforts to pass Home Rule bills in the British government. She becomes more than peripherally involved in that given the tenants on the Gregory's own estate are campaigning for change and starts to pay more attention. Not to say that she hadn't had close relationships with her tenants beforehand, she was somebody who was deeply influenced by the idea of no bless oblige, “It is your duty as somebody who has money, has status, to help those who are less fortunate.” So, even as a young woman, she's gone out on the estate as a philanthropist trying to help people.
But from around the late 1880s onwards, she's paying much more attention, is starting to realize, there is a distinctive culture which she's attracted by. And then when she starts reading the early writings of the so called Irish Literary Revival, particularly when she encounters Yeats’s work, that's it. Her allegiances literally shift. Instead of unionist supportive of the British connection, she starts to become a nationalist and is working for Home Rule for Ireland.
Doug Still: [33:38]
As you were saying, a lot of her efforts culturally and in her writings are intertwined with Yeats. How did they meet and why did they form such an immediate friendship?
James Pethica: [33:49]
They meet briefly at some evening soirée in 1894. I think it's fair to say that she already has her eye on him. Her diary entry reads, "At the Morrises, I met Yeats, looking every inch a poet." There's [unintelligible [00:34:08]. Though his Celtic Twilight is the best work. I think is the best work he has done. And The Celtic Twilight was a collect of folklore, mainly from the Sligo region.
Doug Still: [34:21]
She was already interested in that.
James Pethica: [34:23]
She's starting to get interested in it. She's written a few short stories, is writing to friends in London, relating little stories she's heard, and turns a phrase that interest her. She doesn't meet Yeats again, as far as we know, until nearly two years later, when he's visiting a near neighbor of hers, Edward Martin. She takes her chance. She goes over, introduces herself. I'm pretty sure that she already knew he was coming to visit because a couple of weeks beforehand, she's already starting collecting folklore and invites him. The person he's touring island with to come to lunch at her estate at Coole, and she gives him this little collection of folklore and is talking about the things she's been doing.
So, he's interested immediately, I think, because she's a potential resource. She makes it clear very early on, she's willing to be a patron, a supporter. When they meet in London the following spring, she embarks on, I suppose, what you'd call, a charm offensive, inviting him to dinner to meet important people, people she thinks that he will be impressed by. Henry James, she invites to dinner. That dinner doesn't happen, but there's a sequence of people she brings in making connections for him, showing of her own, if you like her status. I'm somebody who has a social milieu that may be of use to you.
Doug Still: [35:59]
Is he very young at this time?
James Pethica: [36:01]
He is. Let me get this exactly right. 31 years old and hard up, scrabbling writing journalism to pay the rent on his little London apartment. In comes this person who basically signals to him very early on, “I'm ready to support you.” She sends him food hampers from Ireland, and then, in quite short order, starts giving him money. There's a moment in his autobiography where he says, “A few weeks later, I found £20 left behind the clock on my mantelpiece.
Doug Still: [36:38]
James Pethica: [36:41]
I went to try and return it to her, but she said, “The only wrong thing is not doing your best work. You must give up journalism. So, there's the essential equation. I'll support you. I want to support your poetry, I want to support your writing.”
Doug Still: [36:55]
Did he introduce her to other writers at the time, or was it the other way around or mutual?
James Pethica: [37:03]
It's mutual. But as far as the Irish side of it, he's the one who's making it possible for her to rise quickly, provides her with the opportunities to become a significant figure in the Irish revival. She knows mainly British writers before this. She knows a few people, but he's introducing her to his inner circle, writers like George Russell, Douglas Hyde, and others.
Doug Still: [37:30]
I can't help, but think of other figures in the early 20th century, like, Gertrude Stein in Paris or Peggy Guggenheim or Isabella Stewart Gardner, who, through their passion and energy and wealth and position, were patrons of the arts and brought intellectuals and likeminded artists together. Would you call Lady Gregory-- maybe it's too the leader of a literary or cultural Ceylon, or would you characterize it differently?
James Pethica: [38:03]
Ceylon’s the awkward word there. Unlike a figure such as Isabella Stewart Gardner, who Gregory got to meet later, and they got on like a house on fire, strong, independent women.
Doug Still: [38:15]
James Pethica: [38:17]
Lady Gregory was not wealthy. Quite the reverse. This was a relatively encumbered estate. She didn't have money to throw around. It was the house itself and the hospitality, the peace and quiet, the retreat that it offered.
Doug Still: [38:31]
James Pethica: [38:31]
So, more important to Yeats than the others. So, Yeats, in his poem Coole Park, 1929, uses the phrase excellent company. Yes, she did bring like minded people together, workers for the movement together. A Ceylon, I think, cultivates a different kind of sense.
Doug Still: [38:52]
A little too formal.
James Pethica: [38:54]
Yes, a little too self-conscious. She wanted to be amongst interesting people and wanted to facilitate the work of interesting people. John Butler Yeats, W. B. Yeats's father, termed her the organizer of success. George Russell, in a letter to her, writes about the laboratory at Coole. So, maybe those terms get nearer to what she was trying to do.
Doug Still: [39:25]
Yeats had an estate or a house nearby, Thoor Ballylee? Did I pronounce that right?
James Pethica: [39:32]
You did. He didn't have that until 20 years after his first summer stay at Coole.
Doug Still: [39:38]
James Pethica: [39:39]
Indeed. He, as I've suggested, was a hard-up man in 1896 who needed the support.
Doug Still: [39:48]
So, he found some success later on, obviously, and then was able to move there. How did that work?
James Pethica: [39:55]
This is awkward. Yeats's buying of Thoor Ballylee in 1916. He spent 20 summers, three months of the year at Coole Park. His purchase of the tower was, in many ways, a break from Lady Gregory, an assertion of independence, a wish to escape. Maybe escape is too hard a word, but to give himself some distance from a relationship which in some ways had become constraining, too fixed. He wanted to marry and he did. In 1917, restores the tower, as he says in a poem for my wife, George.
So, on the one hand, buying a medieval tower and restoring it three miles or four miles from Lady Gregory’s house is an act of solidarity, an expression of his commitment to the area. But in another way, it's also, “I'm not going to be spending my nights at your house anymore.”
Doug Still: [41:01]
But that's interesting that it was a little bit of a break. What did the autograph tree mean to Lady Gregory, and have you found reference to it in any of her writings?
James Pethica: [41:12]
She mentions it in a couple of autobiographical writings, but nothing in her letters. What did it mean to her earlier in her life? Early in her married life, she would ask guests, important people she met, to sign their names on a fan she had. The first fan, it's mainly political figures, people with political power and some writers. Robert Browning is on there. But the writers are more likely to be historians than poets or playwrights.
Then she has a second fan. You can already see that her life is shifting by the late 1880s, early 1890s, because she's starting to collect writers more than anybody else. The second fan becomes an Irish fan, overwhelmingly Irish writers. She keeps that fan-- New names keep going in until the late 1920s. So, what's she trying to achieve by having people write their name on a fan and then later carve their name into a tree? That's the question.
Doug Still: [42:29]
James Pethica: [42:30]
I think it changes. Early on, it's lionizing, people who are famous and maybe being a little starstruck by them. So, early on, lionization, but also a demonstration of her standing. You pull out that fan, “Look at all these important people I know.”
Doug Still: [42:48]
James Pethica: [42:49]
It raises her own profile. And then the second fan, it's maybe already announcing, signaling on some level, her arrival. “Look, this is the company I'm in, the company I want to be in.” But by the time, it's the autograph tree, I think it's on the one hand, yes, simply a guest book. These are my famous guests, but there's potentially a power play at work here. You get to sign, because you're important enough, you don't. So, it's making a complicated statement. It's also wanting to make of Coole Park and her home itself a monument, I think, which she does quite consciously in some of her last writings, at the point where the estate has already been sold to the forestry department. She knows it's going to be swept away. Yeats is already anticipating that it's going to be a mound of rubble. He says that in a poem before she's even dead.
Doug Still: [43:53]
How does she feel about that?
James Pethica: [43:55]
Oh, such a great question. She knew she had accomplished something and is smart enough to recognize that the building itself, the presence of the library, the furniture in the rooms in a sense, doesn't matter. Her last book, Coole, her last prose work, it's a very cunning book. It describes the material actuality of the house in great detail. We get descriptions of the color of spines of books and where things are and where paintings are on the wall. James Joyce famously said, I don't know whether it's apocryphal or not that Dublin could be rebuilt using his books as the template. I think she's thinking in the same vein. The house itself may be gone, but it's preserved, fixed. Not photographically, but fixed nonetheless in some important way by the writings themselves.
So, of course, she was sorry that the Gregory connection, which had gone on for so many generations in this place, was going to be broken. But I think she was confident that the cultural, literary, the political accomplishment that she valorized would go on.
Doug Still: [45:12]
That would be the legacy.
James Pethica: [45:14]
Doug Still: [45:14]
Cultural legacy, although the tree is one of the few physical things remaining.
James Pethica: [45:20]
Yes. Though the core outlines-- The garden is there, the place where the house stood, there's a visitor center. It is a monument in its way.
Doug Still: [45:34]
Yeats was inspired by that landscape, wasn't he? He wrote The Wild Swans at Coole.
James Pethica: [45:41]
Yes. Well, it figures again and again in his poetry. He says, this is, along with Sligo, the place that I dream of.
Doug Still: [45:52]
Lady Gregory had a direct role in shaping Coole, the way it looks today. It turns out she was quite the tree planter, as described by Dr. Anna Pilz, an Independent Researcher and fellow at the University of Edinburgh. She has written extensively about Lady Gregory's plays and their transnational production histories. She also noticed Gregory's repeated references to tree planting in her writing. Lady Gregory's unique love of trees, coming up after the break. This is This Old Tree.
[song - Cailleach an Airgid]
Doug Still: [46:49]
So, Anna, welcome to the show.
Anna Pilz: [46:51]
Thank you very much for having me.
Doug Still: [46:53]
When Sir William Gregory died in 1892, Lady Gregory was suddenly in charge of the Coole estate, including, of course, the grounds. How would you describe the property at that time? Was there a forest?
Anna Pilz: [47:07]
Yes, there certainly was, shall we say woodland, which is how she often put it. She's always referring to it and talking about the woods of Coole. So, when she entered Widowhood at the age of 40, she took over the management of the estate, which at that point was around about 5,000 acres. As people might know from the poetry of William Butler Yeats, who wrote about In the Seven Woods of Coole, there were seven distinct parts.
Doug Still: [47:38]
I understand that Lady Gregory was very hands on in terms of decision making and the feel of the park when she took over. Could you talk about that a little bit, and who did she work with to manage the property?
Anna Pilz: [47:51]
So, as part of managing the estate, there would have been gardeners as well as woodmen who would have worked on the estate. And in a book, she wrote about Coole Park, just titled Coole. She's writing about her companion and woodcutter, who was called John Ferrell. He had worked on the Coole estate for a long period of time, and was very much acquainted with all the domain woods. She's describing how they both go out in their galoshes in the appropriate attire with a fork and looking around and looking after the nurslings and protecting them from animals, such as squirrels. She's ordering seedlings and saplings, and she's planting those, choosing where to get them from, what to plant, and taking great care, and also really looking at that element of, I suppose, sustainability and environmental stewardship that we now think about.
Doug Still: [49:01]
I understand in her journals, her appreciation for trees comes to the fore. She writes about them a lot. She wrote one article in particular in 1898 called Tree Planting. And you wrote a scholarly article about it, Lady Gregory's Tree Planting a few years ago. What was it about, and what was she trying to accomplish by writing it?
Anna Pilz: [49:27]
Yeah. So, that quite short article on tree planting appeared in a short magazine, a periodical of the time titled, The Irish Homestead. That was very much a periodical that was connected to the Agricultural Organization Society, so the Cooperative Movement. It was run by a friend of hers called Horace Plunkett. It was really a periodical that looked towards enabling farmers and local agriculture to improve their skills and to advocate for self-help.
Doug Still: [50:07]
But this wasn't just like a Lady's gardening journal or anything like that.
Anna Pilz: [50:10]
No, this is practical, applied output in that sense. That's very much the tone of the piece as well. There are different layers to that article where she's on the one hand, acknowledging that if the kind of tree felling continues to go apace, Ireland will be denuded of its woodlands. So, it's very much an interventionist piece that advocates for the need for reafforestation, and then draws on the various benefits of woodland to the nation or to the country, especially within the wider context of nationalism, both cultural and political, that was vibrant at the time, but also thinking of the aesthetics of trees and how pleasant they are in terms of the landscape element of it.
She's also talking about how trees are a form of like a monument and a legacy that one leaves behind. There's also a very personal element to it. So, she speaks about her personal relationship, trees and woodlands have to be cared for like friendships. So, she makes that analogy that they have to be treated like friendships and have to be kept in constant repair. She warns her readers that the day will come when they will be but a memory. I suppose that speaks to our current moment of envisioning a replanting at a grand scale.
But for her, it's making the argument more on the cultural side, because at the opening of the article, she makes that clear line between trees and kind of language referring to the old Irish language, the Ogham, as a tree alphabet. And so, recalling trees is by way of connecting with that kind of linguistic and older tradition and heritage.
Doug Still: [52:09]
Do you have a passage that demonstrates what you were describing?
Anna Pilz: [52:14]
Sure. So, in Tree Planting, Gregory writes, “Ireland, more than other countries, ought to be a country of trees, for the very letters of her alphabet are named after them.” So, there you have that strong connection between trees and letters and language that we now find in artistic expressions, such as Katie Holton's great tree alphabet that she created where, again, you write in trees.
Doug Still: [52:43]
Lady Gregory was active in translating and promoting traditional Irish folklore. Did trees appear in the folklore that she found?
Anna Pilz: [52:52]
Yes, definitely. In fact, John Ferrell, so the woodcutter with whom she walked through the woods and worked in the woods is one of those people who would have told stories or have these folklore tales and share them both with Gregory and with Yeats, and they would make their way into their publications. So, John Ferrell, for instance, talks about particular strange visions that come to him in the woods of Coole, where he sees this young girl with long hair close by the lake in the wild part of the woods that's close to Coole Lake He's telling her that he's seen a girl picking nuts with her hair hanging over her shoulders, brown hair. She had a good, clean face and was tall, and nothing on her head, and her dress was no way gaudy, but simple. When she felt me coming, she gathered herself up and was gone, as if the earth had swallowed her.
Doug Still: [54:01]
Wow. That’s Intense.
Anna Pilz: [54:01]
That sense of having a vision. Obviously, within folklore, there's the tradition of the banshee or a fairy that lives in the tree and a tradition of fairy trees that are often hawthorn trees that farmers or people who believe in those kind of traditions don't want to cut down, because then you might bring ill on your family or on your farm.
Doug Still: [54:29]
And so, it got around, people wanted to be invited to sign the tree.
Anna Pilz: [54:33]
Yes, absolutely. I think it was known as well. So, Seán O'Casey referred to it as the Sacred Tree Of Coole. It's a way of her marking her importance as well of bringing these people together and shaping this cultural movement. So, it's a monument to her legacy. If we're thinking of her how she writes about trees and tree planting as lasting monuments, then the autograph tree definitely is a monument.
Doug Still: [55:08]
So, what are you working on now?
Anna Pilz: [55:11]
Well, thanks to Gregory's love for trees and planting, she got me onto a big research project that looks at Irish writing and the ways in which it engages in narratives of deforestation of Ireland's countryside from the 16th century to the 21st century. I look at texts from Edmund Spenser to Sheridan Le Fanu to James Joyce to Elizabeth Bowen, including Lady Gregory.
Doug Still: [55:40]
Circling back around, all our guests shared how they are inspired by the autograph tree in the Coole Park Nature Reserve. Starting with Dr. Pethica, I put him on the spot with a Lady Gregory question.
As a biographer of Lady Gregory and studying her for so long, especially her correspondence, you must feel like you know her. And if you could sit down with her in her walled garden and chat, what would you ask her? Are there any mysteries you'd like to know about?
James Pethica: [56:10]
I think if a biographer believes they know their subject, they're in great danger.
Doug Still: [56:16]
James Pethica: [56:17]
What we have is an archive of material, letters, diaries, other kinds of documents, pictures, photographs, and then other material realia. It's a great scattered, incomplete jigsaw, and one can put together various kinds of pictures from it. I still find Lady Gregory, very impressive, a powerful figure. As Seán O'Casey said, she wasn't rich. She wasn't good looking, she had very relatively few resources, yet this woman managed to foster something as well as create powerfully herself. In the island of a time, how many women writers were able to do that? But what would I ask her? I think I'd probably, at this point, be too terrified. [laughter]
Doug Still: [57:15]
I'm sure you'd get along.
James Pethica: [57:17]
There are things, of course, I'd like to ask and know the answer to. But if we sit down with somebody who has thought about their own life as skilled in the art of self-presentation as Lady Gregory was, this is a woman who faced interviewers in the US on her lecture tours every day and was bombarded with questions. She, I think it's fair to say, put up certain face as T. S. Eliot would say, “To meet the faces that she met.”
Doug Still: [57:47]
James Pethica: [57:49]
If I were to be transported back in time and would ask probing personal questions, I think that I would get--
Doug Still: [57:59]
You'd get that face.
James Pethica: [58:01]
I'd get that face. I'd get a straight cricket bat.
Doug Still: [58:03]
James Pethica: [58:04]
So, it's a nice illusion to imagine that one could ask the question that would unlock the locked box.
Doug Still: [58:13]
James Pethica: [58:14]
But I don't think you get it.
Anna Pilz: [58:17]
To me, when I think back of visiting Coole or just moving through these spaces and thinking about the people who have walked along those paths, what thoughts they carried with them, what ideas and projects they were working on at the time and how that kind of environment then made it into the richness of the text that came out of that period, and how much, I suppose that place is foundational to so much thinking that went on that it has that mythical thing around it. But it was also, when it's described as the workshop at Coole, it's something very pragmatic and collaborative and it's a working estate as well.
Doug Still: [59:08]
And finally, back outside at Coole with Margaux and Jenni.
Doug Still: [59:14]
Yeats used to just walk through these forests, and I'm told that people would pass by him and he would say nothing. He was deep in his own thoughts.
Margaux Pierrel: [59:24]
Yeah, that's the possibility. You would pass by me nowadays and I would probably be lost in my thoughts as well.
Doug Still: [59:30]
[laughs] So, you have some similarities with W. B. Yeats?
Margaux Pierrel: [59:34]
Yeah. When you are in such a spectacular nature reserve or woodland, you want to enjoy it fully. You want to listen to the birds and the animals rustling the branches. You want to listen to the river and the Turlock making this water sounds. You really want to be in it.
Jenni McGuire: [59:54]
When I first started working here, I was slightly oblivious of its literary importance, I will admit. I was here for the nature and love of nature over time and with people's responses to the tree and delving more into the history of it. I'm also awe inspired, both for the tree's natural beauty. But yeah, the history that surrounds it, all the people that have been here. When you're standing under this tree-- If you cast your mind back, if you can just visualize the kind of people who would have been coming here.
Doug Still: [01:00:33]
That’s what I'm doing right now.
Jenni McGuire: [01:00:34]
Yeah, it is. It takes your breath away. I'm awe inspired.
Doug Still: [01:00:43]
I won't soon forget the autograph tree and its caretaker, Lady Gregory. The copper beech towering in her garden is stunning in its own right, and its legend draws people to it in reverence to a period of cultural importance and national pride. To me, the story of the autograph tree is wonderfully and uniquely Irish. I'd like to thank Jenni McGuire and Margaux Pierrel for sharing their knowledge on the show, and also Becky Teasdale and Niall O'Reilly at Coole for their help, kindness, and warm hospitality. I'd also like to thank James Pethica and Anna Pilz for their brilliant interviews and research involving Lady Gregory.
I'd like to thank you tree lovers for listening to the show once again. You can find photos and more information about the autograph tree on Facebook, Instagram, and the website, thisoldtree.show.
[song - Cailleach an Airgid]
Doug Still: [01:01:45]
By the way, this incredible music you've been listening to is a traditional piece called Cailleach an Airgid, which translates from Gaelic as The Hag with the Money. Cailleach is associated with the creation of landscape and also the weather. It was performed by Sonic Strings, a local youth ensemble from Coole Music and Arts in Gort. The arrangement was by Katharina Baker and the soloist was Lillian Owens. So haunting and beautiful. There's an incredible video of Sonic Strings performing it on a rocky outcrop in the Aran Islands filmed with use of a drone. It's awesome. Check it out on YouTube. Thank you so much for sharing your music.
You've been listening to This Old Tree. See you next time.
[Transcript provided by SpeechDocs Podcast Transcription]