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Autograph Tree Coole Park Galway

Cloon Keen takes a closer look at the significance of the Autograph Tree with Dr. Adrian Paterson, curator of NUI Galway's Yeats & the West exhibition for Yeats2015. 

Cloon Keen Atelier: Tell us about the significance of the Autograph Tree. It’s a visible, tangible representation of the network of writers that gathered at Coole in the early twentieth century, right? Whose initials appear on the Autograph Tree? Which of these are most significant for you?

Adrian Paterson: This fabulous copper beech is really an omphalos, the centre of a network of collaboration, with roots deep in Irish soil. The most significant initials are probably WBY [W. B. Yeats] and GBS [George Bernard Shaw] – neither of whom really need any introduction. And as carved on the tree, the letters GBS are, rather typically, trying to dominate the rest. These sets of initials represent two dominant figures that matter hugely to Ireland. Yeats and Shaw both helped to found a cultural revolution and created a space for artistic and intellectual freedom in their consistent defiance of censorship. Yeats in particular created the conditions for modern Ireland and recorded its difficult birth; Shaw is less indelibly associated with Ireland, but as recent books by David Clare and Fintan O’Toole prove, his revolutionary outlook could not have been formed anywhere else. 

As well as the letters WBY mattering to me most as a researcher, Yeats2015 – the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth – showed how much Yeats still matters all around the world, from Korea to Finland, Beijing to Boston to Buenos Aires. And of course Yeats and Shaw cannot be separated from AG [Lady Augusta Gregory] herself, who stayed friends with both to the end and managed both extraordinarily well – even if Shaw, in 1925, told her to sell up and move to Scotland, whereas Yeats returned to Coole and remained with her as she was dying. 

But one shouldn’t forget figures like the writer Violet Martin, with a rather different aristocratic outlook to Gregory’s, and those who, like Gregory, were involved with the Irish language, such as J. M. Synge and Douglas Hyde. Also Robert Gregory: this year, 2018, is the centennial of the death of this fine artist and aviator who inspired Yeats’s poems ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory‘ and ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’. Not to neglect figures from outside Ireland, either: especially Ethel Smyth the composer, who propositioned Virginia Woolf and wrote fine unappreciated music ahead of its time – fittingly she even cut a musical stave in the tree. A pioneering feminist (her song ‘The March of the Women’ became the suffrage movement anthem), she wrote wonderful sea music like the opera The Wreckers, which inspired Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. Her presence here gives the lie to the idea that Gregory only had time for men: important men and women are both represented on the tree. 

CK: So why was Coole such a locus for Celtic Revival writers? What was Lady Gregory’s role in this network? And what about the landscape of Coole? How did it inspire these writers, and what did it offer them?

AP: Coole was a locus really for two reasons: Trees and language. 

Let’s talk about trees first. The leisure and sense of tradition going back to the eighteenth century and earlier, inspired by its house and gardens, is symbolized by the planting of trees, which require continuity and inheritance and devotion to land and ecology – so Yeats records Gregory’s sense of loss when lime trees are blown down by the storm, and memorializes so many trees in poems about the seven woods – chestnuts, sycamores, oaks, ash, and especially the hazel, traditionally a magic axle-tree. Significantly, Coole is planted with both native and non-native trees; the recent efforts to rid parts of the grounds of non-native trees goes against its spirit, which acknowledges settlement, grafting, hybridity, and plantation. It mirrors in some way the mortgaging and destruction of Coole Park House.

As for language: language matters in several ways. Gregory’s facility for the Irish language helped Yeats work with local folklore and song, and itself produced her astonishing translations like Cuchulain of Muirthemne and works of cultural anthropology like Visions and Beliefs of the West of Ireland. It gave sustenance to Douglas Hyde, whose Love Songs of Connacht initiated a new kind of translation – and of course all three worked there collaboratively on plays in Irish and English together. Coole is thus a symbol of all kinds of literary collaboration, between at least two languages and more than three authors: George Moore and Sean O’Casey and others came there also, as did J.M. Synge and Jack B. Yeats, whose illustrated articles for the Guardian on travels in Mayo and Galway still make thoughtful reading. All of which brings to mind Gregory’s fabulous library and the peace and inspiration this provided as a setting for these authors’ reading aloud of poems and plays. W. B. Yeats’s own pastels of Coole (sold last year) are only a small record of its importance. Gregory’s own significance as a writer and historian of the period is repeatedly underestimated, perhaps in part because she displayed such modesty and integrity. 

CK: Would you tell us about your own experiences at Coole? Which ones stand out to you most?

AP: My first time at Coole was a pilgrimage on a bicycle coming from Thoor Ballylee, another important locus. And like the migratory birds I’ll keep returning. The most memorable times I’ve had at Coole involve conversations – in particular three with scholars – a rainy autumn with Augusta Gregory’s biographer James Pethica, a sunny late summer walking the grounds with Lucy McDiarmid, and a bucolic spring with Adrian Frazier. 

Posted By Cloon Keen

tara breathnanch

Cloon Keen: Tara, you performed an adapted version of the Molly Bloom soliloquy to great acclaim in the 2017 Galway Theatre Festival! Could you tell us about the piece, and what it was like playing Molly?

Tara Breathnach: Very briefly, Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy is the glorious celebratory conclusion to James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses. The character of Molly embodies an uncensored feminine sensuality and strength, which is what drew me to her. She celebrates her womanhood, and is by turns poetic and frank. 

In Molly, a highly-charged sexuality meets vulnerability, and in performing Molly Bloom onstage, there is great joy in uncovering the layers of Molly’s character and discovering the wholehearted way in which she embraces her physical self. She is an Everywoman and is strikingly contemporary in her openness and curiosity—yet she has a soft, nostalgic connection with her younger self.

Cloon Keen: The character of Molly was inspired by a real person: Nora Barnacle. What was she like?

TB: Molly was famously inspired by Joyce’s lover and wife, Nora Barnacle, a striking redhead from Galway. Joyce was enamoured of her from their first meeting, not least because of her individuality: she was unashamedly herself, and never pretended to be other than she was. Nora/Molly was a free spirit, overcoming the constraints of a convent education to follow her true nature. In creating her character, Joyce had to invent an exotic girlhood to inform Molly’s free spirit. 

Cloon Keen: I see! So where does the phrase “mountain flower” come in? 

TB: In her soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, her youth in Gibraltar is invoked by the heady scent of roses, jessamine and geraniums. Molly is drawn by the powerful forces of nature and the pull of the sea as she discovers her first love:

and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

The “Moorish Wall” where Molly has her first kiss is the Spanish Arch of Nora Barnacle’s Galway—which, of course, can still be visited today, next to the river Corrib. 

Cloon Keen: The character of Molly is an incredibly feminist one, isn’t it?

TB: Absolutely. Nora’s strength and sensuality transcended the confines of Edwardian Ireland. She said Yes; she journeyed to Trieste with Joyce, to the unknown, bound only by love and a desire for freedom. 


Posted By Cloon Keen

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