Blending the stories of nature and culture in one magnificent place, The Autograph Tree stands tall at Coole Park, once home of Ireland’s famous literary hostess, Lady Augusta Gregory. Some of Ireland’s extraordinary writers carved their initials there. Cloon Keen Atelier takes a closer look with Curator of NUI Galway’s Yeats & The West exhibition, Dr Adrian Paterson.

Cloon Keen Atelier: The Autograph Tree is a glorious copper beech, but whose initials appear on it? And which are most significant for you?

Adrian Paterson: The tree is really 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. As carved on the tree, the letters GBS are, rather typically, trying to dominate the rest!

These sets of initials represent two 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. 

And 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: 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’. 

We can’t 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. 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 hotspot for Celtic Revival writers? And what about the landscape of Coole? How did it inspire these writers, 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. 

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.

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. 

All this 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. 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: What about your own experiences at Coole? 

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.