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Sir William Gregory (1817-1892) – Governor of Ceylon

Sir William Gregory

As the train chugged its way into the highlands, Sir William Gregory surveyed the view from his window. The hills were crawling with olive-skinned men and women, clad in colourful robes, their nimble hands diving into the lush green bushes, plucking at the tea leaves. The elderly Irishman closed his eyes and cast his mind back to March 1872, the month he arrived to take up office as Governor of British Ceylon, the island known today as Sri Lanka.

The brutal ethnic conflict that still divides the Tamil minority from the Singhalese majority has been ongoing for over half a century. However, many point the long finger at the British planters who imported the Tamils into Sri Lanka in the first place when Sir William Gregory, the County Galway landlord, was the island’s governor. His tenure was a period of unprecedented economic growth. By the time he left the island in 1877 – to marry the celebrated Lady Gregory, founder of the Abbey Theatre – Ceylon (aka Sri Lanka) was one of the most affluent colonies in the British Empire.

William Gregory’s forbears originated in Leicestershire and came to Ireland as puritanical supporters of Cromwell. Two Gregory brothers were prominent in the Protestant forces in the defence of Derry in 1689. In the 18th century, Robert Gregory, his great-grandfather prospered as a merchant in the East India Company and purchased the 15,000-acre estate at Coole Park in County Galway where Gregory was raised.

His industrious grandfather, another William Gregory, served as Under-Secretary for Ireland from 1813-1831 and lived at Ashtown Castle, Phoenix Park, Dublin. In October 1789, this older William Gregory married Anne Trench (b. 1766), second daughter of William Power Keating Trench, 1st Earl of Clancarty and his wife Anne (née Gardiner). She was thus an older sister of Lady Elizabeth McClintock (1784-1877), wife of John McClintock of Drumcar, which explains why the Gregorys and McClintocks moved in the same circles in the mid-19th century.

Anne Gregory seems to have been embroiled in a bitter feud with the wife of William’s brother Richard Gregory, a schoolgirl whom he had married secretly and then kept in a separate house, disguised as a sailor. Richard was charged with cowardice when his troops deserted during the Valenciennes campaign in 1793. William’s oldest brother Robert Gregory (1754-1814) also courted trouble and was apparently disinherited on account of his passion for cock-fighting.

William and Anne’s only child, also Robert Gregory (1790-1847) succeeded to Coole Park and married Elizabeth O’Hara. [1] Their son, William, the future governor of Ceylon, was born at Ashtown Lodge, Phoenix Park, his grandfather’s Dublin home, on 12 July 1817. He was educated at Harrow School from 1830-35 where he won the Peel Medal, as well as the admiration of Richard Colley (later Marquess of Wellesley) and future Prime Minister Robert Peel (who, as Chief Secretary, was his grandfather’s superior). One of his classmates at Harrow was the novelist Anthony Trollope.

A young William Gregory.

He subsequently entered Christ Church, Oxford in 1836 but left three years later, without receiving a qualification, and entered the political arena. William Gregory was 25 years old when he was elected Conservative MP for Dublin. [2] His Liberal opponent was the well-known traveller and dilettante Viscount Morpeth (later Earl of Carlisle and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland), whom he beat by 3,825 votes to 3,435. Apart from Robert Peel, his close associates during this period were Lord Lincoln and Lord George Bentinck.

Gregory’s father died from typhus caught while trying to ease the suffering of some of his sick tenants at Coole in 1847, the worst tear of the Great Hunger. A staunch supporter of Robert Peel, William Gregory caused a stir that same year when he successfully amended the Poor Law Bill to prohibit any tenant who owned more than a quarter of an acre from obtaining relief from the workhouse for himself or his family. To avail of such relief, the tenant would have to sell his small parcel, the sole security he had in the world. Thus, when he left the workhouse he had nowhere to go but to the emigrant ship. Although Gregory himself never evicted any tenant from his estate, other ruthless landlords used the so-called ‘Gregory Clause’ to clear their lands of unproductive people.

Ashtown Castle, where Sir William was born, reveals itself. For more see here. Illustration: Derry Dillon.

At the General Election in 1847, Gregory was defeated by John Reynolds, described as ‘Draper and Repealer,’ and retired from Parliament. [3]  He was appointed High Sheriff of Galway in 1849 but appears to have embarked on a wild phase at this juncture, becoming a notorious gambler with results that The Times described as ‘financially unfortunate’. A considerable chunk of the family estate was sold to pay off his debts, including Dún Guaire Castle and the Kinvara estate. By the early 1850s, Kinvara Castle was reported to be on the verge of complete decay.

He travelled to Egypt in 1855 and wrote a two-volume work on his travels, “Egypt in 1855 and 1856, and Tunis in 1857 and 1858,” published privately in London in 1859. In 1857, he re-entered parliament as MP for Galway, standing on a liberal-conservative platform, winning the support of the Catholic Church with his promise to address ‘the economic and social needs of the west of Ireland’. He remained the voice of Galway at Westminster for the next fifteen years.

In 1859 he travelled through North America, befriending several southern Congressmen, including James Murray Mason of Virginia and William Porcher Miles of South Carolina, both strong supporters of slavery. The Times described Gregory as frequently ‘eager and even enthusiastic in the cause of what he deemed to be the oppressed minority’. When the American Civil War broke out,  Gregory declared that ‘secession was right, separation a fact and union an impossibility’. In March 1862, he moved for papers on the blockade which he regarded as at once illegal and ineffectual.

In the Balkans, he took a strong anti-Turk stance and supported Serbian independence. He likewise backed Greek claims to the Ionian Islands and Crete. But he wasn’t all that picky about the minorities he supported. He also backed Egypt’s Arabic population when they rose up against the Muhammad Ali Dynasty, although he back-tracked when the political agitation turned violent.

He made his mark at Westminster as ‘an excellent speaker’ and was ‘socially very popular’. In 1866, he opened an important question in parliament regarding the question of exempting private property from capture at sea. He strongly opposed Home Rule, believing a self-governing Ireland would quickly transfer its allegiance to any enemy of England. In a letter published in 1881, he wrote:

‘Our country (after separation) would become the prey of the strongest, fiercest and most ruthless adventurers, with two prominent ideas amongst them – namely, spoliation and hatred of England and with a fixed resolve to convert the new nation into a kind of modern Decelaria, menacing at all times, and most formidable in case of England being at war with America or any strong maritime Power or coalition which could obtain command of the sea even for a short period.’

Nonetheless, he defended the Roman Catholic clergy and supported the cause of land reform.

Sir William Gregory in Vanity Fair, 1871.

Although a Liberal, he played a cautious hand, voting against Earl Russell’s Reform Bill in 1866, which proposed to give the vote to ‘respectable’ working men in Britain and Ireland. He later claimed he had opposed the bill simply because Gladstone, the Chancellor, had misquoted Aristophanes in his wrap-up speech at the end of the eight-day debate. [4] Despite his opposition to the government policy, he was appointed a Privy Councillor for Ireland in 1871 and retained his seat at Westminster until 1872 when he accepted the Governorship of Ceylon.

Appointed by Prime Minister Gladstone, he was the fourth consecutive Irishman to hold the governorship. [5] Over the next five years, Gregory was to prove himself, in many ways, an ideal Governor.

Sri Lanka is about the same size as Ireland. Britain nabbed it from the Dutch in 1815 and quickly realised there was excellent money to be made by converting the ancient cinnamon estates to coffee. When the indigenous Singhalese population refused to work on the British plantations, the planters turned to the Tamil Nadu province of southern India for a cheaper, more pliant source of labour. The first labourers were brought to Sri Lanka in 1827 to work on the experimental coffee estate by the Botanical Garden at Peradeniya. This was the initiative of Governor Sir Edward Barnes (1824-1831).

By 1840, thousands of low-caste Indian Tamils were arriving on Sri Lanka’s north coast and making their way south through the treacherous highland to work on some 4,000 acres of coffee plantations. By the time Sir William Gregory arrived, the lands being cultivated for coffee had mushroomed to 773,000 acres. In 2022, about three million of Sri Lanka’s 21.5 million inhabitants are Tamil Hindus. Most are the offspring of the one million Tamils who came from southern India to work on the plantations in the 19th century.

There can be little doubt that the plantation owners exploited the Tamil labourers. Questions over their treatment have been raised since at least 1849 when the Colombo Observer claimed that close on 90,000 workers had died in the previous eight years. That figure was duly challenged by the Ceylon Agricultural Society and others, who claimed many of those new arrivals had found work elsewhere in the colony or simply returned home, unrecorded, in small boats.

Sir Henry Ward, the Governor from 1855-60, attempted to improve conditions by establishing hospitals and sinking wells. The Government of Ceylon created the first immigrant labour commission in 1857, providing transportation, shelter, and rudimentary medical care. Planters were required to bear some of the costs. Between 1843-1859 over 900,000 men woman and children migrated to work as indentured labourers. The cost of their transport was deducted from their wages after they had arrived, and they could not leave until they had repaid their debt to the kanganys, the men who went over to South India to recruit the plantation workers.

Despite Florence Nightingale’s concerns, Ward’s successor, Charles MacCarthy tended to side-step the issue of labour welfare and played a laissez-faire card during his three-year term from 1860-1863. The traditional government response was to deny the death rates were so high and to blame all deaths on in-fighting brought about by family rivalry, gambling disputes and excessive consumption of the local liquor, arrack. Nonetheless, even if they were wildly exaggerated, the mortality rate on the Ceylon coffee plantations was still unacceptably high when Gregory took office in March 1872.

William Gregory, Governor of Sri Lanka. Illustration: Derry Dillon

Aa man of high moral fibre, Gregory sought to gain a keener insight into the matter. He embarked on a tour of the entire island, then stroked his lamb-chops and produced a 57-page memorandum. His rose-coloured report was something of a let-off for the planters. Sticking with tradition, he concluded that most ‘coolies’, as the labourers were known, were treated perfectly well and that the law gave their jobs adequate protection. For instance, a three-year contract was in place for all labourers although the reality was that few availed of it as the high demand for work ensured high security.

Many of those who died, he said, had arrived on the plantations already sick and emaciated after the long voyage from India. Moreover, many Tamils were innately suspicious of Western medicine and refused to be treated until it was too late. He did highlight poor sanitation and noxious water supplies in certain places, but felt the conditions – with food, shelter, medical care and an income – were surely better than those back in India. He did not address the monotonous diet (one meal a day of rice, served with chillies, dried fish and overcooked vegetables) and skipped around the issue of the overcrowded ‘Coolie’ huts in which the labourers slept. He reserved his disdain for the island’s 2,000 kanganies, to whom the labourers were then legally indebted. However, whilst he deplored the kangany system, he said it would be impossible to abolish it because it was such a custom in those parts. He estimated that each kangany made about 5 or 6 trips to India every year and returned with a gang of six or seven able-bodied workers.

One of the first files placed upon Gregory’s desk when he arrived concerned a leaf fungus called Hemileia Vastratrix which had caused a coffee blight over the previous two years and threatened to wipe out over 770,000 acres of coffee plantations. Gregory consulted the experts who advised converting the plantations to other cash-crops such as rubber and tea. This idea of this switch was pioneered by James Taylor who planted 10 acres of tea on his estate at Loolecondera in Upper Hewaheta and set up the first tea ‘factory’ on the island. Although basic, Taylor’s factory became famous throughout the island. In 1872, Taylor invented a machine for rolling leaves, and one year later sent twenty-three pounds of tea to Mincing Lane. By 1874, Ceylon tea was arriving regularly in London and Melbourne. Its success led to the opening of an auction market in Colombo in 1883, and to the founding of a Colombo tea dealer’s association in 1894. [6]

Sri Lanka continues to be the world’s fourth largest tea producer today. As of 2022, Britain drinks upwards of 100 million cups of tea per day. In order to make those cuppas, close to half a million Sri Lankans are employed in the tea industry, most of them plucking tea leaves by hand.

Gregory adamantly supported this switch from coffee to tea, flooding the planters with advice, grants and, in due course, labourers. Coffee was a seasonal crop so most workers had returned to India after the season. However, tea and rubber were perennial crops, requiring a permanent labour force. In 1873, Gregory signed a new law permitting Tamil Indians labourers to emigrate and settle permanently in Sri Lanka. As he explained, ‘the great object of our government is to facilitate the flow of Indian labourers into the colony’ and thereby maximise profits. He favoured the Tamils over the indigenous Singahelese, referring to the latter as ‘an eminently listless and lazy population’.

The new arrivals became known as ‘Plantation Tamils’ to distinguish them from the high-caste Sri Lanka Tamils who had come to the island many hundreds of years earlier. The Plantation Tamils were themselves greatly divided by their caste, their position on the working hierarchy, their place of origin in Tamilnadu and such like.

It was a big step for the planters to abandon coffee, their livelihood for over half a century. But it meant that when the coffee blight returned in 1878, they were ready for it and the conversion to tea and rubber began in earnest.

Gregory’s rubber plantations were especially well-timed, as the planters were able to cash in an increasing global demand that would mushroom with the evolution of the motorcar. On the downside, plantation agriculture meant that rice production stagnated and Sri Lanka became so dependent on the export of cash crops and the import of food that, by 1948, it was producing only about 35% of its rice need.

Bob Ievers was one of Gregory’s team in Sri Lanka, see here for more.

By 1874, Gregory’s coffers were showing a considerable surplus of revenue, gathered from profits as well as customs, railways and bridge tolls, plus the import duties on rice and the government monopoly on arrack and toddy. The railway became a major source of income as planters shifted rice up and coffee down. He ensured that the bulk of this surplus was pumped back into the island’s  infrastructure, on the basis that this would stimulate further industry and enterprise. He did this by working closely with the agents responsible for each province. The agents, who included my great-great grandfather Bob Ievers, met with Gregory at a court (or durbar) that he hosted in Colombo every year.

Gregory’s achievements during his five years as governor were nothing short of remarkable. He dramatically extended Sri Lanka’s road and railway networks from Jaffna to Galle, building a plethora of bridges and causeways, all of which would ultimately save the planters enormous time and money. The new roads also sped seasonal labourers directly to the plantations so that they avoided the death, disease and misery which had befallen earlier generations who came by the perilous cross-country routes. It was during this time that the arterial roads to Trincomalee and Jaffna were built, as well as the causeways at Mannar and Jaffna. The seaside railway was extended from Colombo to Kalutara (and ultimately on down to Matara). In 1874, he opened up the Madurai-Tuticorin rail line which, linked to the Colombo-Kandy line (opened 1865). There was even a plan for a railway to link India and Ceylon although it didn’t pan out.

In 1877, William Digby estimated that the government had spent £10,000 a year improving the road network and ports, and £35,000 on medical facilities. However, he argued that a further £40,000 could have been raised if the government did not exempt large numbers of planters from paying tax.

Gregory also ordered the restoration of the island’s ancient canals and irrigation tanks, many of which were desolate and abandoned when he took office. By 1874, 900 of them were operating, including the tank of Kalawewa, constructed by King Dhatusena in 459AD, which had a 35-mile circumference. Such waters enabled nutritious crops to grow and brought more revenue into the government coffers.

He established fountains and fresh water supplies in all major towns. He developed the first form of telegraphic network. He pitched the island as a possible tourist destination to wealthy Europeans, injecting a mass of money into making the hill station of Nuwara Eliya (City of Lights) into a tea planter town known as ‘Little England’ and designed as a typical English Village. At Gregory’s Lake, one of the town’s foremost attractions, the Governor dammed a swamp to create a unique man-made high altitude lake, upon which visitors now go boating and rowing.

He orchestrated a massive replanting programme in the denuded forests. In 1873, he laid the foundation of a more systematic conservancy of forests by the appointment of four foresters for the four northern provinces, and assistants for other districts, whose duties included not merely ‘checking improvident destruction’ of existing timber, but also establishing in the neighbourhood of the great tanks, nurseries for valuable forest trees.

He converted the Royal Pleasure Gardens of Kandy into the world-famous Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, a wonderful 60-hectare oasis where Lord Mountbatten enjoyed many a pensive stroll during the Second World War.

When the Suez Canal opened for business, he shifted the entire focal point of the island from Galle to Colombo where he built a mighty new port. When the Prince of Wales came to lay the foundation stone of the port’s breakwater, he laid the flat of his sword on Gregory’s shoulder and knighted him ‘Sir William’.

Sir William Gregory. Illustration: Derry Dillon

He also made a considerable impact on society at large. A major school-building campaign was launched in 1876 when he laid the foundations stones for the two leading schools in the island, Prince and Princess of Wales’ Colleges. He also encouraged the Wesleyan Methodists to establish missions throughout the island. (It was notable that, whilst largely ostracised from the rest of Ceylonese society, the children of Tamil planters tended to be better educated).

He instigated a law that provided mothers with a month’s maternity leave. To stamp out a rampant epidemic of public drunkenness, he brought in the island’s first licensing laws. All gaols given a major overhaul. When coffee-stealing became epidemic in 1873, Sir William wrote to the Chief Justice and told him how, in Ireland, outbreaks of sheep-rustling and timber theft had been significantly reduced by the passing of legislation that obliged every person in possession of mutton or wood to prove that it was legitimately obtained.

Twenty-two new plantation hospitals and maternity homes were built in 1874 alone. When southern India became engulfed in a brutal famine and drought that same year, there was an explosion in refugees into Ceylon, many of whom died on arrival. The Colonial Office in London asked Gregory to provide free rice rations to immigrants. Gregory refused, reasoning that such charity would turn Sri Lanka into ‘South India’s pauper asylum’. Southern India experienced a second famine between 1876 and 1877, at which time he maintained the impetus on upgrading the island’s medical facilities.

Of course, there were plenty of flaws in Gregory’s works. The hospitals were often badly equipped flimsy shacks with poor water and ill-trained staff who spoke no Tamil. When the cholera and smallpox epidemics came racing down the pilgrimage routes and migrant trails in 1877, the island’s hospitals were unable to cope. Over 330 refugees were found dead on the roadside by police in 1877 alone while 8,000 ‘Malabars’ died on the plantations that year, many of them refugees drawn in from the kangany gangs.

Of the 16 hospitals with surviving records from 1877, three had mortality rates of over 60%. The government claimed it was because the sick only went into hospital at the lasts stage of the illness, that they were suspicious of western medicine. The government blocked such reports for six years; when they came back again in 1883, the mortality rate was down to 10-20%. However, during the 1870s, it is clear that the planters frequently failed to look after their workers, sometimes expelling the sick from the plantations. Most patients who reached hospital did so off their own bat, or were brought in by police.

Gregory also played a key role in preserving Sri Lanka’s ancient civilisation. He commissioned a major survey of the island’s antiquities, dispatching historians and archivists to travel the island with cameras and notebooks. They were urged to etch down every ancient inscription they came upon in order to ‘throw light on the ancient usages, religious customs and early history of Ceylon’. One of his foremost cultural advisors was R. D. Childers, father of the revolutionary Erskine Childers and grandfather of President Erskine Childers. [7]

His governorship coincided with a spectacular reawakening in Buddhist and Pali studies across the island, spearheaded by the monks. He founded the National Museum in Colombo, where his statue stands today; its exhibits include the regalia of the Kandyan Kings dating back to the 17th century, such as the Royal throne, crown and sceptre. When he created the North-Central Province, he designated the ancient city of Anuradhapura as its new capital.

Anxious to visit his dying mother in Ireland, Gregory resigned his post and sailed home in May 1877.  The revenue surplus that year was the biggest in the colony’s history and the island’s coffee industry was valued at an impressive STG£5 million on the European market. By 1879 there were about 1382 plantations, covering 275,000 acres, with 300,000 labourers.

Sir William Gregory married twice. On 11 January 1872, just weeks before he sailed for Ceylon, he married Elizabeth Temple Bowdoin, widow of James Temple Bowdoin and daughter of Sir William Clay. However, she died on 28 June 1873.

Lady Gregory, née Augusta Persse.

Augusta Persse, later Lady Gregory.

On his return to London in 1877, the 60-year-old bachelor spotted a young woman in the crowd at a cricket match. She was sporting a fashionable dress, bought at Bon Marché in Paris, and a black and white straw hat decorated with corn ears and poppies. Her name was Augusta Persse, the daughter of Douglas Persse, a neighbouring Galway landowner.

Despite the age gap, a friendship bloomed between the two and he duly plucked up the courage to propose. Augusta was elated to accept:

“I felt extraordinarily happy and serene, happy in the thought of being with him, of serving him, of learning from him. And I was happy also in the thought of not leaving the country, the neighbourhood which I loved.” [8]

Sir William and Augusta were married on 4 March 1880 and settled at Coole Park. Their only child, Robert Gregory, was born in 1880.

Lady Elizabeth McClintock (née Le Poer Trench), Sir William’s great-aunt, married John McClintock of Drumcar, father of the first Lord Rathdonnell.

Meanwhile, Disraeli had appointed Sir William a Trustee of the National Gallery and he spent most of the following years travelling. He was an ideal Trustee. He had a long association with the British Museum and had studied art closely. He was a member of the Arundel Society and the Athaeneum Club. He made many visits to Spain and Italy with Sir JC Robinson. As a Trustee, he frequented Christie’s and other sales rooms, acquiring works for the National Gallery.

Between October 1881 and April 1882, Sir William and Lady Gregory toured Egypt, as recounted in “Inventing Ireland” by Declan Kiberd. Their visit coincided with for the Tel-el-Kebir Rebellion which seems to have been a revolt within the Egyptian army itself whereby the officers sought constitutional rights, an enquiry into their grievances and some measure of home rule. The officers were led by a magnetic chap called Arabi Bey whom the Gregorys were very fond of. At any rate, the English public had no interest in the Egyptians, being far more concerned with the Phoenix Park Murders and such like. A suppression of the Egyptian rebellion was deemed inevitable, not least when the media began spinning great fictions as to what a sadistic, womanising, disreputable yob Arabi Bay was. At length, the British army arrived, Tel-el-Kebir fell, Cairo fell and Arabi Bey was captured. With Sir William’s assistance, Arabi Bey was banished to Ceylon for the remainder of his life. Kiberd also talks of Lady Gregory’s intimate friendship with Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and his wife who were also in Egypt at this time. Apparently it was Lady Gregory’s letters to The Times protesting against British policy in Egypt that launched her writing career. [8a]

Sir William returned to Ceylon in 1884 and 1885, witnessing the completion of Colombo port. On his final trip to Ceylon in 1890, he ‘had the gratification’ of driving over the Yoda Ela, the completely restored Giant’s Canal to Anuradhapura.

Sir William Gregory died on 6 March 1892 of respiratory failure in St George’s Place, London. He had been ailing all winter and, 3 weeks earlier, on a bitterly cold morning, he imprudently attended a meeting of the National Gallery trustees from which he caught a chill ‘and gradually sank, though with occasional rallies’. While it is dismaying that he turned a blind eye to the treatment of the Tamil labourers during his time in office, in the annals of the island’s many governor’s, he is considered one of the very finest. His autobiography was edited and published by Lady Gregory in 1894. [9]

I believe a lot of the Gregory / Coole papers also fetched up in Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. The New York Public Library also apparently had or has a large collection of Lady Gregory materials. The Gregory Museum in Kiltartan has a lot of artefacts and manuscripts from Coole.


Robert Gregory (1880-1918)


Their only son Robert was educated at Harrow as a boy and went on from the Slade School of Art to work in Jacques Blanche’s design studio. He also played cricket for Ireland. In 1907, Robert married Margaret Parry, a fellow student at the Slade. His mother gifted him her summer house of Mount Vernon in the Burren of County Clare as a wedding present. Robert hosted his own exhibition of paintings in Chelsea in 1914. The following year, he secured a commission in the 4th Connaught Rangers. He then transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and rose through the ranks to become one of Ireland’s leading aviators. His exploits with 40 Squadron earned him both the Military Cross and the Legion d’Honneur.

That said, W. B. Yeats grumbled in a letter to his wife George that Robert was far from being ‘our perfect man.’ The poet was perhaps still a little tetchy that Robert had ousted him from the master bedroom at Coole – and banned him from the wine cellar.

On 23 January 1918, Major Robert Gregory, MC, was killed while serving as a pilot with the RAF over Italy. His death remains a mystery. He may have been shot down by friendly fire but it seems the 37-year-old simply passed out while returning from a reconnaissance patrol. He was commanding officer of the stationed at Grossa in northern Italy at the time. His body was retrieved and buried in the main cemetery in Padua.

Despite their feud, Yeats made the deceased airman the subject of one of his most famous poems, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’. In fact, Robert features in four Yeats poems but this is the most epic. ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ and ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ both appeared, along with the less well-known ‘Shepherd and Goatherd’, in the 1919 collection, ‘The Wild Swans at Coole.’  William Butler Yeats wrote “Coole Park, 1929” to honor Lady Gregory.  You can listen to it online courtesy of Shane MacGowan here:

Margaret subsequently married Guy Vincent Hugh Gough of Lough Cutra Castle. In March 1949, she bought Earlscliff House, Howth, from the heirs of Martin Murphy’s. She never lived in it, but put it back up for sale in September 1949. It was sold in May 1950.

Robert and Margaret’s son Richard Graham Gregory was an accomplished artist who trained at the Slade and in Paris and served in India, Iraq, and Persia during the war years.  Robert’s daughter Kat married Bob Kennedy, of the celebrated Kildare hunting family. Bob and Kat ran a big garage in Brompton Road, London, before the Second World War, and had little time for equestrian pursuits. His other daughter Anne married Brigadier General Robert de Winton, who was assassinated in Trieste, Yugoslavia, in 1947.

I thought of Robert when I visited Coole Park in 2012, and of how his parents must have watched him scampering through the walled garden, trotting around the house on ponies and later horses, eyeballing the young ladies from the bedroom windows, returning from the cricket crease with green knees.

See also – Adrian Smith, ‘Major Robert Gregory, and the Irish Air Aces of 1917-18’, History Ireland, Vol. 9, Issue 4.


The Autograph Tree


One of the highlights of Coole Park is the Autograph Tree in the walled garden, a copper beech that was signed by the Gregroys and their pals, including George Bernard Shaw, J. M. Synge, Augustus John, An Craoibhín (aka Douglas Hyde, first President of Ireland ) A.E. ( G.W. Russell ), W. B. Yeats and Sean O’Casey. How’s that for a Visitor’s Book. Now, while that would make for a fine Bunbury Board one day, it is curious to look at all those names and muse upon what they were thinking. The Anglo-Irish world that most of them grew up with in the latter decades of the 19th century would collapse in the wake of the First World War. And yet, in many ways, they – perhaps inadvertently – brought about its downfall by their passionate support of the Gaelic Literary Revival.

Lady Gregory and Yeats must have fully recognized the ultimate risks, for instance, in creating such a rabble-rousing play as ‘Cathleen Ní Houlihan’ and then casting a fervent revolutionary like Maud Gonne as its star.
It’s hard not to think that Lady G and her friends fanned the embers of the revolution which would ultimately lead to the fall of their class and the destruction of many of the big houses they knew so well. Of course, it wasn’t meant to pan out like that, but it did.
Yeats owned a 16th century tower house at Thoor Ballylee, close to Coole Park, which he restored as a rural retreat. During Lady Gregory’s latter years, he spent a large amount of his time by her side, trying to making her life easier as she contended with the crippling cancer that finally killed her in 1932.
In 1941, the Board of Works made the dismal decision to demolish the house where Synge, Yeats, Shaw and so many others drew their literary inspiration. ‘It was a national disgrace,’ was the verdict of Tomás Ó Nialláin, a man I interviewed for ‘Vanishing Ireland,’  who used to play in the abandoned house and gardens of Coole Park as a child.
‘I have a very vivid memory of men throwing down the slates’, said Tomás. ‘There wasn’t a stone left upon a stone when they finished. But then a priest come to Gort and he had an interest in Coole so he turned it into a national park with lovely walks and seven woods and forty-nine swans and all this. It’s a very fine tourist attraction now.’
Indeed it is – and you can find out more about that at



An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.


In Memory of Major Robert Gregory
NOW that we’re almost settled in our house
I’ll name the friends that cannot sup with us
Beside a fire of turf in the ancient tower,
And having talked to some late hour
Climb up the narrow winding stair to bed: 5
Discoverers of forgotten truth
Or mere companions of my youth,
All, all are in my thoughts to-night, being dead.
Always we’d have the new friend meet the old,
And we are hurt if either friend seem cold, 10
And there is salt to lengthen out the smart
In the affections of our heart,
And quarrels are blown up upon that head;
But not a friend that I would bring
This night can set us quarrelling, 15
For all that come into my mind are dead.
Lionel Johnson comes the first to mind,
That loved his learning better than mankind,
Though courteous to the worst; much falling he
Brooded upon sanctity 20
Till all his Greek and Latin learning seemed
A long blast upon the horn that brought
A little nearer to his thought
A measureless consummation that he dreamed.
And that enquiring man John Synge comes next, 25
That dying chose the living world for text
And never could have rested in the tomb
But that, long travelling, he had come
Towards nightfall upon certain set apart
In a most desolate stony place, 30
Towards nightfall upon a race
Passionate and simple like his heart.
And then I think of old George Pollexfen,
In muscular youth well known to Mayo men
For horsemanship at meets or at racecourses, 35
That could have shown how purebred horses
And solid men, for all their passion, live
But as the outrageous stars incline
By opposition, square and trine;
Having grown sluggish and contemplative. 40
They were my close companions many a year,
A portion of my mind and life, as it were,
And now their breathless faces seem to look
Out of some old picture-book;
I am accustomed to their lack of breath, 45
But not that my dear friend’s dear son,
Our Sidney and our perfect man,
Could share in that discourtesy of death.
For all things the delighted eye now sees
Were loved by him; the old storm-broken trees 50
That cast their shadows upon road and bridge;
The tower set on the stream’s edge;
The ford where drinking cattle make a stir
Nightly, and startled by that sound
The water-hen must change her ground; 55
He might have been your heartiest welcomer.
When with the Galway foxhounds he would ride
From Castle Taylor to the Roxborough side
Or Esserkelly plain, few kept his pace;
At Mooneen he had leaped a place 60
So perilous that half the astonished meet
Had shut their eyes, and where was it
He rode a race without a bit?
And yet his mind outran the horses’ feet.
We dreamed that a great painter had been born 65
To cold Clare rock and Galway rock and thorn,
To that stern colour and that delicate line
That are our secret discipline
Wherein the gazing heart doubles her might.
Soldier, scholar, horseman, he, 70
And yet he had the intensity
To have published all to be a world’s delight.
What other could so well have counselled us
In all lovely intricacies of a house
As he that practised or that understood 75
All work in metal or in wood,
In moulded plaster or in carven stone?
Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,
And all he did done perfectly
As though he had but that one trade alone. 80
Some burn damp fagots, others may consume
The entire combustible world in one small room
As though dried straw, and if we turn about
The bare chimney is gone black out
Because the work had finished in that flare. 85
Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,
As ’twere all life’s epitome.
What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?
I had thought, seeing how bitter is that wind
That shakes the shutter, to have brought to mind 90
All those that manhood tried, or childhood loved,
Or boyish intellect approved,
With some appropriate commentary on each;
Until imagination brought
A fitter welcome; but a thought 95
Of that late death took all my heart for speech.

Further Reading


  • Twentieth century impressions of Ceylon, Arnold Wright (mentions T.L. M Bunbury as Private Sec to the Governor).
  • Death Of Sir William Gregory, The Times, Monday, Mar 07, 1892; pg. 10; Issue 33579; col E
  • Family Papers, Emory University – see here.
  • The Plantation Tamils of Ceylon, Patrick Peebles (2001).
  • An Autobiography, Sir William Gregory (1894)




[1] Robert’s only brother William Gregory (1792-1840) became rector of Fiddown in county Kilkenny, and with his wife Anne had three sons and one daughter.

[2] There is a tradition that Gregory beat Daniel O’Connell in the 1842 by-election. This is not the case. The Liberator was beaten by 150 votes at the General Election six months earlier when Messrs West and Grogan were returned.

[3] Little more than 6,000 votes were recorded out of a registered constituency of 19,562.

[4] He was thus one of the Adullamites, or the ‘Cave’, with Robert Lowe, Lord Elcho, Mr Horsman etc. Letters to the Editor – The Late Sir William Gregory, The Times, Friday, Mar 11, 1892; pg. 15; Issue 33583; col A.

[5] His three predecessors as Governor were also men of Irish descent, namely Charles Justin MacCarthy (22 October 1860–1 December 1863), Terence O’Brien (1863-1865) and Sir Hercules Robinson (21 March 1865–4 January 1872).

[6] Taylor continued to test new methods and techniques at the Loolecondera Estate (which he would never own) until the end of his life. He never left the estate, except for a single short vacation in 1874 – spent at Darjeeling, needless to say, in order to study the new tea plantations. His talent and determination were officially recognised when Sir William Gregory, Governor of Ceylon, paid Taylor a visit in 1890 to congratulate him on the quality of his tea. See here.

[7] R. D. Childers (1838-1876) was one of three British civil Servants posted to Sri Lanka during this golden age, or ‘Dharmasasthra’, of Buddhist and Pali studies. Another was T. W. Rhys Davids (1843-1922), a Welshman who accompanied Gregory on his first tour of the island. All three men took a keen interest in the language, religion and culture of the island, introducing this hitherto unknown wealth of Buddhist scholarship to the English-speaking world at large.

[8] ‘A moment’s memory to that laurelled head’, Galway Advertiser, January 29, 2009, Ronnie O’Gorman.

[8a] Should I ever take on The Landed Gentry & Aristocracy of Co. Galway, then Kiberd’s book would be useful also for its take on the horrific methods of eviction employed by the Clanrickards.

[9] One anecdote from Sir William Gregory’s An Autobiography (1894) runs as follows: ‘One evening at dinner we had a surprise. The subject of conversation was snakes, and Mr Twynam mentioned that the huge python was not uncommon in the forests. I happened to say I should like to see one. ‘That is easily managed,’ he said; and gave an order to his servant, who brought in a box, opened it, and out glided a monstrous snake, at least 16 feet long. Everyone, and the party was large, sprung on tables and chairs, but Mr Twynam exhorted us to dismiss our fears as the reptile was harmless, indeed very friendly.’

“He amused himself by gliding about the room till it was thought high time to get rid of him, when a hen was brought in. He did not seem to notice it at first. At last he turned suddenly on it, and threw all his coils round it with the rapidity of lightning, and extended it by this squeezing process to at least a yard in length. He slowly, very slowly, began to swallow it. And was carried off with two long legs sticking out of its mouth.”