Archives Diary: Christy MacKaye & Lady Gregory

Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory (15 March 1852 – 22 May 1932), born Isabella Augusta Persse, was an Irish dramatist and folklorist. With William Butler Yeats and Edward Martyn, she co-founded the Irish Literary Theatre and the Abbey Theatre, and wrote numerous short works for both companies.

Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory (15 March 1852 – 22 May 1932), born Isabella Augusta Persse, was an Irish dramatist and folklorist. With William Butler Yeats and Edward Martyn, she co-founded the Irish Literary Theatre and the Abbey Theatre, and wrote numerous short works for both companies.

By exploring a finding aid for one of the John J. Burns Library’s many collections, you can often unearth  treasures. Recently, Irish Studies Librarian Kathy Williams learned of an interesting letter from American poet Christy MacKaye while reading the finding aid for the Lady Gregory Collection. This Collection contains a letter to Lady Gregory from MacKaye thanking her for a meeting with Lady Gregory and Yeats at Coole Park, Gregory’s famed home in County Galway, Ireland. In addition, the Burns Library holds a copy of MacKaye’s book of poetry Wind-in-the-Grass, which MacKaye inscribed to Gregory in 1931.

MacKaye wrote this letter to Lady Gregory on August 28, 1931.  Not much is known about MacKaye’s connection to Gregory partly because MacKaye remained a relatively obscure poet in America.  In addition, Gregory’s meticulous daily journal writing tapered off in 1931 due to failing health. MacKaye thanks Gregory in this letter, saying that it was “a climax of good fortune to meet Mr. Yeats there, too.”

Envelope from a letter written by Christy MacKaye to Lady Gregory, Box 1, Folder 5, MS2002-040, Lady Gregory Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Envelope from a letter written by Christy MacKaye to Lady Gregory, Box 1, Folder 5, Lady Gregory Collection, MS.2002.040, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Thus MacKaye alludes to her literary and spiritual connection with that great Irish writer. MacKaye, an American-born poet, became an integral member of the Anthroposophical Society, a branch of Theosophy, of which W.B. Yeats was a member. Her collection Wind-in-the-Grass contains poems that exemplify the society’s ideas of “spiritual science,” and the title certainly alludes to Yeats’ own Wind Among the Reeds, a book expressing similar ideas on spirituality.

Not much is known about MacKaye’s life, but the small amount of information available links her in interesting ways to these Irish literary figures as well as to the development of the American Anthroposophical movement. MacKayewas born in Cornish, New Hampshire in the early 20th Century in the old Reverend house, “The Wayside,” which was located in a colony of artists and writers. She studied briefly at Smith College and Rollins College, publishing her first 14-poem booklet Out of Chrysalis before traveling to Europe with her sister Arvia to begin work on Wind-in-the-Grass from 1930-31. While in Europe, MacKaye became acquainted with the work of Rudolf Steiner, who at the time was heading the Theosophical movement in Germany and eventually founded Anthroposophy. She joined the Anthroposophical Society while visiting Dornach, Switzerland, home of Steiner and the Anthroposophical movement. MacKaye returned to America in 1931 and devoted the rest of her professional career to teaching in Steiner’s Waldorf school, editing Journal for Anthroposophy, acting in dramas written by Steiner and managing the Anthroposophical Society’s Adonis Press.

First page of a letter from Christy MacKaye to Lady Gregory, dated August 28, 1931, Box 1, Folder 5, MS2002-040, Lady Gregory Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

First page of a letter from Christy MacKaye to Lady Gregory, dated August 28, 1931, Box 1, Folder 5, Lady Gregory Collection, MS.2002.040, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Steiner and MacKaye’s stories also intersect in other curious ways. Before founding the Anthroposophical Society, Austria-Hungarian-born Steiner studied the transcendentalist philosophy of Theosophy, a popular form of spiritualism in the early 20th century founded by Madame Helena Blavatsky. In 1904, famed Irish Theosophist Annie Besant appointed Steiner head of the Theosophical Esoteric Society in Germany and Austria. Incidentally, Besant was the most famous Irish Theosophist and an “inner circle” member of the Theosophy Society along with W.B. Yeats. Ultimately, however, Steiner formally broke away from the Theosophy Society in 1912/13 when Besant pronounced philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti the vehicle of a new world teacher as prophesized by Blavatsky—essentially a second coming of Christ.  Disagreeing with this pronouncement, Steiner returned to Dornach, Switzerland to found the religion of Anthroposophy and establish several schools, faith communities and a publishing press to popularize the movement. Steiner died in 1924, six years before MacKaye visited Dornach. However, from what we can see of MacKaye’s belief in Anthroposophy in the poems of Wind-in-the-Grass, published that same year, it is safe to assume she was powerfully moved by her visit to Dornach. Given the proximity of her visits to Dornach and Ireland, it is possible that this spiritualism may have been discussed with Yeats at the home of Lady Gregory in 1931, thus explaining why she defines her meeting with Yeats as “a climax of good fortune.”

After returning to the States that same year, MacKaye devoted the rest of her career to popularizing and participating in the Anthroposophical movement in New York. Most of MacKaye and Steiner’s projects including Steiner Press, the Waldorf schools and their religious buildings, called Goetheanum, still exist today and the Anthroposophical Society now boasts 60,000 members worldwide.  For more information on Christy MaKaye, you can check out some of her books at the O’Neill Library – Wind-in-the-Grass, Imagination’s Music and For the Love of Literature.  To look at the copy of Wind-in-the Grass inscribed by MacKaye to Lady Gregory or find out more about the Lady Gregory Collection at the Burns Library, contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu .

  • Kate Tomkie, Irish Studies Assistant & Graduate Student in the Department of English

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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