A Celtic Christmas in July: Lady Gregory and The Irish Homestead

Original wrapper for the 1903 Christmas Number of The Irish Homestead.

Original wrapper for the 1903 Christmas Number of The Irish Homestead, PN5143.I78 Irish.

As a recent graduate of the Boston College Masters in Irish Literature program and current cataloging assistant at the Burns Library, it is easy to enjoy my job among such renowned Irish materials and rare books. My work frequently consists of enhancing the online catalog records of incoming acquisitions, thereby making it easier for scholars and researchers to locate sources within our collection. During the comparatively little time I physically spend in the library stacks, however, I always seem to discover hidden gems within the Burns’ shelves. The treasure in this case is a bound collection of The Irish Homestead, a newspaper published by the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Though the newspaper ran on a weekly basis, this volume contains seven special Christmas issues, ranging from 1897-1903, that were collected by Isabella Augusta Persse (1852-1932), known more popularly as Lady Gregory.

Lady Gregory’s bookplate.

Lady Gregory’s bookplate.

Gregory remains a figurehead of the Irish Literary Revival, a nationalist cultural movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her accomplishments during this period include co-founding Dublin’s Abbey Theater with Edward Martyn and W.B. Yeats as well as recording native oral traditions around her West of Ireland estate, Coole Park. Also among her achievements is the controversial play Cathleen ni Houlihan, which Gregory co-wrote with Yeats in 1901. Not only is the play itself highly nationalistic to the point of propaganda, but the details behind its co-written authorial history are also frequently contested. Yet, her careers as founder and director of the National Theater of Ireland, folklorist, and revivalist artist define Gregory’s legendary contribution to the Irish Renaissance.

1897 version with editorial revisions.

1897 version with editorial revisions.

Her interest in a publication like The Irish Homestead is therefore entirely unsurprising. Run by the agricultural reformist Horace Plunkett and the literary mystic Æ (a pseudonym for George William Russell), The Irish Homestead represents a conflation between agrarian agitation from Ireland’s Home Rule movement and the Literary Revival. What initially appears as an agricultural publication, actually encapsulates the Revival’s influence on Irish culture, especially the more literary “Celtic Christmas” issues. In fact, The Irish Homestead was the first to publish James Joyce’s short story “The Sisters” in 1904.

1904 version published in The Divine Vision and Other Poems.

1904 version published in The Divine Vision and Other Poems, PR6035.U7 D5 1904 Leeming.

Within Gregory’s bound collection of Christmas issues are poems, articles, and stories by iconic figures synonymous with the Irish Renaissance, including Douglas Hyde, Yeats, Somerville and Ross, Seumas MacManus, Eva Gore-Booth, and even some early poetry by Pádraic Colum. Interestingly, Gregory’s copy features penciled-in editorial comments on an early version of Æ’s poem “The Well of All-Healing” in the 1897 Christmas issue. Whether they were made by Gregory or another owner, Æ’s final version of the poem reflects some of the revisions suggested on this page of The Irish Homestead, as well as others not marked in Gregory’s item.

Gregory’s “A Celtic Christmas” collection reflects the convergence of Christianity and Celtic mythology in fin-de-siècle Irish culture that would spill into the twentieth century as the Revival flourished. Her collection frequently features Christmas carols alongside figures from Irish mythology, such as King Goll, Queen Maeve, and Lir.

Watercolor of Queen Maeve by Æ (note his signature on the left side of the illustration.)

Watercolor of Queen Maeve by Æ (note his signature on the left side of the illustration.)

The seemingly divergent components of this publication are perhaps best explained by the editor’s note in the 1897 issue:

“A word may not be amiss to explain how a literary Christmas Number comes to be issued by a paper primarily devoted to agricultural organization. Perhaps it is, in its way, one of those Celtic incongruities which so puzzle our foreign observers; but to ourselves it seems natural enough. The union of the practical with the ideal in the same individual ought to be one of the peculiar achievements of our racial character… This Christmas Number of The Irish Homestead is a little attempt to illustrate the sympathy between these two ‘streams of tendency’ in Ireland, the economic and the spiritual.”

The Irish Revival’s “streams of tendency” far surpass the economic and the spiritual, and Lady Gregory was an integral component of its cultural expansion. For more information about Lady Gregory, see the online supplement to the O’Neill Library’s exhibit “Lesser Lights or Major Literary Influences?: Five Irish Women Writers of Nineteenth Century Ireland.”  For more information about The Irish Homestead, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

  • Eliscia Kinder,  Burns Library Student Cataloging Assistant & M.A. in Irish Studies

Bibliography

Hayley, Barbara, and Edna McKay, eds. Three Hundred Years of Irish Periodicals. Dublin:         Lilliput Press, 1987.

Merritt, Henry. “‘Dead Many Times’: ‘Cathleen ni Houlihan,’ Yeats, Two Old Women, and           a Vampire. The Modern Language Review 96.3 (July 2001): 644-653.

Russell, George William. The Divine Vision and Other Poems. London: Macmillan, 1904.

Stevenson, Mary Lou Kohfeldt. Lady Gregory: The Woman Behind the Irish Renaissance.         New York: Atheneum, 1985.

The Irish Homestead. Dublin: Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, 1895-1923.

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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One Response to A Celtic Christmas in July: Lady Gregory and The Irish Homestead

  1. Margaret (Peggy) Lynch-Brennan, Ph.D. says:

    Thanks so much for this interesting post. I very much enjoyed reading it , and I am so pleased to learn that the Burns Library has “The Irish Homestead” in its collection.
    Best,
    Margaret Lynch-Brennan, Ph.D.
    Independent Scholar

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