Lady Gregory's Toothbrush by Colm Tóibín

Peter Stanford enjoys an elegant portrait of an energetic, Anglo-Irish cultural campaigner and handmaiden of Yeats

Augusta Gregory is best remembered today as a rather matronly handmaiden, dancing attendance on W B Yeats. Colm Tóibín, in his biographical essay, does little to dispel this image. Yeats, he recalls, was always seated at the head of the table at the Gregory home, Coole Park in Galway, after the death of Augusta's husband (whom she outlived by almost 40 years) and to the apparent irritation of her adult son, Robert - legally the owner of the house. The corridor outside the poet's bedroom was laid with thick rugs so that no servant's footstep would disturb his sleep. Lady Gregory was often prepared to allow her own research and writing, especially about Celtic folklore, to be sidelined or subsumed into the Yeats oeuvre.

In all this she was very much a woman of her times, but Tóibín paints a broader and more fascinating picture of this contradictory Irish patriot. Yeats was not the only writer to receive her support and admiration. As a director, alongside Yeats, of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, she went into battle against the British colonial authorities and her own class on behalf of J M Synge, Sean O'Casey and George Bernard Shaw. The Abbey staged works by all three that those in power tried to suppress. In the case of Synge's Playboy of the Western World, Lady Gregory also had to face down Catholic nationalist mobs. It is her reflection on that bitter showdown that gives this book its title; "The old battle," she wrote to Yeats, "between those who use a toothbrush and those who don't."

In a phrase, she revealed her instinctive patrician attitudes and hence ambiguous status as an Irish patriot. She lived, Tóibín argues, in two worlds. Her own Anglo-Irish Ascendancy world of Protestants in big houses keeping down the locals on behalf of a colonial overlord was disappearing. Yet in her work at the Abbey and her efforts to rediscover (and, Tóibín claims, partly manufacture) an ancient Celtic peasant sensibility, she was creating a powerful vision of Ireland that was in tune with its first generation of post-independence rulers.

This dichotomy provides the backbone of this enlightening portrait by one of Ireland's most thoughtful and elegant writers. (It is easy to imagine how, had Tóibín been born 75 years earlier, he would have been another recipient of Augusta's patronage.) Lady Gregory was simultaneously extracting rents from her tenants to preserve her estate at Coole and sitting down with them to record their stories and legends. She believed that culture could square the circle, but politics intervened. Her old life disappeared. Coole was passed to the Irish state and fell down through neglect. The new Ireland may have embraced her dream of its past, but had no place in its heart for one of her class.

Peter Stanford's revised biography of Lord Longford is published by Sutton

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