In 1768 approximately 600 acres of land at Coole was purchased by Robert Gregory on his return to Ireland following service with the East India Company. It remained with the Gregory family until 1927 when it was sold to the Irish State. Residing there at that time was Lady Gregory, already a legend in her lifetime as a dramatist, folklorist and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre with W.B. Yeats and Edward Martyn.
At Coole the first Robert Gregory built a house, walled his estate and began a tree nursery described by Arthur Young in A Tour of Ireland (1780) as “a very noble nursery, from which he is making plantations, which will soon be a great ornament to the country” Successive generations of the Gregory family continued planting trees from all over the world with some success. More land was acquired during the 19th century and by the 1850s amounted to about 15,000 acres. One of Robert’s sons, William became Under Secretary for Ireland in 1812 and his grandson, William Henry was born at his residence in the Phoenix Park, Dublin in 1816. This William inherited Coole in 1847 when his father (another Robert) died of famine fever. He would later become Governor of Ceylon and receive a Knighthood. In the 1850s he added to the tree collections at Coole by planting a pinetum of exotic conifers from the Americas. Completed in 1856, many died on the limestone soil but some survived and flourished and can still be seen today.
In 1880 Sir William, then aged 63, married Isabella Augusta Persse who was 28. One son Robert was born in 1881. Following Sir William’s death in 1892, Lady Gregory devoted much of her time to writing. She was one of the most important figures in the Irish Literary Revival of the early 20th century, not least because of the way she transformed Coole into a focal point for those who shaped that movement, making it a place they would return to time and time again to talk, to plan, to be inspired.
Lady Gregory died on 22nd May 1932. The magic of Coole which inspired so many can still be experienced even though the house no longer stands. Her legacy of writings and tree plantings survive, described by Sean O’Casey as “her chief charmers, the one nearest her mind, the other nearest her heart”.
Lady Gregory’s love of Coole and its ‘Seven Woods’, immortalised by Yeats, is manifest in her writings and those of her literary guests.
“These woods have been well loved, well tended by some who came before me, and my affection has been no less than theirs. The generations of trees have been my care, my comforters. Their companionship has often brought me peace.” – Lady Gregory, Coole, 1931
She was one of the most important figures in the Irish Literary Revival of the early 20th century, not only because of her achievements as a playwright, but also because of the way she transformed Coole into a focal point for those who shaped that movement, making it a place they would return to time and time again to talk, to plan, to derive inspiration.
But the woods and lakes at Coole were richer than Yeats divined. The ‘Seven Woods’, which so enchanted Lady Gregory and her guests, held whispers of a more ancient ancestry, of which the literary visitors were scarcely aware: remnants of the earlier natural forest cover, and the disappearing lake and river are part of the finest turlough complex (See Nature & Wildlife) not merely in Ireland but in all the world.
From its purchase by the Irish State in 1927 until 1987, Coole Park was managed by the Forest Service. In that time, the adjacent Garryland Wood was acquired. Most of the land was planted, generally with fast-growing exotic tree species. The “big house” at Coole was demolished in 1941. In the late 1960s, Coole was opened to the public for amenity use.
Since 1987, Coole-Garryland Nature Reserve has been managed for wildlife conservation and public amenity by the National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS). During this time, the old stables and outbuildings of the Coole Estate were restored and converted to a Visitor Centre with tea rooms (opened in 1992).