William Robert Gregory

Born21 May 1881 3 St George's Place, London
Died23 January 1918 near Grossa, Padua Italy
EducatedHarrow School Oxford University
OccupationArtist and Theatre Designer
Debut30 August 1912 v Scotland at Rathmines
Cap Number286
StyleRight-hand bat
TeamsCo Galway, Phoenix, London County
History Robert Gregory is far better known for his activities off the cricket field. As The Irish Airman in the WB Yeats poem he is known, if not by name, to generations of poetry enthusiasts and school students - not always the same thing. As an artist and theatre designer he achieved an international reputation, not altogether surprising for one who grew up in the literary and artistic atmosphere generated by his mother, Lady Gregory's many visitors at the family home Coole Park.

However, he had a cricket pedigree. His uncle Richard Persse played for XX of Ireland against the United South of England XI in 1865. At Harrow, Gregory narrowly missed selection for the XI, but took many wickets for the second team. He also plied his leg breaks at New College, Oxford, one of his best matches being for New College Nomads against Blenheim Park in June 1901 when he took 6 wickets. The following summer he played twice for OU Authentics and also appeared in the Seniors' Trial. His bowling impressed in the latter match but he was unable to break through into the University XI. He devoted considerable time to boxing, representing New College, but the tradition that he was awarded his blue for this sport appears to be unfounded as does the claim that he was French Amateur champion while persuing his artistic interests in Paris.

In 1904, WG Grace asked him to play for his London County XI. He never appeared for the County in a first class match but did play for what amounted to a Second XI in two minor matches. In the second of these, against Guy's hospital at Crystal Palace, playing under the captaincy of the Australian WL Murdoch, he made 40 and took 4-42.

Back in Ireland he played cricket for County Galway taking part in the famous match at Woodbrook in 1909, when AE Volger (Woodbrook) and WW Meldon (Galway) both took 10 wickets in an innings and Volger also scored a century. In a team photograph. Gregory stands a rather slight figure, in a group including six members of the Meldon clan. He had several noteworthy performances for both Phoenix and Co Galway. Thus in 1908 he had 15 wickets in the match for the former club against Dublin University with figures of 8-103 and 7-94 while one of his best all round games for the latter was in September 1911 against Ballinasloe Asylum. Opening the batting, he topscored with a typically vigerous 48, before taking 5 cheap wickets to take his side to victory by 60 runs.

In 1912, perhaps seeking sterner competition, than that provided at Coole Park where GB Shaw played, and WG turned up looking for out of season shooting not cricket. He played more regularly for Phoenix and, as one of three late replacements, came into the Irish side to play Scotland at Rathmines in late August. As a (2006) profile of him related "It turned out to be one of the most remarkable debuts...bowling medium pace leg breaks and cutters, he ran through the Scottish order." He took 8-80, but unfortunately the Irish batting failed twice, Gregory getting a "pair" and the Scots won by 3 runs.

In 1907 he married Margaret Parry, a fellow artist, whom he had met while studying at The Slade after leaving Oxford. They had three children. Magaret, who remarried after Robert's untimely death, lived to be 94.

In 1915 he joined the Connaught Rangers, transferring to the RFC in 1915. In contrast to the views attributed to him by WB Yeats in the poem "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death", he appears to been fully supportive of the war effort and to have had a genuine desire to see the Central Powers defeated. It has also been suggested that he was trying to escape from the disastrous relationship that his marriage had become. However he did tell Yeats that he had a premonition of death. He is reputed to have shot down 19 German planes, though this is hard to substantiate as is the claim that one of them was flown by the Red Baron. However Richtofen is known to have been forced down, rather than shot, by an RFC pilot on one occasion, perhaps this was Robert. He was awarded the Military Cross "for conspicuous galantry" but was shot down by "friendly fire" by an Italian pilot. Yeats at Lady Gregory's request wrote four poems about him. She disliked both "An Irish Airman" and "Reprisals", but perhaps the line from The Airman "A lonely impulse of delight" is no bad epitaph for a leg spinner.

Since the first version of this biography appeared in 2007, cricket historian Keith Walmsley has written Brief Candles which was published in 2012. It includes a chapter on Gregory which corrects many errors made by several writers, including regretably this one. I am much indebted to Keith's highly recommended book. Robert Gregory is also profiled in Siggins and Fitzgerald Ireland's 100 Cricket Greats as well as in a literary biography by Yeats bibliographer Colin Smythe and in the Cambridge Dictionary of Irish Biography. His Galway cricket is described insome detail in Stephen Doolan's All Out. The Rise and Fall of Cricket in Galway 1825-1925.

Edward Liddle, April 2007, updated December 2013 and February 2016

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