Monday, January 22, 2018

An Irish Airman

Major Robert Gregory
On January 23, 1918, an Irish pilot and recipient of the Military Cross was killed when his plane fell from the sky over Padua, Italy.  The airman was Major Robert Gregory, remembered by W.B. Yeats in his poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” Gregory was the only son of Lady Augusta Gregory, playwright and close friend of W.B. Yeats, and it was at Lady Gregory’s urging that Yeats wrote in memory of her son.  

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

Recruiting poster,
published in Dublin
I know that I shall meet my fate  
Somewhere among the clouds above;  
Those that I fight I do not hate  
Those that I guard I do not love;  
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,  
No likely end could bring them loss  
Or leave them happier than before.  
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,  
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight  
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;  
I balanced all, brought all to mind,  
The years to come seemed waste of breath,  
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
            —W.B. Yeats

Yeats’ poem for Gregory presents a solitary pilot, haunted by the vision not only of his death, but also of his past and his future (“ a waste of breath”).  Alone in the clouds, the airman distances himself from both the political turmoil of the Great War and the struggle for Irish independence; he is driven instead by a “lonely impulse of delight.”  What anchors him to this world are local, personal concerns: a small town in Galway and its impoverished people.

Old Kiltartan Church and Graveyard, photo by Tony O'Neill 
Yeats’ poem idealizes Robert Gregory as a man who refuses to be categorized as a war hero, yet the reality of Gregory’s motivations are more complex. Personal diary entries from 1915 suggest that one of the reasons he joined the war was to escape the family turmoil caused by his adulterous affair with another woman.  In 1915 at the age of 34, married and with three young children, Gregory enlisted with the Connaught Rangers, transferring that same year to the British Royal Flying Corps, “at a time when the average life expectancy for new combat pilots had been estimated at only three weeks.”*

Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Robert Gregory
photo by W.E. Bailey, courtesy of Colin Smythe
And for what did Gregory die? Yeats’ poem suggests the Gregory’s life was sacrificed to the wastefulness of war—that no matter how he died, his sacrifice would not significantly alter his country’s future. Official military records in the British National Archives report that Gregory’s death was an accident of friendly fire, that he was “shot down in error by an Italian pilot.”** Lady Gregory provides yet another account; writing to a friend several days after her son’s death, she states that Robert was returning from a flight over enemy territory, “when at a great height they believe he fainted and did not come back to consciousness in this world.”** Most recently, Geoffrey O’Byrne-White, a Gregory descendant and director of the Irish Aviation authority, has argued that Gregory lost consciousness and crashed due to an adverse reaction to the Spanish flu vaccine that he had received on the morning of his last flight. O’Byrne-White argues that “strict wartime censorship suppressed any references to the worsening Spanish flu pandemic or possible faulty inoculations and that this may also explain why Major Gregory’s death was attributed to so-called friendly fire in the records of the Royal Flying Corps.”**
Gregory's grave, Padua, Italy

“An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” highlights the complexities of the Great War and modern memory: simple narratives of heroism often smooth over contradictory details. Recent editorials in Irish newspapers have argued that despite the 40,000 Irishmen killed in the First World War (compared to 1,400 in the Irish War of Independence and several thousand in the Irish Civil War), “until recently, Irish participation in the Great War was airbrushed out—except in Northern Ireland.”

Also frequently erased from the history of the war are accounts of the Spanish flu, a disease not created by the war, but weaponized and spread by it, a pandemic that “killed at least eight times more people than the war did, accumulating an estimated eighty million deaths worldwide between 1919 and early 1920.”††
Yeats’ poem for Major Robert Gregory is remarkable both for what it reveals and what it obscures. The poem reminds us that Irish history, the Great War, as well as the life and death of Robert Gregory are all complex realities: tangled, disputed, and defying easy interpretation. 
* James Pethica, “Yeats’s ‘perfect man,’” Dublin Review, vol. 35, Summer 2009,
** Ray Burke, “Challenge to official accounts of Gregory death in WWI,” RTÉ, 6 Jan. 2018,
† Sean Farrell, “It’s a long way to Tipperary: Two books on Irish participation in WW1,” Irish Independent, 14 Dec. 2014,
†† Jane Elizabeth Fisher,“Teaching the 1918 Influenza Pandemic as Part of a World War I Curriculum,” Teaching Representations of the First World War, edited by Debra Rae Cohen and Douglas Higbee, MLA, 2017, p. 193.


  1. Sad that he had made it away from the lethal environment of the Western Front and fell to earth near Padua

  2. A warrior man of the arts who flew and mentored Mannock V.C! What a complex man - and his relationship with Yeats was strained to say the least - and all ended with a mysterious death. Very much worthy of further study.

    1. Very much indeed -- a fascinating poem, a fascinating man. Glad to see Mannock getting mentioned here, too -- his story is also worth remembering.

  3. Always loved this poem, but didn't know the background to it. Fascinating article. Thanks for sharing your research!