William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin in 1865, into an extraordinarily talented artistic family: his father John Butler Yeats was a renowned portraitist, his sisters Susan (Lily) and Elizabeth (Lolly) were innovative craftworkers and printers, and his brother Jack Yeats became Ireland’s most celebrated painter.
The family moved between Dublin, London and Sligo while Yeats was growing up. His mother was from the well-established business family of Pollexfens and Middletons in Sligo, and Yeats stayed there for long periods in his youth, coming to think of it as his spiritual home.
In 2015 Ireland celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Nobel Prize-winning poet, William Butler Yeats. An informative website encapsulates the life of W.B. Yeats www.yeats2015.com
Yeats Family Members
John Butler Yeats, 1839-1922
The poet’s father was brought up at Tullylish in Co. Down, where his father was the “red headed” Rector. His early days were happy except for the horrors of a private school in the Isle of Man, where George Pollexfen was a school fellow. He entered Trinity College in 1857, reading Classics, and, afterwards, Law. When he married Susan Pollexfen at Sligo in 1863 the Pollexfens were pleased. Their hopes were dashed. Having been called to the Bar in 1866, J.B. decided not to practise, but to train to be an artist in London. He painted many portraits of leaders in the Irish Literary and Political life. In December 1907 he went to New York with his daughter Lily, and thereafter refused to return to Ireland. He died in New York in 1922.
Jack Butler Yeats, 1871-1957
Six years younger than the poet, he also spent his childhood in Sligo. Sligo, with its ships, fairs, races and circuses and the variety of men and women associated with them, was an inspiration for Jack’s drawing from 1887 until he started his career as an art student in London. “In half of the pictures he paints today I recognise faces that I have met at Rosses or the Sligo quays’, wrote the poet. The wild faces of horsemen, the quiet dignity of tinkers and wanderers, set against tumultuous skies which flash and dance with colour, are transformed in Jack’s imagination; and that, after all, is what W.B. achieved in poetry often having that very subject matter.
Susan ‘Lily’ Yeats (1866-1949) and Elizabeth ‘Lolly’ Yeats (1868-1940)
Susan and Elizabeth Yeats were the sisters of William Butler Yeats, whose lives and achievements were overshadowed completely, both during their lives and since their death. Known in the family as Lily (Susan) and Lolly (Elizabeth), they were in the middle of the boys, Willie and Jack. Susan was the only child born in Co Sligo, in Enniscrone in 1866. Elizabeth was born in London in 1868.
Both sisters were exceptionally talented and made a significant contribution to the Arts & Crafts movement in Ireland. Susan trained as an embroiderer with Mai Morris, daughter of the philanthropist William Morris. Elizabeth trained as a Froebel teacher for young children, succeeding despite a lack of formal education and both of them were able to earn a steady income when the family was struggling to make ends meet. Elizabeth also taught herself how to paint and had published two books on watercolours, with exquisite attention to detail.
In 1902, the sisters left London, settled in Dublin and, with a woman called Evelyn Gleeson, set up a company, Dun Emer, Susan ran the embroidery section and Elizabeth set up and ran the printing side of the business. They specified that they wanted to ‘make things that were beautiful.’They later left Dun Emer and set up Cuala Press which they ran for the rest of their lives. Willy took on the role of editor and Elizabeth published many of his books. Books were designed by her, with frontispieces sometimes done by her and sometimes by their artist brother Jack. The work of both women was recognised for its beauty, detail and workmanship. Neither woman ever married and both are buried in Dublin.
George Hyde Lees, 1892-1968
On the 20th October 1917, three days after her twenty-fifth birthday, Georgiana Hyde Lees married the fifty-two year old poet, William Butler Yeats. Yeats always called her George.
The partnership of Yeats and George Hyde Lees is one of the most extraordinary and creative in the literary world. An exploration of the world of the supernatural was as important to Yeats as his poetry; indeed the two must be considered together. The most important partner in this continuing study was his wife. Nothing that had happened to him before was more dramatically exciting than the automatic writing of his wife, which he felt put wisdom within his reach. George Yeats encouraged her husband’s single-minded devotion to poetry and was without doubt his severest and most helpful critic.
In 1902 the family moved back to Ireland and went to live in a house named Gurteen Dhas, Dundrum. “Runnymeade” acquired by Evelyn Gleeson and renamed “Dun Emer”. It became the headquarters and workplace of Dun Emer Industries, Dun Emer Guild. Miss Gleeson invested the money. The Yeats girls invested their skill. Dr. A. Henry really provided the funds. The objective of Dun Emer was to provide employment for women, to improve art and design generally, to promote the production of Irish goods and develop Irish culture, to promote all things Irish, including the language.
Lily Yeats who had experience of embroidery work gained while she was employed by May Morris in London and other forms of needlework became one of the main money earning activities at Dun Emer.
Lolly Yeats was involved in setting up and developing a printing press with the objective of producing books of Irish interest including some of the work of their brother William and other Irish writers.
Miss Gleeson acted as overall manageress. They employed a number of girls (14-15) whom they trained in the work. Lolly also was involved in organising Irish classes and other useful courses to improve their general education and also to help them learn more about their history and cultural heritage.
The experiment was impractical and unsound as none of the partners – Dr. Henry, Miss Gleeson or the Yeats sisters had any knowledge of business. The house was not ion good repair and this cost money. The Yeats sisters (and their father) had not the £48 to fund the move to Dublin. Lolly knew very little about printing/ publishing. The arrangements were those of a loose partnership or co-operative structure, based mainly on good will. Besides, Miss Gleeson was at least 10 years older than the sisters. She proved arrogant and hard to get on with- so also was Lolly. Miss Gleeson, and her sister Constance McCormack were reputably far too fond of spirits (Jameson). There was trouble from the very beginning and relationships steadily deteriorated. Even Lily failed to get along with Miss Gleeson and came to dislike her deeply. Lolly also had problems dealing with W.B. who was acting as editor of the printing/publishing business and who would not accept any questioning of his authority as to what books would be published etc. But the enterprise struggled on and some lovely embroidery and other work was produced, and Lolly got along well in the printing/ publishing enterprise.
Eventually, the strain took on everybody and it became obvious that the partnership would have to end. And so it did.
During all this period, the Yeats sisters, their niece Ruth and their father lived in a house “Gurteen Dhas” in Churchtown. They continued to live there for many years after the marriage of Ruth (to Charles Lane-Poole) and the departure of their father to New York in 1907. After the departure of the Yeats sisters, Miss Gleeson carried on the work of Dun Emer and did so quite successfully though not very profitably. In 1912, the workshops were moved from Dun Emer to Hardwick St., Dublin. In 1925 they made the large carpet for the chamber of the Dail. The workshop was later moved to Harcourt St.. In 1944, Evelyn Gleeson died. In 1947, Dun Emer was sold. Catherine McCormack carried on the business, having dropped many aspects of the work. The shop in Harcourt St. closed about 1964. Catherine McCormack died in 1975.
After the parting with Miss Gleeson in 1908, the sisters set up Cuala Industries in a bungalow in Churchtown. Lily continued to be involved in the embroidery side and Lolly with the Cuala Press. W.B. continued as editor. They took some of the staff (e.g. Eileen Colum) from Dun Emer and took on a number of teenage girls whom they trained. Even though there were many disagreements between Lolly and W.B. and between Lolly and Lilly, the business made good progress but was always struggling financially. W.B. had to clear overdrafts etc. on many occasions.
At a later stage, there was Home Rule movement; the Home Rule Bill of 1912, the great Dublin strike in 1913; the outbreak of World War I and the rising of 1916. Each of these events in turn created problems for the sisters.
In 1922, W.B. and George left Oxford and bought No. 82 Merrian Sq. and went to live there.
At this time, Lily got into bad health and was only able to play a lesser part in the work. All through the period, there were financial problems and many big disagreements between Lolly and W.B. and between Lolly and Lily. W.B. became senator at this time but in the second half of the decade, his health began to deteriorate.
The Cuala Industries struggled on through the 30s with much assistance from George.
W.B. died in 1939 and Lolly, George and F.R. Higgins ran the business. World War II caused its own problems. Lolly died rather suddenly in 1940 and George (Lily) and F.R. continued until the death of F.R. in 1941. George continued to manage the Cuala. Lily became bedridden in 1945 and lived to 1949, shortly after the reburial of W.B. in Drumcliffe.
Lily and Lolly are buried in the churchyard of St. Nahis Church, Dundrum.
Yeats and his Circle
Lady Gregory, 1852-1932
Born Agusta Persse, of the Protestant landed class, she was introduced to Irish myth and history, and taught some Gaelic by Mary Sheridan, who was nurse to her family. At the age of twenty-eight she married Sir William Gregory, aged sixty-three, who owned Coole Park. Twelve years later he died, and as a widow she devoted herself to making Coole a place where writers could gather. In collaboration with Yeats she wrote Cathleen Ní Houlihan and The Pot of Broth; her own output included numerous folk tales, that were taken from the songs and stories of travelling men and beggars at Coole, or from the cottagers in the Kiltartin district. She died in May 1932, aged eighty.
Maud Gonne (Madame Gonne McBride), 1866-1953
Yeats was twenty-three when he met Maud Gonne at the family house in Bedford Park, London. He had never seen in a living woman so great beauty. Until 1903, when she married John McBride, Yeats had hoped he would marry her and repeatedly proposed marriage to her. Her sole purpose in life was concentrated in the attainment of an Irish nation. She came from the same Anglo-Irish stock as Constance Gore-Booth, and she also rejected all that that social group stood for. No poet has celebrated a woman’s beauty to the extent Yeats did in his lyric verse about Maud Gonne. From his second book to Last Poems, she became the Rose, Helen of Troy the Ledaean Body, Cathleen Ní Houlihan, Pallas Athene and Deirdre.
George Russell, 1867-1935
An Ulsterman, a fellow student of Yeats’s, at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin in 1884. Later became a painter, a poet, an active supporter of the Irish Literary Renaissance; editor from 1910 of The Irish Statesman, a prolifie essayist, and, an effective and practical civil servant in the Department of agriculture. He was Yeats’s oldest friend, to whom he dedicated his prose romance, The Secret Rose in 1897. Mrs Yeats spoke of him as “the nearest to a saint you or I will ever meet”. He died of cancer. Yeats attended his funeral in Dublin.
John O’Leary, 1830-1907
Born in Co. Tiperary, O’Leary became a medical student at Trinity College, where he joined the revolutionary Fenian Brotherhood. In 1863, after a trial, being convicted of treason and felony he was sentenced to twenty years penal servitude in England, but was released in 1870 on condition he did not return to Ireland for fifteen years. On his return after his exile, he met Yeats and a wonderful friendship grew between the two. He was President of the Supreme Council of the I.R.B. until his death, on St. Patrick’s Day 1907.
Arthur Symons, 1865-1945
Poet, playwright and critic, he introduced Yeats to the French Symbolist school. A most important influence on Yeats in the nineties, helping on Yeats’s use of symbolism, already started in The Wanderings of Oisin. A member of the Rhymers Club; visited the Aran Islands and Coole Park with Yeats 1896.
J. M. Synge, 1871-1909
Synge, born in Co. Dublin, was one of Yeats’s nearest friends from 1896 until his early death from cancer in 1909. When they met in Paris in the 1890’s, Yeats advised Synge to leave and go the Aran Islands. Synge took his advice, so totally altering the direction of his life. The discovery by Synge of the tough peasantry and their violent lives was to influence Yeats vitally. The “Crazy Jane” poems and many of the Last Poems later indicate this influence of Synge’s thought on Yeats’s verse.