Women of the Cuala Press

We’re back with another blog from the Cuala Press Print Project – this one will showcase the women of the Cuala Press. The Cuala Press began its life as the Dun Emer Press and was part of Dun Emer Industries, established by Evelyn Gleeson (1855-1944) and Susan and Elizabeth Yeats in Dundrum, Co. Dublin, in 1902. Their aim was to employ and train local Irish girls and young women in ‘the making of beautiful things’. Elizabeth (1868-1940) trained two people at a time on an Albion printing press and they gained knowledge of composition, typography, type setting, and ink rolling; they were also involved in the hand painting of the prints and the other material they printed. Susan Yeats (1866-1949) ran the embroidery section and taught embroidery herself. The trainees were also instructed in Irish by the writer Susan L. Mitchell (1866-1926) and in the dramatic arts by the Fay brothers, who were among the founders of the Abbey Theatre. 

Dun Emer Industries and The Cuala Press were, overall, entirely female workplaces. They hired girls and young women, some in their early teens, who having just finished school were given opportunities for a career despite having no prior training or skills. According to ‘Leabhar Dun Éimire’, an in-house magazine compiled by the staff, the business grew steadily; ‘in 1902 there were 13 girls employed, and by 1905 there were 30’. January 1903 was a key date in the history of the Dun Emer and Cuala presses as it is when Esther ‘Essie’ Ryan (1889-1961), the first female printer to be trained by Elizabeth, arrived followed by Beatrice ‘Beattie’ Cassidy on 23rd February. They were paid one shilling and six pence a week as a salary.  

In 1908 the Yeats sisters separated from Evelyn Gleeson and set up the Cuala Press in a cottage in Churchtown. The Yeats’ were joined by their original staff – Esther Ryan and Beatrice Cassidy – from Dun Emer. In 1908 Maire ‘Mollie’ Gill (1891–1977) joined the printing team as did Eileen Colum, sister of the poet Padraic Colum. These women worked for the Yeats sisters for most of their lives. A poem by Susan L Mitchell titled ‘Cuala Abu!’ depicts the workers’ attitude and dedication to the Press: 

Gladly we come to our work every morning, 

Daughters of Ireland, faithful and true; 

Some setting stitches to help your adorning, 

Some printing magic words, Cuala, for you. 

Let men talk politics, throw words or brandish sticks, 

Little we care what their folly may do, 

Ours not to talk or fight, but work with all our might 

Building up home here in Cuala for you. 

We are the daughters of Maeve and Finuala, 

Of fair Fionavar and of great Granuile, 

Proudly we strive here as children of Cuala, 

Still to be worthy the race of the Gael. 

O Mother Country dear, surely your day draws near, 

Let us not shirk aught women may do, 

But make ourselves more fair, and lovely homes prepare, 

Fit for the Queen you were. Cuala Abu!’ 

It is a testament to the Yeats sisters as employers that they had such dedicated staff. Esther Ryan was a native of Dundrum who started working at Dun Emer when she was 14 years old, when the printing department was established in 1903. Ryan was trained so well that in 1905, at sixteen years of age, she was left in charge of the Print Room at Dun Emer while Elizabeth Yeats was away on business. Ryan was arrested at the Cuala Press on 20th July 1923, along with co-worker Maire Gill, for their involvement with Cumann na mBan. Esther was released on 21st August 1923 and returned to work at the Press until her death in 1961. Eileen Colum worked for Cuala Press from 1904. She originally started in the embroidery department, under Susan Yeats, but transferred to the printing department to paint the greeting cards and broadsides as ‘she had a careful hand and a good eye for colour’. Colum devoted the rest of her life to this work. The journey of these women, from young girls with no skills to highly skilled printers, testifies to the value of the educational program and training they received from the Yeats sisters.