The Yeats sisters, Elizabeth, and Lily (Susan) depicted above on an advertisement postcard c. 1905 by their sister-in-law Mary Cottenham Yeats. The card shows Elizabeth carrying books and Lily Yeats holding an embroidered garment as they set out to build a female Arts and Crafts enterprise with Evelyn Gleeson at the anticipated dawn of a new Independent Ireland.
Elizabeth ran the hand printing press. With her brother William as editor, the press produced important Irish revivalist literature. Additionally, Elizabeth worked with several Irish artists, key among them her brother Jack, to produce hand-coloured prints, cards, bookplates, and the illustrated series A Broadside. Lily managed the embroidery department. The Yeats sisters separated from Gleeson in 1908 and continued their areas of production nearby in their new venture Cuala Industries. Both were female enterprises and almost exclusively employed and trained young women as assistants in producing artefacts adhering to arts and crafts principles. Elizabeth was a woman of her time, a time of increasing female agency, politically, socially, and in the workplace. A contested and complex history was lived through her Press.
As Conor Linnie pointed out in the TCD Poetics of Print exhibition, the Press’s ‘nationalism was also allied with a radical social programme, supporting the emancipation of women through training and education’. Cuala Press remained active publishing new literature until 1946 by which time it was managed by the often overlooked Georgie (‘George’) Yeats. It continued under various incarnations, its primary function re-publishing Cuala prints, until the 1980s. However, its founding ethos and originality ended with the last published book in 1946, Stranger in Aran, an illustrated memoir by Elizabeth Rivers, by which time the press had already stopped commissioning new prints.
Between 1902 and 1946, it can be argued that Dun Emer and Cuala Press visual outputs held a mirror to developments in Irish society. Much of their early print material reflected an Irish revivalist agenda and were primarily expressions of a nationalist identity through idealised representations of Irish rural life. The complexities within Irish society during a time of war and revolution – First World War, Easter Rising, War of Independence, and Irish Civil War – were also present among the Cuala Industries employees as highlighted in correspondence in the Cuala Press Business Archive in TCD. The Yeats family and the Press women, some ideologically committed to political causes, lost friends during this time, and were greatly troubled, and some conflicted, by the violence.
Katharine Tynan’s First World War poem “Haud Immemor” published on a Cuala card in 1915 was illustrated by Jack Yeats and printed by Elizabeth. The poem was re-titled “The Predestined” and altered slightly when it appeared in Tynan’s 1915 collection, Flower of Youth: Poems In War Time. The card’s design depicts a canon beneath a dove carrying an olive branch. An Irish landscape, possibly County Sligo, is separated from the existential crisis of the war by an undetermined sort of no-man’s land at the edge of Europe, Ireland is vulnerable but untroubled.
Well-known American playwright and poet, Mary Aldiss, had her poem “A Prayer”, also known as “May 11, 1915” printed at Cuala under the title “1915”. Prompted by the torpedoing of the Lusitania on 7th May 1915, it is a poem about war, loss, and hope for the future. About fifty copies of this memorial to the Yeats family friend Hugh Lane and all those drowned in the attack, was designed, and printed by Elizabeth in 1915 with a hand-coloured golden cross on the cover and an Irish landscape inside. The card was commissioned by Lord and Lady Aberdeen, then Lord Lieutenant and his wife, the leading British representatives in Ireland.
Elizabeth Yeats commemorated dates and events in the colophons of Cuala books. William Butler Yeats’s Certain Noble Plays of Japan published in 1916 ends, ‘Printed and published by Elizabeth Corbet Yeats at the Cuala Press, Churchtown, Dundrum, in the County of Dublin, Ireland. Finished on the twentieth day of July, in the year of the Sinn Fein Rising, nineteen hundred and sixteen’. Reflecting the contradictions of Irish political history, the volume’s pressmark was designed by Robert Gregory and initialled by him in Gaelic script. The only child of Cuala patron, Lady Augusta Gregory, Robert was killed two years later in Italy while on war service with the British air force.
Michael O’Callaghan, the first Republican Lord Mayor of Limerick 1920, was murdered in his home in March 1921, almost certainly by the British authorities. The Cuala Press printed a memorial prayer – a Requiescat featuring James Stephens’ 1916 elegy “Spring” – for O’Callaghan’s widow, Kate, in an edition of one hundred. The two-page publication is dedicated to ‘Michael O’Callaghan, murdered by the enemy March 7th 1921’, and featured an elaborate initial letter, laurel wreath, and cross designed, printed and hand-coloured by Elizabeth.
In 1916, Elizabeth had used a similar wreath design on the cover of a longer text “In Memoriam” for Easter Rising martyr, Thomas MacDonagh. The four pages of plain text, comprising the ‘Last and Inspiring address of Thomas MacDonagh’, was his speech from the dock after his death sentence was conveyed.
The Yeats were a protestant Anglo-Irish family with members born in both Ireland and England, who relied on sales of their produce in both jurisdictions, and who moved seamlessly in both societies. Seeking patronage from all echelons of Irish Society, Elizabeth showed work to a range of arts and craft patrons, including the Lord Lieutenant and his wife, who visited the Cuala premises with two detectives and a policeman outside for security. In 1923 Free State troops raided Cuala and arrested two Press women, Marie Gill and Esther Ryan, republicans who subsequently spent several weeks in prison for having seditious anti-treaty material. On release, they resumed printing duties with Cuala
Like many Irish people, British violence during the War of Independence further alienated the Yeats sisters from England. They had become personally, culturally, and economically invested in Ireland, and were essential in the development and promotion of an Irish Arts and Crafts movement while negotiating a path through revolutionary times.