When Evelyn Gleeson (1855-1944) moved to Ireland to establish the Dún Emer Guild with Lily and Elizabeth Yeats she purchased a house named ‘Runnymede’ in Dundrum, a South Dublin village suburb. The house had been named for Runnymede in England where The Magna Carte was sealed in 1215. Evoking the spirit of Irish Revivalism, the Dundrum house was redesignated Dún Emer by Gleeson, meaning Emer’s fort in Gaelic, after the wife of the legendary Irish hero Cuchulainn. Emer was renowned for her craft and needlework skills. Gleeson oversaw the Guild’s weaving department; Lily (1866-1949) ran the embroidery workshop; and Elizabeth (1868-1940) managed the private printing press.
The recovery and use of Irish legends, the story Cuchulainn in particular, during the Irish Revival in the early twentieth century is well documented. Douglas Hyde and Eoin MacNeill founded the Gaelic League in 1893 to promote the Irish language. Ancient heroic tales were retold by writers such as Standish O’Grady and many of their central characters peopled the poems of W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) such as in “The Death of Cuchulain”, “The Only Jealousy of Emer” and numerous others. Lady Gregory’s translation from the Irish of Cuchulainn of Muirthemne, which W. B. Yeats described in the introduction as ‘the greatest book ever to have come out of Ireland in my time’, was published in 1902.
In the nationalist fervour of the time some people and enterprises like Dún Emer used Irish names. An Túr Gloine, translated as the Tower of Glass, established in 1903, is another example. When the Yeats sisters separated from Dún Emer in 1908, they named their enterprise Cuala after their new nearby location – Cuala was the name of a historical Irish kingdom covering part of Wicklow and South Dublin. The image at the top of this page shows a drawing of the Cuala premises in Churchtown by Elizabeth C. Yeats, it was used on letterheads and promotional material. The Yeats family lived in Dundrum in a house called Gurteen Dhas, meaning ‘beautiful little field’. Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957) signed literary contributions to the Cuala Press Broadsides under the pseudonyms of Wolfe Tone MacGowan and R. E. MacGowan (the initials for Robert Emmett), appropriating the names of two prominent historical Irish republicans.
Cuala Press, like Dún Emer previously, became a pre- and post- Independence literary and artistic revivalist organisation. Their publications and prints represented Irish life and its landscape, is traditions, and its language. They celebrated the character of Ireland, one that was predominately rural, one that the British administration had politically failed to represent. The cultural acceptance and impact of the Irish Revivalist movement is evidenced in the names and in the artistic output of Dún Emer and Cuala.
The issue of names within the Yeats’ family was complicated. All siblings were well known. William Butler (1865-1939) won the 1923 Nobel Prize for literature and the artist Jack Butler (1871-1957) became known nationally and internationally and was represented at the international 1913 Armoury Show art exhibition in New York. Sisters, Susan Mary (1866-1949) an embroidery artist worked with William Morris and his daughter May at Kelmscott, a highly influential Arts and Crafts initiative in London, and Elizabeth Corbett (1868-1940), the most formally educated family member became a Froebel teacher and published teaching manuals on art before joining Dun Emer.
Their mother was also called Susan (1841-1900) and to avoid confusion the younger Susan Mary was called Lily and she used this name throughout her life. Jack was christened John Butler after his father, but to avoid confusion he was called Jack. Elizabeth had a ‘pet name’ Lolly which was only used within the family and on birthday cards and personal letters. As evidenced in the TCD Cuala Business archive, she did not use this name on any outside or business correspondence and used her given names Elizabeth Corbett or E.C. for short. During his lifetime William Butler was referred to in the family and more widely as Willie.
It has become the norm to refer to the Yeats sisters as Lily and Lolly as if they are a duo, for example the Lily and Lolly craft festival in Sligo. Several studies and exhibitions have listed both as Lily and Lolly, which was not what Elizabeth would have wanted. Also, mistakes are made, a recent television series on Irish design, referred to the two sisters as Lily and Susan – the same person.
By way of comparison, William is not referred to as Willie. Using her pet name arguably diminishes Elizabeth’s reputation, and while ‘Lily and Lolly’ is memorable as a poetic pairing, when this happens neither sister is recognised for their individual achievements.
Referencing the two sisters as one entity, belies each of their talents and their contribution to Irish visual and material culture. They were co-founders of the Dún Emer Guild, and of the Cuala Industries, where Lily oversaw an embroidery workshop, her work disseminated across the world. Elizabeth was director of one of the most important international Arts and Crafts private presses of the early 20th century.
In 1938, just over a year before her death, Elizabeth corresponded with her friend and Cuala artist, Eileen Booth, to congratulate her on the birth of her daughter Felicity Jane. In this letter she discusses names given to children of friends. She mentions that Lady Glenavy christened her daughter, ‘now doing well in T.C.D., “Brigid Columbine”, she said if “she isn’t a Columbine she can be a Biddy”’. Brigid was later tragically killed during the London blitz in 1944. In the same letter Elizabeth laments that,
‘Our names are merely comic, Lily & Lolly – but then we both were christened correctly ‘Susan Mary’ (my sister was christened) & I ‘Elizabeth Corbet’ – so you had better start calling the little one ‘Felicity’ or she will get some name like ‘Lily or Lolly’.’
She signed the letter, ‘Elizabeth C. Yeats’, her name.
Prints by Elizabeth C. Yeats, Beatrice Glenavy, Eileen C. Booth, Jack B. Yeats, and other Cuala artists can be viewed on the Library of Trinity College Dublin Digital Collections page, as part of Virtual Trinity Library.