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 1927 an English newspaper referred to the “Cuala group of artists”, these were artists mainly women who provided designs for Cuala Industries, primarily for prints published by the Press. 1 Of the nearly forty artists in this group over two-thirds were female. A number of these artists have faded from Irish art historiography and the visual history of Cuala Press is often only discussed in terms of the Yeats family members, Elizabeth the Press’s founder, her sister and Cuala embroideress Lily, artist brother Jack who provided designs, and William the Press’s literary editor.
One of the most prolific designers for Cuala during the 1930s was Eileen Constance Booth (nee Peet) (1906-2000) who created more than twenty illustrations for reproduction on cards and for individual prints. Born into a Quaker family in Dalkey, Co. Dublin in 1906 she studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, and for a short period at the renowned Slade School of Art in Britain’s capital, and most interestingly from a Cuala Press point of view as a printmaker specifically in photo-engraving, the method of reproduction used by the Press for its prints. The Cuala Press Business archive holds Booth’s student card associated with the “London County Council School of Photo-Engraving & Lithography” for 1931/2 (TCD MS 11535/9/11/4). The card records that she won first prize for a landscape design in a student exhibition. Traditional Irish rural scenes would become a mainstay in her work and was her preferred subject matter for the Press. It is likely the Eileen first came to Cuala’s attention when she won first prize at the 1926 National Art Competition in ‘Illustration in colour’.
The Cuala Press Archive was presented to Trinity College Library by Michael and Anne Yeats in 1986. The Cuala Press, initially operating as the Dun Emer Press, was run by Elizabeth Yeats from 1902 until her death in 1940. The press grew out of Dun Emer Industries, founded by Elizabeth and Lily Yeats and Evelyn Gleeson in Dundrum in 1902 with the aim of employing Irish women in the making of beautiful things, and contributing to the training and education of working class girls. Elizabeth Yeats was in charge of the press, while Lily Yeats organised the embroidery workshop. In 1908, following a split with Evelyn Gleeson, the Yeats sisters left Dun Emer Industries and continued their work as Cuala Industries. The name of the press was accordingly changed from the Dun Emer Press to the Cuala Press. Elizabeth Yeats ran the press until her death in 1940, whereupon William Butler Yeats’ wife George took over along with Mollie Gill and another assistant. The press stopped printing books in 1946, but continued to create cards and prints. Seventy seven books were published by the Cuala Press between 1908 and 1946, starting with ‘Poetry and Ireland’ by W.B. Yeats and Lionel Johnson, and ending with Elizabeth Rivers’ ‘Stranger in Aran’. From 1969 the Cuala Press began printing books again, under the direction of W.B. and George Yeats’ children, Michael and Anne, who later presented the archive to Trinity. The archive, though fragmentary, contains useful material such as minute books of directors’ meetings, cash books, letters, business papers, some original drawings for prints and sample books. We also have the printing press itself, metal type and printer’s blocks.