Two remarkable women, overshadowed by two remarkable brothers, were remembered on Sunday at the opening of The Studio, a meeting and workplace for artists and craftspeople, at Thoor Ballylee, in south Galway.
Elizabeth Yeats, and her sister Susan Mary (Lily ) set up Cuala Industries in Dublin (1908 ) where they trained young women in bookbinding and printing, as well as embroidery and weaving. The sisters' older brothers, WB Yeats, Ireland’s best known poet, and Jack B Yeats Ireland’s greatest artist, were a hard act to follow. Yet in their time Elizabeth had perfected the technique of letterpress printing, producing books and broadsheets of an exceptional standard; while Lily perfected the art of embroidery, producing elegant and beautiful images.
Despite their widely praised output, which won prizes and was exhibited at the New York Irish Industrial Exhibition early in the last century, their enterprise was constantly in financial difficulties. This infuriated their brother WB. He berated their lack of financial control to such and extent that on one occasion, their father had to reprimand him for ‘his obnoxious remarks’. In the end WB's worst fears were realised. When Cuala Industries eventually collapsed in 1932, he was left to pay off the debts.
However, they left behind a wealth of exceptionally attractive books, notably WB Yeats’ The Green Helmet and other poems, while much of Lily’s embroidery can be seen and enjoyed at St Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea.
Local historian Sr Mary de Lourdes Fahy, who was born in Ballyaneen, just up the road from Ballylee, officially opened the studio. She delighted her audience by putting some personality into the two sisters. Elizabeth, it seems, gave WB as good as he gave them.
Sr Mary told us that the wider Yeats family were scared of Elizabeth . WB later admitted that “my sister Elizabeth and I quarrelled at the edge of the cradle and are keeping it up to the graveyard’s edge!”
Despite their quarrels Elizabeth’s first printed book was WB’s In The Seven Woods. The woods referred to were, of course, the woods of Coole Park. The title-poem celebrates the peace of Coole: I have heard the pigeons of the Seven Woods/ Make their faint thunder…………….
WB wanted to change the colour of the cover. He told Elizabeth that cloth was dyed at Lady Gregory’s gate-house. But Elizabeth was not for turning and she ignored his suggestion
‘Elizabeth, however, was very talented at her craft, and numbered among her students Louis Le Brocquy and her own niece, Anne Yeats, born 100 years ago.’
The older sister, Lily, had a more intimate relationship with WB. Though she admitted that “Willy looks upon himself as an authority on needlework,” she was wise enough to realise that the sisters’ industries depended on his financial support.
‘Incidentally’, Sr Mary said, with some mischief, ‘the sisters didn’t like Lady Gregory. The milder Lily referred to her as a 'Juggernaut'! Lily called the love of Yeats’s life, namely Maud Gonne, 'the infernal Maud'.
Mrs Sabina Higgins, was guest of honour, and she remarked on the permanence of the Yeats’ sisters' work. Their books and weaving all survive today and are appreciated, because they are well made. She praised young people today who were leaving behind the ’throw away mentality’ and were treasuring clothes and furniture made from good materials.
The Dun Emer Guild, and later Cuala Industries, represented the quiet power of so many women in the early 20th century. They worked together, helped each other, produced outstanding works, yet were largely forgotten in the emerging Ireland of the time.
Mrs Higgins compared them to the Sisters of Charity who founded the Foxford Woollen Mills at the end of the 19th century, which still prospers today because of the quality of its work.
Praising the dedication of The Studio to Lily and Elizabeth Yeats, Mrs Higgins remarked that women played a major part in the founding of the State yet, with few exceptions, are lost to history.
Kathy Mooney, one of the esteemed Mooney family who hand-make perfumes and cosmetics, inspired by the Burren landscape, gave a demonstration of the craft of weaving. She said that Elizabeth Yeats studied at the Froebel College, Bedford, and qualified as a kindergarten teacher. She was a very hands-on teacher. Letterpress, or hand press, printing was ideally suited to her talents.
Her sister Lily learned her embroidery skills working as an assistant to May Morris at Kelmscott House, the home of William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement. Her major commission was the banners and vestments that adorn Loughrea Cathedral.
Ms Mooney also said that the Yeats’ sisters provided an allotment to each of their female employees, encouraging self-sufficiency.
NUIG library displayed some of its recent purchases including books printed and bound by Elizabeth, and broadsheets designed by her brother Jack Yeats, which were printed at Cuala. Two exquisite banners, St Colman and St Ita, designed by Jack's wife Mary Cottenham, and made by Lily, on loan from St Brendan's Cathedral, were the stars of the show.
Where poetry comes from
The poet Mary O’Malley, read from her eighth full collection of published poems Playing the Octopus, and reflected on where poems come from.
In the shadow of Thoor Ballylee, where WB Yeats spent his summers in the 1920s, she read his last poem: The Circus Animals Desertion. Here the poet regrets that though he fails to find inspiration, he is forced to look ‘In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.’
That is where all poetry comes from, said Ms O’Malley, 'the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.'
The opening ceremony concluded with the the soprano Helen Hancock singing Yeats’ poem Down by the Sally Gardens. It was sung beautifully, filling the fresh-leaved trees, which roofed The Studio garden like a cathedral, with a stream of perfect sound.
Anna O’Donnell’s delicious home-made brack and butter was demolished in record time.