The forgotten ‘weird sisters’ of WB Yeats who helped forge Irish identity

Overlooked except for a scornful reference in Ulysses, Elizabeth and Lily ran a vibrant women-only arts and crafts enterprise

In Ireland, Elizabeth and Lily Yeats are remembered if at all as the “weird sisters” – a fleeting, scornful reference in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The novel did not name them or elaborate on their alleged weirdness, just as a male-dominated view of Irish history overlooked them except as minor players in an artistic movement.

They ran an arts and craft enterprise, Cuala Press, from 1908 to 1940, but Elizabeth and Lily were chiefly known as the sisters of two famous brothers – the poet William Butler Yeats and the painter Jack Yeats. They lived in the shadow of their male siblings, and the jibe in Ulysses, before fading into obscurity.

The Yeats sisters with staff at Cuala Press
The Yeats sisters with staff at Cuala Press. Photograph: The Board of Trinity College Dublin

Now, however, an academic project has shone a light on the sisters’ unrecognised role in reforging Irish identity in the 20th century – an idealised version of Ireland that enchanted Hollywood and which lives on in some tourism imagery.

After Ireland won independence from Britain in 1921 the Cuala Press bolstered fragile national confidence – and impressed foreigners – with vibrant images of a prosperous Dublin and thriving rural traditions. It was a rebuttal to racist British tropes of a land populated by feckless, simian-like hooligans.

The Village - Cuala Press hand-coloured print.
The Village, a Cuala Press hand-coloured print. Photograph: The Board of Trinity College Dublin

“Their reach was pretty incredible,” said Angela Griffith, an art historian at Trinity College Dublin. “The material they produced was being sold in Ireland, the UK, the US. It was part of the zeitgeist.”

Cuala Press hand-coloured print of Dublin’s O’Connell Street in the early 20th century.
A Cuala Press hand-coloured print of Dublin’s O’Connell Street in the early 20th century. Photograph: The Board of Trinity College Dublin

The Cuala Press employed only women and produced handcrafted books, cards and prints that won glowing reviews at exhibitions in Paris, London, Chicago and elsewhere, seeding a romanticised image of Irishness that verged on propaganda. It was echoed in films such as The Quiet Man, a 1952 romantic comedy directed by John Ford that starred John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, and tourism brochures showing ruddy people in scenic settings.

The Post Car – Cuala Press hand-coloured print.
The Post Car, a Cuala Press hand-coloured print. Photograph: The Board of Trinity College Dublin

Griffith and Billy Shortall, a colleague at the Irish Art Research Centre in Trinity College, are leading an effort to collect, conserve, digitise and publish Cuala Press images.

Drawing on an archive donated by the Yeats family and 111 hand-coloured prints donated by Vin Ryan, the founder of the Schooner Foundation, in 2017, the project put the first images online last month.

“They may seem quaint and chocolate-boxy now, but they were quite radical. They were challenging what came before,” Shortall said, referring to negative British portrayals of Irishness. “They were promoting the idea of Irish self-determination.”

The fledgling Irish state established a stable, sovereign country against the odds but the Cuala Press images elided social ills such as poverty and emigration.

The Yeats sisters did not openly champion sexual equality but gave a powerful example, said Griffith. “They employed and trained women, ran their own business and actively demonstrated their own agency.”

Elizabeth Yeats, seated, and two employees work at Dun Emer press, a predecessor to Cuala Press, in Dublin in 1904.
Elizabeth Yeats, seated, and two employees work at Dun Emer press, a predecessor to Cuala Press, in Dublin in 1904. Photograph: The Board of Trinity College Dublin

History, however, overlooked their contribution. A plaque at the Yeats family home in Chiswick, London, mentions only male members. Cuala Press commissioned mostly female artists but dictionaries and biographies tend to record only the males, said Griffith. To be branded “weird” in Joyce’s masterpiece would have undermined them, she said.

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The sisters lapsed further into obscurity after the 1970s when rustic and religious images – such as the Virgin Mary ironing beside a ginger-haired Christ – felt anachronistic in a country keen to project a modern, cosmopolitan image. “The sisters became footnotes,” said Griffith.

Our Lady Ironing – hand-coloured print by Cuala Press artist Beatrice Glenavy.
Our Lady Ironing, a hand-coloured print by the Cuala Press artist Beatrice Glenavy. Photograph: The Board of Trinity College Dublin

Shortall and Griffith hope that putting Trinity College’s archive of images online will alert museums, galleries and private individuals around the world to the importance of any Cuala Press prints they may possess. “There is plenty more out there,” said Griffith.


Rory Carroll Ireland correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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