Boston College Libraries Faculty Newsletter

VOLUME 10   NUMBER 1

FALL 2008

Sixty Years of the Cuala Press:
A Collaboration of the Yeats Family and Mollie Gill

A showcase of rare artistic printed material from the Cuala Press -- which this year marks the 100th anniversary of its founding by Elizabeth Corbet Yeats, sister of Irish Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats -- is on view for the first time in the United States at Boston College's Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections through March 2009.

 

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The exclusive exhibit, titled "Sixty Years of the Cuala Press: A Collaboration of the Yeats Family and Mollie Gill," examines the contributions of the Yeats family and the Cuala Press (pronounced "COOL-a") to the Irish struggle for a distinct cultural and political identity from the beginning of the 20th century until the 1970s.

 

Free and open to the public, the exhibit features selected pieces from Burns Library's extensive collection of Cuala Press cards, calendars, booklets, bookplates, broadsides and hand-colored prints, printing lists, embroidery designs, misprinted pages, photographs and other artifacts. Also on display are works by famed poet and dramatist W.B. Yeats -- who served as both editor and adviser for the press (which published over 70 books, including 30 of his own) -- and his brother, noted Irish painter Jack B. Yeats.

 

"This is a wonderful exhibition because it has so many facets," said curator Justine Hyland of Burns Library. "While much attention has been paid to the literary and artistic contributions of the Yeats brothers, Elizabeth Yeats also played an important role in the Irish Renaissance -- the revitalization of culture that marked the turn of the 20th century in Ireland -- by overseeing for more than 30 years a press distinguished not only for its specialization in the works of modern writers, but also for the fact that it was entirely run by Irish women."

 

Cuala Press writers included Irish dramatist and folklorist Lady Gregory, who, with W.B. Yeats co-founded the Irish Literary Theatre and the Abbey Theatre; playwright and poet John Synge, perhaps best known as author of the play "The Playboy of the Western World"; novelist and poet Katharine Tynan; critic and poet George Russell, known as AE; Frank O'Connor, noted for his short stories and memoirs; Oliver Gogarty and, of course, the oldest Yeats brother, William, who was instrumental in recruiting Ireland's new literary talents. Jack B. Yeats illustrated many of the items, but the collection also includes illustrations by Elizabeth C. Yeats, Ann Price, Mrs. Jack B. Yeats, Lady Glenavy, Pamela Coleman Smith and Emma Duffin.

 

The exhibition at Burns Library is largely drawn from BC's extensive Mollie Gill Cuala Press Collection. Mollie (or Máire in Irish) Gill started working for Cuala Press in 1908 as an assistant to Elizabeth Yeats, Hyland said, and she soon became its principal compositor. Gill was an active participant in the Irish Republican movement, a charter member of Ireland's Cumann na mBann, or League of Women, and an athlete who served as President of Cumann Camógaíocht na nGael, the ruling body of Camogie (a Celtic team sport that is the women's equivalent of hurling), for eighteen years. She continued working for the Cuala Press until 1969 and was the longest serving employee of the firm.

 

The Gill Collection contains not only Cuala Press books with Mollie Gill's name in the colophon (printer's mark), but also long, often complete, runs of extremely rare ephemeral pieces, including Christmas cards, Easter cards, bookplates, general cards and Christmas booklets. The collection even includes Mollie Gill's personal manuscript catalogue of the Cuala Press publications and the picture "Fiddler Playing for Children" by Irish novelist and poet James Stephens. After Elizabeth Yeats' death in 1940, W.B. Yeats' wife Bertha Georgina Yeats (known as "George"), with Mollie Gill and another assistant, kept the press running until 1946.

 

"This extraordinary collection was carefully maintained first by Mollie Gill and subsequently by Loretta Clarke-Murray of Ballina, Co. Mayo, Ireland, who made the collection available to Boston College," said Burns Library Director Robert K. O’Neill. Combined with the Library's already strong Cuala holdings, the Gill archive gives the Burns Library one of the most complete, beautifully preserved Cuala Press collections available anywhere, he said.

 

The exhibit is supplemented by materials from the Burns Library's internationally-noted Yeats Collection, considered to be the most comprehensive in the world outside of Ireland, including W.B. Yeats' original poetical notebooks, letters from him to his sisters and father, and correspondence relating to the Cuala Press by Elizabeth Yeats.

 

History of the Cuala Press

While Elizabeth C. Yeats (1868–1940), who was known as Lolly, was in her twenties, she lived with her family in the Bedford Park area of London, and was a successful kindergarten teacher and author of several manuals on brushwork. Her older sister Susan, known as Lily, studied as an embroideress with May Morris, who was the daughter of pre-Raphaelite artist and writer William Morris, a central figure in Britain's Arts and Crafts movement.

 

Both worked to supplement the family's income, but when their mother died in 1900, they wished to return to Ireland to live. In 1902, Anglo-Irish carpet designer Evelyn Gleeson gave the Yeats sisters the opportunity not only to live in Ireland again, but also to become part of the Irish Renaissance, when she invited them to join in her Arts and Crafts cooperative known as Dun Emer. There, Lily oversaw the embroidery department and Lolly, the printing press.

 

The Arts and Crafts aesthetic of the Yeats sisters "had to do with doing things the long way, the hard way," said Hyland. In contrast to the prevailing trend toward mechanized printing, for example, Elizabeth chose to labor at a small, half-century hand-cranked Albion press she'd procured through a newspaper ad.

 

"Though many books are printed in Ireland, book printing as an art has been little practised here since the 18th century," Elizabeth wrote in the prospectus that accompanied the first volume she produced for Dun Emer -- a collection of poems by her brother William titled "In the Seven Woods" in 1903. "[T]he Press has been founded in the hope of reviving this beautiful Craft."

 

W.B. Yeats praised the printing of "In the Seven Woods," calling it "the first book of mine that is a pleasure to look at . . . whether open or shut."

 

In 1908, Lolly and Lily split from Dun Emer and set about starting their own business, Cuala Industries, comprised of an embroidery shop and a printing press. Lolly named the press "Cuala," Hyland said, because that is the old Irish name for the geographic area South of Dublin, now known as Dundrum, where the Cuala Press had its headquarters for a number of years. The rest of the Yeats family also contributed, including Jack, who worked on design and drew illustrations, and George (Bertha Georgina), William's wife, who helped Lily run the embroidery department, producing dresses and linens for Ireland's wealthy.

 

In addition to publishing books, Elizabeth printed Christmas and other holiday cards, calendars, pamphlets, and a periodical called "A Broadside," which featured poems, illustrations and music.

Throughout its 32 years under Elizabeth's direction, Cuala Press maintained its strong Irish identity: With the exception of American expatriate poet, critic and intellectual Ezra Pound and Bengali writer and composer Rabindranath Tagore, Cuala's writers were Irish, and its works were printed on Irish paper.

 

In both good times and bad, Elizabeth refused English patronage, even after Ireland gained independence from Britain. In a letter to William late in her life, she wrote, "We ought to get someone Irish if possible" to pay off Cuala's bills. But, she complained, "No one here has a father who would put [3,000 pounds] into anything but Guinness."

 

After William and Lolly died -  in 1939 and 1940, respectively - William's wife, George, with Mollie Gill and another assistant, kept the press running until 1946. The Cuala Press's last book under George's management was "Stranger in Aran," published that year, at which point she turned her attention to other endeavors and the Press stopped printing books. Cuala continued to create hand-colored cards and prints, however, and Mollie Gill continued to work there until 1969.

Though the Burns Library exhibit focuses on the 60 years from its founding in 1908 through the end of Mollie Gill's tenure, the Cuala Press did begin printing books again in 1969, when it was revived by W.B. Yeats' son and daughter, Michael and Anne, and went on printing until the they no longer had time to run it, in the mid 1980s.
 
The exhibit hints at later productions of the Press (and at the Dolmen Press, which followed the typographical standards set by the Cuala), and does include coverage of the Press's revival in the 1970's.

 

The Mollie Gill Cuala Press Collection and the Yeats Collection at Burns Library are part of the Boston College Irish Collection, considered to be the premier, most comprehensive collection of Irish research material in the United States. The Irish Collection documents the history, life and culture of the Irish people, and maintains strong holdings in Irish history, religion and politics, as well as significant collections related to some of Ireland's greatest writers, including one of the world's finest collection related to Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett.

 

For more information consult Justine Hyland, Reference Librarian, Burns Library, 617-552-4861, justine.hyland.1@bc.edu.

 

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