The Fabulous Yeats Boys

Jack Yeats

by Bruce Arnold
Yale University Press, 418 pp., $45.00

On May 17, 1916, John Butler Yeats in New York wrote to his favorite daughter, Lily, in Dundrum:

So Lord Justice Holmes is dead. Several years long ago he dined with me when we lived near Sandymount. A few days before I left Dublin for London in 1867 he invited myself and four others to his poor little lodgings in Nelson Street, and all the men except myself became Judges of the Supreme Court in Ireland—one was judge in Jamaica—with great incomes and carriages and property—and except Hugh Holmes all died long ago and are forgotten except in the fond memory of their children and grandchildren. Am I not entitled to think myself the successful man among them? At any rate I am inclined to think that any one of them would have bartered away all his honours for my length of days—even if they did not have my brilliant offspring, yourself included.1

He should not have added “yourself included,” a demeaning afterthought. Much as he cared for his daughters Lily and Lolly, he knew that neither of them was to be compared for brilliance with his sons Jack and William. His daughters belong to the history of cottage industries in Ireland. Lily, trained in embroidery, ran Dun Emer Industries; Lolly, skilled in hand-press printing, was mainly responsible for the Cuala Press: it issued elegant books, most of them books of W.B. Yeats’s poetry as they arrived and before they were commercially published. Sometimes the sisters worked together, but more often and happily apart. WBY interfered with their arrangements, often to good effect. Lolly also taught art and published three guidebooks to the practice of brushwork. Both sisters were crossed in love, Lily by J.M. Synge, Lolly by a don of Trinity College, Louis Purser. Lolly was thought to be incipiently mad and even when quiet she was difficult to get on with. Lily disliked her, and hated living in her vicinity. Neither of them married. In the first chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses Buck Mulligan, talking to Haines, ridicules both sisters:

…That’s folk, he said very earnestly, for your book, Haines. Five lines of text and ten pages of notes about the folk and the fishgods of Dundrum. Printed by the weird sisters in the year of the big wind.

They are lampooned again, many chapters later:

To be printed and bound at the Druiddrum press by two designing females. Calf covers of pissedon green. Last word in art shades.

John Butler Yeats was born on March 16, 1839, in Tullylish, County Down. His father was rector of the local Church of Ireland. JBY (as I’ll call him) got a decent education, culminating in a degree from Trinity College, Dublin. On September 10, 1863, he committed the error of marrying Susan Pollexfen of Sligo. He should not have married. She should not have married him. He intended a career in law and completed his legal studies to the extent of being called…

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