Irish literature revolves around a rich culture and extensive history. In the Irish Literature 101 series, the focus was on the general outline of the literary eras in Ireland. However, to better understand this literary tradition, Irish Literature 102 dives deeper into the key literary figures that influenced the literary movements. Additionally, this series constitutes a wide-ranging study on works that are examined in the context of documented events and critical cultural movements.
Irish Literature 102 is divided into the following chapters:
“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.”
Justine Hyland- Curator of John J Burns Library
Print Room of Cuala Press, c.1903, then known as the Dun Emer Press
Priorly named as Dun Emer Press, the Cuala Press started as a private publication in 1908. It was founded by Elizabeth and William Butler Yeats and much in harmony with the Irish Revival Movement. The press was named after an ancient territory on the eastern Ireland that marked the southern banks of Liffey River, which flows through the heart of Dublin. In addition to its nationalistic stance, the Cuala Press is renowned for its women oriented staff, and publishing the works of some of the greatest writers of all time.
Before the Beginning & Elizabeth Yeats
It had all started with an artistic suggestion presented by Emery Walker, an English engraver and painter. Elizabeth Yeats, or more endearingly known as Molly, was in London at the time with her family.
After her artful embroidery came to the notice of Walker, he suggested that Elizabeth, who was in her early twenties then, could learn the craft of printing at the Women’s Printing Society for its lucrative prospects. Shortly after, she returned to Dublin and took her rare craft back to her homeland with herself.
Before it became Cuala, the press was founded by Evelyn Gleeson in 1902 under the title of Dun Emer Press. Although Evelyn was an Anglo-Irish designer with a focus on the aestheticism and decorative embroidery, her press attuned with the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement in time; a movement that was heavily imprinted by the Gaelic Renaissance ideologies. Embroidery, tapestry designs and rugs were supervised by Elizabeth’s sister, while she herself observed the print operations.
In the following years, the Yeats sisters and Lady Gleeson became more distant in their publication journey gradually. At first, the press was divided into two parts in 1908, as the Dun Emer Guild that was under the authority of Gleeson and the Dun Emer which was run by Lilly and Elizabeth.
In 1908, both of the Dun Eme ultimately parted ways. An ending that marks the beginning of the Cuala Press foundation.
The illustration of lady Umer, printed as the logo of Cuala Press
Nationalism in Irish Press
Although the Cuala Press retained its initial thumbprint by running a small embroidery art section, it bore a dedication to Revivalism. This made the Cuala unique in many aspects; it was a solely woman-operated press for Arts and Crafts in Ireland at the time, and the one and only press that actually published the works of contemporary writers who were all fervent nationalist and members of the Irish Renaissance Movement. Grand writers such as Ezra Pound, Lady Gregory, Douglas Hyde, John Millington Synge, and W. B. Yeats, along with many others, have been published in Cuala Press.
The Dusk of the Press
Elizabeth Yeats devoted her life to Cuala publications and carried out her work until her final days in 1940. After her death, only a year after the passing of her brother W. B. Yeats, the press survived another 6 consecutive years. It operated under the supervision of Georgie Hyde-Lees, the wife of William Yeats, and with the assistance of Esther Ryan and Mollie Gill, who had been Elizabeth’s loyal aides.
The last press release was on 31 July 1946, presenting the title of “Stranger in Aran” by Elizabeth River, a thematic autobiography from her firsthand experience on the Aran Islands. Book printing endeavours of the Cuala Press came to a complete halt after that date.
Hand colored cards and prints were the main theme of the Cuala in the following years, carried out by Mollie Gill until 1969.
In 1969, the press was taken up by W. B. Yeats’ children, Michael and Anne Yeats, with Liam Miller. Some titles were run in the 1970s through 1980s until the Cuala Press’s formal conclusion.
Today, most of these documents, copies, hand-colored prints, calendars and other valuable material belonging to Cuala are held by John J Burns Library, in one of the world’s largest troves of Irish art and literature.
The hard copy of the Stranger in Aran, written and illustrated by Elizabeth Rivers, Cuala Press, Dublin, 1946.
List of References:
Miller, L. (1971). A brief account of the Cuala Press formerly the Dun Emer Press, founded by Elizabeth Corbett Yeats in 1903. Dublin: The Cuala Press.
American Printing History Association
Boston College University Library, Sixty Years of the Cuala Press: A Collaboration of the Yeats Family and Mollie Gill, October 2008 - March 2009
Villanova University, Falvey Memorial Online Library
WHYTE'S Book Auction, 2005