Archive of the Month
The Cuala Press: A Focus on the RCB Library’s Collection of Books Published by the Yeats Sisters
By Bryan Whelan
For October’s Archive of the Month, the RCB Library turns its attention to its extensive literature section, specifically the collection of some beautiful books published by Cuala Press during the 1930s and 1940s. These came to light during an extensive project to catalogue and accession through the online catalogue the Library’s literature collection which was possible for the first time during the Covid–19 lockdown period.
While the Cuala Press collection the RCB Library is small by comparison with libraries such as TCD Library, it is nevertheless a significant one, each item with its own unique story.
The Cuala Press had its origins in the Dun Emer craft studio founded by Evelyn Gleeson and the Yeats sisters, Elizabeth Corbet (1868–1940) and Lily (1866–1949). The focus for the studio was to provide training and work for women in the fields of embroidery, weaving and of course printing. By the spring of 1903, the Dun Emer studio had been re–organised into two distinct parts, with Gleeson operating the Dun Emer Guild, and the Yeats sisters operating Dun Emer Industries. A central part of the Yeats’ business was Dun Emer Press, with their brother W. B. Yeats as its editor from its foundation until his death in 1939.
The primary focus of Dun Emer Press – which in 1908 would be renamed as The Cuala Press – was the publication of original work by modern authors, along with reprints of classic Irish stories. With the strong Yeats family connection it is perhaps no surprise that a significant percentage of the books published were by W. B. Yeats, and this is reflected in the collection that is held by the RCB Library. Of the nine titles held by the Library (eight of which were published by the Cuala Press, with one by the Dun Emer Press), seven are works by W. B. Yeats.
A key focus for the Cuala Press was to produce works of literature that reflected the new ‘Celtic Revival’ in plain editions. It was the ‘simplicity’ of the printing that would allow the reader to focus on the literature contained therein. In the prospectus accompanying the first title published by The Dun Emer Press – W. B. Yeats’ In The Seven Woods – the printing process is described as ‘[a] good eighteenth century font of type which is not eccentric in form, or difficult to read’ and one where ‘the paper has been made of linen rags and without bleaching chemicals’.
This prospectus notes that ‘simplicity is aimed at in their composition’. We can see this in the collections of books held by the RCB Library. All of the items are buff linen–backed light (or dark) blue boards, with a white paper label to the spine with the title and author in black. Elizabeth spent time with the Women’s Printing Society in London and part of this time was studying and learning about the importance of type in published works. According to the article ‘Fifty Years of the Cuala Press’, by Ernest C. Marriner in August 1953 (Colby Quarterly 3:11), ‘Elizabeth Corbett Yeats chose for her type a font designed about 1725 by the elder Caslon – a simple and almost austere font now known as Caslon type’. Illustrations – at least in the titles now held by the RCB Library – are sparse, and restricted to simple designs on the title page.
The earliest of the titles published by the Yeats’ sisters in the RCB Library collection is Sixteen Poems, by William Allingham, and selected by William Butler Yeats. This title was published by The Dun Emer Press in Dundrum, in 1905, and the binding and type are identical to the later Cuala Press titles. Lily Yeats, in her short pamphlet announcing the ‘immeasurable loss’ felt by The Cuala Press on the death of its founder, Elizabeth Corbet Yeats on 16 January, 1940, eloquently describes the journey of the Press in its various iterations from 1908, when it moved to a ‘four roomed cottage at Churchtown Dundrum, County Dublin’ where ‘[t]he Cottage in its orchard stood in the midst of fields, and had a wide view of the Dublin mountains’ to its move in 1923 to W.B. Yeats’ house in 82 Merrion Square and then to the short trip to 133 Lower Baggott Street. All of The Cuala Press items that form part of the RCB Library collection were published during its time on Baggott Street.
The Cuala Press would go on to publish first editions of some of the finest Irish writers, including W.B. Yeats, AE, Lady Gregory, J.M. Synge, John Butler Yeats, Oliver Gogarty, Frank O’Connor and Douglas Hyde, as well as selections of modern verse and prose by Lord Dunsany, Katherine Tynan and others, including a series of illustrated works by Jack B. Yeats from 1908–1915.
All of the Cuala Press books were donated to the Library as part of ‘the bequest of Mrs [Ethel] Craig Davidson’. This bequest was substantial, encompassing at least 120 titles, with subject areas ranging from literature to history to theology. Ethel Goddard was baptised on 28 September 1881 in St George’s, Dublin, the daughter of Norris (a solicitor) and Elenor (née Gravess), with an address on 15 Middle Gardiner Street. Ethel married John Craig Nelson Davidson (Barrister at Law in St Stephen’s Church on 24 April 1907, and died on 12 March 1947, in Sutton. Noting the passing of Mrs Ethel Craig Davidson, the 21 March, 1947 edition of the Church of Ireland Gazette, describes her as somebody who was ‘possessed with a fine personality, deep sympathy and widely read’.
She was widely remembered as ‘a devoted member of the Church of Ireland, taking a keen interest in the parish of Howth, and was a member of the Select Vestry and President of the local Branch of the Mothers’ Union’. Mrs Craig Davidson also wrote Dreams for Ireland (Dublin: Hodges, Figgis, 1904) which was described in the Church of Ireland Gazette (31 March 1904) as ‘an earnest attempt to give spirit, meaning, and life to the new Celtic idea, as embracing patriotism, art, literature, and language’. The somewhat critical review (‘the cleverness of the book is smothered, and the impression on the reader is like the memory of an indistinct dream’) was taken to task by the author in the 15 April 1904 edition with regards to a typo that was ‘presumably the printer’s’.
Given the literary focus of her bequest to the RCB Library, it is perhaps no surprise that she was chairman of the Literature Committee of the Mothers’ Union for 21 years.
The solitary title from The Dun Emer Press that the RCB Library holds (the aforementioned Sixteen Poems by William Allingham) was donated to the Library with the inscription: ‘Linda Hillas, Feb. 1926’. Linda Hillas (1878–1955) donated many other titles to the RCB Library, presumably at some point after her death on 21 June 1955. Ms Hillas was born at Farm Hill, Dundrum, and was president of the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, later becoming the Hon. Secretary and Chairman. Most of the titles that Ms Hillas donated to the Library were novels or poetry.
The Library also contains a copy of Ad Perennis Vitae Fontem: Poems, by John Lyle Donaghy. This book states that it was published by Minorca Press in Dublin in 1928. While there is no mention of Cuala Press, it is bound in near identical boards, with identical typescript and a very similar colophon at the end of the item. The colophon states that ‘two hundred and fifty copies of this book have been privately printed for the Minorca Press’, so it seems that Cuala Press did printing for other authors that were not part of their list. This item has a beautiful plate on the reverse title page by the Irish artist Hilda Roberts (1901–1982). This item is inscribed by the author: A. C. Gill with best wishes from J. L. Donaghy August 1928’.
The death of Elizabeth Yeats on 16 January 1940 marked the beginning of the end for The Cuala Press. We have already seen how her sister, Lily, noted her passing as ‘an immeasurable loss’, and while the running of the Press was maintained by two long–time assistants, Esther Ryan and Mollie Gill (under the management of Georgie Hyde–Lees, the wife of W.B. Yeats), the Press finally closed in 1946. The last title published was Elizabeth Rivers’ Stranger in Aran. Both Yeats sisters are buried in St Nathi’s graveyard, Churchtown.
Since its first publication on 16 July 1903, the Press had published some 70 titles, including 48 by W.B. Yeats. In 1969 the Press was revived by Michael and Anne Yeats, two of W.B. Yeats’ children, with some titles being published in the 1970s.
Today, as in previous generations, the RCB Library is continually expanding and deepening its extensive collection of print items by careful curation of new items that will be of interest to its diverse membership. It should not be forgotten that a large part of this augmentation is thanks to the donation of items such as those that formed Mrs Craig Davidson’s bequest. The Cuala Press items that were donated are invaluable in and of themselves, while they also tell the story of the growth of the Library, and the specific subject areas that the librarian of the time felt would be of interest to those who came to read here.