Yes, I too believe Ireland will do great things if only we can all hold on till the settlement is made – but you have no idea what it means to run a little industry like this through all these bad times.Elizabeth Yeats in a letter to Mr MacHugh, 18 October 1921
War and Peace at Cuala
On 18 October 1921, Elizabeth Corbet Yeats wrote a letter to an American patron of Cuala Industries based in Philadelphia, Mr Ignatius MacHugh. The letter was written as Ireland stood on the cusp of independence, three months after the end of the Irish War of Independence. It captures Yeat's sense of relief and her hopes for Ireland’s future, as well as the immense challenges of running a business in times of war and political instability.
Now at any rate we have peace – & no crown forces going about harassing the people – & one is in no danger of being shot & that in itself is a relief.Elizabeth Yeats in a letter to Mr MacHugh, 18 October 1921
A Persuasive Businesswoman
Yeats was proud that in spite of the economic challenges of the preceding years – including an inability to hold small exhibitions or informal sales at friends’ houses, and the absence of the usual summer tourists visiting the studio – Cuala had ‘not parted with a single worker’. Yeats's letter also reveals her skills as a persuasive businesswoman. She urges Mr MacHugh to show his support for Ireland by telling friends in America about Cuala’s work, and highlights a forthcoming publication, Four Years by her brother William Butler Yeats, as a good investment.
Our books increase greatly in value as soon as they are out of print.Elizabeth Yeats in a letter to Mr MacHugh, 18 October 1921
Dun Emer and Cuala
Yeats first established an Arts and Crafts enterprise called Dun Emer in 1902, in partnership with her sister Lily and their friend Evelyn Gleeson. After their relationship with Gleeson became increasingly strained, the sisters separated from Dun Emer to form Cuala Industries in 1908, with Yeats managing the hand-printing press while her sister – who had trained with Morris & Co. in London – ran the embroidery section. Yeats's Arts and Crafts printing press was unusual for two significant reasons: it was run and staffed by women, and it published new work rather than established classics. The Cuala Press therefore became an important vehicle of the Irish Literary Revival, publishing the works of William Butler Yeats, Padraic Colum, Lady Gregory and John Millington Synge among others.
We named this little house Cuala. Cuala was the name of one of the 5 famous roads that led to Tara.Elizabeth Yeats in a letter to Mr MacHugh, 18 October 1921
Artists and Typesetters at the Cuala Press
The most famous artist associated with Cuala was Yeats's brother, Jack B. Yeats, who contributed numerous illustrations for bookplates, greeting cards, hand-coloured prints and monthly Broadsides. However, Cuala was a female-led industry that notably prioritised the training and employment of local women. Among the women artists who worked for or contributed to the Cuala Press were Beatrice Elvery, Mary Cottenham Yeats, Pamela Colman Smith, Hilda Roberts, Dorothy Blackham and Elizabeth Yeats herself. Other women trained and worked as typesetters, compositors or assistants at the Cuala Press.
The Civil War and the Cuala Press
Unfortunately, the relief expressed in Yeats's 1921 letter was premature, as the turbulent events of the Irish revolutionary period continued apace for a further two years, with the outbreak of a bitter Civil War in Ireland. In 1923, Irish Free State forces raided Cuala and arrested two long-time assistants, Maire Gill and Esther Ryan, for possession of Anti-Treaty Republican material. After spending several weeks in Kilmainham Gaol, the two women resumed their roles at the Cuala Press. By the 1930s, Gill was a principal compositor and by 1961, the sole remaining staff member at Cuala.
Elizabeth Corbet Yeats’s letter is held in the ESB Centre for the Study of Irish Art, and featured in the Decade of Centenaries exhibition, Roller Skates & Ruins, on view in Room 11 at the National Gallery of Ireland until 17 September 2023.
Joan Hardwick, The Yeats Sisters, London: Pandora, 1996
Clare Daly, Women of the Cuala – Maire ‘Molly’ Gill, Research Collections at Trinity
Marie Lynch, ESB CSIA Fellow
Published online: 2023