Compass is an archive of Library news from 2005 - 2008. For the latest Library news check the Library Blogs.
Compass Newsletter Masthead
   Volume V, Issue 1
September 2008   

Poems, Songs and Pictures from the Cuala Press

One of the very first Digital Library collections mounted is also one of the most visually appealing. It is a complete set of broadsides produced by the Cuala Press featuring poetry, songs and, of special note, pictures by Jack Yeats, the brother of the poet William Butler Yeats and a significant figure in Irish visual art in his own right. Many of these pictures are hand painted in full color; they generally relate to a poem or song in a given broadside.

The Cuala Press was founded in 1904 by Elizabeth Yeats with her brother, William Butler Yeats, as a successor to the Dun Emer Press (the earliest broadsides in the collection have a Dun Emer imprint). This press was an Irish participant—and the only one staffed by women—in the turn-of-the-century’s Arts and Crafts movement. Participants reacted against industrialized labor by promoting and producing hand-crafted materials, including published ones. The Hubbard Collection of Roycrofter Press materials available in the Library’s Special Collections (some of which can also be found in the Digital Library) is an American example of this movement.

The poems and songs within the broadsides come from myriad sources. Many deal with Irish nationalist themes, whether praising military heroes such as Owen Roe O’Neil (an opponent of Cromwell’s invasion), sports heroes such as the boxer Daniel Donnelly (the first Irish-born heavy-weight champion) or tributes to nameless martyrs of Irish liberation.

Sometimes the accompanying picture can give nationalist overtones to a non-political poem. Ernest Rhys’ poem, “The Swordsman to His Sword,” describes a warrior’s plan to rescue his mistress, but Yeats’ illustration depicts a specifically Celtic warrior—not the medieval knight more popular with English Victorians. Many poems are by prominent Irish writers including James Stephens and Padraic Colum.

However, most of the verses have no political content. Pirates, sailing and other sea-related themes are common with such songs as “The Flash Frigate” and “Haul Away O.” There are also verses describing families, romances and friendly carousing in pubs, including drinking songs. Horse racing, carnivals and harlequins are a popular subject of poems and illustrations, as well. These broadsides feature lyrics and pictures depicting the socially downtrodden such as gypsies and beggars, as in “An Allalu Mo Wauleen (The Beggar’s Address to His Bag).”

Nor are all the verses of Irish origin. For example, songs of the American Old West are represented by lyrics as “The Old Chisholm Trail” and “Jesse James.” An early broadside provides the classic from the American Civil War, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” One issue includes a translation of “Rhymes of the Gitanos” about Spanish gypsies. Finally, proving that the Yeats siblings were not driven by Irish nationalism, they included “To His Sonne” by that archetypal Englishman, Sir Walter Raleigh.

The Cuala Press published the eighty-fourth and last of this series of broadsides in May 1915. They give the reader a wide variety of lyrics to read to suit every taste, from formal poems to folk songs. They also illustrate Jack Butler Yeats’ artistry apart from the seascapes and landscapes for which he is most famous. Now these poems, songs and pictures are available to all through the Digital Library.

Contributed by David Burke