Cuala Press

Cuala Press and Dun Emer Press: Lily and Lolly Yeats

I’ve been interested in finding out about the Cuala Press since visiting the Yeats exhibition at the National Library of Ireland a couple of years ago, but have only recently got around to doing so. This small piece cannot really do justice to the fascinating story, so I will put suggestions for finding out more at the end of this article.  I hope this potted history will serve as a taster so that anyone interested in hand printing will look further into the production of the two presses. I was drawn to finding more about Dun Emer/Cuala when I discovered  that the companies were run by, and staffed entirely by women printers (with WB Yeats’ as editor)  at a time when this was still an unusual situation.

Drawing of a cottageCuala Press evolved from an Arts and Crafts co-operative called Dun Emer Industries (based in Dundrum, the building sadly no longer extant) that Elizabeth and Lily Yeats had set up in partnership with Evelyn Gleeson in 1902. The company was to produce print, embroidery, weaving and rug making. Lily’s role was to supervise the embroidery workshop and Elizabeth the print room. Both of the sisters had worked with William Morris’s company. Lily had worked with May Morris for six years in the embroidery workshops gaining valuable experience. Elizabeth had originally trained as a teacher in London before learning the art of printing after encouragement from Emery Walker, the typographer at William Morris’s Kelmscott Press.

photograph of Lily and Lolly Yeats

The Yeats Sisters by Gifford Lewis

In 1904 due to persistent personality clashes, the Dun Emer partners divided the company into two separate sections: Dun Emer Guild (run by Gleeson) and Dun Emer Industries (the Yeats sisters). Dun Emer Industries included the printing press part of the enterprise and the embroidery work. By 1908, Elizabeth and Lily had moved their operations to Cuala Cottage in Churchtown and Dun Emer Press thus became Cuala Press. The Dun Emer/Cuala Presses had a commitment to publishing work by contemporary writers rather than merely re-printing classics in an attractive new edition. This was rather unusual for an Arts and Crafts press. Cuala Press was important not only as part of the Celtic Revival but it was also important as a vibrant part of the wider international Arts and Crafts movement. The press mainly published Irish writers but also work by Ezra Pound, Rabindranath Tagore, John Masefield and Robin Flower.

Perhaps not surprisingly the first book produced by the fledgling Dun Emer Press was by WB Yeats:  In the Seven Woods: Being Poems Chiefly of the Irish Heroic Age by William Butler Yeats. The colophon (printed in red ink) ran thus:

Here ends In the Seven Woods, written by William Butler Yeats, printed upon paper made in Ireland, and published by Elizabeth Corbett Yeats at the Dun Emer Press, in the house of Evelyn Gleeson at Dundrum in the county of Dublin, Ireland, finished the sixteenth day of July in the year of the big wind, nineteen hundred and three. 

As Elizabeth’s colophon makes clear, the books were produced on Irish made paper, which was produced at Saggart Mill in Dublin. She used an Albion printer, built in 1853 and the typeface used was an eighteenth century Caslon 14pt. A striking feature of the 77 books produced by Dun Emer and Cuala was the way in which Elizabeth identified the date of printing with an event or an anniversary such as ‘the big wind’ or ‘Eve of Lady Day in Harvest in the year 1906’. Illustrations by Jack Yeats were often used in Cuala Press titles, making this very much a family enterprise.

Elizabeth Yeats died in 1940 but Cuala continued until 1946 with the publication of the last volume, Elizabeth Rivers’ Stranger in Aran. A chapter in Irish publishing was over, but the books survive as a testament to the skill and hard work of the women printers. I was surprised to discover that the sisters lived, worked and died virtually on my doorstep. Both of the sisters were buried in St Nahi’s Churchyard in Dundrum along with their father. One day soon I mean to go along and visit the sisters’ grave, which now overlooks the LUAS line. Having discovered the local connection quite by accident, I cannot help thinking that Churchtown and Dundrum should be making much more of the Yeats connection than they do at present.

Further reading:

Family Secrets by William M Murphy

The Yeats Sisters and the Cuala by Gifford Lewis (pictured above, I found this to be a fascinating account of their story)

The National Library of Ireland is also a useful source of information http://www.nli.ie/

As of April 2013, the exhibition on Yeats is still running at the National Library and is well worth a look.

I also came across another good resource http://exhibits.library.villanova.edu/jack-butler-yeats/cuala-press/ from which Jack Yeats’ drawing was taken.

A version of this piece was previously published on www.thisgreedypig.com/blog

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