Inspiring women: Lily and Lolly Yeats

First, a clause: I know I'm taking this post out of the oven way too early. But I'm impatient, you see, and pretty much caught up in the idea Lily and Lolly Yeats. And it may turn out, upon later investigation, that they served ground-up puppies to their dinner guests. In which case, not so inspiring. But at first, and even second, glance they seem like pretty cool ladies.


Second, a confession: Knowing the Yeatses comes with the turf where I'm from. W.B. is on our curriculum and poems are known not just by heart, but seemingly etched into our bones. Jack was always my favourite, though. I fell for his paintings the first time I visited the National Gallery and always visited them regularly. This was later compounded by knowing he and Beckett were friends and felt a great affinity between their work. But I had no idea about Lily and Lolly.

That's part of the story really, though. Odds, of course, are that all these men we know so well had sisters and wives. And it was only when reading Colm Toibín's intro to the Alice James biography (a story cut from the same cloth) that I really gave full thought to that. To all the women in the wings. To Woolf's sister of Shakespeare.


They were probably bright sparks too. They may not have had the same education, but just being part of those households and, in some ways, having more time, fewer expectations put upon them. Of course that was hugely limiting, but it also may have liberated them in a way it's not quite correct to celebrate, but may certainly be significant.

Still, now we find ourselves in sad the position of telling each other stories about how they ought not to be overlooked. So our stories start out defensively, couched in a depressing context of gender and time (times which unfortunately may not have changed as much as we think). So we sound immediately like we're trying too hard. And I plain hate that.


Instead, I'll tell you what I know of Lily (1866-1949) and Lolly (1868 – 1940). In their late teens the sisters were sent to the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin to study design. The Yeats family knew William Morris and his daughter May, who was responsible for the embroidery department of Morris and Company. She offered to teach Lily embroidery and by 1888 she employed her.

Returning to Dublin in 1900, Lily and her sister Lolly joined Evelyn Gleeson in the Dun Emer crafts studio. Dun Emer was a crafts guild started by Evelyn Gleeson, Augustine Henry, and Lily and Lolly Yeats in 1902. It trained young women to produce fine hand-made goods, such as embroideries, tapestries, prints, and books. Lily ran the needlework section.


Elizabeth (Lolly) Yeats managed the Dun Emer Press (later Cuala Press) from 1902. The Press was located at Runnymede, the house of Evelyn Gleeson and was was set up with the intention of training young women in bookbinding and printing.

Lolly took the remarkable initiative of studying to be a printer at the Women's Printing Society at Westminster. She studied composing, proofreading, basic business practice. As Dun Emer was to employ only women, she also learned to operate a hand-press herself. The Dun Emer Press produced limited editions of books, printed by hand. The texts it published were written or selected by W. B. Yeats.


Further reading: Alice James by Jean Strouse (intro by Colm Toibín)
The Yeats Sisters and the Cuala (I have not read)
The Yeats Sisters: A Biography of Susan and Elizabeth Yeats (I have not read)
Blog: Cuala Press posts on John J. Burns Library's Blog (here and here)

Image credits:
1. Embroidery by Lily Yeats, via The National Gallery | 2. Left: The Dun Emer Press in 1903 with Elizabeth Yeats working the hand press, via. Right: Cuala Press Frontispieces and Press marks, from the Cuala Press Printed Materials Collection. Photograph by Gary Wayne Gilbert via | 3. Embroidery by Lily Yeats, via The National Gallery | 4. Bookplates from the Cuala Press Printed Materials Collection at the Burns Library. Photograph by Gary Wayne Gilbert via | 5. Lily Yeats painted by her father, via Lissadell House
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