At Galway Races

You might not have betted that an exhibition about Yeats & the West (on until December at the Hardiman Research Building, NUI Galway) had quite so much to do with horses. But the connections the exhibition illuminates between the Yeats brothers and horses, horseracing, and jockeys, are manifold. In honour of Galway race week we thought we’d look at some of the most interesting.

Both Yeats brothers attended Galway Races at important moments and found much to spur them. Amongst striking watercolour images of western scenes, Jack B. Yeats’s 1900 Galway sketchbook, each page individually framed and displayed in the special collections section of the exhibition, has a number of pictures devoted to Galway Races. One of the most intriguing includes alongside its solid brown horse and flimsier tents and flags, the crowd, grey and depersonalized, but still somehow very present and animated.

Jack’s brother W.B. Yeats also found the intensity of the crowd to be of great moment. His poem ‘At Galway Races’ contrasts the excitement and frisson of western horseracing crowds with the timid urban conservatism of theatre audiences:

At Galway Races

There where the course is,

Delight makes all of the one mind,

The riders upon the galloping horses,

The crowd that closes in behind:

We, too, had good attendance once,

Hearers and hearteners of the work;

Aye, horsemen for companions,

Before the merchant and the clerk

Breathed on the world with timid breath.

Sing on: somewhere at some new moon,

We’ll learn that sleeping is not death,

Hearing the whole earth change its tune,

Its flesh being wild, and it again

Crying aloud as the racecourse is,

And we find hearteners among men

That ride upon horses.

The whole world is caused to change its tune by horseracing’s cries and wild flesh: harnessing such Dionysian feeling, the excitement of an audience, of a crowd, is thus potentially revolutionary. The poem, published in The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910) is written partly in honour of J.M. Synge and his revolutionary plays, set in the west. Synge had died in March 1909 around the time of the poem’s composition: Yeats was remembering and him the reception of his play The Playboy of the Western World, which itself includes on stage a group observing and excitedly commenting on a horse race.

J.M.Synge at The Playboy of the Western World dress rehearsal, by John Butler Yeats

J.M.Synge at The Playboy of the Western World dress rehearsal, by John Butler Yeats

Jack B. Yeats made his own tribute to Synge and his stubborn revolutionary spirit. His Broadsides are a real feature of the exhibition, and are full of rebels, whether pirates or tinkers or circus performers or ballad singers singing salty songs. Produced just a few months after Synge’s death, a September 1909 Broadside had on its final page a defiant jockey figure, evidently named in honour of his good friend Synge, with whom he’d toured the west making illustrations for the Manchester Guardian.

Jack Yeats’s obsession with westerns and the rebel cowboys of novels, cartoons, theatrical productions and then movies, strikes another note that sounds throughout the exhibition: America. Another of his Galway sketchbook shows the presence of American flags at the Galway Races, suggesting he was not alone. Indeed, an engagment with the American west led the Abbey Theatre on tours as far west as Arizona and California, and the Abbey actors to Hollywood, where some fell under the spell of the great Irish-American western director John Ford. This map of the 1933 tour suggests how far west they got; Ford, with his 1952 film The Quiet Man, took them (and some horses) back home to Galway.

Map America

So, there are many horses hooves galloping their way through Yeats & the West: original images and energetic prints from the hand of Jack B. Yeats; from Yeats’s edition of Spenser, illustrations in a Beardsley-like style with sallow knights and slender horses by Jessie M. King; and Yeats’s own horsey epitaph, the manuscript of which (borrowed from the National Library of Ireland) shows that it originally read:

Draw rein, draw breath.

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death;

Horseman, pass by.

But rather than finish on such an ending, we finish this trot around the equestrian highlights of the exhibition somewhere altogether stranger. A new beginning is suggested by a more mystical image from Thomas Sturge Moore, which appeared at on the title page of the Yeats family’s Cuala Press books for years. This is from the Cuala Press edition of W.B. Yeats’s New Poems (1938), full of ballads and the strange Dionysian energy of Yeats’s late style. The illustration was originally conceived for Yeats and Augusta Gregory’s play The Unicorn from the Stars (1908), which through a character rejecting material existence itself reworks Yeats’s play Where There is Nothing (1902) (‘where there is nothing, there is God’).

New Poems (16)

Monoceros de Astris (Unicorn from the Stars) reads the Latin inscription. And Monoceros is indeed a faint constellation on the celestial equator. It was named by the Flemish astronomer and cartographer Pieter Platovoet, or Petrus Plancius, on a celestial globe of 1612. On the same globe, from which the International Astronomical Union still derives the names for these star patterns, the astronomer also named the constellation Camelopardalis, after the wonderful Greek word for giraffe. Our canter around the exhibitions hooved mammals would not be complete without mentioning Jack B.Yeats illustration from another 1909 Broadside, of a sailor triumphantly bringing home such a beast. In this image home is Ireland’s west, if the thatch and harp and shamrock in the window are to be believed. Truly there are more and stranger things in Yeats & the West than are dreamt of in our philosophy. The exhibition is open Monday to Saturday until the end of December.

Yeats and the west launch

Monday 13th June saw the official opening of Yeats and the West: an exhibition of western worlds. Coinciding with the launch of the Galway International Arts festival, the exhibition was opened in style with the help of some very special guests, including the poet Moya Cannon.

Noting the impact of local landscape on the poet’s work, the Director of the Moore Institute, Professor Dan Carey, hosted the event, which took place in the midst of the exhibition space in the Hardiman Research Building. He gave warm thanks to staff at the James Hardiman library and the Moore Institute and especial thanks for the donation to the exhibition of two oil paintings, perhaps the highlights of Yeats and the West and only rarely seen: The Good Grey Morning by Jack B. Yeats, featuring a late self depiction of the artist looking out the window from his studio, and The Moon Worshippers by Gerard Dillon, with its astonishing primitivist Connemara landscape.

Prof. Daniel Carey, Ronnie O’Gorman, Sen. Fidelma Healy Eames, Sen. Susan O’Keeffe, and Dr. Adrian Paterson, at the launch of Yeats & the West at the Hardiman Research Building, NUI Galway, 13 July 2015. The exhibition features many talks and special events throughout its run until December 2015 and has free admission.

Prof. Daniel Carey, Ronnie O’Gorman, Sen. Fidelma Healy Eames, Sen. Susan O’Keeffe, and Dr. Adrian Paterson, at the launch of Yeats & the West at the Hardiman Research Building, NUI Galway, 13 July 2015. The exhibition features many talks and special events throughout its run until December 2015 and has free admission.

The President of NUI Galway, Dr Jim Browne, registered Yeats’s worldwide importance and local meaning as craftsman and folklorist. He argued that the exhibition was essentially about collaboration, creativity and community, and stressed the importance of all three of these elements to the Yeats family and to the university. ‘The revolution that happened here in the west’, he said, ‘shaped not only modern Ireland but the western world’. He singled out Jack Yeats’s 1900 Galway Sketch book, owned by the University, and newly on display for Yeats and the West, which features sketches of local figures and landscapes at Coole Park and Galway Races, as a fine example of the worldwide impact of local aesthetics.

Barry Houlihan, co-curator of the exhibition, pointed further west, to North America, highlighting the significance of this western world for Irish culture. He described Yeats’s own lecture tours, and the tours of the Abbey Theatre players, which finally took many of them to Hollywood. Yeats’s 1932 letter dropping his own play The Words Upon the Window Pane from the repertoire, as making less sense to American audiences unaccustomed to Jonathan Swift, expressed, he said, the ready compromise between aesthetic and commercial considerations necessary for a working theatre.

Abbey Theatre American tour participants including Lennox Robinson (l) and W.B.Yeats (r).

Abbey Theatre American tour participants including Lennox Robinson (l) and W.B.Yeats (r).

Dr Adrian Paterson, curator of the exhibition, articulated how local community collaborations could have worldwide implications. The west, he argued, ‘was the landscape of Yeats’s poetry and plays’. With its wellspring of songs, stories, language, artwork, drama, crafts, it was for Yeats the foundation of the Irish imagination. Moreover, ‘significant events of his life took place here; collaborations that shaped his work were forged here’. The August 1902 Killeeneen Feis in honour of ‘Raftery, Connaught poet’ not only brought together different community centred arts, poetry, plays, storytelling, singing and dancing, but Jack Yeats’s fine illustrations, reproduced in the exhibition, caught the presence of John Quinn, New York lawyer benefactor of modernism, and the man whose gift that week of a volume of Nietzsche to  W.B. Yeats changed the course of modern poetry.


Wall Vinyl 3CHe thanked the bountiful generosity of lenders to the exhibition of some fabulous materials: the Berg Collection, the Bodleian library, and in particular the National Library of Ireland for Yeats manuscripts, and St Brendan’s Cathedral Loughrea for its Dun Emer Saints banners (like St Brendan above) highlighting the craft and embroidery of the Yeats family. Local collaborations and places mattered not only to the Irish Revival, he suggested, but today. Kiltartan Musuem, Coole Park, and the landmarks along the Lady Gregory-Yeats trail, above all Thoor Ballylee, had importance then as now as giving rise to creativity. He welcomed in particular Senator Fidelma Healy Eames and members of the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society, who were doing so much to preserve and promote the landscape and architecture of Yeats’s poetry, and a place that influenced so many of Yeats’s most telling poems. Citing Yeats’s ‘my glory was I had such friends’, he gave especial thanks to collaborators who are or have become friends: colleagues at the English department such as Prof. Adrian Frazier and Dr Rebecca Anne Barr; at the library, Marie Boran, Aisling Keane, and Niall McSweeney, photographers Deirdre Holmes and Nicholas Feve, the designer Mel Durkan from, John Conway of Bulabosca films who made the marvellous video, and in particular an exemplary co-curator in Barry Houlihan.

Senator Susan O'Keeffe, chair of Yeats2015, with Yeats and the West curator, Dr Adrian Paterson.

Senator Susan O’Keeffe, chair of Yeats2015, with Yeats and the West curator, Dr Adrian Paterson.

Senator Susan O’Keeffe, chair of Yeats2015, who had found time to be present notwithstanding her work at the banking inquiry, explained that key local events like the Yeats and the West exhibition were part of a larger chain, a worldwide series of creative and cultural events happening in honour of the poet’s 150th birthday, in places as far-flung as Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing; in Melbourne, Moscow, and Madrid; in Istanbul, Paris, Utrecht; in New York, Washington and Atlanta, and closer to home in London, Dublin, Sligo and in Galway. She gave thanks to the curators, Barry Houlihan and Adrian Paterson, and stressed the vital importance of education, and lively and informative shows like this one, in bringing Yeats to a new generation of poetry lovers.

Yeats West exhibition case 5

Our special guest the poet Moya Cannon then gave a fascinating talk and reading subtly elucidating the importance of place and family to artistic endeavour. The artist John Butler Yeats in marrying the sister of a schoolfriend, Susan Pollexfen, had given ‘tongue to the sea-cliffs’, but also kicked off a creative dynasty. The importance of creative women as part of this story, she suggested, should not be underestimated. Susan Yeats and her daughters Elizabeth and Lily, had founded an artistic coterie of major achievements. The Cuala Press, and associated textile industries, with the astonishing beauty and labour involved, were an example to W.B.’s art. She read Yeats’s poem ‘In the Seven Woods’, from their first volume together, as an example, remembering also it was a tribute to Lady Gregory, a master collaborator and friend to the poet. His brother Jack Yeats, in connecting with people, populating his landscapes, and making not only his paintings and sketches but with the help of the Cuala Press the remarkable series of Broadsides, a full set of which would be on display in rotation throughout the exhibition’s run, had brought high art into the real world. She read stanzas from ‘The Tower’ to show how closely the brothers were knitted into the stories, songs, and scenes of local landscape: ‘If I triumph, I must make men mad’. Finally she read her own poem ‘The Singing Horseman’, a tribute to Jack B. Yeats’s painting of the same name, which remembers that while symbolic horses might be W.B.Yeatsian and kin ‘to the white horse that carried Oisin off / Or to the black mare of Fand’, ‘this golden-headed rider is one of us’. And yet in an unmagical age the painting, as the work of the whole family, knows that song can give us voice, as when ‘pressed into black vinyl’ or at a party a song then

released our crumpled spirits,

transported us across skies and oceans

and our hands, our heads,

were golden, golden.

The poem is part of Moya Cannon’s forthcoming new collection from Carcanet, Keats Lives, which might, she noted, have equally been Yeats Lives.

John Cox, Librarian, closed the event and gave thanks to all present, reminding us that the James Hardiman Library’s fine collections for readers and scholars make up the backbone of the exhibition, such as the Lady Gregory Collection, the Arthur Shields Collection, the Colin Smythe Collection, the Thomas Kilroy Collection, and of course the theatre archives at NUI Galway including the Abbey Theatre Digital Archive, and that of the Lyric Theatre Belfast and the Druid Theatre.

1978 10th anniversary

The exhibition, which features special events throughout its run, takes place at the Hardiman Research Building, NUI Galway, and is open Mon – Sat 9-5 till December 2015, with free admission.



Yeats & the West opening


Monday 13th July 2015 at 4.30 pm

Come and join us for the launch of Yeats and the West!

Kick off the Galway Arts Festival in style with our official opening.

Take a tour of the exhibition with wine in hand. The opening features a reception with refreshments, introductory talks, and readings from our special guest Moya Cannon.


Through original artworks, rare books, music, drama, video, and a wealth of exclusive material from archives at NUI Galway and around the world, Yeats & the West explores the crafts, collaborations, and landscapes that revolutionized modern Ireland.

The exhibition features Jack B. Yeats, J.M Synge, Lady Gregory, Antoine Ó Rafteirí, Thoor Ballylee, Coole Park, and material from Loughrea Cathedral, the National Library of Ireland, the Abbey Theatre, the Lyric Theatre Belfast, and the American West.

Panel 9 C

Photo of tour participants

New Poems