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.
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.
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.
He 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 proviz.ie, 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, 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.
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.
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.