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.

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