In 1902, the Irish carpet designer Evelyn Gleeson (1855-1944) wrote to Elizabeth Yeats (1868-1940) and her sister Lily (1866-1949) in London. She persuaded them to return to Dublin and join her new women’s arts and crafts cooperative. Evelyn taught girls to weave tapestries and rugs, Lily oversaw embroidery, and Elizabeth established a fine press. They named it the Dun Emer Guild, after the nearby village of Dundrum.
Elizabeth’s first book was a collection of poems by her brother, William Butler Yeats, entitled In the Seven Woods. W.B. wrote an introduction mentioning that the book was “finished the sixteenth day of July, in the year of the big wind, 1903.”
When James Joyce wrote Ulysses (1920), he commented on the Yeats family business and the weird sisters:
Haines sat down to pour out the tea.
—I’m giving you two lumps each, he said. But, I say, Mulligan, you do make strong tea, don’t you?
Buck Mulligan, hewing thick slices from the loaf, said in an old woman’s wheedling voice:
—When I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water.
—By Jove, it is tea, Haines said.
Buck Mulligan went on hewing and wheedling:
—SO I DO, MRS CAHILL, says she. BEGOB, MA’AM, says Mrs Cahill, GOD SEND YOU DON’T MAKE THEM IN THE ONE POT.
He lunged towards his messmates in turn a thick slice of bread, impaled on his knife.
—That’s folk, he said very earnestly, for your book, Haines. Five lines of text and ten pages of notes about the folk and the fishgods of Dundrum. Printed by the weird sisters in the year of the big wind.
The Yeats sisters eventually split from Gleeson, renaming their operation Cuala Press (pronounced Cool-a), which continued until 1946. Besides the books, Cuala also printed ephemera including Christmas cards, Easter cards, bookplates, calling cards and broadsides. These are a few examples from graphic arts collection.
For more information, try Boston College’s website:
Gifford Lewis, The Yeats Sisters and the Cuala (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1994). Firestone Library Z232.C962 L49 1994
and the RBSC exhibition Unseen Hands: Women Printers Binders and Book Designers: http://infoshare1.princeton.edu/rbsc2/ga/unseenhands/printers/yeats.html