Considered by some to be the greatest poet of the twentieth century, William Butler Yeats, who died eighty years ago, was a towering figure in literature and the driving force behind the Irish literary revival, writes Gerry Breen.
William Butler Yeats, who died eighty years ago on 28th January, 1939, was a prince among poets and a towering figure in twentieth century literature. He was the driving force behind the Irish literary revival, he helped to found the Abbey Theatre, he served as a Senator of the Irish Free State for two terms and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. Many consider him to be the greatest poet of the twentieth century.
Yeats was born in Sandymount, Dublin, on 13th June, 1865. He was the oldest of four children of John Butler Yeats, a portrait artist and critic. He spent childhood holidays in Co. Sligo, and from an early age he became fascinated by Irish legends and the occult.
His mother, Susan Mary Pollexfen was a member of a wealthy merchant family in Sligo. They owned a milling and shipping business. She passed on her intense love of Sligo to her children, who were encouraged to regard it as the most beautiful place in Ireland.
Shortly after the birth of William, his family relocated to the Pollexfen home at Merville, Sligo, and William came to regard this area as his ‘country of the heart’.
William was a member of a very artistic family. His brother, Jack, became a renowned painter, and he also wrote a number of plays and novels which won the admiration of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. His sisters, Elizabeth and Susan Mary, were deeply involved in the arts and crafts movement.
William’s great-great-grandfather had married Mary Butler, the family name of the Dukes of Ormond, from whom the Butler family claimed to be descendants. It was an aristocratic link the family were pleased to preserve.