By Liam Nolan
W.B. Yeats’s two sisters, Susan and Elizabeth, disliked each other intensely. Their father and mother were deeply unhappy. Their father abandoned his career as a lawyer and took up painting. That second career was a slow burner. There was very little money in the Yeats family coffers.
The girls had two brothers, Jack Butler Yeats and William Butler Yeats. William, the older, would go on to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923. But long before that, for years he would be a penniless, impecunious, struggling writer. Jack would later become a famous painter. But no instant flash of early brilliance and recognition from either brother brought financial relief to the family.
To top it all, their mother was mentally unstable.
‘Dysfunctional’ is the word that comes most readily to mind to describe the Yeats family. And Susan and Elizabeth literally had to work to earn enough to give their brothers and the rest of the family financial dig-outs — a reversal of what would usually be the case.
Whether W.B. ever fully acknowledged his debt to his sisters is debatable. The signs are that he didn’t.
Elizabeth, known as Lolly, was a teacher and a publisher. Susan, known as Lily, was an embroiderer. Together they came to be associated with the Celtic Revival.
Let’s consider Elizabeth first. Born in London in 1868, during her growing-up years the Yeats family seemed always to be coming and going between Ireland and England, changing from one house to another. It made for a recognisably unsettled family life.
Elizabeth’s father and her elder brother found her irritating. She was twitchy and energetic. Her nervous mannerisms got on their nerves, and they were intolerant. “My sister Elizabeth and I quarrelled at the edge of the cradle,” W.B. once said, “and are keeping it up to the grave’s edge.”
Elizabeth came to Howth in 1881; two years later she and her sister Susan studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art and at the R.D.S. (Royal Dublin Society).
Back in England Elizabeth trained and worked as an art teacher, and tried her hand at fiction writing. It was only when she wrote and had published four painting manuals that she began to earn some real money. She also studied printing with the Women’s Printing Society in London.
The family returned to Ireland in 1900 and settled in Dublin, and it was there that in 1902 she and her sister Susan joined a friend named Eleanor Gleeson in an Irish craft business that employed only women — the Dun Emer Guild.